He threatened to have a gun but didn't show it, though his words were menacing enough. "If you don't want to get shot, I want your pocketbook," he told the two women as he robbed them outside the French bistro Petit Louis in Roland Park, according to police.
The holdup Tuesday evening in one of Baltimore's wealthiest neighborhoods has prompted more police patrols. It also has raised the issue of crime in a community usually more concerned about restoring a water tower and enlarging a park than about gunmen on the loose.
One of the victims was 73-year-old Sally Michel, who heads the board of directors for the Parks & People Foundation and has long been a civic leader in Baltimore's political circles and volunteer organizations.
Police were searching for the culprit Wednesday. A department spokesman said the women were approached as they were getting into a car parked on the street, moments after they left the restaurant in the 4800 block of Roland Ave.
One woman was helping another into the front passenger seat when the man came up from behind, leaned into the car and grabbed a purse, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He said the man then tried to grab the purse of the woman who was standing at the car door, but she fought back and he ran away without it, the spokesman said.
Police declined to identify the victims, as is their policy. The Baltimore Sun learned that one is a 64-year-old former principal of a city high school. Michel confirmed during a brief interview she was the other victim and consented to having her name published.
Michel said she decided to speak out only because she feels the attention paid to the robbery is being blown out of proportion. She didn't want to talk about the robbery, but said she drove by Petit Louis on Wednesday afternoon and found it mobbed by television cameras.
"This is ridiculous, with all the other things going on the city," Michel said. "I love that restaurant, and I don't want it to be damaged. It's just some little old community volunteer and some little old principal, and we got robbed, and we're doing fine. I don't want this damaging the community that I love."
The manager of Petit Louis declined to comment, and referred questions to a public relations associate, who did not return calls.
Guglielmi said a Petit Louis official called Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who quickly dispatched a deputy major to the restaurant to talk with patrons and employees. Extra police patrols were ordered for the neighborhood.
The spokesman said the reaction "is not inconsistent" with how other crimes are handled. He said Bealefeld typically reacts to calls from community leaders, many of whom have his cellphone number. "He is reachable," Guglielmi said.
There were more than 3,400 robberies in Baltimore last year, which includes holdups of commercial establishments and carjackings. Police said street robberies declined 7 percent last year compared with 2010.
In the first 21 days of this year, the latest statistics available, police said 12 people in the Northern District — which includes Roland Park — were robbed at gunpoint or by someone who threatened to have a gun. That is down from 16 street robberies during that same period in 2011.
Last year, police said 237 people were held up in North Baltimore, down from 246 in 2010. So far this year, 123 people have been held up across the city, compared to 121 at this time last year.
Comparisons for the Roland Park community were not available Wednesday. But data provided by the mayor's office on the Open Baltimore website show an armed robbery took place a block from Petit Louis on Nov. 23, and another armed robbery three blocks away on Sept. 28. Both occurred on Roland Avenue.
The attack in November occurred about 12:30 a.m. when a woman was held up by a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a white surgical mask. Police said he ordered her to roll down her car window and pointed a black plastic toy gun at her. He snatched her purse from her hands and ran, even as part of the gun broke and fell to the ground. Police said they arrested a suspect.
In September, police said a man with a gun jumped from behind a shrub and robbed a man who works at a bank in the 5100 block of Roland Ave. Police said the gunman stole bags of checks and customers' personal information.
Crime in the community is not a constant topic of conversation as it is in other city neighborhoods. The head of the Roland Park Civic League, Dr. Philip Spevak, a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the agenda for most meetings is focused on implementing the neighborhood's master plan.
Residents want to restore an old water tower and expand Stony Run Park, and are working to get $3.5 million in transportation improvements. Last year, Spevak said, he couldn't find anyone interested in heading the league's public safety committee.
"Of course we care about safety," Spevak said, noting most incidents in Roland Park are car break-ins and burglaries. "Violent crime, like crimes with guns, is really unusual. There have been incidents like what just happened, and that scares the community and rightfully concerns us."