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Valley Robberies Put Businesses on Edge

Police say 10 suspects in four bands have been responsible for 100 holdups in the past year.

October 15, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Nalinee Maikeo was walking out of the bathroom when she saw three men wearing ski masks storm into the Northridge restaurant with their guns drawn. She ran to the kitchen through a back hallway to warn the others, then ran back to the bathroom to hide. Through the door, she could hear scuffling, then two shots.

When Maikeo, a cook at the restaurant, emerged several minutes later, the manager, her stepson Tom Maikeo, was lying in a pool of blood. A doctor who was eating at the family-run cafe tried to revive him, but Tom had been shot in the heart.

He was pronounced dead at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

Police say bandits have been terrorizing restaurants and small businesses in the San Fernando Valley for the past year, stealing at least $100,000 in cash, assaulting two victims and killing Tom Maikeo, 38, in May.

The bandits are believed to be responsible for about 100 robberies.

Police announced a $50,000 reward this week in hopes that someone will come forward with information about the 10 people suspected of carrying out the crimes that have Valley business owners on edge.

"These guys are vicious," said Lt. Jim Grayson of the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division. "They are no joke."

Grayson said the nine men and one woman make up four separate groups of bandits who appear to be working independently but may have started out together.

"Their activities are similar in nature," Grayson said. "There are several groups of bandits out there doing similar crimes."

Wearing ski masks and toting handguns, the robbers work at night, preying on bars, restaurants and other small businesses that have little or no security, he said.

The bandits appear to have carefully selected their targets and hit the businesses when they are most vulnerable -- such as just before closing time when the front door is still open and the cash register is full.

That's what happened at Chao Thai Cafe on Tampa Avenue near Roscoe Boulevard on May 20. The masked intruders stormed into the small, family-owned restaurant about 9:30 p.m. and demanded money from Tom Maikeo, who was standing behind a counter at the rear of the dining room, and the three patrons who were finishing their dinners.

Nalinee Maikeo said no one knows what led to the shooting.

Police declined to provide any details, saying the incident was still under investigation.

All Nalinee Maikeo knows is that the bandits left through the back door with $300 cash after killing her stepson. Tom Maikeo had owned the restaurant for a couple of years, taking over the business from his father, Sam Maikeo, Nalinee's husband, when he was ready to retire. The former banker left behind a wife and two young children, said his brother, Mike, who now works at the restaurant, which Sam Maikeo reopened three weeks after his son was killed.

"I'm angry," Mike Maikeo said this week. "I want to see these guys caught and pay for what they did to my brother."

Grayson said he was sending out a bulletin to area business owners with tips for better protecting their property, such as keeping parking lots well-lighted, installing alarms and video cameras on the premises, hiring security guards and immediately reporting suspicious activity.

The crimes have occurred in an area bordered by De Soto Avenue on the west, Devonshire Street on the north, Ventura Boulevard to the south and the Hollywood Freeway to the east.

A particularly large cluster of crimes has occurred in an area bordered by Devonshire, Winnetka Avenue, Sepulveda and Burbank boulevards, Grayson said.

"Law-abiding people in the San Fernando Valley want to live in peace," said Capt. Kyle Jackson of the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery-Homicide Division. "We know there are individuals in the community who know who these people are. This has got to end."

Jackson said the FBI was assisting in the investigation.

Nalinee and Mike Maikeo said they weren't afraid to return to the restaurant after the shooting because police continually patrol the small strip mall where the restaurant is located. Also, Sam Maikeo has instituted at least one new rule in the interest of security: Locking the front door at closing time, which is 9 or 10 p.m., depending on the day, even if patrons are still inside.

Anyone with information about the crimes can call the Robbery-Homicide Division at (213) 485-2511 or (877) 529-3855.

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