Deli owner slams town police over armed robbery response time

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | The front entrance to Village Grocery was hit with a rock Saturday. Two armed robbers made off with cash and cigarettes the next night.

A downtown deli owner slammed the Riverhead Town Police Department for what he called a slow response during an armed robbery at the store Sunday night.

But Police Chief David Hegermiller said the delayed response was due to a problem relaying the call from a busy radio room, and not the fault of slow-moving police officers.
Village grocery owner Mohammad Gondal said he was on the phone with a Riverhead dispatcher as he watched two thieves trip and spill the items they had just taken from his newly opened store, located just yards from Town Hall, which is next door to police headquarters.

He waited about seven minutes before police arrived, Mr. Gondal said.

“They were laughing,” Mr. Gondal said of the suspects. “It was single dollar bills everywhere.”

He said the dispatcher repeatedly asked him for the address and for specific directions to the deli.

Moments before, the two men had entered the store, one cocked a shotgun and demanded money, cigarettes and cigars. The pair made off with $800 to $900 in cash as well as the cigarettes and cigars. But they left about $75 after they fell, Mr. Gondal said.

When police arrived on the scene, the duo had already fled on foot, heading east. A police dog was able to trace their scent to the shotgun, which was hidden under a shed near the River Pointe apartment complex on East Main Street.

The suspects remain at large.

Mr. Gondal, a taxi driver and hot dog truck owner who has lived in Riverhead for 22 years, opened the downtown store less than two months ago. Sunday’s call was his second to police in as many days, he said.

On Saturday night someone threw a rock at the front door after closing and the alarm alerted police, who arrived at the scene before he did. Those suspects remain at large as well.
Chief Hegermilller said that once the call was dispatched Sunday night, town police officers only took about 20 seconds to reach the scene. However, he said, it took about six minutes to dispatch the call. Typically, 911 calls in Riverhead Town are answered by town dispatchers at police headquarters, but in this case the desk officer handled the call — as the radio operators were busy at the time.

The chief said he did not know why, exactly, it took so long to dispatch the call, but noted there was a motor vehicle accident on Sound Avenue about the same time Mr. Gondal’s call came in.

“It was hectic in the radio room,” Chief Hegermiller said.

Supervisor Sean Walter said he’d like to ramp up nighttime foot patrols downtown.

“It’s not acceptable,” he said of the recent spate of crimes, which also includes two shootings, allegedly by the same suspect, in downtown and Polish Town in one week. That suspect, Juan Soyos Pixtun, was arrested Friday.

“I’m not going to let these thugs take back Main Street,” Mr. Walter said.

The supervisor said he would meet with police department brass to figure out a way to have extra patrols walk the downtown area until midnight without increasing overtime costs. He noted that overtime costs for 2011 will come to about $600,000, down from about $900,000 in 2010. He attributed the decrease to “better management.”
He said the department would not raise overtime costs in 2012.

“The bottom line is if we are going to keep bringing back downtown … we’ve got to increase foot patrols,” he said

A fuming Mr. Gondal, who speaks with a thick accent, agreed the town needs to do more to make Main Street safer. “They need some professional policemen!” he said, blaming the recent incidents on the cops.

The suspects in the robbery are described as black and between the ages of 18 and 20. One man is described as 5 feet 7 inches tall with a medium build and the other as 6 feet, 2 inches tall with a thin build. Both men were wearing hooded sweatshirts and had bandanas covering their faces.

Anyone with any information is asked to call detectives at 727-4500, ext. 289.

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