Holdup spree has workers asking: 'Are we next?'


William J. Buckholz suspected that sooner or later, the gun-toting bandits believed to be responsible for a spree of fast-food and supermarket robberies in the Baltimore area would hit the store where he worked.

Thursday night, they did.

Three men armed with shotguns and a handgun took store employees and customers by surprise about 8:20 p.m. when they burst through the front door of The Food Place in the 8500 block of Liberty Road in Randallstown and announced a holdup. Police said later that a fourth man waited outside in a getaway car.

One robber jumped through the bulletproof glass of the supermarket's tiny office where Mr. Buckholz and a clerk were counting money, Mr. Buckholz recalled yesterday.

"He came through the glass so fast, it was as if he was flying. He fell on the floor, then jumped up and pointed the gun at my face and told me to lay down," said Mr. Buckholz, who was struck in the head with the gun when he didn't move fast enough.

The armed robbery was the most recent in a string of increasingly violent holdups in Baltimore and Baltimore County, police said yesterday. At least 18 fast-food restaurants and supermarkets have been robbed since fall.

Police said many of the robberies are similar. In most cases, armed men enter the store together, announce a holdup, force victims to lieon the floor and then split up -- some emptying registers and customer's pockets, others going for the money in the safe.

Sometimes the bandits use sawed-off shotguns and other times they use handguns. More than once, a gang member has become anxious and fired warning shots to force people to move quicker.

"They have begun hitting people in the head with the gun whether they comply or not," said Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a county police spokesman.

The manager of a Murry's Steaks store in Catonsville was struck in the face when she was held up Jan. 28 by two men armed with sawed-off shotguns. The woman, who asked that she not be identified, fearing reprisals, recalled that she had arrived at work a few minutes before 7 a.m. and noticed a man walking a few doors away.

He walked up as she was unlocking the door and asked when the store would open. As she informed him that the store would open at 10 a.m., things turned ugly.

"He said, 'Bitch, you're gonna open up right now,' " the manager said. "And then I turned around and there was a shotgun in my face."

As she unlocked the door and they entered the store, she turned and saw a second man coming through the doorway, also armed with a sawed-off shotgun. Both men wore dark trench coats and hats and made no attempt to cover their faces.

The woman headed toward the back of the store where the safe was located. Before opening the safe, she turned off the alarm. That's when she felt something come smashing into her eye.

"I don't know if it was his elbow or the gun," she said. "But he let me know not to try anything."

He told her that if she tried to trip any alarms, "I'm going to blow you away. I am not scared of dying."

The man emptied the safe of about $3,000, then ordered the woman into the freezer. She waited a few minutes, emerged and sounded the alarm.

Getting to sleep that first night after the robbery was tough. "I would close my eyes and see the guns," she said.

She no longer opens the store in the early morning darkness unless another employee is standing with her. Although things are otherwise back to normal, she relives the nightmare every time she hears of another robbery.

"It still bothers me," she said.

So far, police have made only one arrest since the rash of robberies began. Thomas Isaac Smith of Southwest Baltimore has been charged in the Jan. 28 robbery of a Super Pride market in Woodmoor that has been held up twice since fall.

Detectives in the city and the county have brought in six other suspects and put them in line-ups before dozens of store employees and customers, but have filed no other charges.

"We just don't have anything good to go on from the victims," said E. Jay Miller, another Baltimore County police spokesman. "A lot of that is due to fear and the fact that the victims are lying on the floor looking at shoes, legs and big guns."

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