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Preventing crime at convenience stores
By Lee Ballard |

GUSTAVO CUELLO spoke no English, but he understood the message of the young black man who stood on the other side of the checkout counter. The man had a gun and he wanted the money from Cuello’s cash register.

Cuello’s wife, Maria, was weeping. The robber demanded the money in her purse, and she gave it to him. Then, after he had taken all the Cuellos had, he marched them into the walk-in cooler in the back of the neighborhood grocery store (in East Dallas), forced them to kneel on the floor and shot them both in the back of the head. Customers discovered the Cuellos’ bodies when they saw blood seeping under the cooler door.

THE HOLDUP is certainly nothing new. The crime dates back to the day when somebody first discovered a way to make a getaway faster than his victim could run. In the past, the robber has had all the initiatives, and the victims have been forced to be on the defensive.

But some longtime pushovers are growing tired of being pushed. Convenience stores, for one, are fed up with being so damned convenient. They want to be safe places in which to shop and work -and they are succeeding. While FBI statistics show an increased incidence of robbery across the South, convenience stores are showing decreases. Houston-based National Convenience Stores (Stop N Go) showed a 29 percent reduction in armed robberies in its central division (Dallas, Denver, San Antonio) last year over the year before. Southland (7-Eleven) Corporation’s figures were even more dramatic: down 26 percent nationwide and in Canada, and down a whopping 44 percent in Dallas.

The reason: a scientific crime prevention system designed to keep the robber out of the stores, followed by a no-holds-barred, get-the-bastard reward program aimed to catch the robber. And it’s working.

The execution-style murders of Gustavo and Maria Cuello on January 7, 1974, brought a scream of outrage from the public. “I don’t know if I have ever seen anything quite like that murder, before or since, ” says deputy chief George Reed, who headed the investigation. “It was so coldblooded. Victims are shot in robberies, but usually they are resisting or are going for a gun. This was an old Cuban couple in a mama-papa grocery store. “

The Cuello case was solved -quickly, and in a revolutionary way. The case inaugurated the program of reward payments to anonymous informants, the first such program in America.

A few months earlier, in the fall of 1973, the war between cops and robbers had taken a violent turn. Convenience and liquor stores were being robbed on a scale the city had never seen before. Even more alarming, robbery victims and witnesses were being killed as often as they were being released. By late October, nine had been killed and six more had been shot.

Toward the end of October, private detective Bob Denson received a phone call from liquor chain store owner Sidney Sigel. Denson recalls: “He said he wanted me to meet with him and Red Coleman and Jodie Thompson of Southland Corporation at the 21 Turtle Creek Club the following Saturday morning. He wanted to see what could be done to stop the robberies. “

Out of that meeting came the idea that would become the Dallas Metro Crime Council, a collection of businesses vulnerable to armed robbery. The meeting also spawned ideas the council developed into its much-imitated program of payments for anonymous tips made promptly upon indictment rather than upon conviction, which had been the standard procedure.

“The underworld was the biggest source of information, ” says Denson, “and they all well knew that conviction was like the coming of Christ: It might take forever. When the Cuello murder took place, we made that our first case. The announcement of the new reward program came from district attorney Henry Wade’s office, with full media coverage. In a matter of 20 minutes, a call came in with the identity of the killer. The reward money was delivered February 5, less than a month from the time of the murders.

“Since then, we always publicize the reward payments widely because we want everybody out there to have in their minds that people are giving us information and that we are paying. This hopefully serves as a deterrent to crime by planting in the mind of the prospective robber that somebody just might sell him for money. “

Although the program had great impact, stores were still being robbed. More protection was needed.

A year or so earlier, a West Coast crime spree had prompted the Southland Corporation to become involved in the researching of factors that make convenience stores such easy targets for robbers. To combat the crime wave that was buffeting Southland’s stores in Los Angeles and San Diego, the company announced that it was convening a study group to seek new deterrents. Bob McKinney, who worked with ex-convicts in San Diego, read the story and contacted Southland’s division manager, Dick Dole (now a senior vice president), suggesting that Dole include some former armed robbers in his study group.

He did, and as Dole recalls the day of the panel, “We thought, ’My God, some of these men robbed 7-Eleven stores -and here we are talking to them about how we can keep robberies from happening!’ “

One of the ex-convicts who participated on Dole’s panel was Ray Johnson, a 25-year veteran of California prisons. A dynamic, articulate speaker, Johnson later signed on with Southland and came to Dallas as a crime prevention consultant. He quickly became Southland’s most powerful single weapon. Unlike police types who preach crime prevention, Johnson, by virtue of his criminal background and his charisma, automatically attracts attention. Store managers and clerks, the key people in crime prevention, listen to his message -and heed.

In the early Seventies, Johnson, who studied statistics and related subjects in prison, worked for the Western Behavioral Science Institute (WBSI) of La Jolla, California. WBSI’s president, Dr. Wyman J. “Bud” Crow, was also commissioned by Southland to work on a full-fledged study with ex-convicts, to gain the point of view of the man committing the crime. Crow asked criminals how they chose their victims and what would deter them from robbing a store.

Dole applied the advice of this study group to a pilot program in a group of his stores in San Diego; within 12 months, robbery in those test stores dropped nearly 40 percent. When Dole moved to Dallas to become a senior vice president and chairman of the corporate crime committee, he instituted his California program nationwide in 7-Eleven stores.

The thrust of the program is straight and simple. As Johnson puts it: “Catching criminals is not as significant as preventing crime. When crime statistics rise, society always cries for more punishment, more police, more prisons. But think about it: If your home is robbed and your wife raped, how much does it really help if they catch the guy and do all those horrible things to him? What we need to do is keep the crime from happening. “

Some of Crow’s findings were simply a matter of common sense; others were surprising. He found that most criminals have a total disdain for the length of sentence for armed robbery; very few responded that they stopped to think about prison when they planned a robbery. He found that when someone considers robbing a store, the number of people in the store is not really a factor: 75 percent of those polled believed that when they had a gun, they were in control; the robbery was on if there were as many as 10 people present. The one factor that all of Crow’s subjects agreed on as most important to them was money – there had to be enough money in the store to make the risk worthwhile.

From this data and other studies, Southland set new robbery prevention standards for its 7-Eleven stores. And from the beginning, the holdup graph showed decreases in armed robbery of 8 percent to 12 percent a year.

Southland learned that the robber-to-be rides back and forth, checking out the store from the street before he enters. He seeks out the store with the best profile for his needs. The robber likes stores in which the clerk is always in his station; this gives him the advantage of predictability. It is disconcerting, the subjects said, not to know where the clerk will be when they go into the store. So 7-Eleven instructed its people to keep walking around in the store, stocking and cleaning, when no customers are around.

The study revealed that the robber fears detection from the street, so Southland moved its cash registers to the front of the store and took down posters from store windows and doors in front of the cash register to give high visibility. It increased interior lighting. It offered customers free coffee and otherwise encouraged patrol-ing police and taxi drivers to use the stores’ parking lots as late-night rest stations. Clerks were told to wear their colorful smocks at all times so that anybody stopping by could easily identify the clerk and see that all was well. And since a robber likes to park behind the store, Southland built its stores, whenever possible, with no parking area behind.

The study showed that an overwhelming percentage of robbers come into the store first as customers to check it out, then buy something with big bills to see what the clerk will do with them. Now 7-Eleven trains its people to look each customer in the eye and greet him. Clerks are instructed to engage anyone in conversation who stands around aimlessly and to act as if they recognize the person. And, according to the study, tall clerks intimidate robbers, so Southland has experimented with raised floors in the checkout area behind the counter.

But the biggest challenge Southland faced was dealing with its money. The data from the ex-convicts was plain: They go where the money is; they don’t rob a store that has no money. Crow’s subjects had almost uniformly agreed that they would commit a crime for $150. If the take was to be under $100, a high percentage dropped out. And once the sum fell below $40, the number that responded, “Yes, I’d still go for it, ” fell to almost zero. So 7-Eleven had to develop a way to keep the cash in the store under $40.

And Southland realized that for the program to be a real deterrent, there could be no sham. As Johnson says, “If we put signs up saying we have no money, we have to mean it. You see signs in cabs that say, ’Driver has only five dollars. ’ But if a couple of cabs are robbed and it gets in the papers that the robbers got away with $300 to $400, then in the criminals’ eyes, all the other cabs are lying. And suddenly everybody is going after cab drivers. And we wanted no fake devices, like phony cameras, either. We are open and honest with our security. “

Likewise, Southland reasoned, the security must not be hidden. Secrecy is good for catching criminals but not for preventing the crime. “We are out front with everything we do, ” says Johnson. “We want to get out as much information as is humanly possible, so that the general public knows -because out in the public domain is the crook. We want to tell him, ’If you come, this is all you will get. ’”

Southland adopted the Tidel Timed Access Cash Controller for all its stores. The unpretentious orange box looks like it could be a dispenser of magazines or newspapers, but it is actually a sophisticated safe. Clerks immediately deposit all $20 bills into the Tidel, and they can, on demand, get change -but they can only draw from it every two minutes. “A robber could force $100 out of the clerk if he stands around long enough waiting for it to come out of the Tidel, ” says Johnson, “but if he does, he’s in the wrong business. ” (Studies show that most robbers get unbearably antsy after 60 to 90 seconds.)

With the Tidel safe, the clerk has access to less than $40. Unfortunately, not everybody knows this. Dick Nelson, Southland’s corporate security manager, sees this knowledge gap as a big threat to the system: “We’re trying to resolve this communications thing. They think we really have money. So we have to convince them that they will only get $ 15 if they rob us. I f we do, they won’t.”

It is not at all uncommon for robbers, when they hold up 7-Eleven stores, to be handed $6 or $8. Some have thrown the money down on the counter in disgust and walked out. One robber in Pennsylvania bought a six-pack of beer and handed the clerk a $20 bill, which the clerk immediately dropped into the Tidel safe. Then the customer pulled a gun and demanded all the store’s cash. The clerk had only $8 in the register -so the man’s holdup netted him a cool minus $12 (plus, presumably, his six-pack).

John Zarra, Stop N Go’s corporate director of loss prevention, reports that his chain of 950 stores, already completely converted to Tidel, is now considering a cash register that gives the clerk no access to money at all. He punches in the sale, deposits the money and the machine makes change. If any attempt is made to get at the imprisoned cash, the money is automatically sprayed with dye.

With all this high-powered, expensive anti-crime apparatus (robbery prevention programs cost store chains more than they would lose in robberies), why doesn’t the graph curve drop all the way to zero? Partly because not all robbers have discriminating tastes and partly because not all store clerks and managers follow the crime prevention rules.

Southland’s Dick Nelson is worried about this nonchalant attitude, but he is basically optimistic: “The dramatic decrease in robberies that we have seen in the past couple of years, after a relatively slow start in the early years, has come because everybody, from management down, has become involved in prevention. Everybody has to be into it or it doesn’t work. If one store lets down and is robbed for a sizable amount, the word will be out on the streets and everybody gets hit. We’re seeing a lot of peer pressure, store to store, in this thing. “

Stop N Go drums loss prevention into its new workers during its week-long orientation program, which is very similar to 7-Eleven’s. And, like 7-Eleven, Stop N Go tells its people what to do if, in spite of every effort to deter him, a robber still stumbles in and pulls a gun. The main instruction Stop N Go gives clerks in its loss prevention booklet is to take no action that would jeopardize their own personal safety. Clerks are warned to keep their hands in sight, to make no sudden movements and to not bluff the bandit with lies.

Stop N Go’s John Zarra says, “We have a policy that the clerk obeys the robber in any way he can. We have a ’no guns’ policy in our stores, and we always tell the robber if somebody is in the back room that might come out and startle him. Once the robbery is underway, our clerks and the robbers should have the same goal: to get this thing over with as fast and as smoothly as possible and get the robber on his way. We’re not losing large amounts monetarily; $50 is our average robbery, even if we are robbed at peak times. We’re concerned with the safety of our people. “

Ray Johnson says, “You’re not talking about preventing the loss of money in a prevention program. You’re talking about people’s psyches. “

The Dallas Metro Crime Council is Southland’s main instrument. This group of approximately 500 Dallas County stores (each paying $5 a month in dues) puts up the reward money for tips that lead to armed robbery indictments ($5, 000 if any deaths result, $2, 500 if injury, $1, 000 otherwise). The council’s purpose is not to play cop: Its members gather information, contact the police and pay the reward. They have, since 1974, paid out $96, 000 in rewards – for indictments in 56 cases (but each robber had been responsible for an average of more than three holdups before he pulled the one that nailed him).

Crime Stoppers, another private-sector group of businesses, exists to collect money to pay rewards for information on a broad spectrum of crimes. It has closer ties to the police department than does the Dallas Metro Crime Council, but the leadership of the two groups shows considerable overlap. Crime Stoppers saw 55 criminals jailed in its first year (1980-81) for 171 offenses. The group paid a total of $11, 925 in rewards during that year.

Houston patterned its crime council after Dallas’, starting it just over a year ago. On the Houston membership roster are a number of establishments not found on the Dallas council: Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, for example. (If convenience stores are being robbed less and the incidence of armed robbery is still rising, someone else is going to get hit even harder. ) John Zarra says that in Houston the armed robber is applying his “ideal store” profile to fast-food restaurants and any place else that might be careless with its money.

Both Southland and National Convenience Stores are deeply involved in the metro crime councils in Dallas, Houston and elsewhere and are anxious to export their expertise to others who need it. Southland sells a kit for $10 that includes signs and instructions for stores that want to imitate their programs.

As Dick Nelson puts it, “We’d like everybody in the world to be as successful as we have been in keeping robbers out of our stores. Because, after all, the people on the streets don’t always distinguish one convenience store from another one, or even one source of money from another one. If it’s profitable to rob one, they think it’s profitable to rob all. “

And, as Ray Johnson points out: “So much of this crime is committed by kids, and if we can turn off even a few of them from doing something by our prevention measures, then everybody wins. These are not sophisticated criminals, you know. “

Consider Cal Ray Huggins, who went toprison for the Cuello murders. He was 18 years old. In the robbery he got just over $100-and he will spend the rest of his lifein prison.