Teenagers arrested as police investigate a string of armed robberies
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Three teenagers are facing felony charges as police are investigating a string of armed robberies.
Signs posted at the Vitus Energy gas station in Chugiak on Thursday alerted customers that the convenience store would be closing at 10 p.m. instead of 11. The decision was made to start closing early after masked men showed up on four occasions to rob the store at gunpoint, minutes before closing time.
“It’s scary, it really is,” said manager Ardis Minter. “I fear for the employees.”
The first robbery happened around Thanksgiving, according to Minter. The second, around Easter. Then, they came back twice in August.
“They got more bold, more brave,” said Minter, noting that the suspects, who employees believe were behind all four robberies, used to wait until customers left.
But during the last robbery, on Aug. 22, “They didn’t care that there was customers in here,” she said. “They came in, they did their thing.”
On that Monday evening, employee Terry Wright found himself staring down the barrel of a handgun, taking orders from people hiding behind ski masks.
“‘Open the tills, put the money in the bag,’” he said they told him.
They took the cash, a box of Black & Mild cigars and swiped a bottle of Canadian Hunter Whiskey, Wright said, all with a nervous look in their eyes.
“And when they got a gun in your face, it makes it even worse,” he said. “So you’re starting to realize that this guy could pull the trigger and not even realize he’s doing it.”
In a Nixle alert on Tuesday, Anchorage police announced the arrests of three teenagers in connection with armed robberies at the Valley Country Store in Palmer and the Eagle River Carrs.
According to court documents, the armed suspects robbed the Palmer store at 10:46 p.m., staying inside the store for a minute and a half, then leaving with alcohol and tobacco products and $700 in cash.
Less than an hour later, at 11:38 p.m., the same suspects robbed the Carrs in Eagle River at gunpoint, according to court documents. They made off with more than $650 in cash and more tobacco products.
The clerk told police she recognized one of the suspects from high school and later provided a name to detectives.
Police then responded to the Holiday Store on Muldoon Road in Anchorage during the early morning hours of August 25 after an employee reported a suspicious vehicle in the parking lot. The suspects left, but officers compared surveillance footage and recognized two of them as the burglary suspects. The vehicle was then traced to Sephan Allen, the same name provided to police by the Carrs employee.
Alaska State Troopers, who were investigating the Palmer robbery, worked together with APD to identify and arrest Sephan Allen, 19, Garrett Gantner, 18, and Jalen Jones, 17.
According to APD, Jones turned himself in. While he is a minor, he has been waived into adult court, where all three suspects face felony charges.
According to court documents, Gantner admitted to being the driver for the robberies. He allegedly told investigators that Allen and Jones pressured him into participating and that he did not get any of the spoils from the robberies.
“Detectives believe the suspects may have been involved in multiple armed robbery investigations between Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley during the last few weeks,” the Nixle alert stated. “Additional charges and arrests are possible as the investigations continue.”
During a bail hearing for Allen Friday morning, in which the defense requested his bail be reduced from $10,000 cash to $2,000, state prosecutor Mark Tyler said Allen is a suspect in a dozen other robberies.
“He basically went on a robbery crime spree for about seven days, it was over a 12 day period, but on seven different days conducted 12 different armed robberies, mostly at different gas stations and a Carrs location,” Tyler said.
Allen’s bail was reduced to $4,000 cash. If released, he’ll be on electronic monitoring and ordered to be under constant supervision by family members appointed to serve as third party custodians.
Each teen suspect faces a single charge of first-degree robbery and Gantner and Allen also face charges of theft and assault.
While no one has been charged in connection with the robberies at Vitus Energy, employees there say they’re relieved the teens have been caught and that the store will go back to normal business hours.
“I looked at the [surveillance] pictures from Country Valley Store and it was the same two guys,” said Wright.
Minter agreed, saying the suspects shown in surveillance images from the Palmer store appear to be the same suspects who robbed her store over and over.
“Exact same face mask, hoodies, shoes, gloves, the guns... it was all the same,” she said.
Minter said she was shocked to learn how young the suspects are.
“I mean, they’ve just thrown their lives away,” she said. “I mean, the one is 17. He’s not even out of school yet. [...] It’s sad, I mean, they have so much going for them. And now it’s down the drain.”
Wright said the community could have used a heads up from police that the group was targeting businesses.
“It would have been nice to see more on a Nixle or, you know, their Facebook page, anything, they’ve got a million ways to communicate with us,” he said.
In an emailed statement, APD Communications Director MJ Thim wrote, “We made the decision not to notify the community based on the solid information from our officers and law enforcement partners who were quickly closing in on capturing the suspects. If we had, we would have jeopardized our investigation and potentially put the public at risk.”
“I understand why they didn’t,” Wright continued. “They had leads they were working and they didn’t want to scare ’em into laying low, but it would have been nice for the businesses to know to keep an eye out.”
Friday evening, an online inmate locator database showed Jones and Gantner were released on bail and pretrial supervision.
Police say along with additional charges, there could soon be more arrests.
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