Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Berkeley/Oakland Restaurant Robbers Put Guns to Women's Heads

By Anneli Star Josselin Rufus
Wed, Apr 16, 2008 at 9:25 AM

West Berkeley's Cafe Clem was the scene of an early-evening, closing-time takeover robbery last Friday. According to Berkeley police, four masked gunmen — all similarly dressed in black hoodies and black trousers and all four wielding semiautomatic pistols — entered the Parisian-style cafe and ordered employees onto the floor. Pressing the muzzle of a handgun to the head of a female employee, they forced her to open a safe, then fled with the $2,500 it contained.

A gun to the head, its tip jammed into the spot where it meets the neck, medulla oblongata territory — right below the bun into which she had wound her brown hair hours before, unaware of the horror to come — awaited yet another young restaurant employee Sunday night. At Milano Restaurant on Grand Avenue, four gunmen — this time all wore white hoodies and had been casing the joint — strode in and robbed patrons and staff. The crime was caught on surveillance video, which shows the terrified bartender falling to her knees, probably in hopes of escaping the robbers' gaze. But no luck; the thieves glide around the corner of the bar and surround her, their white-sleeved arms straight out, each gripping his gun with both hands. The bartender rises at their apparent behest, palms together at her chest as if in pleading or prayer. As they march her to the cash register, her panic is electric. The silent video rolls on as, from behind, we watch one hooded figure emptying the register while another holds his gun to the woman's nape.

A string of restaurant robberies is sweeping the East Bay. An earlier string ended last December when the thieves were apprehended; they had targeted Asian restaurants. Now a new team, or teams, is using the same M.O. Rainbow Cafe on International Boulevard was the scene of a takeover robbery on April 5; Pho 85 on 17th Street was similarly robbed on April 7; Cybelle's Pizza in Montclair was similarly robbed on April 7, as was Happy Garden on MacArthur Boulevard on April 11, according to Oakland police, who are offering a substantial reward for information leading to the arrest of the thieves.

A major four-hour OPD search effort the night of the Happy Garden heist had a Laurel District neighborhood-watch site abuzz with locals wanting to know why so many police cars and helicopters were in the area. City Councilwoman Jean Quan wrote to her constituents subsequently that the police "believe someone in the area helped the suspects hide. They apologize for the inconvenience but believe these suspects may be responsible for other robberies in the region and thought it was worth the effort. Over 40 officers from different police forces were involved in the sweep."

Red Boy Pizza on Leimert Boulevard was the scene of what might have been the first heist in this wave on March 31. That night, two armed bandits swept through the door around 10 p.m., demanded the contents of the register, and robbed twelve patrons of their cash.

The motto at Cafe Clem, home of chocolate tartines and croques monsieurs, is Les petits plaisirs du quotidien: The little pleasures of daily life.

Let's hope daily life ceases to entail brazen gunmen and returns to normal at this and other local restaurants ASAP.

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