An image taken from surveillance video Wednesday at the Moby Dick Variety Store in Old Orchard Beach shows the robber with a gun at the back of Ilias Sigkas, who was confronted while smoking outside and forced to enter the business. “I was scared,” Sigkas said. (Photo courtesy of Old Orchard Beach Police Department)

Four holdups in just over 25 hours this week ratcheted up tension around a series of armed robberies in southern Maine and prompted police to warn that more confrontations between a robber and store employees could escalate into violence.

“It is imminent,” said Lt. Robert Martin of the Portland Police Department of the possibility of violence. “My fear is someone pops out from a back room and is unexpected and (the robber) blasts off a round.”

No one has been injured during a string of more than a dozen armed robberies in southern Maine since March 20, but in nearly every case the robber showed a handgun while demanding cash from employees. “(Witnesses) keep saying he’s polite, but he’s pointing a gun at people,” Martin said.

The potential for violence appeared to rise sharply Wednesday, when an armed robber held a gun to a bystander’s back and forced him into an Old Orchard Beach business, but then left empty-handed when the store’s owner grabbed a club and refused to hand over cash.

Local police and the FBI are investigating the possible connection between 15 armed robberies that, in most cases, involved a white man covered in dark clothing and armed with a handgun entering a small business and demanding cash from employees.

A cluster of four robberies during a 25-hour period Tuesday and Wednesday came after a string of 11 other robberies or robbery attempts, almost all involving a masked man brandishing a handgun and matching a similar description. The majority of the robberies have occurred shortly before closing at small businesses where only one or two employees were present.

A suspect was arrested and charged with one of the robberies – the April 7 holdup in Gorham –  but police have said the others may be connected to each other, and some police statements suggest the unsolved robberies may have been carried out by the same man.

The unusual rash of robberies has put the owners and employees of small businesses on alert, and led police to increase patrols and advise businesses to not take any risks if they are targeted. Police are advising people to comply with his demands rather than trying to resist or fight back.

“People committing a robbery do it because they want money, not generally because they want to hurt someone,” said Commander Mark Waltz of the Brunswick Police Department. “The most important message is your life isn’t worth the money. You should comply with his requests and we’ll catch them after.”

Police departments in the nine different communities that have had robberies, as well as from other southern Maine communities that have not been targeted, are collaborating in the investigation, sharing tips and information and comparing details about each crime. The local police departments are being assisted by the FBI, which, among other things, has provided technical assistance by enhancing surveillance videos and photos.

The investigation took on more urgency this week.

There were four separate hold-ups Tuesday and Wednesday. They all could, in theory, have involved the same robber, although the physical description varied in one case.

The two-day spree began in Topsham, when a tanning salon was robbed at gunpoint about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. A man, described in that case as between 6 feet and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, wearing a long, hooded sweatshirt and with his face covered, entered Sun Tan City in the Topsham Fair Mall, displayed what appeared to be a semiautomatic handgun and demanded money. In virtually all of the other robberies, the suspect was described as being between 5 feet, 5 inches and 5 feet, 8 inches tall.

The robberies resumed at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Old Orchard Beach, where the robber put a gun to a bystander’s back and forced him into Moby Dick Variety Store. Inside the store, the robber demanded the owner hand over all the cash in the register. The store’s owner refused and told the robber he would call police. The robber fled without any money.

Four hours later, at 9 p.m., an employee at Dunkin’ Donuts on Riverside Drive in Auburn thwarted an armed robbery by hitting a panic button to let police know a robbery was in progress and telling the man that she had to go to the back of the store to get keys to give him money. The woman said he came in brandishing a handgun, put a bag on the counter and told her to fill it with money.

Police described the suspect as a white man, between 20 and 30 years old, 5 feet, 5 inches tall. He was wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt and a cap.

Those two unsuccessful robberies were followed by a third, which occurred less than an hour later and 19 miles away from the Auburn Dunkin’ Donuts.

The robber entered Amato’s restaurant at 148 Pleasant St. in Brunswick around 9:45 p.m. Wednesday and confronted the employee. He pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and a bag, tapped the gun on the counter and forced the employee to fill the bag with cash before fleeing, Brunswick police said.

The rash of crimes is abnormal in Maine, even without the four incidents this week.

In 2016, the most recent for which federal crime data are available, there were 266 robberies in Maine overall, 59 of which involved the use of a firearm.

In response to the string of robberies, officers have stepped up patrols near small businesses and advised store owners not to keep large amounts of cash on hand. They also have asked small-business owners to make sure their surveillance systems are functioning.

The robber is described as a white man between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-9 with a thin build, blue eyes and light-colored hair.

Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 207-774-9322. Portland police can be contacted after hours and on weekends at 207-874-8575.

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Ilias Sigkas was smoking a cigarette outside his cousin’s variety shop in Old Orchard Beach on Wednesday evening when a man put a gun to his back.

The man pushed Sigkas inside the shop, where owners Paul and Patra Leite were working. Patra Leite saw the gun and dove behind the counter to hide. The man, whose face was concealed by a mask, reached for the register and demanded money. Paul Leite grabbed a club he keeps behind the counter for security.

“I was angry,” Paul Leite said Thursday.

He told the robber he was calling the police and yelled at him to get out. Leite said the man seemed to think for a second before he fled. Leite then ran around the counter and out the door after him to see which way the robber went, but he was gone too fast.

The family was still shaken Thursday morning. Sigkas, who is visiting from Greece, said he thought about his loved ones back home.

“I was scared,” Sigkas said. “I remembered my son in Greece.”

The attempted robbery at the Leites’ Moby Dick Variety Store on East Grand Avenue was one of four armed robberies that took place in the region Tuesday and Wednesday, adding to a string of similar crimes in southern Maine in the past 3½ weeks. Law enforcement officials are investigating a total of 15 armed robberies since March 20, almost all involving a masked man brandishing a handgun and matching a similar description.

But the confrontations with the robber in Old Orchard, together with the cluster of hold-ups within hours of each other, have raised fears that the incidents could turn violent at anytime.

Owners and employees of small businesses have been on edge since the robberies began in mid-March. Police have advised them that, if they are targeted, they should avoid confronting the robber and simply give him what he asks for. But police are increasingly worried that a violent confrontation is imminent.

The advice from police hasn’t swayed Rafi Jacobi, owner of Coastal Convenience on Saco Avenue in Old Orchard.

Jacobi keeps a baseball bat behind the register for security purposes. But, when the string of armed robberies started, one of his employees brought in a handgun, which they now keep ready and loaded behind the counter.

“You can’t bring a baseball bat to a gunfight,” Jacobi said.

Jacobi said he does not want the man to get away with robbing his store, and he knows other business owners who are taking the same precautions. He is also worried the robber will shoot an unarmed or unsuspecting employee.

“We do not want to fight, but if the fight comes to your house, you’re going to fight,” Jacobi said.

Paul Leite, meanwhile, said it was his instinct to grab the club from behind the counter, but he was glad the man fled instead of fighting back.

“I don’t think he wants to hurt anyone,” Leite said.

At Moby Dick Variety Store on Thursday, regular customers came into the store to check on the Leites.

“You guys OK?” one man asked as he made his purchase.

Paul Leite shrugged and smiled.

“We had to come to work today,” he said.

But he has appreciated the kindness of his customers.

“That’s the nice thing about Old Orchard Beach,” he said. “It’s tight-knit.”

While Paul Leite bustled around the store, his wife stayed behind the counter. She was thinking about the young voice behind the robber’s mask. She has a purple bruise on her elbow from diving to the ground, but she felt lucky they escaped with no other injuries. “Just my heart,” she said. “I got anxiety.”

Megan Doyle, Portland Press Herald

After four additional armed robberies Tuesday and Wednesday, there have been a total of 15 armed robberies in southern Maine in the 24 days since March 20.

In 2016, the entire state of Maine experienced 59 robberies involving the use of a gun, fewer than five in an average month.

A suspect was arrested and charged with one of the robberies – the April 7 holdup in Gorham – but police have said the 14 others appear to be connected, and some police statements suggest the unsolved robberies may have been carried out by the same man.

Here are all 15:

March 20 – Riverton Gas Station, 1585 Forest Ave., Portland

March 21 – the Lil’ Mart, 251 Route 1, Falmouth

March 22 – Good Things Variety, 113 Saco St., Westbrook

March 22 – Irving Express Mart, 174 Main St., Cumberland

March 24 – Daily Grind, 840 Main St., Westbrook

March 25 – China Taste, 1223 Washington Ave., Portland

March 26 – Subway, 390 Bridgton Road, Westbrook

March 27 – Aroma Joe’s, 443 Western Ave., South Portland

March 29 – China Eatery, 5 Ocean Park Road, Old Orchard Beach

April 6 – Gulf Mini Mart, 159 Bridgton Road, Westbrook

April 7 – Domino’s, 621 Lower Maine, Gorham*

April 10 – Sun Tan City, 105 Topsham Fair Mall Road, Topsham

April 11 – Moby Dick Variety Store, 74 East Grand Avenue, Old Orchard Beach

April 11 – Dunkin’ Donuts, 7 Riverside Drive, Auburn

April 11 – Amato’s, 148 Pleasant Street, Brunswick

* — Suspect arrested


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