Police suspect the same armed robbers have struck Charlotte-area Harris Teeters three times in just over a week, stealing cash from registers and safes, and prompting the retailer to issue a $50,000 reward for their capture.
The suburban robberies – in South Charlotte near Providence Road, in Cornelius and Fort Mill – are likely related, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sgt. Brian Scharf, the lead investigator. The robbers in each case appear to be the same people and typically choose grocery stores near interstates.
Scharf said police have beefed up patrols around the stores, which have also increased security and offered the reward. CMPD investigators are working with their counterparts in Fort Mill and Cornelius and with the FBI to catch the criminals, who remained at large Wednesday night.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Matthews-based grocery chain said it wouldn’t stand by as “egregious criminal behavior” threatens its employees and customers. It pledged to help police with the investigation.
Scharf said grocery store robberies are “pretty rare” in Charlotte. They represent about 6 percent of robberies nationwide, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing in Washington, D.C. Robbers are frequently deterred by the high number of cashiers and customers and the fact that they can’t always see escape routes. But some grocery stores have large amounts of cash on hand, according to the center.
And increasingly, grocery stores are staying open longer hours, Scharf said.
The robberies have struck fear into customers. Most local Harris Teeters are located near affluent areas in south Charlotte or University City. And Tuesday night was the first robbery where the perpetrators were violent. The robbers struck a manager in the back of the head and “fired shots, mainly to scare people,” Scharf said.
That robbery happened about 10 p.m. at the Harris Teeter store on Providence Road near Ardrey Kell Road. Police said two men entered the store and fired at least two shots.
Police released pictures from inside the store during Tuesday’s robbery. In one, a robber wearing what appears to be a ski mask beneath a grey hoodie gestures toward a Harris Teeter employee in the customer service area. A gun is visible in the robber’s right hand, pointed at the ground.
Another picture shows a robber in a dark shirt with a cap standing behind the counter near the cash register. The same employee is next to him with his hands up.
After the robbery, police launched a full-scale search, calling in their helicopter and alerting police in neighboring Union County. But the men got away.
The robbery came eight days after bandits robbed Harris Teeter stores in Cornelius and Fort Mill.
Police say the men covered most of their bodies with clothing, but they were able to get partial descriptions. One man was described as a black male, about 5 feet 10, wearing a gray hoodie and jeans. The other man was described as a black male of medium height, wearing all black clothing except for a baseball cap.
Officers stressed that the robbers just seemed intent on getting money, and urged people not to resist if they are victimized.
“If it does occur and you are there, just cooperate. Let it happen and let the police do their job,” Scharf said. April Bethea contributed.