String of East Nashville restaurant robberies frays locals' nerves

Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 10:05pm
Holland House, Jude Ferrara/SouthComm

When Nashville novelist Adam Ross and his wife, Beth Alexander, parked their car and walked toward the Holland House Bar & Refuge one night two weeks ago, they joked, “Ha ha, let’s hurry inside the restaurant so we don’t get shot, ha ha.”

It was the last Wednesday of 2010, and the Rosses, joined by a couple from out of town, sat at a raised bank of tables near the front door. It was fairly late in the evening, and about 30 or so patrons filled the East Nashville restaurant at the intersection of West Eastland and McFerrin avenues.

Whatever easy feelings the flowing spirits conjured were shattered around 11:20 p.m., when two men dressed top-to-bottom in dark clothing and with pantyhose over their faces calmly walked through the front door. One of them came to Ross’ table, raised what the Mr. Peanut author described as a sawed-off pump-action shotgun, and ordered everyone to the ground.

Police later described the suspects as two black men, possibly in their 30s to 50s, carrying a shotgun and a black revolver. According to Ross, they moved through the restaurant barking orders and gathering the kitchen staff into the main dining area. As one of the suspects made his way around the square bar at the center of the restaurant, he grabbed customers by the hair, shoving their heads toward the bar as a not-so-subtle reminder of who had the guns and who made the rules. One of the men forced an employee to empty a cash register, but both were choosey about what they stole from victims.

“They came around to sort of check and take items,” Ross said. “And it was odd because they were very … they didn’t seem hopped-up, but they were very random in what they took.”

They stole Ross’ Blackberry but left the nearby black leather money pouch belonging to the woman who was dining with Ross and Alexander. By Ross’ account, the two gunmen did their business at the Holland House that night in less than three minutes. Police arrived just after they left but couldn’t track down the suspects.

“I ain’t going back to East Nashville,” Ross said. “I don’t care how freaking great the restaurant is. It was so brazen.”

One of many

The Holland House robbery on Dec. 29 drew a lot of media attention, likely because of its clientele and its high-end fare and vibe. But similarly brazen robberies have occurred numerous times in East Nashville over the last five months, mostly in fast-food restaurants.

The suspects seem undeterred by a crowded restaurant, occasionally firing off a round or two into the ceiling as a warning.

In the East Precinct, detectives noted similarities in the Holland House job and the robbery of the Pied Piper Eatery at 1601 Riverside Drive the night before. Also, two Dollar General stores — at 3006 Gallatin Road and 1510 Branch St. — fit the gunmen’s method of operation: stealing from both the establishments and customers, and firing warning shots inside the stores.

Police believe they got a break in the fast-food cases last Monday night. A Crime Stoppers tipster pointed a finger at Rashawn Campbell, 23, as possibly being involved in the burglaries. Evidence from past robberies also led police to suspect Kevin Brame, 24.

Officers trailed Brame and Campbell, who were joined by a third man, that night to the Dickerson Road and Trinity Lane area, where the three parked their car on the dead-end Hampton Street. Police watched on a surveillance feed as the trio left the car and walked down Trinity Lane. The officers lost sight of them shortly thereafter.

But a few minutes later, according to Det. Sgt. Jason Proctor, who led the operation that night, police saw Brame, Campbell and 19-year-old Andrew Siner running back to the parked car at about the same time a 911 call reported that men matching their descriptions had just robbed the McDonald’s at 2311 Brick Church Pike. Proctor confronted the men, who fled. He caught Siner, and another officer found Campbell hiding under a car. A police dog later tracked down Brame.

According to police, Siner had a .357-caliber revolver and a victim’s cell phone on him, while Campbell had a 9 mm pistol and a black bandana. All three were allegedly carrying money from the robbery of McDonald’s just minutes earlier.

As of the middle of last week, police had charged the men with four counts of aggravated robbery and one count of attempted aggravated robbery in the McDonald’s heist. Police said more charges would come, probably from a grand jury.

Detectives said the men admitted being involved in several other cases, and evidence pointed to one or more of them having a hand in at least 17 other fast-food restaurant robberies spread over the West, North and East police precincts. The list includes the same McDonald’s a little more than a week earlier, as well as nine different Wendy’s stores, a Jack in the Box, a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Burger King.

The Holland House, Pied Piper Eatery and the Dollar General robberies, however, weren’t on that list. But police found the similarities difficult to ignore.

“This definitely fits the MO, as I have talked about with media over the last few days,” Lt. Danny Driskell of the East Precinct told reporters at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. He listed the similarities as “aggressive-type robberies, takeover-style robberies, slamming people’s heads down, ordering people to the floor, going to the backroom [and] gathering all of the employees up, [then] after the robbery occurs putting them in like a cooler or a closet area, etc.”

But, he added, the investigation continues, and the three suspects are still being questioned. Police also didn’t rule out that others might have been involved but said that nothing so far pointed to any gang involvement.

Keeping watch

Though Andy Piper isn’t holding his breath, he hopes the police have their men. Piper, who co-owns the Pied Piper Eatery with his sister Becky Piper, worked in the restaurant’s office until about 9:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 28.

A clogged drain line caused Andy to close up shop early that night, leaving just him and two cooks to clean up. As the cooks came in from taking out the trash, two men dressed in dark clothing with nylon stockings covering their faces followed them in a side door before one of the cooks could get the door locked again.

Piper walked out of the office when he heard commotion and a strange voice in the dining room.

“My first impression was that it was a friend of mine … just being funny,” Piper said.

Both men carried handguns, one of which Piper described as an old-style revolver. He remembers that, because one of the men pointed it at him and asked if he was the manager. When Piper answered yes, one robber pushed the revolver into Piper’s back and led him into the office, demanding he open the safe. But the money had already been taken to the bank, so Piper led the man to the cash register and opened it.

The other gunman had the two cooks facedown on the floor by that point, and once the register was emptied, the two gunmen led Piper and his employees into the office again, where they demanded to know where the rest of the money was. Piper swore that was all.

As one of the robbers put a gun to a cook’s head, Piper said the gunman told him, “I don’t want to kill this guy. Don’t make me kill him. Where’s the rest of the money?” Piper swore again there was no more money. The gunmen then shut the three men in the office, blocking the outside of the door with a condiment cart, and left.

The whole drama took less than five minutes, Piper said.

Looking at the mugshots of the three men arrested in last Monday’s McDonald’s robbery, Piper said it was hard to tell if they were the robbers who hit his restaurant.

After the Pied Piper Eatery and Holland House were robbed, police told Piper they were seeing “numerous similarities” in all of the robberies and that the same guys — or perhaps the same small group of guys — were responsible.

“I was talking with both the cooks that were here … and they both feel like one of them looked very familiar,” Piper said.

Not wanting to let his guard down, Piper is hesitant to believe the men who robbed him are the ones in jail.

12 Comments on this post:

By: TonyGottlieb on 1/10/11 at 1:33

Let's get Randy Rayburn to print up some sign sayings no firearms?

By: GuardianDevil01 on 1/10/11 at 7:22

Unfortunately too many people in East Nashville have adopted the "predator as victim" model for explaining violent crime and thus view aggravated robbery as just another form of welfare, albeit without the middleman. Combine this with the area's proximity to housing projects and section 8 homes as well as the state's unwillingness to keep animals in their cages for a few months at a time and the unavoidable conclusion is that this problem will probably never go away.

By: Ingleweird on 1/10/11 at 9:29

Would you kindly tell me which restaurants you like to frequent? I would just as soon avoid a two-way gunfight in a crowded restaurant. My life is worth more than the contents of my pockets.

I don't know what the hell you are talking about. I dare you to find a single solitary east side resident who views robbery as a "form of welfare." Also, people gotta live somewhere. I take it you don't like liberals or poor people. Any constructive advice, other than throwing your arms up in the air and declaring defeat?

By: Nitzche on 1/10/11 at 10:18

african-americans committed these crimes?stunning!

By: courier37027 on 1/10/11 at 10:43

@Ingleweird, check Google Groups East Nashville . There are many living near you making excuses for crime, anything but actually blaming the criminal.

By: Ingleweird on 1/10/11 at 12:25

Thanks for picking up Guardian's slack, but I do feel your response is skirting my issue with his statement. Is Guardian suggesting that easties en masse don't desire a resolution to the area's crime? Furthermore, I believe there is more to this than simply figuring out which direction to point our fingers. Deciding whether to blame society or the criminal is not a constructive solution. Justifications and blame games do not have any bearing on where or whether a robber decides to rob again. To where does he propose we move housing projects? His neighborhood? I can deduce from his condescending and derisive tones, that Guardian has about a zero percent "give-a-damn" stake in the area of east Nashville. His offering offers nothing but hollow rhetoric and derision.

By: courier37027 on 1/10/11 at 1:03

Ingleweird, you are welcome. My contribution was to point out some easties do think crime is caused by poverty. Some blamed hot weather, economy and George Bush presidency. I am of the Rand school of thought, Crime is an act of the individual. Blame belongs solely with the criminal. Quoting Rand lexicon, "Do not be misled by sloppy expressions such as 'A murderer commits a crime against society.' It is not society that a murderer murders, but an individual man. It is not a social right that he breaks, but an individual right. He is not punished for hurting a collective—he has not hurt a whole collective—he has hurt one man. If a criminal robs ten men—it is still not “society” that he has robbed, but ten individuals. There are no “crimes against society”—all crimes are committed against specific men, against individuals. And it is precisely the duty of a proper social system and of a proper government to protect an individual against criminal attack—against force."

Maplewood principal Ralph Thompson has been quoted in NCP that a student's illegal activites is a failing of society. It isn't. It is that of the criminal, and should be defended and prosecuted. Nor is society, public housing, welfare to blame for criminal's actions. Although I can understand guardian's point that an enabling, desperate environment without punishment from authority for wrongdoing has not stopped crime.

By: Nitzche on 1/10/11 at 4:22

blah, blah, blah....everybody for their own Dr. Phil!

By: GuardianDevil01 on 1/11/11 at 7:38

There are solutions however we as a society lack the moral courage to implement them. People who act like wild animals must be treated like wild animals. The Nashville Zoo is filled with wild animals however it is safe to go there because they are in cages. Violent felons should be treated the same way. Just as important is changing our culture's view of violent felons. These are not good people who make mistakes. These are bad people. Let us stop making excuses for them. When a kid grows up hearing that crime is society's fault we should not be surprised if he grows up to be a thug. The way to discourage a behavior is to punish those who engage in it. Simple solutions but once again they require too much moral courage to implement.

By: fdanshep on 1/11/11 at 7:53

Of all the rhetoric in these comments, at least one obvious truism is spoken by Guardian Devil when he states that the State must keep criminals incarcerated for more than a minimum percentage of their sentencing. We must spend the money to keep these people locked up! It would be interesting to view the rap sheets for the accused and how many times they have been involved in criminal activity.

Principal Ralph Thompson is correct - the illegal activities are a failure of society, a failure to keep those who continue to do criminal activities off the streets! We must have prison space sufficient to house these thugs and we don't have to raise taxes to do it. Stop the waste and pork barreling for special interests and there will be adequate funds to keep these people locked up for the long term.

By: Ingleweird on 1/11/11 at 8:52

I appreciate you sharing your philosophies with me. However, I DO believe a root cause of crime IS, in fact, poverty. Does that excuse the act? Hell NO! How would you address the situation? Hire an armed guard? Increase the # of officers? More patrols? Foot patrols? More vigilantes dining strapped? The Batman?

You seem concerned with the CAUSES. What about the effects? I used to live in this neighborhood. It appears to be making changes for the better, slowly, but surely. East Nashville will survive this and learn from it. Guardian claims The End Is Nigh and the sky is falling. I see this as a speed bump on a street heading uphill.

Ralph Thompson and the east Nashville listservs are not some official spokespersons for myself or the community as a whole.

We, as an allegedly civilized society, should not have to live in fear of armed robbery or justify it because we have poor desperate folks among our populace. Unfortunately, we don't all get the choice to live on Belle Meade Blvd or Wisteria Lane (but given it, would we really want to?).

By: GuardianDevil01 on 1/11/11 at 9:05

If poverty is the root cause of crime then how do you explain the fact that most poor people never commit violent crimes? And how do you explain already-wealthy people who steal from others? Poverty and criminality have common causes (lack of personal accountability, sense of entitlement, inflated sense of self-worth, lack of empathy, etc.) but one does not cause another.