Downtown robberies, graffiti bring crime talks to the fore

The Guardian Angels are expected to begin recruiting downtown next week, though Town Board members believe their presence will send the wrong message to potential visitors. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
The Guardian Angels are expected to begin recruiting downtown next week, though Town Board members believe their presence will send the wrong message to potential visitors. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Barth’s Pharmacy has stood on East Main Street since 1917 -— and in nearly all that time, no one has robbed the store.

But that changed in the past three years, during which the business has twice been targeted by armed robbers. The most recent incident occurred Friday, when a masked man burst into the store, held a gun to an employee’s neck and took off with an unspecified amount of cash, said owner Barry Barth.

“Nobody was physically hurt and that’s a good thing, but the mental anguish and the fear of having someone coming to your place of business with a handgun to rob you is overwhelming,” Mr. Barth told the News-Review. “We just went through this two years ago. You try to put this behind you and then it rears its ugly head again.”

The brazen daytime robbery of Barth’s Pharmacy took place one day before a Riverhead High School student was arrested Saturday night for allegedly spray-painting gang symbols on the wall of a Riverhead business.

Then Tuesday night, a second armed robbery took place on Main Street, with Uncle Joe’s pizzeria being robbed at gunpoint by a man wearing a bandana over his face.MS13-Riverhead

The high-profile incidents come as Riverhead residents and Town Board members wrestle with opinions about the Guardian Angels, a community watch group launched in the 1970s in New York City that has offered to patrol Riverhead’s streets starting later this month.


Police Chief David Hegermiller has met with Guardian Angels leader Curtis Sliwa and both he and Town Supervisor Sean Walter approve of the group’s intervention. Meanwhile, although none of the Town Board’s four members have outwardly welcomed them, the Guardian Angels are expected to begin patrols and recruiting next week.

Police said the Barth’s Pharmacy robber entered the store around 2:45 p.m. Friday carrying a handgun and wearing a mask, a short-sleeved black T-shirt, dark-colored jeans and sneakers. Mr. Barth said police were at the store “instantly” after his employees reported the robbery, spending four hours to examine and document the scene.

While Mr. Barth is unfamiliar with the Guardian Angels, he said something needs to change downtown.

“I don’t know if you need patrols walking the sidewalk as a preventative,” he said. “It’s out of control. Suffolk County National Bank was just robbed recently. Now this. Very disturbing.”

One day after the Barth’s robbery, a 16-year-old boy was arrested in an unrelated incident after police spotted him making graffiti they linked to the gang MS-13.

Manuel Fuentes Lopez of Riverhead and an unknown man were painting the graffiti on the Elton Street business TrueTech shortly before 11 p.m. when officers in a police C.O.P.E. unit attempted to apprehend them. Police said both fled on foot, and Manuel was soon spotted and arrested on nearby Phillips Street. He was later released on $500 bail; the other suspect remains at large.

Three days later, the second robbery occurred.

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Employees at Uncle Joe’s said an unknown black male — described as 6-foot-2 with a black hooded jacket, dark colored pants and a bandana covering his face – entered the store about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday and pointed a handgun at an employee, demanding money. He then fled the area on foot.

Police declined to say how much cash the suspect made off with or if there was any connection to a robbery at neighboring Barth’s Drug Store Friday afternoon.

News of the robberies had downtown business owners concerned.

“I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Ken Loo, owner of the nearby Hy-Ting and Haiku restaurants as he walked by Uncle Joe’s about two hours after the reported robbery. “We’re all a little shaken.”

“We need more police downtown,” said Frank Spatola, who owns the building in which Uncle Joe’s is located. “People have to feel safe or Riverhead will never change.”

A manager at Uncle Joe’s declined to comment Wednesday morning.

The Guardian Angels would not have tracked down or arrested any of those suspects on the spot. Chief Hegermiller said he told Mr. Sliwa he doesn’t want the group to detain suspects until police arrive or try to make citizen’s arrests.

But the chief said he does want the Guardian Angels to be “eyes and ears in the street” and provide police with information. They could also to act as a conduit to the Spanish-speaking community, he said.

The police department has one officer — a recent hire — who is fluent in Spanish and about a dozen others who can speak some Spanish.

“It’s not a bad idea to have the Guardian Angels helping us with the Spanish-speaking community if they trust them more than they do us,” Chief Hegermiller said.

Mr. Walter did say on Wednesday that a seasonal increase in foot patrols downtown will be coming soon. “Up to seven” police officers will be deployed downtown from Memorial Day through Labor day — that’s compared with three officers the rest of the year, he said.

As far as how the Guardian Angels will work with those officers downtown, Mr. Walter said, “that’s a different issue.”

“They will have nothing to do with police work at all,” he said. “The whole purpose is to foster healthy relationships with the Hispanic and African-American communities.”

The supervisor said the volunteer group will ideally help build relationships between the town’s minority communities downtown and “superior officers” in the town’s police department.