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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Trio May Be Linked to Series of Robberies

November 29, 2000|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two men and a juvenile arrested in the holdup of a Trader Joe's store in Camarillo may be responsible for at least 15 other Southern California robberies of the trendy specialty market in recent months, investigators said Tuesday.

Ventura County sheriff's detectives were set to compare notes of Trader Joe's robberies across Los Angeles and Orange counties with the holdup Monday night of a Camarillo store on Carmen Drive, said Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Will Hammer.

Deputies made the arrests about an hour after the 8:50 p.m. robbery following a brief pursuit on Ventura Freeway and Wendy Drive.

"Some of the best police work is luck," Hammer said. "[The deputies] happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Three males wearing ski masks, with one holding a blue-steel handgun, held up at least three other Trader Joe's stores in recent weeks, authorities said.

Just days before the Camarillo robbery, an Eagle Rock Trader Joe's was robbed at gunpoint by three males fitting the same description. Other holdups occurred on Nov. 17 in Rancho Palos Verdes and on Nov. 9 in Costa Mesa, officials said.

"I don't know if it's a team of individuals, but it's likely they are related," said Steve Doan, an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives who have been searching for three suspects in connection with a series of Trader Joe's holdups since March said they are eager to interview the suspects in the Camarillo case.

"We definitely would like to talk to them," said Lt. Jim Grayson of the LAPD's robbery-homicide division. He said detectives would also show the suspects' photographs to witnesses in the other robberies.

In all of the holdups, witnesses described a distinctive blue-steel handgun and said at least one robber wore a ski mask. Witnesses in many of the holdups reported seeing the robbers leaving the scene in a dark-colored car. The suspects were apprehended Monday night driving a black Dodge.

The two adult suspects in custody were identified as Dante Lemar Payne, 19, and Gregory Johnson, 23, both of Los Angeles. They are being held at Ventura County Jail on $250,000 bail. Both face a Nov. 30 arraignment.

The juvenile suspect, 15, also from Los Angeles, was being held without bail at Ventura County Juvenile Hall. He is to be arraigned today.

Johnson and the juvenile were booked on suspicion of robbery and criminal conspiracy. Payne was booked on suspicion of robbery, criminal conspiracy and evading an officer.

Johnson, who allegedly wore a ski mask into the Carmen Drive store, was arrested along with the juvenile in Newbury Park after the car driven by Payne came to a stop on Wendy Drive just off the Ventura Freeway, Hammer said.

Johnson and the juvenile were discovered hiding in bushes.

Payne, who allegedly struck a sheriff's patrol car as he sped away from the Wendy Drive location, was heading north when he became stuck in traffic. He was arrested a short time later without incident, Hammer said.

During a search of the area Tuesday morning, investigators found a small-caliber handgun that may have been used in the robbery, said sheriff's spokesman Eric Nishimoto.

Hammer and other investigators had no explanation for why Trader Joe's was targeted.

"It's like the group that was robbing the cigarette stores. It's the place that has money," Hammer said, referring to another string of robberies in Ventura County.

Carol Impara, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe's, declined to comment on the arrests or the recent robberies.

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