By TAMMIE TOLER
Tis the season to be jolly. If recent headlines are any indication, it may also be the season when thieves make merry.
Early Tuesday morning, Mercer County Sheriff’s Department Det. Cpl. L.B. Murphy said robbers struck the area again, as two individuals entered the 7-Eleven store on Meadowfield Lane, just east of Princeton, brandished a weapon and demanded cash before fleeing. The incident marked more than a dozen robberies to hit Mercer County in just the last eight weeks.
Investigations remain open into a recent robbery at the Exxon station in the vicinity of Ambrose and Meadowfield lanes and the Club Lounge on Oakvale Road.
While conventional wisdom may indicate it’s the Christmas season that spurs the crime wave, Murphy said he thinks there may be other factors involved.
“I’d say it’s a mixture of the holiday season, where people are needing money, and the drug use in the area,” Murphy said.
Mercer County Circuit judges have long reported that more than 90 percent of their criminal docket cases are connected to drug abuse, in some way, and addiction does not take a holiday break.
There’s also a chance that the recent robberies have inspired copy-cat crimes in a bid to tie the robberies to another suspect.
“If you think about it, there’s never just one robbery here and there,” Murphy said. “When they happen here, there’s always a rash of them.”
One of the suspects arrested in a string of recent robberies allegedly indicated he decided to rob convenience stores patterned after a particular incident, in hopes that investigators would believe the same suspect was behind the entire series of crimes.
“When we have several of the same kind of crime, everybody instinctively thinks it could be the same person committing them all,” Murphy said.
Eric James Ruble, 31, of Princeton, has been charged in a series of the robberies spanning three law enforcement agencies, and Steve Barnette, 38, of Bluefield, was arrested this week in connection with two Bluefield robberies — at the Subway restaurant and Gulf Express station.
Although officers did retrieve a surveillance tape from the Meadowfield Lane 7-Eleven, the detective declined to release a description of the suspects in the incident.
Because no one is immune from crime, law enforcement officials throughout the area are encouraging everyone, particularly holiday shoppers, to remain vigilant and safe.
“Say you’re coming out of a store and you see somebody lurking in the shadows, don’t go out by yourself. That could be a potential robbery waiting to happen,” Murphy said.
Following your instincts when a situation doesn’t seem right can save time, money and even lives. If something about a person makes you uneasy, the officer said there’s usually a reason.
“If you see somebody or something that doesn’t look right, really pay attention to what they’re wearing and their face — to anything that could help you and us identify them if we need to,” he said.
In addition to the recent surge in armed robberies, the region usually sees a slight increase in pickpockets and purse-snatchings during the holiday season. To safeguard from these crimes, officials advise that shoppers take care of their chores during daylight hours, as much as possible, and it’s always a good idea to have a friend come along for the trip. There really is safety in numbers.
Leaving the purses at home and carrying only the essential credit cards and cash in pockets can help limit the chances of those items being stolen, and for men, carrying a wallet in a front pocket is more secure than a hip pocket.
Murphy also advised residents to be wary of people asking for help.
“We get reports of people begging for money in parking lots and gas stations. They may say their car broke down or something. That’s usually a lie, especially in this age of cell phones,” the officer said.
No matter the situation, investigators say safety is the best course of action. Whether you’re in public, at home or stopping at a convenience store, if you become fearful, officers advise citizens to call 911.
— Contact Tammie Toler at firstname.lastname@example.org.