Josh Gelston, owner of Duck Pond Variety, stands Wednesday at the front of his store, where he has posted a notice asking customers to remove hats, hoods and sunglasses before entering. The precautionary measure is in response to a recent string of unsolved armed burglaries in Westbrook and four surrounding communities. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

On Wednesday morning, Josh Gelston taped a sign to the door of the Duck Pond Variety store he owns in Westbrook: “For the safety of customers and employees, no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses.”

The directive is a response to the string of eight armed robberies or attempted robberies in as many days in the Greater Portland area. The most recent took place late Tuesday, hours before Gelston drove to work and posted his sign.

Police in six communities are working together to investigate the armed robberies and are asking business owners and residents to stay vigilant. No one has been hurt, but Gelston and others are on edge.

“I’m more concerned about the employees than a dollar bill,” Gelston said. Three of the eight holdups took place in Westbrook.

The rash of crimes is abnormal in Maine.

There were 266 robberies statewide in 2016, and 75 of them targeted businesses, according to the most recent statistics reported by the FBI.

All robberies include a threat of force, but only 59 of the 2016 robberies in Maine, or 22 percent, included the use of a firearm.

Cumberland County had 94 robberies in 2016, or about one every four days, according to the FBI data. There is no county breakdown of robberies with and without a firearm.

The latest string of crimes far outstrips the county’s historical rate, with the recent robberies now representing nearly 10 percent of the county’s annual total in just over a week.

The string of robberies began on March 20 and have been reported in Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, Cumberland and South Portland.

Police have not said definitively that the robberies are the work of a lone suspect, but they do believe the crimes are connected. Their comments about “a desperate person” and the consistent details and witness descriptions all suggest they are looking for a serial robber.

“It’s a desperate person who will more than likely continue to do what he’s doing,” Portland police Lt. Robert Martin said this week. “Eventually, something is going to happen and it’s going to be a dangerous situation, an armed encounter between law enforcement and the subject, or some type of encounter between a citizen and the subject. And we don’t want to see that happen.”

Six of the eight robberies took place in the evening hours, around 8 p.m., when there typically were no customers and only one employee in each of the businesses. The robber is always covered head to toe in dark clothes and gloves, and wearing some form of dark mask covering his face. Based on reports made public so far, he also shows a handgun or waves it while demanding cash.

Surveillance video from Aroma Joe’s captured this image of a man who walked up and knocked on the drive-through window with a gun Tuesday night.

The suspect himself is consistently described as being white with a thin to medium build. Different witnesses have said he appeared to be anywhere between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 11 inches tall. The robber always walks away from the businesses, possibly to a vehicle parked some distance away.

The latest incident was an attempted robbery at the Aroma Joe’s at 443 Western Ave. in South Portland on Tuesday night. Other businesses targeted include another drive-thru coffee shop, gas stations, a Subway sandwich shop and a Chinese restaurant.

Local departments are pooling resources and detectives are asking the public to help by scouring private home or business surveillance systems that may have captured images of the robberies showing the suspect and any vehicle that may have been involved.

On Tuesday, Westbrook police released surveillance video of the robbery that occurred at the Subway restaurant Monday night in hopes that someone will recognize the masked man responsible for the crime. The video includes an audio recording of the robber’s voice telling the man behind the counter to keep a roll of coins as a tip for himself.

Scarborough police shared on Facebook a list of suggestions for businesses that could be targeted by a robber. Recommendations include installing a panic alarm and surveillance system, staying alert for suspicious vehicles and people, keeping small amounts of cash in the business, and making sure front windows are not cluttered with signs or posters.

If a business is robbed, police say employees should quickly and calmly hand over cash without fighting, take in as many details as possible to provide to police, and call 911 as soon as it is safe to do so. All doors should also be locked as soon as possible to prevent the robber from re-entering the business. Police also suggested employers consider keeping at least two employees in the business at all times.

Local businesses said they are reviewing their safety protocols with employees, reiterating the advice from police, including that workers should hand over cash without fighting.

At Duck Pond Variety, Gelston said he staffs three people throughout the day. The store is just up Bridgton Road from the Subway sandwich shop that was robbed Monday night. Gelston said he saw a Facebook post about it and immediately drove to his business. He told the employees to close the store and lock the doors. Since then, he has noticed more police vehicles in the area, and as he spoke Wednesday, an officer came into the store to buy lunch.

“They’ve been coming here a couple times a day,” he said.

Gelston has owned the store for three years and worked there for a decade prior. He has never experienced a robbery during store hours.

“I think it’s not good for business,” he said. “People are going to think twice about stopping at mom-and-pop shops after dark.”

Maryanne Alhamdany, owner of Westbrook Market, said, “No one’s looking to be a hero here … We’re just trying to go home at night.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

At Westbrook Market, owner Maryanne Alhamdany said she usually brings her 9-year-old son to the store on weekends. Days after nearby robberies at the Daily Grind drive-through coffee shop and Good Things Variety, she said she is worried for his safety.

“No one’s looking to be a hero here,” she said. “We’re just trying to go home at night.”

Alhamdany said she is also worried that copycat robbers will be inspired by these crimes. The staff is keeping a closer eye on indoor and outdoor security cameras.

“It’s just too close to home,” she said.

Suzanne Sawyer, manager of Westbrook House of Pizza on Main Street, has also been on high alert. She makes sure the doors are locked when she is cashing out and closing the restaurant at the end of the night. And, like others, she has noticed an increased police presence in the city.

“Every other business around here is going, ‘Who is going to be next?’” Sawyer said.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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