Originally Published October 18, 2006
It was just after closing at Roscoe’s Family Restaurant in West Hills on May 20. Frank Sameo was gazing at his wife while she watered the plants at the front of his restaurant before he caught the eyes of a man behind the glass peering at him from around the corner.
Seconds later, the man and two other men wearing ski masks and overcoats were charging through the front entrance and ordering everyone, including his wife and a friend, to the floor. Sameo quickly felt the cold steel of a gun pressing against his temple as one of the assailants pocketed the $600 that was in his register.
“They were pretty bold and aggressive,” Sameo said. “It was very take-over type. They were hyped up but they didn’t seem nervous and they seemed to know where they were and how to get out of the place because they left through the back door, which is hard to find from the front.”
Roscoe’s was the 40th of 52 restaurants the Ski Mask Bandits, as the Los Angeles Police Department calls them, have robbed in the San Fernando Valley since mid-2004.
Lt. Paul Vernon, who is in charge of the investigation, said there are no concrete leads or suspects so far. The group is suspected of hitting most recently the Ca Del Sole, an Italian restaurant in North Hollywood, on Aug. 20. Vernon said the group is probably laying low because of media coverage in late August.
The Ski Mask Bandits have stolen more than $100,000 in money and property, and their victims range from small dives to upscale restaurants. They generally carry out the robberies at or just after business closing times and leave with less than $1,000, as many restaurant transactions are done with credit cards.
Police think the locations targeted may have been gauged for police response time and the frequency of police patrol in the area.
Sameo had just taken over Roscoe’s in February 2006 and said the robbery took him by surprise.
“It was so surreal,” Sameo said. “I always wondered what it’d be like to have a gun pointed to your head. I should have been more aware of everything but I felt comfortable here. It is really nice over here. Nothing bad happens in West Hills, right?”
Sameo’s restaurant was the third of 15 restaurants hit this year alone. The first robbery of this year was in March at the Prime Italian restaurant in Northridge. Before then there had not been a single robbery linked to this group since August 2005, according to police records.
“This has happened before where there is a hiatus,” Vernon said. “And then they hit hard.” He said the group is noted for their calm composure and airtight organization.
A bartender, who we will call “D” because she wishes to remain anonymous, at the Fox Fire Room in North Hollywood, which was hit by the group on Aug. 15, 2006, said this particular robbery didn’t seem like a desperate act.
“You could tell when someone’s cracked out and wants money for drugs,” she said. “These people weren’t. They left rolls of quarters in my drawer. Drug addicts are going to take the change. They just wanted the money and they were out.”
D said the three men wearing ski masks and overcoats came running through the back entrance hallway (the front is closed from within at night) around 11:30 p.m. Two of them jumped behind the bar and asked D, who had triggered the alarm before she hit the floor, to tell them where the rest of the money was. D said because one of the men went straight to a drawer where she kept her purse, she is convinced the group had staked out the place before the robbery.
As D kept to the floor, she prayed that the 20 or so customers who were also ordered to the floor would stay calm and not try to resist. She said the robbers sounded like young men in their 20s, and she had the eerie feeling that on top of money they were looking for thrills and giggles.
“They were telling everyone to get down. I could hear what they were doing with the customers,” she said. “They tried to intimidate people by calling them names. ‘Fat ass move over,’ they said. Or ‘I got steel on your back, call me.’ I heard them yelling at someone to stop moving and they didn’t stop. I was scared for them. I had young girls in there who I’m sure never went through that before. I’m afraid for them. They’re all like my kids.”
D and other restaurateurs were later shown video of the robbery. She said the third gunman took wallets and purses. Occasionally, customers would enter from the hallway and he would order them to the floor. At one point a couple on a motorcycle drove up and two of the customers got up and attempted to flee but the gunman chased them down and returned with them along with the couple on the motorcycle.
It was over in four minutes, at which point the third gunman whistled to the other two and said, “We gotta go now.” Thirty seconds later the cops arrived, along with a police helicopter. It took that long for officers to respond to the alarm company.
“They obviously know how long to stay in a place and how fast cops respond to alarms,” D said.
Police have encouraged restaurants in the San Fernando Valley to harden their security in some ways, such as locking doors toward the end of business hours, installing surveillance cameras, not letting people in after hours, and having employees leave work in groups so that potential robbers don’t have a corral of entry into the business.
The Los Angeles City Council authorized in September a reward of $75,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the masked bandits who have been robbing restaurants in the San Fernando Valley.
Robberies where the assailants wear masks to obscure their faces are common, Vernon said. For that reason, according to an LAPD press release, Police Chief William J. Bratton is supporting state legislation that would tack an additional two years of prison time on sentences involving robbers who use masks.
There have been more than 200 “take over” robberies at restaurants in Los Angeles last year alone, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Restaurants have replaced banks as the ideal target because of their more relaxed security.
D is taking the aftershock of the robbery one day at a time. She occasionally finds it difficult to leave her house to go to the store, the bank, or even to see family.