Robberies are on the rise in Duluth

Lee Gibbs hasn't lost faith in her customers, nor most of the people in Duluth, but she wasn't surprised to hear Thursday that robberies have increased in the city more than a third over this time last year.

Lee Gibbs hasn't lost faith in her customers, nor most of the people in Duluth, but she wasn't surprised to hear Thursday that robberies have increased in the city more than a third over this time last year.

Gibbs has been the victim of two robberies since October at her First Oriental Market at 801 E. First St., she said. The most recent robbery was just about a month ago.

On Thursday, Duluth registered its 42nd robbery of the year, compared to 31 this time last year. A man reported being robbed by two young men who first asked him for cigarettes and then for money.

While the number of robberies is up from this time last year, it's about on the average pace of the past few full years. There were between 110 and 116 robberies reported in each of the past three years.

Gibbs said her fear of being victimized again has led her to lock the door of her store during business hours when she is working alone. She only lets in people she recognizes as customers. She will let a stranger in if a customer already is in the store.


Police officials said they think that is an overreaction, but understand how Gibbs could feel traumatized.

On May 16, about 3 p.m., a man entered her store and asked to use her phone. He then went outside and stood on the corner. Gibbs thought he was waiting for a bus. He re-entered the store and brandished a gun.

"He pointed the gun at me and I said, 'In Jesus' name, I don't have money,' " Gibbs said with both of her hands in the air, as she raised them that day. "He was moving more closely to me and I said, 'In Jesus' name, I don't have money.'

"He grabbed and put my hand behind my back. He said, 'I'm not going to kill you, but give me your money. He put the gun underneath my arm. He said, 'Give me all that you have.' ''

Gibbs said the last thing the robber took was an envelope labeled "God's Money.'' When she has a good sale, she said, she puts a dollar in the envelope to give to her church.

"He ran away and I chased him,'' she said. "I was asking 'Help! Help!' People were getting on the bus and couldn't hear. I know I was shouting for help but it was like it was not coming out of my mouth.''

Gibbs said the earlier October robbery resulted after a man came in and asked for change for a dollar. When she opened her cash tray, he reached over her, grabbed it and ran. Neither suspect was caught.

Gibbs said they were both white men in their late teens to early 20s and wore sweatshirts with the hoods pulled over their heads. She couldn't be sure, but she didn't think they were the same person.


"There used to be honor,'' said Gibbs, a native of the Philippines. "A Korean family had the business before we took over [in 2004]. His legacy to me is that you have a lot of special customers in Duluth that are wonderful people. They'll support you. I really put my heart in the customers in Duluth who have been following this business for 22 years. My heart cried when this happened.''

Gibbs had a co-worker with her Thursday and the store's door was unlocked. She talked to the people who entered her store more as friends than customers.

Customer Julie Lee works as a cashier at the Lester Park Super One and considers Gibbs a friend.

"I can't imagine going through something like that. It's got to be just frightening,'' Lee said.

Duluth police Lt. Eric Rish said he didn't know that Gibbs was locking her door during the business day. He said he was assigning a community police officer to meet with the businesswoman and provide tips on how to increase her safety.

Gibbs already has taken the step of installing a surveillance camera, something she didn't have before the robberies.

While he's not happy about the number of robberies committed so far this year, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay isn't calling it a crime spree, either.

"I've said it time and time before that crime in Duluth ebbs and flows, and right now there's a spike,'' Ramsay said Thursday evening. "We suspect that the robberies are being committed by a relatively few.''


Ramsay said the city has seen one- or two-person robbery sprees the past couple of years. When they catch the culprits, the robbery rate comes back down.

And while robberies are up at this point in the year, Ramsay pointed out that burglaries are down from about 300 at this time last year to 200 this year, a drop of 33 percent.

Robbery involves stealing from someone by force or threat of force. Burglary generally involves breaking into a home or business when no one is present.

The police chief said he does not think that tough economic times are a factor in the robbery spike. "The majority of our crime, not only violent crime but property crime, is almost always tied somehow to drugs. I think that is the case here,'' he said.

Thursday's robbery victim was walking in the vicinity of Seventh Avenue East and Fourth Street shortly after midnight when he was approached by two younger-looking males. One of the suspects asked the man for a cigarette and the other asked him for money. When the man replied that he wasn't carrying either money or cigarettes, the two suspects brandished knives and demanded money from the victim.

The robbery was interrupted when a group of pedestrians walking nearby apparently startled the suspects. One suspect fled on foot and the other fled on a bicycle. The robbery victim was not injured.

The first suspect is described as a younger-looking male wearing a dark colored striped shirt. He was wearing a dark-colored hooded sweatshirt.

The second suspect is described as a younger-looking male about 5 feet,8 inches tall, wearing a dark-colored hooded sweatshirt.


Anyone with information on the attempted robbery is asked to call the Duluth Police Department's Violent Crimes unit at 730-5050.

MARK STODGHILL covers public safety and courts. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5333 or by e-mail at .

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