By Chelsea Phua
Published: Monday, Nov. 2, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 5B
Last Modified: Monday, Nov. 2, 2009 - 6:29 am
Harpreet Dhillon has spent many solitary evenings in the past year as a clerk at his father’s small liquor store in Elk Grove, stocking merchandise, manning the cash register and, on occasion, dealing with difficult customers.
On Sunday, the soft-spoken, 22-year-old clerk found himself face to face with an armed robber in the Old Town liquor and convenience store on Elk Grove-Florin Road. Dhillon complied with the robber’s demands and handed over $400 to $500 in cash, he said.
"I don’t like it," Dhillon said, recounting the experience. "But I had to do what he said because he had a gun."
A recent rash of armed robberies – including one where the clerk was fatally shot – at mom-and-pop liquor and convenience stores in Elk Grove and other parts of Sacramento County underscore the dangers that store employees face. A store owner and clerks interviewed by The Bee said they often live under the threat of having a gun pulled on them and are careful to keep an eye on customers who are not regulars.
Two weeks ago, on a Monday night, a 44-year-old store clerk was shot and killed in south Sacramento. Video surveillance taken from inside the ME Discount Liquor and Food Minimart on 47th Avenue showed a brief struggle, then the robber striking Ravinder Singh Banga several times with his gun before firing the fatal shot.
Banga came to Sacramento four months ago from India with his wife and teenage sons, ages 13 and 17. His killer remains at large. The video shows a man in a black hooded sweat shirt and dark pants enter the store. It shows him assault and shoot the clerk in the chest. It shows him leaving the store.
About the same time that Monday night and just two miles north on Fruitridge Road near 28th Street, another robber – a 6-foot-5 man in a green camouflage jacket – walked into a convenience store, La Flor de Guerrero, with a pistol.
Fourteen-year-old Manuel Pineda Jr. said his 16-year-old sister and his mother were at the front counter near the pastries while his father, 48-year-old Manuel Pineda, was at the back of the store.
Translating for his Spanish-speaking parents, Pineda Jr. said his father heard the man shout, "Give me your money!" and ran out to see a man with a hood over his head pointing a gun at his daughter.
"He only thought about protecting his family," Pineda Jr. said.
The older Pineda went behind the meat counter display, picked up two razor-sharp cutting knives and hurled them at the gunman. One knife struck a candy shelf in the middle of the store and the other hit the robber in the arm, without stabbing him, the Pinedas said. The man then fled the store, according to an online Sacramento police report.
Pineda Jr., who helps his father at the store after school, spoke about the fear and suspicions that come with working at the store at night.
Every time he spots someone he does not recognize, Pineda Jr. said he keeps his cell phone in his hand, ready to dial 911.
"We’re alert and see where he’s getting his stuff," Pineda Jr. said. On a few occasions, people have run out of the store with candy or soda.
The recent armed robbery is prompting the family to consider installing surveillance cameras, Pineda Jr. said.
Pineda Jr. said the experience makes him fear that "something worse might happen."
Dhillon, whose family has owned the shop for 28 years, said he was stocking liquor behind the counter on a recent Sunday when he noticed a young man wearing a black hoodie and black pants enter the store.
"He pretended to be a customer," Dhillon said. As the man approached the counter, he pulled out a gun and started yelling and swearing at Dhillon to give him money. Dhillon said at first he thought it was a bad Halloween joke.
If the robber had shown a knife, Dhillon, who is trained in martial arts, said he would have fought back. He complied with the gunman’s demand.
Dhillon said he wasn’t very frightened but acknowledged the vulnerability of his job.
"Liquor store jobs are always like that – a dangerous job – so clerks should be careful," Dhillon said.
Even though he said he watches his customers with a wary expression, the regulars tout him as a friendly and personable store clerk they know as just "Dhillon."
After the robbery, customers who heard about Dhillon’s ordeal stopped by the store to see if he was OK.
Monica Guillihur, 25, gave Dhillon a hug.
"He’s a good person, a good customer service person," said Tristan Oropeza, 23. "He didn’t deserve that. I felt really bad. I immediately called him. I commend him for coming back to work."
Guillihur and Oropeza urged Dhillon to find another job.
"Someone has to do it," Dhillon said, appearing slightly resigned, as he packed fresh beef jerky for Guillihur.
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