Clerk David Kelly was shot in the face at the West Lincoln Road Village Pantry store March 26, and no one is really sure why.
Kokomo police say Kelly didn’t resist.
But it was also the 22nd armed robbery of a Kokomo Village Pantry store since the beginning of 2009, and there’s almost a sense of resignation around law enforcement that something like this was bound to happen.
“It’s easy to go into a Village Pantry, get $50 and be gone,” said Capt. Teresa Galloway, head of the KPD’s criminal investigation section. “You can time it between 3 and 4 in the morning, when no one else is there. If you go to a pharmacy, it will be the clerk and at least one other person. You know you’re going to run into more people there.”
Village Pantry, part of the VPS Convenience Store Group based in North Carolina, runs more than 130 stores in Indiana, including nine in the Kokomo area.
The VP stores aren’t the only convenience stores in Kokomo, but they are easily the most robbed, particularly the stores at 1718 S. Home Ave., and the store where Kelly was shot, 1515 W. Lincoln Road.
Since the start of 2009, VP robberies have accounted for more than one-third of all the armed robberies of businesses in Kokomo, according to statistics compiled by the KPD.
The Home Avenue location has been robbed nine times in that period; the Lincoln Road store has been robbed seven times. Four other Kokomo VP stores have been robbed at least once during the same period.
CVS, which stocks narcotic drugs, is the only local business which comes close to having been robbed as often as the Village Pantry stores, with seven CVS robberies in that period.
Police are frustrated because despite the fact that convenience stores have trained their employees to frequently “drop” cash into a safe, bandits still hit the stores.
“[The clerks] know to give them what they want, get ‘em in, get ‘em out,” KPD Major Brian Seldon said. “This has been going on for a very long time; it’s nothing new to us or to [the robbers].”
State steps in
But two high profile cases involving Indianapolis VP stores preceded the March 26 shooting in Kokomo, and in both instances, the clerks weren’t as fortunate as Kelly, who police said had a bullet enter and exit his body without hitting anything vital.
And the continuing fallout from those incidents — along with the Kelly shooting — could force changes in the way Village Pantry conducts business.
In 2009, a clerk at an often-robbed VP on the near southside of Indianapolis was shot and killed.
Then, last year, a clerk at a northside Indianapolis store was shot in the head by a 15-year-old North Central High School student.
The clerk, Marcella “Marcy” Birnell, survived, albeit with disabilities she’ll carry with her for life, family friend Theresia Whitfield said.
Whitfield has become the state’s leading advocate for victims of convenience store robberies gone bad.
And she said she’s found an ally in the Indiana Department of Labor, which has been pressing Village Pantry to make security upgrades at the company’s “high risk” stores.
“Marcy worked at Village Pantry for 10 years, and during that time, she was robbed six times,” Whitfield said. “Once she was punched in the face, and once she was shot in the head. With each and every robbery, she’s asked Village Pantry to upgrade security, to provide better security, especially for third-shift workers. And they’ve done nothing.”
Village Pantry aren’t the only convenience store owners in Indiana, but they are bound by a settlement with the state Department of Labor to make upgrades.
In the wake of the 2009 killing, the state fined Village Pantry $67,000, alleging it failed to provide a safe workplace for employees. That fine was later cut to $7,000, in exchange for VP’s promise to make safety upgrades at all 134 stores in Indiana.
Jeff Carter, a deputy DOL commissioner, said it’s time for VP to invest in worker safety.
“The [South Meridian] store had 400 police calls in a five-year period; it was in a neighborhood that had pretty significant problems,” Carter said. “There was an older employee working alone at 3 a.m. with the door unlocked, behind the deli counter, so she couldn’t see who was coming in. We were troubled by it.”
As part of the settlement, VPS is required to file quarterly reports with the state, detailing specific capital investments made at Indiana stores for security upgrades.
Since the settlement was finalized last year, VPS has spent about $60,000 to install video equipment at 17 stores in Indianapolis, according to the reports.
Carter said that won’t be enough.
“It’s a start, and we’re pushing,” Carter said. “They know they’re going to be counted on to make progress on this for some time.”
Village Pantry officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.
But Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said it’s unfair to say convenience store owners aren’t doing enough.
Improving lighting, keeping cash registers and clerks visible, installing fencing to make it harder for robbers to “escape” the crime scene and training employees to drop cash are the best ways to reduce robberies, according to industry research, Imus said.
The association is concerned, Imus said, about calls for the state to mandate increased staffing at high-risk stores, or adding bullet-proof glass enclosures, or closing stores during late-night hours.
“It’s not about spending resources, it’s about effectiveness,” Imus said. “There’s nothing in the evidence that shows having two clerks is going to be effective at all.”
Imus’ group has also signed onto an alliance, organized through the Department of Labor, which is studying the issue. The group includes the Indiana State Police, the Indiana Grocery Convenience Store Association, the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers and Whitfield, who is acting as a representative for victims.
State officials expect the Late Night Working Group to issue a report in May on the best available research in late-night retail safety and security, in hopes of spurring voluntary action from the convenience store owners.
So far, Whitfield said she hasn’t been impressed with what she’s heard from the convenience store owners.
“You just hear, ‘Everything’s too expensive,’ and that if you put two employees in there, you’re just going to get two people killed,” Whitfield said.
“So you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands on workman’s comp, but you won’t spend $17,000 on bullet-proof glass. Where’s the logic in that?”
• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via email at scott.smith@ kokomotribune.com