When Batch Ice Cream on busy Broad Street in downtown San Luis Obispo was robbed at gunpoint Nov. 9, the owners not only lost money — but also their store manager, who quit.
Although she wasn’t physically harmed, the manager was “totally traumatized,’’ owner James Whitaker said. “It was a very cozy, safe spot (where) you wouldn’t think you’d be confronted with the threat of gun violence. ... It’s shaken her sense of security.”
Whitaker is not alone in his concern for employees.
Business robberies across San Luis Obispo County are already up 30 percent this year compared with 2015, according to figures provided to The Tribune from most local law enforcement agencies. There have been 26 through Nov. 14, most involving a gun or the threat of one. At least one store employee has been injured.
As a result, business owners are re-evaluating their surveillance and security systems and reviewing safety protocols with workers.
The rash of robberies also has spurred law enforcement to coordinate efforts, working together to identify suspects that may be involved in multiple incidents across city boundaries and have more proactive patrols to safeguard local businesses. The FBI has also offered its assistance.
Although the vast majority of recent commercial robberies remain unsolved, officers are optimistic that will change.
On Tuesday night, Paso Robles police arrested Ian Mike Robbins, 42, and Victoria Renee Trujillo, 46, both city residents suspected in at least two robberies. In both incidents, Robbins is suspected of robbing merchants with a handgun while Trujillo acted as getaway driver. Robbins and Trujillo remain in custody at the San Luis Obispo County Jail in lieu of $290,000 and $180,000 bail, respectively.
And in August, San Luis Obispo police arrested three Sacramento-area men on suspicion of robbing a man at gunpoint in the parking lot of Buffalo Wild Wings. Their cases are pending in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
“Locally, we have a tremendous amount of cooperation between our departments,” Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley said.
Rise in violent crimes
In 2015, six cities in San Luis Obispo County reported 20 commercial robberies and 278 commercial burglaries. (Data from the city of Morro Bay and the county Sheriff’s Office were not available as of Friday.)
From Jan. 1 through Nov. 14 this year, there have been 26 reported commercial robberies in these cities but far fewer commercial burglaries — 170. (These figures exclude robberies of people outside of businesses, and they exclude residential burglaries, which are also on the rise.)
Here’s a closer look at commercial robberies and burglaries in most cities: A robbery is defined as a taking of property that involves a person-to-person interaction with force, intimidation and/or coercion. A burglary is the entering of a business or residence with the intention to commit a theft.
▪ San Luis Obispo leads the county’s cities in business robberies this year with 11, up from three in 2015. Robberies in the city peaked in August and September, when six businesses were robbed. Throughout the year, gunmen targeted obvious businesses, such as Heritage Oaks Bank and a couple of liquor stores, and even seemingly odd targets, such as Trader Joe’s, Panda Express, The Boba Stop ice tea shop and Batch.
In addition, four city businesses were burglarized within a week in early November. About $2,500 in liquor was stolen from BevMo!, electronics equipment was stolen from CORE Dance Studio, and burglars broke into Lincoln Market and Deli and G. Brothers Smokehouse the same morning, stealing safes and cash registers.
At the time, San Luis Obispo police Sgt. Fred Mickel told The Tribune that at least two of the burglaries were thought to be committed by the same suspects.
There had been 57 commercial burglaries in the city as of Nov. 14, compared with 77 in all of last year.
▪ Paso Robles has seen seven commercial robberies this year, including four in the past month, that mostly involve gas stations and liquor stores. In one robbery, two clerks were held at gunpoint while men in hoods and ski masks stole alcohol and cash, firing two rounds into the air as they fled. The city reported six last year.
The city reported 47 burglaries as of Nov. 14, compared with 94 in 2015.
▪ Atascadero and Arroyo Grande each reported three commercial robberies so far this year, the same as last year.
Atascadero did not report a robbery in 2016 until August, when a Walgreens was robbed with a simulated weapon, and, later, a man with a gun left a pizza parlor with an undisclosed amount of cash without uttering a word during a Nov. 11 holdup.
A clerk at an Arroyo Grande AM/PM suffered minor injuries in August when he was beaten by two men, one who threatened he had a gun. The clerk was able to break free to call police, and the suspects fled without taking any money.
Arroyo Grande reported nine commercial burglaries so far in 2016, compared with 19 last year. Atascadero reported 15 so far this year, compared with 11 last year.
▪ Pismo Beach reported two commercial robberies both this and last year, including an armed robbery at the landmark Spyglass Inn.
It has reported 24 commercial burglaries so far this year, compared with 41 last year.
▪ Grover Beach reported a decrease on both fronts. The city reported three commercial robberies last year, and it has had none so far this year.
Commercial burglaries decreased this year from 36 to 18. Most of the burglaries this year were reported at one supermarket.
‘That has us all concerned’
Despite the low number of arrests so far, patrol officers and detectives in the county’s seven municipal police departments and the Sheriff’s Office are “coordinating heavily with each other,” said Haley, the Atascadero police chief, who also serves as president of the Criminal Justice Administrators Association of San Luis Obispo County.
Haley declined to elaborate, noting that their investigations into the most recent robberies are ongoing. However, he said his detectives have been meeting with their counterparts in other local cities and the county.
There is evidence that we are following up on what seems to indicate that a lot of these are completely unrelated, that they don’t necessarily have a nexus to one another.
Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley
With a few exceptions, the county’s recent high-profile incidents don’t appear to have any other specific links to one another to indicate any large-scale or gang-related efforts.
“There is evidence that we are following up on what seems to indicate that a lot of these are completely unrelated, that they don’t necessarily have a nexus to one another,” Haley said.
In response, his officers have been stepping up patrols with two-person teams that focus on areas with businesses especially vulnerable to crime.
Anecdotally, Haley said one of those teams recently arrested a fugitive they found sitting in a car outside a gas station late at night. The man, a parolee from Visalia, had been on the run for three years on domestic violence and other charges, Haley said.
Like many other chiefs across the state, Haley attributed the recent spike in crime to state laws that declassified certain crimes and shortened sentences for people convicted of other certain crimes.
Proposition 47, passed in 2014, converted many nonviolent offenses, including drug and property crimes, from felonies to misdemeanors, reducing the number of people taken into custody, and in some cases, the number of cases assigned to drug treatment.
“When you get a rash of things, it can be pretty clear if it’s somebody trying to support a drug habit,” Haley said.
Officials say Assembly Bill 109, jail realignment legislation, enacted in 2011, also may be playing a role. The law mandated that nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual offenders be sentenced to county jails to relieve crowding in state prisons. Some receive split sentences and community supervision.
Haley and other officials fear that Proposition 57, the ballot initiative that voters passed this month, will lead to the early release of violent criminals and exacerbate existing problems. They had called on voters to reject it in an October press conference.
“There are people who should be in custody when instead they are committing new crimes,” Haley said. “That has us all concerned.”
‘A good witness’
Law enforcement officials recommend that all businesses install some form of surveillance or alarm system. Installing and activating a standard silent alarm system increases officers’ chances of responding to the scene in time to make an arrest, Haley said.
If confronted by someone with a weapon, he urges individuals to comply with the person’s demands.
“It’s not worth trying to be heroic facing an armed suspect. For the most part, these people are nervous; they’re not sophisticated,” Haley said. “The best thing you can do is be a good witness.”
San Luis Obispo city residents also can sign up for SLO Crime Tracker, which sends subscribers email alerts the day after recorded police activity occurs within a preset radius of a user’s home address.
Whitaker, the Batch owner, said he outfitted his business with security cameras the day after the robbery.
“We thought (Batch) was so small that it didn’t make sense to put one camera in there,” Whitaker said. “But I think that was a mistake.”