I was such an amateur at being robbed!
ENCINO, California — Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something blows your mind.
It was 1990, a stifling summer day in neighboring Tarzana, California, but I had no idea how hot it would get. Besides myself, there were three customers and three employees in my 2,000 sq-ft stamp and coin store. A man in his 30’s was buzzed in the outside door, entered the “man-cage” (an entry-way of iron bars, with three sides and a top), and was buzzed into the second door. Except for a white shirt, he was all in black, and wore a Fedora hat, which seemed odd in 100+ degree heat. He walked to the rear, then back to the front showcases. I was on the phone with a dealer in Philadelphia, but, instinctively, I swiveled to watch. Suddenly, from a folded newspaper, he pulled a revolver, raised it over his head, and shouted, “This is a robbery. Put your hands where I can see them, or I’ll shoot.”
Shiny tips of bullets were visible in his gun’s cylinder. I whispered, “Robbery, call police,” as I carefully hung up, and put my hands on the desk. My manager, Bob, obeyed the robber’s orders. He got a large plastic bag, unlocked the first showcase, but intentionally dropped his keys, taking his time opening the sliding mirrored backs of each case. Bob slowly loaded gold, silver, coins and jewelry into the first of several bags, stalling, hoping someone behind him had pushed a panic button. Five long minutes went by, but no police arrived. The robber dropped something, creating a split-second opportunity, so, ignoring the risk, I reached under my desk, poked the police button, and quickly returned my hands to the top of the desk.
Ten minutes went by, but still no police. In my five retail stores, spanning four decades, there were false alarms, and the cops always converged in a few minutes, often with shotguns. This was the real thing, but so far, there was no hint of the cavalry to the rescue. The robber turned, creating a second opportunity. Maybe I hadn’t hit the button hard enough? Very fast, I pushed it again, and returned my hands to the desk. To avoid false alarms, I had put thin scotch tape over the recessed hole of each of 20 buttons, easy to punch through if needed. Both times I jammed the button so hard, it hurt. Outside the large windows, there was no sign of law enforcement – something was wrong. This robber was the most dangerous kind, a nervous amateur, taking too long to complete his business. A pro would have been out in three minutes, tops.
The robber, with a $100,000 haul, turned to leave, but, when in the cage, just 15 feet from me, he swirled, shouted more threats, and pointed his gun. He might shoot at any second, I felt I had to do something; this terror had gone far enough. Everyone in the store, including an elderly lady and a young boy, was frozen with fear. I had no experience with guns in any crisis situation, but something came over me, compelling me to act. This creep wasn’t going to hurt anyone – not today. What if I did nothing and someone got shot? Still worse, what if I did take action – and someone got hurt, or killed? Even good motives can cause great harm; the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In a few seconds, I made four mistakes, as my three beautiful daughters’ faces flashed in my mind. The first, I pulled a 380 Remington semi-automatic from my desk, released the safety, stood up, outstretched my arms, aimed, and shouted “Drop the gun or I’ll blow your head off!” The gun was in my right hand, with my left hand cupped underneath, after watching a lifetime of police shows. He pointed his gun right at me. I fired one shot, so loud it still hurts my ears today. My second blunder was warning him, which, when facing a loaded gun, I was under no obligation to do. My third error was firing only once – I should have emptied the clip. My fourth mistake, I remained standing, like an idiot, his clear target, after the shot caused everyone, except the robber, to drop to the floor. Better keep my day job; I’m not cut out for this.
After the blast, I was shaken, and temporarily deaf. The robber was visibly shocked, his face turned white, and he ran out. I put the gun back on safety, returned it to the desk drawer, grabbed my keys, and, like a fool, ran after him, 30-seconds behind, my fifth error in less than a minute. There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity; Clint Eastwood I’m not.
In the large, sweltering parking lot, nothing was stirring, zero activity. I expected to see him running, or a car peeling out, but it was quiet. Then I saw a car exiting to Ventura Boulevard, so I followed, but the driver was a lady; it was the wrong car. As I returned, the police were arriving, guns drawn, pointed down. I told them it was my shop, but they weren’t sure and kept a wary eye, guns out. “Is he inside? Were there hostages?” I said no, and, when the officers were told he had a loaded gun, and that I’d fired a shot, it became a serious investigation. We were thrilled no one was harmed, the store had a festive atmosphere, and, yes, there was insurance.
We found my bullet’s shell casing, but could not locate the bullet itself. Detectives, employees and I searched, officers checked for fingerprints, and statements were taken. With no blood found, we assumed he hadn’t been hit, and I was glad –but where was the darn bullet? I thought I’d missed him by ten feet, but no bullet was found in the ceiling, floor, doors, albums to the right of the man-cage, the display on the wall to the left, and no glass was broken. Two mysteries, how did he flee so fast, and where was the missing bullet?
Then I saw, one of the iron bars in the man-cage was dented. The bullet hit the bar, ricocheted 45 degrees, and landed 20 feet back, fortunately behind an unoccupied desk and chair. One mystery was solved, as I stared at the mangled, jagged missile, flat as a dime, and realized how much damage a bullet can do.
One of the detectives ran a string from where I was standing, to the cage where the robber was standing. I hadn’t missed by ten feet, as I thought, or even by one foot. Surprisingly, it was potentially a perfect shot, and hit the bar chest-high, directly in front of where he had been standing. He’ll probably never come closer to dying, and I’ll be grateful, for the rest of my life, that the narrow iron bar, perhaps 3/8 of an inch, deflected the bullet. Some say he had it coming, but I consider it a miracle I don’t have to live with the memory of the robber being blown apart.
The alarm company said all panic buttons worked, except for mine, which was defective. The dealer, with whom I was chatting on the phone, instead of reaching the police, got the Sanitation Department. After the robber and I ran out, an employee called 911, and, once called, the cops came quickly. It was not their fault my panic button was inoperable, which, in an ironic twist of fate, may have saved lives. Had police come sooner, and cornered the armed robber in the store, he may have taken hostages, and there could have been a wild, deadly shoot-out.
Amazingly, the thief was soon arrested, 15 miles from my San Fernando Valley store, in Beverly Hills. After running out, he had ducked back to the alley, and ran behind the stores to Ventura Boulevard, to his waiting limousine. That’s right – he had a stretch limo, and driver, parked up the street, which is why I saw nothing in the parking lot. Before us, he had held up two jewelry stores. The driver had no clue, until the robber ran back from my store, flushed, pale and shaking.
While waiting, the driver had locked the limo, for the first time that morning. The loud gunshot hit the iron bar like an explosion, inches away from the robber. Panicked, out of breath, he ran to the limo from the rear, so the driver couldn’t see him coming. He banged the window with his fist, and yelled, which made the driver suspicious. On the ride back to Beverly Hills, the driver, from his sound-proof compartment, called police, who were waiting in the driveway, behind the bushes, guns drawn. The driver jumped out, and the robber, surrounded, gave up without a fight.
Why, you ask, was a Beverly Hills man, in a limo, robbing stores? In a bizarre twist, he’d been in a psychiatric ward, and befriended a patient from Beverly Hills. After his release, he was invited to stay in the home, but wore out his welcome, and was asked to leave. He knew where the owner hid a gun, and money, so, when the homeowner was out, he ordered the limo, which he met in the driveway. Nothing unusual, as some clients meet the driver outside; and some pay cash. Just another rich guy on a shopping spree, the driver thought, except this “shopper” was armed and dangerous.
At trial, the public defender was overheard imploring the defendant to plead insanity, based on his psychiatric history. Because he used a limo, the media was out in force. I was a key witness, having fired the only shot, and others also identified him as the armed robber; and, he had been caught with the goods. He refused to plead insanity, which might indicate he was mentally impaired, was convicted, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
I thought I made mistakes, and still do, but an assistant DA disagreed. He congratulated me for firing, which, he said, probably saved lives. The shot caused the armed robber to run away, and panic, the first time the limo driver became suspicious, which led to the arrest and conviction, which removed a dangerously unstable criminal from the streets. Had he escaped, he probably would have struck again, perhaps causing injury or death. None of us knows how we’ll act in a life-and-death crisis, until that magical moment of severe stress, of indescribable pressure, is upon us. What is your opinion?
That’s not the end of the strange tale of the limousine robber. Fifteen years later, in 2005, I was telling this story, when a man overheard it, and said, “I know that story; my son was the limo driver.” In California, with perhaps 35 million people, what are the odds?
Truth can be stranger than fiction.
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