Writing about my armed confrontation with some of my Iraqi allies got me to thinking about the times when I had a weapon pointed at me along with threats, believable threats, to kill me. It has happened to me more times than I care to think about. Surprisingly, at least to me, most of those incidents happened neither when I was in the Army or working as a cop. Also almost as surprising, I was never hurt and am still here to write about them.
As a cop, none of us ever know who or what was on the other side of those doors that no-one answered in those cases when we decided to walk away. Nor do we know what could have happened to us during those thousands of motor vehicles stops we made during our careers. How many times, as cops, have we followed a car, for whatever reason, then decided not to stop that car, again for whatever reason. What could have happened if we decided to stop that car, but didn’t? We don’t think about it, therefore we never know what could have been. Maybe it’s better that way.
The first time someone pointed a gun at me and threatened to murder me was probably 1974. I was 18, and working part time at a dairy / convenience store. This company is still around, so I won’t name it. This company, if I remember correctly, had about 1500 stores in the Northeast and Florida at the time. I was working at a store on Washington Street, in Quincy Point. I still remember the store number (3403) and I was attending college at the time. It was located diagonally across the street from the Pond St. Park and Max’s Hardware Store, if any of you remember the area.
When I was working that summer and fall, I started to be used to fill in at other stores in the area off and on. I worked in stores in places like Weymouth, Braintree, Hull, Dorchester, Cambridge and South Boston, anywhere I could get to by bus or subway.
A few times, for those of you who know the area, I filled in at a store on Bridge St. North Weymouth. While working there I met a couple of young kids who were brothers. I don’t remember their exact age, but I am thinking they were about 11 and 9. They were young, but apparently old enough so that their parents let them take the bus around town by themselves.
On Saturday mornings, when I worked in Quincy, they would often take the bus from North Weymouth and get off across from my store. It wasn’t too long of a ride. They would come into the store, visit with me for 30-45 minutes, then hop on a bus back to Weymouth. For several weeks, this became a regular thing for them. In fact, working at a local grocery store you often got to know the regulars, as well as the folks who live in the immediate area. So, it wasn’t unusual for the kids or adults to stop in to say, “HI” and chat for a bit during my shift. In this case, the difference was that these two came from a little further away to do that. But they seemed like nice kids and I was always friendly to them.
This Saturday started out no differently than any other Saturday. I opened the store at 8AM, and sure enough the two brothers came into the store late morning and hung out for a bit. But this Saturday morning was a going to be different.
I was behind the cash register counter, the kids were nearby the checkout counter, when a guy I never saw before, burst through the doors. He made a dramatic entrance. All I remember about him was he was white, maybe in his 20’s, not wearing anything to cover his face carrying a pistol. Amid great fanfare, he grabbed the younger of the boys around the waist, pulled him close, then placed the black revolver against the kids temple. The younger kid didn’t say too much, I think it took him a bit to comprehend the situation he was in. His brother however, became immediately distraught and worked his way to becoming hysterical. So many things happened at the same time as this drama I suddenly found myself in played out. I am thinking that the whole episode probably took less than five minutes from his arrival to departure. It was like I was watching a film of this incident and I was watching myself from somewhere up above. It also seemed as though this “film” had been switched to slow motion as it played on.
The robber introduced himself to me by screaming orders to me to put all the money in the bag or he would kill “The Kid”. He yelled his instructions while screaming a nasty stream of obscenities at the three of us. No need to repeat them here.
What I do remember was my reaction. It was not unusual for this company’s stores around my area to be robbed, but this day I remember thinking to myself ‘WOW ‘It’s really happening to me’. Like it was finally my turn. I also remember being very calm about the situation I suddenly found myself in. Maybe, it was more like shock, mixed in with a bit of disbelief. Of course I was concerned for my safety, and especially for the safety of the young man this guy had just taken hostage. But I remember quickly sizing up the situation, and I felt, maybe foolishly, that all that was required to survive was to cooperate and follow directions. In any case, it wasn’t like I had a choice.
I opened the register, place the bills in a paper bag. The robber then ordered me to put my wallet into the bag, but for some reason, I just emptied the cash out of it, and kept my wallet. Thankfully, he didn’t complain about that, but he was screaming to hurry up and still had the gun at the kids head and repeatedly told me he was going to kill him.
He could have fled at that point with his bag of money, but instead he ordered me to open and empty the safe. Now the safe in this case was a cylindrical safe, about a foot high which was bolted into the floor behind the register. It had a round top which, once you dialed the correct combination, would unlock and you could then lift it off and access the safe. If any of you have ever used one of those combination pad locks for lockers and such, you probably know you sometimes have to try to unlock it more than once before you get it open.
Well, in this case, I attempted to open the safe at least twice that I can remember. I failed in each attempt. Each time I entered the final number, I spun the dial expecting it to stop on the final number, causing the lugs to open. Each time instead, the dial just spun past that number. I apologized, and kept trying. All this time, the robber was screaming to hurry up, and his threats now included killing both brothers. The older brother was now crying, and begging the robber not to kill his brother. I clearly remember him pleading “Mr. Please don’t kill my brother. I have money”. He then reached into his pocket (I heard this didn’t see it) and offered to give the robber his bus fare home so he wouldn’t kill his brother. As you may imagine, this bad situation had now become highly charged and desperate. Any descriptor that I can use here would only serve to be an understatement. I also knew the robber was becoming increasingly dangerous, if that was even possible.
As I failed to unlock the safe once again, I was coming to realization that it was now very possible, even likely, that all three of us were about to be killed. The bandit, it seemed, had finally lost his patience. I think he was a very, very desperate man.
He shoved his hostage away by pushing him towards a wall, then walked behind the counter. I was stooped down, trying to unlock the safe. He stooped down to my level and pointed the revolver towards my face. I remember seeing the bullets in the chamber. He then told me, in a calm and most chilling fashion, that I had one more chance to open the safe. He said in a very calm and believable manner that if I didn’t open the safe this time he was going to kill me.
I knew instinctively, that not only my life but the lives of the two boys may well have depended on me getting that safe open. You may not believe me, and I was kinda surprised when I thought about it afterwards, but I wasn’t scared! However, I was worried about not getting that safe open. I turned my attention to the safe. During this time, the oldest of the two boys was now begging me to hurry up. My hands were actually steady. If they weren’t, I may never had gotten that safe unlocked. As I grasped the dial, the bandit placed his revolver firmly against the side of my head, pushing on it enough to make sure I knew it was there. I opened the safe that time. I guess I was properly motivated. I pulled the bills out, placed then into the bag, he snatched it, and fled the store, I don’t know which direction or if there was a getaway car waiting for him.
Suddenly, my hands started shaking. It felt like my heart, which was racing so hard and fast was now going explode out of my chest. With time, my heart and my hands calmed down. I do remember thinking later, when I ran this incident over and over in my mind, how fortunate we all were that my shakes didn’t start until after this guy fled. My trembling hands were noticeable and uncontrollable. That I was shaking in front of the kids and a short time later in front of the cops was embarrassing to me. But, that was how my body reacted to this incident, and I had no control over it. I had trouble writing while my hands shook. After some time, I calmed down. The youngest of the two boys, the hostage, was pretty shaken up at this point, as was the other brother. I locked the door, called police, and eventually made the required notifications to the company.
The Quincy Police responded, and detectives followed shortly. They took care of the brothers and got them home after interviewing them. That was the last time I ever saw them. Understandably, they never hopped on the bus to hang out with me again. Unfortunately, knowing what I know all too well about psychological trauma and how it can affect people, I can only hope this incident didn’t cause them serious problems during their childhood or later in life. But deep down in my heart, I know it may have affected them in a bad way for a long time.
Later, I looked at mugshots from various mugshot books of white males in an effort to identify the perpetrator. This robbery, wasn’t the typical “stop and rob” in and out robbery that was common in convenience stores. This guy had to be identified and locked up before he killed someone. The police took it seriously.
Reviewing the mugshots, I found one photo that appeared strikingly similar to that day’s robber. I told the cops. They asked if I was sure, I told them I was. I went back to work. A short time later, they showed up at the store dragging the guy in the mugshot I picked out with them. Apparently this guy lived in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester, and they immediately headed out to find him. They did, and brought him back my store for what law enforcement calls a show up.
The guy appeared to be really scared. I was kind of shocked to see him there myself. I didn’t know this was coming. They just showed up with him. The guy looked at me, and in kind of a pleading manner blurted out “Did I rob you today?” The detectives told him to shut up and then asked my if this was the guy who robbed me. I knew at once it wasn’t. I knew I was mistaken (although it was an honest mistake), when I looked at his photo I thought it was him.
I studied his face for what must have seen like an eternity for all involved, and I sheepishly, being embarrassed for the scene I had caused, but confidently told the detectives this was not the man. I felt like such a loser in so many ways. Although I understood their frustration, the detectives started giving me a bad time. It seemed as though they forgot who the victim was at that point, and certainly succeeded making feel bad about myself as well as my lack of ability to make an identification. Me, a person who idolized cops for as long as I can remember, they seemed to turn on me. Anyway, they left and took the poor guy whose mug shot I had picked out home, I assume.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not being critical of these detectives. Having been a cop years later, I can only imagine the pressure they must have been under to make an arrest in this case. Still though, I always felt that at least one of those detectives if not both were truly angry at me for picking out the wrong mugshot. Maybe they thought that I had backed down when confronted face to face with the suspect. That wasn’t the case at all.
In closing, I can truly say that this incident shaped the way I approached certain aspects of police work many years later when I got on the job. I learned to treat victims of crimes in a respectful and patient manner. I never pressured a victim or witness to make an identification, even when it was an important case. I learned never to trust most victim / witness ID’s (even when I believed them) without some additional scintilla of evidence being present to corroborate that identification. The exception being when the victim knew the perpetrator personally before the crime was committed.
Getting back to that Saturday…Eventually, this investigation petered out. I went on attending Northeastern, continued to work the two part time jobs. I was perplexed for a long time afterwards at the two conflicting emotions I had experienced during and after that robbery. One, where I was calm, seemed like I was watching a movie that I was in during the robbery. Followed by what was then the absolutely, almost incapacitating fear I may ever have felt after he ran out the door. In closing, I will say that was not the last time I saw this desperado. I crossed paths with him again about a month later!