Robbery seminar: Details count

September 06, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — She remembered the bandit had clean fingernails. Last year, the Best Western John Jay Inn was robbed at gunpoint by the same Mexicali man … twice.

When investigators questioned the motel staffers about the man, the motel manager, Sylvia Willis, noted the striking difference between the man's outward appearance — baggy clothes usually associated with gang members — and his impeccable hygiene.

"He even smelled good," Willis said.

It turns out the Mexicali man who would be arrested for the Best Western robberies and two bank heists later that year worked at a hotel when he wasn't robbing such establishments.

Willis said the sweet-smelling crook was familiar with the procedures of her staff, which allowed him to pick the right times to strike.


Describing the aftermath of a robbery, Willis said, "It's terrible. You feel violated. Now if anyone at the hotel gets ‘the feeling' they call 911."

Before the thief was caught he robbed the Union Bank of California on East Cole Road twice.

Gil Acuña, the branch manager, said the man orchestrated a textbook robbery … the first time.

The second time he robbed the branch, Calexico's public works director, Mariano Martinez, saw the bandit peel away in his getaway car.

According to Acuña, Martinez followed just long enough to get the man's Mexican license plate number.

When the former hotel employee tried to return across the border into Calexico, he was nabbed.

While that collar was more than a year ago, the real-life experiences of Acuña and Willis highlighted a robbery-prevention presentation sponsored by the Calexico Police Department, the Calexico Chamber of Commerce and the FBI.

FBI Agent Robert Sellers and Police Chief Tommy Tunson moderated the presentation.

Sellers, who operates out of the FBI's El Centro office, told an audience of merchants and bank employees the importance of noting details such as the clean fingernails that caught Willis' attention.

He said the whole point of Wednesday's presentation was to increase awareness of anything out of the ordinary.

Along those lines, Calexico police Sgt. Jim Neujahr helped Sellers with an exercise designed to test the observational abilities of the audience.

When the 10 a.m. presentation began, Neujahr was sitting in the front of City Hall's council chambers wearing a baseball cap, reflective sunglasses, a green shirt with a tear in it over a red shirt, dirty Lycra sports pants and black lace-up boots. His left hand was inserted into a manila envelope.

Without saying anything he got up suddenly, touched something on the council dais while exposing a gun in the envelope and then walked out of the room.

After he left, Sellers quizzed the audience on what they could recall.

Some remembered that the man had a beard.

He was clean-shaven.

"I just shaved this morning," Neujahr said with a smile.

Some guessed his weight within 20 pounds and roughly gauged his height.

No one noticed his left hand was inserted in the envelope — not his right — or that there was a tear in his green shirt.

The audience did prove to be eagle-eyed when it came to determining what sort of gun Neujahr was carrying in the envelope.

One man said it was a Glock. A woman said it was a semi-automatic. Another woman said it looked like a red rubber fake gun.

All three were right and very observant, according to Tunson.

It was a red rubber fake gun cast to look like a semi-automatic Glock.

Tunson praised the participants for their keen sense of detection and told them that those details could help in an investigation.

Neujahr said being observant is the key to stopping robberies before they start.

"Look around. A lot of times we don't because we are caught up in our job," Neujahr said.

He added when looking around, note things and people that don't look right or that don't fit and bring them to the attention of the police department or management.

After stressing the importance of observation, Tunson and Sellers described the processes the department and the FBI use when an alarm call or 911 call comes in.

Tunson charged the merchants in attendance with spreading what they learned to those back at their workplaces so the department could work even more effectively with the community.

Sellers told the merchants to always remain calm and remember a robber is "scared of everyone in this room because you are all potential witnesses."

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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