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Police concerned by rash of armed robberies in metro area

The Stop-N-Go convenience store in south Moorhead is shown here Wednesday morning after an armed robbery was reported here overnight. Rob Beer / The Forum

MOORHEAD - An armed robbery at a Moorhead Stop-N-Go on Wednesday put the metro area on track with last year's lively pace for business stickups, and Fargo police are exploring how to deter and react to a trend a deputy Fargo police chief called "concerning."

According to Moorhead police, the robber entered the store at 1702 30th Ave. S. at 12:15 a.m., displayed a handgun and demanded money from the male store clerk, who complied.

Officers in the area quickly responded, but the robber got away with an undisclosed amount of cash, Sgt. Clint Stephenson said. A police dog tracked a scent north of the store but stopped abruptly, "so we're assuming he got into a car," he said.

No customers were in the store, and no one was hurt.

Police released a security video image of the robber, described as a thin white male in his early 20s wearing a gray sweatshirt with the word "North" on the front chest area. Moorhead Lt. Tory Jacobson said there was no information to link the robbery with other recent holdups in Fargo.

The same Stop-N-Go was robbed at gunpoint on Feb. 10, 2011. Three men have been sentenced to prison for the robbery.

Wednesday's robbery was Moorhead's first holdup at a business so far this year. Robbers hit two Fargo hotels and a gas station in January, bringing the total to four this year - the same number at this time last year - for Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo.

Fargo recorded 18 armed robberies of businesses last year, up from 11 each year in 2010 and 2009, according to police statistics. Overall robberies increased from 39 in 2010 to 47 last year, the most since at least 2005.

"The numbers are concerning to us," Fargo Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus said. "We think we're taking the right steps to address them."

Fargo police in November distributed information on robbery prevention to convenience stores, liquor stores and other likely targets. After stickups at the Comfort Inn in December and the Scandia Hotel and Days Inn in January, police gave the same tip to hotels on how to reduce their appeal to would-be robbers.

Claus said suggestions include brighter outdoor lights, more see-through storefronts, having more than one employee on duty, installing higher-quality security cameras and reducing cash kept on hand.

In the past three weeks, Fargo police investigators have met twice to study armed robberies over the past 13 months, trying to identify similarities and trends that could help prevent future robberies.

During the second meeting, the results were shared with patrol commanders to build a strategy that will put officers in areas where - and at times when - robberies are most likely to happen, Claus said.

Patrol officers will check back with businesses in a couple of months to see which suggestions were used and the reasons that others were not, such as the cost.

"It's each individual business' decision," Claus said. "We're just trying to give them some ideas."

Claus said one likely reason for the metro's rise in robberies is its growing population and reputation as a destination point for jobseekers.

Anecdotally, he said Fargo officers have had contact with people who came from out of state to work in western North Dakota's Oil Patch but couldn't get hired because of criminal backgrounds and came to Fargo.

The metro's location at Interstates 29 and 94 also may attract drive-through criminals, Claus said, giving the example of a South Dakota man who was arrested in connection with the Dec. 31 robbery at Bank of the West in Fargo and two other robberies in Minnesota the same week.

Fargo police also are working with the FBI to determine if there's enough evidence to link Mark E. Wetsch, the so-called "Man in Black" robber who authorities believe may be responsible for nearly a dozen bank holdups in Minnesota, to the armed robbery of Western State Bank in Fargo on Feb. 11, 2011, Claus said.

Copycat criminals may be driving up the robbery rate, Claus said, noting there tends to be a lull in activity as police make arrests.

Metrowide, police cleared 45.8 percent of business robberies from Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 30, 2012. The national clearance rate was 28.2 percent in 2010.

Police understand the public's concern about armed robberies, which are crimes of violence that can turn deadly when they go bad, Claus said. Yet in a city of more than 105,000 people, 47 robberies last year doesn't suggest the sky is falling, he said.

"But it's something that we should be - and are - focusing resources and time on to solve and deter," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528