For 50 years, Don Sekira has watched Howard County morph from a sleepy farming community into one of the nation's most affluent areas. The manager at Kendall Hardware store in Clarksville has seen plenty, but violent crime has been almost nonexistent.
That's why Sekira was alarmed to learn that masked gunmen robbed the Pizza Hut restaurant next to the hardware store Sunday night - the second armed robbery of a business in the area in 10 days.
"It's uncommon for Clarksville," Sekira said yesterday just before going on his lunch break at the store in the 12200 block of Clarksville Pike. "We've been a very quiet little community. However, with the economic situation that's facing everybody, it concerns me."
Howard County police charged four Ellicott City men yesterday, and said they expect to charge another. Hugo Ernesto Perez, 30; Pablo Perez Ramos, 30; Adan Perez Ramos, 27; and Tulio Enrique Canas Sandoval, 19, face counts of armed robbery, assault, reckless endangerment, theft and handgun violation. Police listed an address in the 6100 block of Waterloo Road as the residence of all the men.
The robbery occurred about 10 p.m. Sunday when four masked men armed with handguns and rifles entered the restaurant and ordered five employees to the back of the store, police said. They took money from registers and a safe, forced the workers into a freezer, and fled in a white sport utility vehicle, police said. One employee called 911 from the freezer and gave descriptions of the suspects and vehicle.
A patrol officer on Route 32 spotted a vehicle matching the description and followed until officers could make a stop in the 7100 block of Minstrel Way in Columbia, police said. They arrested the occupants and recovered weapons and money.
The fifth suspect in the robbery, Jose Fidel Lopez, 33, also of the Waterloo Road address, was expected to be released from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center yesterday and charged, police said. Police said Lopez suffered a leg injury when his handgun discharged in the vehicle; a warrant for his arrest had been issued.
On Nov. 20, three armed men robbed a Bank of America branch not far from the Pizza Hut. The men led police on a chase through several counties before abandoning their vehicle and fleeing. An officer shot one of the men, who later died. Another man was arrested, but the third suspect is still at large, according to the FBI.
Despite the proximity, no link between the crimes exists, Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said yesterday.
"Unfortunately, no place is completely immune to crime, and while these two robberies are completely unrelated, we certainly understand that the community would be concerned," Llewellyn said.
In recent months, the hardware store has added surveillance cameras and increased training for employees on recognizing suspicious behavior, Sekira said. Community involvement and cooperating with police also can help, the 53-year-old said.
"Even though [Clarksville is] getting very large, I think that's the best protection we have against these types of things," Sekira said.