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In Broad Daylight

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A rash of brazen armed robberies across Macon this summer continues to strain county resources while putting local retailers and shoppers on edge.

Officer Dominique Williams is talking a mile a minute from behind the wheel of her county-issued patrol car.  I’ve volunteered for a media “ride-along” and the Macon-Bibb deputy I’ve been paired with is on a serious roll, scarcely stopping to pause between a chirpy string of run-on sentences that are beginning to pile on top of each other like a paragraph in a Faulkner novel.

We are halfway down Vineville Avenue in the thick of Friday afternoon traffic before I finally wedge my way into the deputy’s verbal onslaught. “Girl,” I tell her, “take a breath in there somewhere.” This makes her giggle and look over at me in the passenger seat, “I talk a lot when I’m nervous,” she says, smiling. “I can tell,” I respond. And just like that, the ice between us is broken, and my 3-hour tour into a day in the life of a Macon law enforcement officer truly commences.

Wearing nary a stitch of make-up, with her hair pulled back into a tight twist, Officer Williams could almost pass for a teenager. But a person would be foolish to dismiss her so lightly. This “lady cop” is also a Marine-tested war veteran, a thrill-seeking motorcycle enthusiast and a designated training officer for newbies on the force. More than that, the patrolwoman is also a certified hero.

In less than a week from our patrol run, Officer Williams is scheduled to be honored for helping to save a man from hanging himself at his home on Napier Avenue.  With the assistance of an officer she was training, Deputy Williams hefted the man out of a self-made noose and ultimately into an ambulance. The man was over 6 feet tall and tipped the scales at 210 pounds, she tells me. She is 5’5 and weighs in at a buck-38 wringing wet. But make no mistake, Dominique Williams is down to protect and serve, and she is not afraid to tussle if a tussle is called for, she says.

As an officer working out of the 3rd Precinct, located on Pio Nono Avenue, Officer Williams’ territory spans Zones B and C, which includes some of the most poverty-stricken and crime-plagued neighborhoods in the city.

Less than hour into our ride-along, we’ve covered countless blocks, and while still chatty, the deputy’s eyes continuously scan the perimeter, looking for a face she doesn’t recognize or anything at all out of the ordinary. A couple of times when we pass through “hot spots” Dominique loosens her seatbelt “just in case.” More than once, she’s had to jump out of the car and chase suspects navigating the well-worn pathways between abandoned lots and derelict houses that serve as makeshift escape routes for ne’er do wells making their getaways on foot.

“Don’t make me chase you,” she says, laughing. “Because I can run.”

On the other hand, this seasoned officer is also a newlywed with a handsome fireman husband and a beautiful little girl waiting at home for her at the end of every shift. Now that Dominique’s daughter is getting old enough to understand the dangers law enforcement officers can face, her babygirl’s occasional tears, too-tight tight hugs and pleas of “don’t go” before a shift weigh heavily on her, she confides.

Now more than ever, safety is an imperative.

Long Hot Summer

Ironically, one of the hot spots we cruise through on our patrol is the off-street side entrance of a Dollar General store on Napier Avenue. Officer Williams has snagged a couple of shoplifters hightailing it across the store’s potholed parking to cross the short cutaway street running perpendicular to Napier.

No fleet-of-foot candy filchers or potato chip pinchers are to be spotted on this steamy June afternoon. In exactly one month to the day, however, that will change, and the Dollar General store will become the next headline-maker in a rash of commercial armed robberies hitting Macon businesses so fast and furious, the store names and street addresses start to run together.

The Napier Avenue Dollar General robbery occurred the day before the July 4th holiday, during the dayshift, at 3 in the afternoon.

“It was reported that the suspect entered the store displaying a silver handgun. The suspect demanded the money from the store’s cash register. The suspect took an undisclosed amount of cash from the store and fled the store on foot. No one was injured during the incident,” reads a Sheriff’s Department news release. “The suspect was described as a dark skinned, black male in his early twenties. He appeared to be 5’7 or 5’10 in height and was wearing a blue hoodie, blue jeans white shoes, black gloves and a black mask.”

Those two paragraphs outlining the crime description are practically cut-and-paste similar to more than two dozen other robbery press releases issued in this memorably long hot summer in Macon. As of July 30, the Violent Crimes unit of the Macon-Bibb Sheriff’s Department has reported a total of 27 commercial armed robberies since June 1, with 16 of them in July alone, and often happening only a day or even just hours apart.

And there appears to be little rhyme or reason. According to Department Spokesman Lt. Randy Gonzalez, the robberies are fairly spread out, occurring in three of the city’s five patrol precincts. So far, only Districts 1 and 5 have been spared. Gas stations, convenience stores, retails stores, an auto supplies store and a restaurant – all have been hit, and many in broad daylight, as early as 9:30 in the morning.

And it’s not just the businesses themselves that have been targeted. In one dizzying spree on Saturday, July 15, a gunman robbed a Macon woman in the Wal-Mart parking lot on Zebulon Road at 3:30 p.m. before fleeing in a red vehicle. Just 4 hours later a man matching the same description in a red car robbed a woman in the parking lot of the Kroger Shopping Center at 4321 Hartley Bridge Rd. By 8 p.m. or so – and still more than 30 minutes before the sun actually set for the day – a man believed to be the same gunman allegedly walked into Advance Auto at 3385 Pio Nono Ave and demanded money from the clerk before making his getaway.

Armed with security camera photos from the Advance Auto robbery, investigators sought the public’s help identifying the alleged stick-up man, and by July 19th, they had made a suspect in handcuffs.

“The suspect, identified as 32-year-old Antonio DeWayne Ivey Sr. of Macon, was arrested at an address on West Marion Road at around 4:00 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. Ivey was found hiding in a bedroom when arrested,” reads a department news release. “He was transported to the Bibb County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigative Division for questioning. After being questioned he was taken to the Bibb County Law Enforcement Center and booked on 3 counts of Armed Robbery and a Probation Violation.”

So far, he’s the only suspect in any of the summer’s rash of armed robbery cases to land behind bars – a fact that isn’t lost on local retailers.

Lucky China Restaurant, located on Mercer University Drive, isn’t busy at 1 in the afternoon when I try and speak with the woman and a man who appears to be her husband who work there. The only other people in the place are their two young children, a girl and a boy, sitting at a table by the front cash register. Speaking in broken English, the woman asks me to please not mention details of the robbery that happened on July 18, just before closing at 9:30 p.m. “It bad for business,” she tells me.

Next door, in a newly opened United Food convenience store, Alex Az, says after having worked in the business in a “rough section” of Atlanta for 17 years, Macon feels relative safe by comparison. Be that as it may, the first thing I see when I walk in is a security camera pointed directly at the front door, as well as the framing for a bullet-proof glass cage being installed around the cash register island to the left of the store’s entrance.

The friendly manager admits the recent robbery at the neighboring business has been unsettling and, in his experience, unusual in that it occurred “so early, while a lot of people of people were out and walking around.”

Another Day, Another Dollar Store

Suspect robbing a Dollar General

Along with the fact that the robberies are relatively spread out geographically and many of the gunmen seem brazenly unafraid of being spotted during daylight hours, another fact that stands out about the string of robberies is how many local discount retail stores have been targeted.

More than 16 local dollar store robberies have been reported this year, 13 of them over the summer. In the past 30 days, along with the Napier Avenue store, Dollar General locations on Mt. Pleasant Church Road and Houston Avenue have been robbed. A Family Dollar on Rocky Creek was also robbed, and so was a Dollar Tree on Brookhaven Road.

A woman identifying herself as an assistant manager at the Dollar General on Napier Avenue stares awkwardly at the floor while being asked to discuss what happened there earlier in the month. She finally makes eye contact just long enough to tell me she’s been directed by her district manager to keep mum with the media. She is surrounded by three other employees, all stocking shelves, all intently focused on the task at hand. It’s a little before 2 p.m., and the store is full of customers filling their carts with back-to-school supplies, household sundries, and the kinds of perishable packaged foods that have caused the Dollar General chain – which operates more than 13,000 stores in 44 states – to become infamously associated with so-called “food deserts” in underserved communities across America.

Across town, on Houston Avenue, I pull into the Dollar General store parking lot, which I notice is located next door to Charles Bruce Elementary School. Like the Napier Avenue store, this location was robbed at about 3 in the afternoon, in this case by a pair of bandana-wearing bandits who were last seen running across the street towards Colonial Terrace Apartments after they forced employees to empty the cash register. A manager flatly but politely tells me “We can’t talk to no one in the media about Dollar General business. We’ve been told we will lose our jobs.”

One block away, a Family Dollar employee behind the counter at the cash register immediately turns to the safe behind him and punches in some numbers the instant the word “robbery” comes out of my mouth. Though this store has not included in the sheaf of media releases flurrying across the Macon wires this summer, his eyes move upwards and to the left towards what appears to be a camera and he pointedly tells me that he can’t speak with me while he is either on the clock or the premises.

Outside in the parking lot, a Mayfield Dairy delivery man whose route includes multiple discount retail stores in the Macon area says, “I’ve heard a lot of customers talking about the robberies happening in the dollar stores lately; I mean a lot. I just stand back and I can’t help but hear their conversations – people are saying they’re getting too afraid to shop.” He says he’s also hearing people say the dollar store bandits are deliberately “switching it up” between day and night-time hits in an effort to stymie investigators.

“We have seen evidence of that,” says Bibb County Sheriff David Davis. “It may be that the robbers think our ‘task force’ is out at a particular time and they want to avoid that. There seems to be more randomness in the recent cases.”

Across town, and just before 3 p.m. – what seems to be the primary witching hour for local Dollar General stores this summer – a clerk agrees to talk to me on the condition I won’t use her name. She doesn’t mince words. “I’m terrified. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before it happens here in this store,” she says. “It’s a shame when you have to come to work every day and be afraid for your life just to make a paycheck.”

As she rings up the few items I am purchasing while we chat, I look around the front end of the store and it’s clear she is the only employee behind the counter. Nor had I spotted anyone stocking shelves or elsewhere in the store while in search of the candles, sugar-free sodas and dog treats I walk out with after paying.

Sheriff Davis says investigators have developed working theories as to why dollar stores are being targeted – but as of now, lawmen have no definitive answers.

“There are many theories. Some feel the robbers are familiar with the layout and practices at the dollar stores. However, we’ve not been able to identify any concrete reasons why these stores attract robberies,” the sheriff says. “With each robbery we learn a little more about the robbers and store procedures.”

So far, calls to Dollar General’s corporate headquarters in Goodlettsville, TN for comment on the Macon robberies remain unreturned.

We Don’t Like to Give Specific Numbers

Unlike the throngs of Macon beachcombers making beelines for the sands of St. Simons’ this summer, violent crime and the law officers trying to put a dent in it have yet to get a vacation.

Along with the blitzkrieg of armed robberies, detectives in the Violent Crimes unit also responded to a spate of aggravated assaults, shootings, and a homicide in July. Patrol officers like Dominique, who serve as their eyes and ears – and the first line of defense in crime deterrence – have been stretched equally thin.

Lt. Gonzalez declines to share the department’s total number of patrol officers, saying “We don’t like to give out specific numbers because we don’t the bad guys to know exactly how many folks we have.” He conceded that the Sheriff’s Department is “short” on patrolmen and women, adding there are currently about 100 or so openings in the department.

Despite the shortage, from Jan. 1 to June 2 of this year, patrol officers on duty have responded to 61,938 911 calls Deputy Williams tells me. She pulls the number from the running tally on the laptop mounted in the front of her car between the drivers’ and passenger seats.

She has responded to at least two of those during our ride-along. One call is a medical emergency in a room number that doesn’t seem to exist at a run-down extended stay hotel on Riverside Drive and the other comes across the radio as a possible suicide risk for a man who “can’t stop hearing screaming in his head.” As it turns out, the head-screamer isn’t home when Dominique and several back-up officers knock on his door and the suicide threat appears to have been a sort of a shady half-truth, likely in hopes officers would arrest the guy on a parole violation. The apparent motive? There’s a CrimeStoppers reward for his incarceration and conviction.

Despite the fact that Dominique and other patrol officers are required to respond to such calls in addition to other routine duties, Sheriff Davis maintains the personnel shortage hasn’t impacted his department’s response to the robberies, which have not – so far, at least – resulted in any injuries. “These cases are a priority for us and we have diverted resources to this task. Plus, investigators and patrol officers use overtime to devote time and tactics to catching these robbers.”

The break the officers need, however has yet to surface.

On Sunday, July 30 at about 2 p.m., a commercial armed robbery at Metro PCS at 5033 Brookhaven Road was reported. The only notable difference between this particular hold-up and the 26 others reported over the summer being that the suspect brandished a pink handgun before vamoosing with an “undisclosed amount” of cash.

If it’s easy money folks are after, though, there are more legal (and strictly speaking, less dangerous) ways to earn it, says the sheriff.

“Somebody in this town that knows something about these robberies and is hiding that information. Those who know something and don’t come forward are endangering our community,” Sheriff Davis says. “Somebody needs to let us know what they know. If they know something, they should say something. The tipsters could earn more money through a CrimeStoppers reward than the criminals have gained from some of from the robberies.”

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