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String of armed robberies strikes local businesses

Since just before Christmas, 17 armed robberies have happened in Merced and in some cases the same places have been hit twice. Arrests have been made in three of these incidents, and police say it's only a matter of time before the others are caught.

Lt. Bimley West, who leads the Merced Police Department's investigations division, said typically more armed robberies take place in winter months. Still it's difficult to predict when and where someone will point a gun at a clerk and demand money.

"They (robbers) are going to make a mistake and we're going to be there," West said. "These crooks have been in our system so many times they aren't careful if people are around or not. We have to use every tool in our bag to catch them and our work is getting harder."

On Sunday night, robbers struck Factory-2-U at 1240 W. Main St. and Jamba Juice on West Olive Avenue, within 12 minutes of each other. On Thursday evening, a Subway sandwich shop at 1200 W. Olive Ave. and Pizza Guys at Bear Creek Drive and G Street were robbed just minutes apart.

Lately, robbers have been wearing hoods, gloves and large puffy jackets to avoid detection. In some cases the stores robbed don't have video surveillance, the cameras weren't on or the picture quality is so grainy that the footage isn't usable for detectives, West said.

West said police are trying to develop a timeline and likely locations where robberies may occur. Detectives have posted themselves for several hours in some commercial locations but nothing happened then.

Sgt. Chris Goodwin has some advice that will make police officers' work easier in the event of a robbery. People should always know their surroundings and recognize suspicious activities.

Karen Yang, Pizza Guys manager, said they have no control over armed robberies and they can't be avoided. After its second armed robbery, the store makes sure it doesn't have much cash in the register.

Albert Nunes, manager of the Olive Avenue Subway sandwich shop, which opened last fall in the North Merced shopping center, said there's nothing they can do to avoid robberies.

"It's pretty much up to the police to step it up. I wish police would patrol the area more than they do," Nunes said.

Detective Harry Markarian said several of the robberies are linked together. He said both store customers and clerks need to be aware of their surroundings, but concedes that having a handgun stuck in one's face could impede giving the best description possible of the robber.

West said more robberies happen at this time of year because many people are out of work now and heating costs are high. There were 152 armed robberies in Merced last year, 7.88 percent fewer than the 165 robberies reported the year before.

"Some of it is based on drugs," West said. "They do what they have to to survive, even robbing Peter to pay Paul. They (robbers) are getting more bold and brazen. They don't wait for the place to shut down and (they) rob it while patrons are there."

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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