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2 businesses robbed in Grand Forks

GRAND FORKS - Two businesses a few blocks apart on South Washington Street were robbed Sunday within minutes of each other, in both cases by an armed man wearing a ski mask, police said.

A man tried to rob the Taco Bell, 1301 S. Washington St., at 2:07 p.m., but left without any cash.

Then, a man about the same size got away with about $500 at Budget Music, 716 S. Washington St. A 911 call on that robbery came in about 2:25 p.m., Sgt. Derek Zimmel said.

There have been five other robberies in the Grand Forks metro area recently:

* Fairfield Inn, 3051 S. 34th St., on Dec. 9.

* Discontent, 1429 S. Washington, on Dec. 11.

* Simonson Station, on Gateway Drive near the Red River, on Dec. 12.

* Big Cigs Valley Dairy, 1207 N. 5th St., on Wednesday.

* Ortons on the Point in East Grand Forks, Minn. on Friday.

"It's not known for certain that all seven robberies are connected, but the similarities are striking, to say the least," Zimmel said.

"Whether it's the same individual, or the same two guys, or copy-cats in some of these, we are looking at every possible angle," Zimmel said. "There are certainly some striking similarities. But I can't say absolutely it's the same person."

John Serati, a Fargo man who owns 15 Taco Bells across the state, including two in Grand Forks, said the robber got nothing thanks to his security systems and well-trained employees.

"We've got state-of-the-art technology, a safe on time-delay, video both inside and out," Serati said. "He came in, showed the gun, demanded money, was told only a manager could open the safe and that takes time. So he got mad, said something, I guess, threw something down, and stormed out."

One of his employees was shaken up, but no one was hurt, Serati said.

Police said the man in the Taco Bell robbery attempt was described as 5 feet, 8 inches, to 6 feet tall, with a thin build, wearing a brown or tan camouflage-pattern jacket, medium-colored blue jeans, dark shoes and a dark-colored ski mask.

He left the store and ran south.

The Budget Music store is north of the Taco Bell. Police have not released any further information on that robbery.

Brandon Maier, 22, was behind the counter at Budget Music.

The robber came in about 2:15 p.m., dressed in all dark clothing, with a dark, probably black, jacket of solid color, dark pants and a black ski mask, Maier said.

"He was about 5 (feet) 8 (inches), on the thinner side. He looked white," said Maier, who said he could see the man's eyes.

"He pulled out a gun, pointed it down to the side, a black and silver semi-automatic. He just asked for the money."

The descriptions of the robber in each case are similar. But in Sunday's incidents, the robber wore different closing. That raises the question of whether one man changed clothes quickly, or two men worked together.

In several of the robberies, the man was described as dark-skinned, either a "tanned white man," or possibly a Hispanic or American Indian. Prominent eyebrows were described in several cases.

Police are working extra hours, checking leads and trying to enhance security at businesses open at night and in locations deemed "vulnerable," to armed robbery, Zimmel said.