Restaurant robbers feed fears, then vanish

first_imgThey boldly swept into Los Angeles restaurants, menacing patrons with pistols, their faces chillingly obscured. Called the Ski Mask Bandits by police, they killed the owner of Chao’s Thai Cafe in Northridge during a spree of violence that spanned two years. In all, they hit 52 restaurants, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, leaving a trail of violence and fear that received national attention. Despite a massive police effort and a $75,000 reward on their heads, they eluded capture. Then, in September 2006, they vanished after robbing a Japanese restaurant in Los Feliz. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREStriving toward a more perfect me: Doug McIntyre “They’ve been quiet for a year, knock on wood,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Michel Moore, head of the Valley Bureau. “Don’t wake them up, OK?” The robbers operated in two- and three-man teams, moving with a tight precision that suggested professional training. Rumors circulated in the restaurant community – maybe they were ex-cops, or soldiers who had turned their training to nefarious pursuits. The manner in which they obscured their faces made the whole thing even creepier. With their heads encased in knit-wool like terrorists, their victims couldn’t tell them apart – and police couldn’t be sure whether it was the same guys. Similar robberies caused enough concern that Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton sought a change in the law to hit similarly disguised predators with stiffer prison sentences. The department lobbied legislators to criminalize masked crime with an additional two years or an extra 25percent of a sentence. Even after things quieted down following the last robbery on Sept.14, 2006, the fear lived on. The California Restaurant Association organized meetings with police, and Moore warned, “These predators are out there, and we know they will be back.” And, yet, they never materialized. “Either they moved on or got scared off,” said City Councilman Dennis Zine, who called for the $75,000 reward. “I don’t know how the criminal mind works – were they arrested, did they stop, did it get too hot? I don’t know, but I’m glad that it’s stopped occurring.” And so is Tom Monteleone, who runs Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant in Valley Glen with his family. Monteleone was celebrating the grand reopening of the old-time pizza joint in July 2006 when the uninvited guests arrived. “The way they came in here, they obviously staked this place out real good before they hit us,” he said. “They probably had dinner in here a couple times to get things figured out.” When they burst in, guns in hand, the bandits knew exactly what to do. One demanded money from the bartender; the other headed right for Monteleone and pressed a pistol to his head. A terrified staff fled as the robbers made off with the cash and the owner’s wristwatch. Everyone was a wreck for days. Monteleone is a tough man who’s seen plenty of tense situations, but he saw no need to take a chance on another robbery. He erected a 6-foot fence around the back of the restaurant, now locks the back door after the last delivery of the night, and hired a security guard. “The first one’s a wake-up call,” he said. “You’d have to be pretty stupid not to do something, so we took precautions. But (the robbers have) just disappeared.” Police offer few clues as to where, however. “We’re working on some suspects – this thing is active,” Lt. Jim Grayson of the Robbery-Homicide Division said. “We’ve got some things we’re working on right now, but nothing I feel comfortable talking about at this time.” Fame plays an odd role for high-profile criminals. The Zodiac Killer stoked the public interest in his murders with cryptic communiques with newspapers. The BTK Killer laid low after taunting the police in Wichita throughout the 1970s and ’80s, then resurfaced by contacting a TV station in 2005, 14 years after his last murder. The Ski Mask Bandits, for all their notoriety, never left any publicly discovered clues as to their identities. Whether they modified their habits, took them elsewhere or slipped up on another crime and ended up in jail – unpunished for their robberies – the fear the bandits brought also evaporated. After a drop in diners last fall, business has bounced back and owners have regained their optimism. “Obviously, you feel better when the thieves are caught, but who knows what happened?” said Kearsten Shepherd, a California Restaurant Association spokeswoman. “Maybe they moved on, maybe something else happened. But the community feels better, so that’s good.” For news and observations about crime in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, check out the Daily News’ crime blog by clicking here.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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