As a knife-wielding robber approached a Hill grocery store for a third consecutive heist, clerk Sarhan Abdullah had his aluminum bat ready behind the counter.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Officer Joe Roberts was in the neighborhood. With his eyes open.
Roberts (pictured at left) caught the robber en route to the job and put him under arrest.
That happened Monday. It ended a week of tsuris for Abdullah (pictured above), who feared he may never again see his four children back in Yemen.
“They saved my life, brother” Abdullah said Wednesday from behind the counter of Super Star Deli at the corner of Sylvan Avenue and Orchard Street. “If I see the police, I will give them a big hug.
“It’s scary, brother, when somebody comes at you with a big knife. [Now] I’m safe, thank you very much!”
Playing It Safe
Abdullah didn’t feel safe after his first encounter with the armed robber last Thursday afternoon.
Abdullah, who’s 36, works the counter at the neighborhood deli/convenience store. He moved to the U.S. 16 years ago, and to New Haven two years ago, to make money to send home to his family in Yemen, he said. He travels back and forth regularly to see his wife and his four sons, who range in age from 4 to 15.
A 6-foot-5-inch masked man tried entering the store from the rear around 3 p.m. Thursday but couldn’t get in (as a surveillance video would later reveal). He then walked in the front door.
Abdullah was in the store alone. He had stepped away from the front counter, so he didn’t see the man enter.
The man walked around to the end of the counter in order to get behind it. He encountered Abdullah there. He raised a kitchen-style knife with a long blade into the air. He ordered Abdullah to open the cash register; the clerk complied. The masked man grabbed the bills, close to $200 in all, from the drawer, then fled. Abdullah called the cops, who showed up promptly and took down the information.
Two days later, around the same time, the masked man returned. This time Abdullah was behind the counter. He saw the man push a customer away from the bus stop right outside. The man entered the store and shoved a customer, who’d been seated by the 7 Up cooler, out of his way as well. He went straight to the end of the counter again and rushed at Abdullah.
Abdullah grabbed an aluminum bat he keeps by the counter. He raised it in the robber’s direction.
“He didn’t care,” Abdullah recalled. The man brandished a knife again, this one smaller than the other day’s.
“Give me the money!” he demanded.
Abdullah dropped the bat.
“I didn’t want to fight,” Abdullah said. “I want to see my kids. I don’t want to die. If I fight with him, I might die.”
Again the robber cleaned out close to $200 in bills from the register and fled.
Abdullah called the cops again. The police subsequently returned to review the store’s surveillance videos.
Monday morning top neighborhood cop Lt. Holly Wasilewski distributed a video still to officers at lineup.
Officer Joe Roberts took a good look at the picture. He then began his shift.
Roberts, who joined the force in 2001 and has served army stints in Bosnia and Iraq, was riding Monday with Ryan Kajtor, a rookie cop right out of the academy. Roberts was training him.
Around midday they stopped to question a man who was drinking in an abandoned house on Kossuth Street. Roberts’ former patrol partner Rob Clark (read about the pair, known as “Cookies & Cream,” here), happened to be in the area. He pulled up to the scene in his patrol car.
Here’s what happened next, according to Clark (Roberts declined to be interviewed for this story) and Lt. Wasilewski:
Roberts spotted a man dressed all in black walking a half-block away on Orchard Street—in the direction of the nearby Super Star Deli. Roberts noticed that he had the same skin color (black) and approximate height as the repeat robber he’d learned about at lineup.
“I want to stop this person,” Roberts told Clark.
Roberts and Kajtor pulled up to the man. Clark drove around the block to Baldwin Street to position himself in case the man tried to flee in a different direction.
The man was walking with his left arm stiff by his side. That could mean he was carrying a “long object” like a pipe or a shotgun in the sleeve of his army jacket, the cops calculated. The man subsequently shook his arm free, leading the cops to wonder whether he had put the object into his pocket.
Roberts waited until the man reached an Orchard Street complex with fencing around it, making it harder for the man to flee. He pulled up and asked the man to stop. He slowed down and then stopped. Clark appeared on the scene. The man “looked at Joe [Roberts]. He looked at me. He knows he’s not going anywhere,” Clark recalled.
Clark noticed what looked like a mask poking out of the inside of a knit cap the man was wearing.
“You got anything sharp on you?” Clark asked the man.
“I’ve got a knife on me,” the man replied.
“Open or closed?”
In fact, the man had a kitchen knife in his pocket under his army field jacket. It was open—and pointing “right at us,” Clark recalled. “The blade had to be six inches long, like a filet knife.”
Besides keys, the man had no other objects on him. No wallet. No ID. “That’s called being ‘sterile,’” Clark said, “when you do a job.”
The officers handcuffed him and charged him with possessing a dangerous weapon. The lifted the knit cap. Underneath was a mask, pushed up above his forehead.
“This is a 19 [robbery] all the way,” Clark concluded. Roberts concurred.
They brought him to 1 Union Ave., where detectives interviewed him.
Eventually, the man confessed that he was on his way to commit another robbery at Super Star Deli, according to Wasilewski. He confessed to having committed the previous two robberies.
Wasilewski said she recognized the man, who is 25 years old and lives in the neighborhood. He hadn’t caused trouble before, as far as she knows, though “he does get high a lot.”
Abdullah, meanwhile, said he hasn’t had any unwelcome visitors in the store this week. He still has his aluminum bat leaning by the register. He said he has no intention of swinging it; the cops have his back.