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.
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.