OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Ilias Sigkas was smoking a cigarette Wednesday evening outside his cousin’s variety shop in Old Orchard Beach when a man put a gun to his back.

The man pushed Sigkas inside the shop, where owners Paul and Patra Leite were working. Patra Leite saw the gun and dove behind the counter to hide. The man, whose face was concealed by a mask, reached for the register and demanded money. Paul Leite grabbed a club he keeps behind the counter for security.

“I was angry,” he said Thursday.

He told the robber he was calling the police and yelled at him to get out. Leite said the man seemed to think for a second before he fled. Leite then ran around the counter and out the door after him to see which way the robber went, but he was gone too fast.

The family was still shaken Thursday morning. Sigkas, who is visiting from Greece, said he thought about his loved ones back home.

“I was scared,” Sigkas said. “I remembered my son in Greece.”

OWNERS AND EMPLOYEES ON EDGE

The attempted robbery at the Leites’ Moby Dick Variety Store on East Grand Avenue was one of four armed robberies that took place in the region Tuesday and Wednesday, adding to a string of similar crimes in southern Maine in the past 3½ weeks.

Law enforcement officials are investigating the 15 armed robberies since March 20, almost all involving a masked man with a handgun and a similar description.

But the confrontations with the robber in Old Orchard, together with the cluster of holdups within hours of each other, have raised fears that the incidents could turn violent at any time.

Owners and employees of small businesses have been on edge since the robberies began in mid-March. Police have advised them that, if they are targeted, they should avoid confronting the robber and simply give him what he asks for. But police are increasingly worried that a violent confrontation is imminent.

The advice from police hasn’t swayed Rafi Jacobi, owner of Coastal Convenience on Saco Avenue in Old Orchard.

Jacobi keeps a baseball bat behind the register for security purposes. But when the string of armed robberies started, one of his employees brought in a handgun, which they now keep ready and loaded behind the counter.

“You can’t bring a baseball bat to a gunfight,” Jacobi said.

He said he does not want the man to get away with robbing his store, and he knows other business owners who are taking the same precautions. He is also worried the robber will shoot an unarmed or unsuspecting employee.

“We do not want to fight, but if the fight comes to your house, you’re going to fight,” Jacobi said.

AFTER STRESSFUL NIGHT, BACK AT WORK

Paul Leite, meanwhile, said it was his instinct to grab the club from behind the counter, but he was glad the man fled instead of fighting back.

“I don’t think he wants to hurt anyone,” Leite said.

At the variety store Thursday, regular customers came in to check on the Leites.

“You guys OK?” one man asked as he made his purchase.

Paul Leite shrugged and smiled.

“We had to come to work today,” he said.

But Leite has appreciated the kindness of his customers.

“That’s the nice thing about Old Orchard Beach,” he said. “It’s tight-knit.”

While Paul Leite bustled around the store, his wife stayed behind the counter. She was thinking about the young voice behind the robber’s mask. She has a purple bruise on her elbow from diving to the ground, but she felt lucky they escaped with no other injuries.

“Just my heart,” she said. “I got anxiety.”

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

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle