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</I>PART 1 IN A SERIES:</I> Risky Business

27 Jan, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

By most accounts, 2002 was a bruising year for the rental market. But the business was especially brutal for a few dealers who were wounded or lost their lives in the course of store-related crimes.

In most cases, those who died were robbery victims. Government statistics lag by about two years, but judging by news reports, it appears likely that 2002 may set a grim record as one of the industry's bloodiest.

Last May, robbers murdered two Blockbuster employees and two customers in Anniston, Ala. The same suspects are accused in a Movie Gallery robbery three days earlier in which a clerk was stabbed 10 times but survived. The suspect, Donald Ray Wheat Sr., is in Calhoun County Jail awaiting trial on three capital murder charges and one count each of robbery and attempted murder, a spokesperson for the District Attorney's office said.

The crimes show no signs of abating.

It's tough to quantify crime in the industry for several reasons. The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) does not track video store crime, although it has offered three crime-related “alerts” for store operators, said VP of public affairs Sean Bersell. The trade group also has never offered a seminar in violent crime prevention at its annual show, Bersell said, although loss control sessions have been offered.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics gets its data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which tracks workplace injuries and fatalities. Because of the reporting procedures the statistics lag a year or more.

The federal figures can also be misleading because of how they count on-the-job injuries. A security guard wounded in the course of a robbery or attempt, for example, would show up under the standard industrial code for security occupations, even if he was working at a video store when the incident took place. A video store owner killed or injured on the job would not show up in video store statistics, but under statistics for “self-employed.”

They also only count those who are on the job when they are hurt. So, for example, the statistics overlook the death of Joseph Ray Paul, a bystander shot by fleeing robbers outside a Los Angeles video store Dec. 31, 2001. Two suspects were arrested in connection with that killing.

Nonetheless, OSHA data for 2001 shows there were six on-the-job employee homicides in the industry in 2001, five by shooting. That followed three relatively quiet years in which there were no video store employee homicides.

An Insta-Poll survey of independent retailers by Video Store Magazine in December indicates 15 percent of respondents have been robbed;10 percent of respondents said the incidents resulted in injuries, and another 10 percent reported deaths. A weapon was used in 58 percent of cases. Perhaps startlingly, 23 percent of respondents also said employees were involved in the robberies.

In some jurisdictions, crimes at video stores are common enough for the business owner or local law enforcement to take notice.

In Suffolk County, New York, for example, police crime analyst Det. Wanda Lavista tracked crimes at Blockbuster stores. Big Blue stores in the jurisdiction logged 107 crimes, ranging from marijuana consumption and sales outside stores to robbery between Jan. 1 and Dec. 20, 2002. Robberies were the least frequent crime in the data.

Lavista could not recall what raised a red flag, but said: “It could well be that Blockbuster was reporting more crimes” and may have requested the review.

“We are trying to find out a pattern of who and what and what times,” she said. “We're doing a breakdown looking for leads.”

Crooks are making off with hardware and software. Games are at least as popular with thieves as movies, Lavista said. (Apparently even thieves prefer PlayStation 2 to other consoles, she noted.)

Chains are reluctant to discuss the steps they take to prevent violent crimes in stores.

“We've got some measures in place for the safety and security of our employees and our customers,” said Blockbuster spokesperson Randy Hargrove. “We have not gotten into disclosing those measures to protect the safety and security.”

Spokespersons for Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery did not return calls seeking comment.

Have you experienced crime at your video business? Discuss your experiences and share prevention tips here.

(selected incidents)

Jan. 29, Cleveland, Ohio: Police arrest two men in connection with an armed robbery at a Hollywood Video store earlier the same day. The men had tried to make off with about $1,100. Police reported confiscating semiautomatic handguns from the alleged robbers.

Feb 20, Central City, Neb.: A man with a black pellet gun robs Paul's Video Store, getting away with about $150. Jason P. Hawthorne is charged after admitting he used the gun in the video store robbery and a bank robbery.

May 15, Anniston Ala.: Two Blockbuster employees and two customers browsing titles are gunned down in a robbery; three are shot in the back of the head at close range. A gun found at the scene leads police to Donald Wheat Sr., 48. Wheat is also suspected of involvement in a May 13 robbery at a Movie Gallery store 20 miles away in Heflin, where a clerk was stabbed 10 times but survived.

July 7, Kenosha, Wis.: An armed robber shoots several rounds into the ceiling of Superb Video in Kenosha County. The robber cleans out the cash register, makes employees lie face down on the floor and tosses a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the store as he flees. The device doesn't ignite properly but does set some bushes on fire.

Aug. 15, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Blockbuster manager and single mother Leeanne Anderton, 30, is murdered, after her 19-year-old assistant manager allegedly arrived to loot the till. Finding the store was not empty as expected, the assailant hits Anderton with a brick, then stabs her several times. Blockbuster offered a $10,000 reward for help solving the crime.

Oct. 30, Desert Hot Springs, Calif.: Burglars smash the windows at Video Depot, run inside and steal cash. The same culprits are suspected in several other burglaries in the area.

Dec. 3, Chicago: A robber forces two employees to the back of a video store, binds their hands and cleans out the cash register. Employees remove movie posters obstructing sightlines through the store windows almost immediately after the crime.

Dec. 11, Tampa, Fla.: Two men brandish weapons and force employees to the back of a Hollywood Video store. The suspects take cash and flee. They are still at large.

Dec. 30, Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii: A rifle-toting man darkens the door of Hapa Haole Video in Lahaina and gets away with an undisclosed amount of cash. Police there are looking for the same suspect in connection with other crimes.Source: News reports

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