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WILL THEY STRIKE AGAIN? SKI MASK BANDITS TERRORIZE RESTAURANTS IN 2-YEAR SPREE.

Byline: SUE DOYLE Staff Writer

Holding their guns at eye level, two men disguised by ski masks stormed the restaurant.

One headed straight for the bar and demanded cash from the bartender. The other placed the barrel of a handgun to the owner's head, then snatched the designer watch from his wrist.

It was nearly quitting time for the staff at Barone's Restaurant in Valley Glen. But the armed bandits -- believed to be part of a ring of robbers who have terrorized at least 52 San Fernando Valley restaurants over the past two years -- were just punching in.

Dubbed by authorities as the Ski Mask Bandits, they strike in teams of two or three, with a cocky, no-nonsense and professional aggressiveness that has left diners terrified and police with few clues.

Since their first heist in July 2004 at the Oyster House, they've targeted fine-dining establishments as often as greasy spoons from Chatsworth to Studio City, Woodland Hills to Sylmar. They're suspected of looting five restaurants twice.

Recently they've gone over the hill, hitting a chichi West L.A. restaurant at gunpoint in July and a trendy Hollywood Boulevard bar in August.

After pushing their way through unlocked back doors, brandishing handguns and ordering customers to the floor, they loot the bar, take cash and jewelry from diners and flee in mere minutes.

Over the hill

On that July night at Barone's, the bandits found the newly reopened Italian restaurant nearly empty, with just two customers who were waiting for takeout orders, co-owner Tom Monteleone recalled.

Watching one gunman threaten her dad, Monteleone's 22-year-old daughter hid under the maitre'd table. The kitchen help hit the floor.

While the Ski Mask Bandits were gone within three minutes, the fear they generated lasted far longer.

``A bartender broke down. My daughter was a wreck. Three of the seven guys in the kitchen were stunned,'' Monteleone said. ``It took four to five days for people to come out of this.''

Authorities say the bandits are professionals, operating in methodical, well-rehearsed steps, whisking in and out of restaurants with ease.

``They come in and they are seasoned and establish control of the location,'' said Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore, who commands the Valley Bureau. ``And they have demonstrated a propensity for violence.''

The bandits have occasionally pushed victims around to control them and establish authority during robberies, authorities said.

But on May 20, 2005, the violence escalated, and they fatally shot Greeta Maikeo, 37, a co-owner of Chao's Thai Cafe in Northridge. Witnesses said Maikeo was standing by the cash drawer next to a robber who was shoving him when another one said he should be shot. It was unclear who actually killed him.

Maikeo's family sold the restaurant in June and could not be reached for comment.

The suspects

Disguised in black ski masks and gloves, they utter few words during the robberies, leaving few clues about their voices or other distinguishing features.

One witness saw glasses under the gunman's black mask. Another swore he heard an East Coast accent. A third could tell the robbers padded themselves with bulletproof vests under their clothes.

They've been able to elude authorities -- even FBI and police surveillance -- because of their disguises, agility and wide range of targets, Moore said.

``These are robberies that are not netting them tens of thousands of dollars,'' he said. ``Certainly for the risk and violence they're engaged in, they're not being rewarded through large amounts of cash or valuables.''

Authorities believe they're getting help from friends or relatives. The Los Angeles City Council has offered a $75,000 reward in the hope that someone will come forward with information that will lead to their arrests.

While most successful criminals graduate to larger, riskier heists, the Ski Mask Bandits have stuck with their proven method, possibly because restaurants rarely have guards, surveillance cameras or silent alarms as banks do, officials said.

Although the Los Angeles Police Department has reported a drop in crime this year, robberies are up nearly 9 percent. And as restaurant robberies increase, bank robberies are plummeting.

Robbery capital

Once known as the bank robbery capital, Los Angeles had 2,641 in 1992. This year, as of September, there have been 338, about 75 percent takeover-style, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

By adding more surveillance, thick glass windows around tellers and more security guards, banks became more sophisticated with security over time.

Restaurants should follow suit, alternating closing times each night by a few minutes, since that's when robbers often strike, LAPD Lt. Paul Vernon said. And once the back door is locked, it should stay that way.

``Don't even let an employee out to bring out the trash,'' he said.

As restaurants beef up security, some have seen late-night dining patronage grow thin. Later crowds would probably tend to linger, buy more hard drinks and spend some extra money. But now people could be rethinking such plans, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Valley Inn evening business has dropped 25 percent since it was robbed by the Ski Mask Bandits on Aug. 2, owner Boris Brodetsky said.

``People are scared to come out,'' he said. ``It will take time for people to forget. And they (Ski Mask Bandits) are constantly reminding people that they're still around.''

Finding solutions

Offering tips about how eateries can prevent robberies, the California Restaurant Association will play host to a meeting in November of its Valley members to discuss the rash of robberies.

``It can be a detriment to business,'' said Jordan Traverso, spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based nonprofit business association. ``Why would you want to go to a restaurant at night in the San Fernando Valley if you have the possibility of being robbed?''

Naturally, restaurant surveillance plays a role in capturing the Ski Mask Bandits and other serial robbers. But because there are thousands of restaurants sprinkled throughout the Valley, it's impossible for law enforcement to be posted at all of them. The robbers' wearing of masks also makes it difficult for witnesses to provide descriptions.

Although there have always been robbers who hit multiple locations in one area -- from the Floppy Hat Bandit to the Cue Card bank robber -- they get captured for one reason or another. Gannon said it's peculiar that this group has evaded police for so long.

``I don't know that there are any detectives who could point to a series of robberies similar to this within the last 10 years.''

Leaving clues

At the same time, the gunmen haven't slipped away from all their conquests without leaving clues behind.

Surveillance tape from Mr. Cecil's California Ribs on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks captured their chilling, three-minute robbery of employees and scores of families out to dinner Jan. 2, 2005.

The black-and-white tape shows three masked men wearing oversize cotton shirts and baggy pants as they barrel through the back door around 8 p.m. and into the bar portion of the restaurant.

One robber ransacks the cash register and then vaults over the bar to join the other two clearing tables of money and valuables, aiming guns at patrons huddled on the ground.

Customers and staffers sat quiet and stunned after the men left, said owner Jonathan Burrows, who was at the bar during the incident.

It took him a few days to realize what he had gone through.

Since that night, Burrows has beefed up security with more video cameras -- some that broadcast on the Internet -- and panic buttons.

And the back door that was once left open for locals during operating hours is now firmly locked at night.

``It's like the terrorists attacking American interests,'' Burrows said. ``You can't change your life. We've made appropriate changes, but life goes on.''

sue.doyle(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3746

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, 2 boxes, 2 maps

Photo:

(1 -- color) The Ski Mask Bandits wear masks similar to the one shown here.

(2 -- 4) The Ski Mask Bandits burst into Mr. Cecil's California Ribs in Sherman Oaks on Jan. 2, 2005 and were caught on a surveillance video camera. They were in and out of the establishment in a matter of minutes.

(5) The Ski Mask Bandits are captured on surveillance video at Mr. Cecil's California Ribs in Sherman Oaks on Jan. 2, 2005, after bursting through the back door about 8 p.m.

Box:

(1) Who They've hit twice

(2) How close have they struck to your house?

Map:

(1) How close have they struck to your house?

(2) Ski Mask Bandits

SOURCE: Daily News research

Gregg Miller/Staff Artist
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 15, 2006
Words:1432
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