A Gunman Walks into a Bar...

A rash of armed robberies afflicts Twin Cities taverns

On January 16, just before 2:00 a.m., only four customers lingered at Dusty's Bar on Marshall Street in northeast Minneapolis. The bartender was emptying out the cash registers, preparing to close for the night.

Then two men entered the bar, one of them brandishing what the bartender told cops was a "Dirty Harry" kind of revolver. They demanded that everyone get on the floor and remove their wallets. "We were just having our last cigarette and beer for the night before we went home," recalls musician Dan Kase, who'd just completed a gig. "The next thing I know I've got this .44 magnum a couple feet from my face."

One of the men went behind the bar, held the gun to the bartender's head, and demanded money from the till. The two perpetrators then gathered all the cash, even scooping up the band's tips, and fled. "It was only like three minutes," says Kase. "It seemed like it lasted a lot longer at the time, of course."

Barroom blitz: Dusty's in Northeast was knocked off for the first time in 20 years, according to owner Pat Stebe
Paul Demko
Barroom blitz: Dusty's in Northeast was knocked off for the first time in 20 years, according to owner Pat Stebe

According to a police report detailing the incident, the bandits made off with about $3,600 in bar receipts. Dusty's owner Pat Stebe says it was the first time in 20 years that the bar had been held up.

In the last year armed robberies of bars have become disturbingly frequent. Dusty's marked the seventh such incident in northeast Minneapolis since March, and there have been at least two dozen heists in St. Paul alone. Bars in Little Canada, West St. Paul, and other municipalities have been hit as well. Because the holdups have taken place in multiple jurisdictions it's difficult to get an exact count, but according to police officials the tally could be as high as 50 since December 2002.

The modus operandi in most of the cases has been remarkably similar in its old-school simplicity. In almost every case, witnesses have described anywhere from one to three black males entering the bar, revealing at least one gun, and ordering patrons to the floor. The thieves then clean out the cash register and usually demand access to any safe. Sometimes they have also taken money off bar patrons. They're looking for cash and nothing else. Because the perps have generally kept their faces covered and worn gloves, substantial clues have been difficult to come by. Almost all of the textbook heists have taken place at modest, neighborhood establishments without security guards or surveillance cameras.

"They're over quick," notes Lieutenant Jeff Rugel, of the MPD's 2nd Precinct, which includes Northeast. "They don't get a good look at these people. These are clearly not the regulars from the bar, so who's going to know them?"

This week, officers from various metro police departments are meeting to share data on the crimes. They plan to pool the available evidence and release it to the public in hopes of generating leads. "We want this to stop," says St. Paul police spokesman Paul Schnell. "We do not want this to end up with somebody getting seriously hurt. The last thing we want to have happen is a conceal-carry person in there and we end up with a shootout."

 

St. Paul police believed they had solved the bar-robbery blitz back in July with the arrest of Michael Kibble and Edgar Hughes. The two veteran criminals admitted to pulling off a slew of recent stickups in St. Paul and surrounding areas. "They were pretty much fessing up to each of them that they had done here in our cities," says Ramsey County Sheriff's Investigator Thomas Rudenick. Last month Hughes pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree aggravated robbery, and Kibble copped to five similar charges. (In addition, Kibble pleaded guilty to two felonies stemming from an attempted escape from the Ramsey County Jail.) Both are slated to be sentenced next month.

But the spree continued unabated. Since December there have been at least eight more jobs. The continuing crime wave has led to speculation that there may be a band of affiliated crooks working the Twin Cities. "We're not talking about the same guys here, but maybe we're talking about someone who was involved with them previously," says Schnell.

In recent months, the sleepy bars that dot Randolph Avenue in St. Paul have been hit particularly hard. Almost every watering hole along the avenue has been robbed. The Spot Bar and J & P's Bar have each been held up twice. The spate of incidents has left customers and employees scared and suspicious. "It makes you a racist, you know, when this stuff happens," says Ted Casper, co-owner of The Nook, just off Randolph Avenue, which was held up last month. "You try not to be."

Casper worries that the incident will make customers wary of returning to the bar. "Who the hell comes to their neighborhood bar thinking they're going to get their wallet stolen?" he wonders. According to Casper, one older patron who was thrown to the floor during last month's ordeal hasn't returned: "He was shaken up, I guess."

St. Paul cops have stopped by regularly at The Nook since the robbery occurred. "We've made some cop friends," Casper says. "I'll buy them a burger." In addition, the bar is installing security cameras and now keeps the front door locked on slow nights as closing time approaches.

Patrons of other joints along Randolph Avenue have taken a more proactive approach. J & P's Bar was first looted in June. Two armed, masked men entered the bar near closing time, ordered everyone to the ground, and demanded money. "They even took the girls out of the bathroom with their pants down," says bartender Julie Kozlowski. "They took everything." Kozlowski estimates that the duo made off with $700 from the bar's till.

When a lone gunman entered the bar in mid-December and again demanded money, a slightly different scenario played out. "The first one, they got the money," notes Kozlowski. "The second time we attacked them." According to Gloria Huss, who'd just finished working her shift selling pull tabs when the robber entered, several patrons jumped the man. "They broke two pool sticks over him," she recalls. "They beat him up." The man fled without getting a dime. "Scary," says Huss. "I don't want to go through that anymore."

There's no sign that such amateur crime fighting has dissuaded any perpetrators. But until police can track down just who is responsible for the string of crimes, there may be a few more bouts of barroom justice meted out. When Dusty's owner Pat Stebe is asked if he's taken any additional security measures in the wake of the holdup, he smiles tightly: "Carry. I believe in conceal-carry."

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