Four holdups in just over 25 hours this week ratcheted up tensions surrounding a series of armed robberies in southern Maine and prompted police to warn that more confrontations between a robber and store employees could escalate into violence.

“It is imminent,” Portland police Lt. Robert Martin said of the possibility of violence. “My fear is someone pops out from a back room and is unexpected and (the robber) blasts off a round.”

No one has been injured during a string of more than a dozen armed robberies in southern Maine since March 20, but in nearly every case the robber showed a handgun while demanding cash from employees. “(Witnesses) keep saying he’s polite, but he’s pointing a gun at people,” Martin said.

The potential for violence appeared to rise sharply Wednesday, when an armed robber held a gun to a bystander’s back and forced him into an Old Orchard Beach business, but then left empty-handed when the store’s owner grabbed a club and refused to hand over cash.

Local police and the FBI are investigating the possible connection between 15 armed robberies that, in most cases, involved a white man covered in dark clothing and armed with a handgun entering a small business and demanding cash from employees.

A cluster of four robberies during a 25-hour period Tuesday and Wednesday came after a string of 11 other robberies or robbery attempts, almost all involving a masked man with a handgun and a similar description. The majority of the robberies occurred shortly before closing at small businesses where only one or two employees were present.

A suspect was arrested and charged with one of the robberies – the April 7 holdup in Gorham – but police have said the others may be connected to each other, and some police statements suggest the unsolved robberies may have been carried out by the same man.

The unusual rash of robberies has put the owners and employees of small businesses on alert, and led police to increase patrols and advise businesses to not take any risks if they are targeted. Police are advising people to comply with his demands rather than trying to resist or fight back.

“People committing a robbery do it because they want money, not generally because they want to hurt someone,” said Commander Mark Waltz of the Brunswick Police Department. “The most important message is your life isn’t worth the money. You should comply with his requests and we’ll catch them after.”

SOME ROBBERY ATTEMPTS THWARTED

Police departments in the nine different communities that have had robberies, as well as from other southern Maine communities that have not been targeted, are collaborating in the investigation, sharing tips and information and comparing details about each crime. The local police departments are being assisted by the FBI, which, among other things, has provided technical assistance by enhancing surveillance videos and photos.

The investigation took on more urgency this week.

The four holdups Tuesday and Wednesday all could have, in theory, involved the same robber, although the physical description varied in one case.

The two-day spree began in Topsham when a tanning salon was robbed at gunpoint about 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. A man, described in that case as between 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches tall, wearing a long, hooded sweatshirt and with his face covered, entered Sun Tan City in the Topsham Fair Mall, displayed what appeared to be a semiautomatic handgun and demanded money. In virtually all of the other robberies, the suspect was described as being between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall.

This image of the robber is from a video surveillance camera from the Amato’s in Brunswick. Photo courtesy of the Brunswick Police Department

The robberies resumed at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Old Orchard Beach, where the robber put a gun to a bystander’s back and forced him into the Moby Dick Variety Store. Inside the store, the robber demanded that the owner hand over all the cash in the register. The store’s owner refused and told the robber he would call police. The robber fled without any money.

Four hours later, at 9 p.m., an employee at Dunkin’ Donuts on Riverside Drive in Auburn thwarted an armed robbery by hitting a panic button to let police know a robbery was in progress and telling the man that she had to go to the back of the store to get keys to give him money. The woman said the man came in brandishing a handgun, put a bag on the counter and told her to fill it with money.

Police described the suspect as a white man, between 20 and 30 years old, and about 5 feet 5 inches tall. He was wearing a dark, hooded sweatshirt and a cap.

Those two unsuccessful robberies were followed by a third, which occurred less than an hour later and 19 miles away from the Auburn Dunkin’ Donuts.

The robber entered Amato’s restaurant at 148 Pleasant St. in Brunswick around 9:45 p.m. Wednesday and confronted the employee. He pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and a bag, tapped the gun on the counter and forced the employee to fill the bag with cash before fleeing, Brunswick police said.

PATROLS NEAR STORES, LIMITING CASH ACCESS

The rash of crimes is abnormal in Maine, even without the four incidents this week.

In 2016, the most recent year for which federal crime data is available, there were 266 robberies in Maine overall, 59 of which involved the use of a firearm.

In response to the string of robberies, officers have stepped up patrols near small businesses and advised store owners not to keep large amounts of cash on hand. They also have asked small-business owners to make sure their surveillance systems are functioning.

The robber is described as a white man, 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-9 inches in height, with a thin build, blue eyes and light-colored hair.

Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 774-9322. Portland police can be contacted after hours and on weekends at 874-8575.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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