VAN NUYS — A gunman who robbed a beauty salon and raped a woman may be connected to 24 similar robberies and five rapes in Los Angeles since February, police say.
At about 6:40 p.m. Sunday, a man armed with a revolver walked into Hair Express in the 13000 block of Victory Boulevard, stole $1,000 and raped a woman he found there, police said.
The rash of robberies and rapes began six months ago, slacked off and then resumed in June, said detectives, who believe two men may be involved. All but one of the robberies took place in the San Fernando Valley.
"They take turns, maybe to throw people off their scent," said Det. Greg Demirjian, a robbery detective at LAPD's Van Nuys Station. "They've gotten real active--these guys are not going to stop until we catch them."
Still stymieing investigators are conflicting physical descriptions from witnesses.
In one incident, one of the robbers shot a woman because she looked at him during the robbery, police said.
The robbers are alternately described as a Latino with a shaved head in his mid-20s, standing 5 feet, 4 inches with hazel eyes and weighing about 160 pounds, or clean shaven, and a 5-foot-5-inch Latino in his mid-30s, weighing 160 pounds, wearing a dark baseball cap, a mustache and sunglasses.
"This looks like a pattern, but we're sort of in that gray area right now. We'll be in better shape once we get someone to make a photo I.D.," said Det. David Lambkin, supervisor of the LAPD's Rape Special Section.
Police have linked the incidents because the same type of businesses and areas are being targeted and in each case witnesses described the same modus operandi by robbers.
Most of the robberies have occurred during daylight business hours at salons with several employees and customers present, police said. The rape victims were usually in the shops alone.
The men often pose as customers before holding up the salons at gunpoint. The younger man usually brandishes a blued steel revolver, while the older man uses a semiautomatic pistol, police said.
They then demand money from the cash drawer and take personal property from patrons.
Usually they lead the hair stylists to a back room or a lavatory--where some of the women were sexually assaulted. Police suspect the men flee in a car, but they have not received a credible car description.
Lambkin said it is highly unusual for robbers to also rape their victims. Even more unusual is for two criminals to work in concert, but not on the same robbery or rape at the same time, Lambkin said.
"These are very brazen and very dangerous individuals," said Lt. J. Grayson, of LAPD's robbery-homicide unit.
Hardest hit have been Van Nuys, with at least a dozen hair and nail salon robberies and three rapes, and North Hollywood, where police say there have been at least six hair salon robberies. There have also been beauty parlor robberies in Pacoima and Canoga Park, police say.
As of June, there were 865 reported rapes in Los Angeles, an 8% decrease from last year.
Fifty-six percent of all major sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim--the rest are committed by strangers, according to LAPD statistics.