Late Shifts at Convenience Stores Pose Potentially Fatal Security Risks

Jul. 21--The Quik Mart where Christopher Cottle, 50, was gunned down during a beer robbery Saturday had been robbed at least nine times since January 2005, including twice this year.

That Quik Mart at 3499 S. Wilmot Road ranked third last year among Tucson convenience stores for most reported robberies with seven, according to police data. Details about those robberies were not immediately provided by Tucson police, who said Sgt. Marco Borboa, the individual who could approve the release of the reports involved or discuss their content, was on vacation.

Another Quik Mart in the 1200 block of North Alvernon Way that was hit 10 times in the same time period -- on average once every 36 days -- ranked No. 1 among the approximately 170 convenience-store robberies reported in 2005. A nearby 7-Eleven in the 1000 block of North Columbus was robbed nine times last year.

So far this year, there have been 91 convenience-store robberies, including two this year at the store where Cottle worked, according to Officer Dallas Wilson, a spokesman for the Tucson Police Department. The numbers don't include Saturday's incident, which is classified by police as a homicide.

Cottle died early Saturday, after three men entered the store. Each grabbed a pack of beer before walking out without paying.

In addition to the criminal investigation, Cottle's death has sparked an investigation by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which is looking at possible Quik Mart violations of workplace safety laws, said assistant director Mark Norton. He declined to provide more details of the agency's inquiry.

Cottle's death was the first killing of a Tucson convenience-store clerk since the early morning of May 9, 1992, when Allen Warren Walters, 31, died from a gunshot wound inflicted during the robbery of the North Side Circle K store at 875 W. Roger Road.

He was killed by three Marana teenagers, Dement Frazier Weaver, 15, Frederick Ramon Jr., 16, and William Lee Rodgers, 19. They were eventually convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 25 years to life in prison.

In videotape shot Saturday by a Quik Mart security camera, Cottle, who was working alone, is seen following the men out of the store, said Sgt. Mark Robinson, a Tucson Police Department spokesman.

Cottle, who was shot several times, was found by a customer about 40 feet from the store entrance around 12:30 a.m. The customer called 911. The clerk was taken to University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead a short time later, Robinson said.

It was every convenience-store clerk's worst nightmare.

Convenience stores like the Quik Mart where Cottle died are convenient for customers, and for late-night robbers, too.

Mike Iverson, a tall, muscular man of 38, doesn't hesitate to talk to some of the suspicious -- if not downright freaky -- people who walk into the 7-Eleven on the southeast corner of East Speedway and North Columbus Boulevard during the graveyard shift. There are a "lot of methheads" in the area and he wants potential robbers casing the store to know he's alert.

"They're looking for the clerk that's slipping, somebody who's not paying attention to what's going on in and around the store," Iverson said as he stood by the cash register shortly before midnight Wednesday. A police scanner crackled in the background. Iverson listens for any trouble going down in the neighborhood.

Still, he never knows whether the next late-night visitor will wave a greeting or a weapon.

About two months ago a man suddenly vaulted over the counter and stabbed a clerk, Iverson said. The robber grabbed the cash drawer. The wounded clerk recovered.

"He's back working days. He won't work nights anymore," Iverson added.

From the police data provided, it's not clear whether last year's nine robberies there were dangerous or just minor incidents.

Clerks at three stores said drug addicts are behind many robberies in the Alvernon and Speedway area.

"Big time -- the crack and the meth," said David Czarnowski, a 35-year-old clerk at the Circle K on the southwest corner of North Alvernon Way and East Grant Road.

In contrast to the Quik Mart that was robbed the most last year, his store now has two clerks on duty instead of one at night and is brightly lighted outside.

Inside, the aisles are wide and uncluttered, making it easy to see everyone from inside or outside the store. And because it sells gas and is on a major street, a lot of customers come and go late at night.

Even those measures, however, didn't stop a man from recently shoving Czarnowski behind the counter and taking liquor off the shelf.

The clerk said he knew better than to resist or pursue the man.

"Sometimes I kind of want to. It's an ego thing," he said.

Quik Mart has a policy that prohibits clerks from intervening in robberies or leaving the store during such incidents -- a policy that Cottle had violated over the last year when he went after an armed robber with a bat, said George Feulner, an attorney representing Quik Mart. Cottle was shot in the foot during that incident and was reprimanded for his actions.

Quik Mart declined to comment on the kind of security measures it has in place at its 28 stores in the Tucson area.

Troy Little, then vice president of the family-owned Quik Mart chain, told the Arizona Daily Star in 1999 that employees are safe in general and cited security measures that included installation of closed-circuit TV systems, upgraded lighting around doorways and gas pumps and plans to improve lighting around the perimeter of the stores.

Circle K Corp. was not available for comment and calls to 7-Eleven's corporate headquarters were not returned.

Quik Mart still is negotiating with the state safety division on a settlement agreement in another case, Norton said.

In that case, employee Richard Hardman complained that his employer didn't do enough to keep him safe after a robber beat him with a hammer while he worked the night shift alone at 4477 E. Fifth St. Hardman's family previously told the Star they believe the attack ultimately led to his death in January.

Hardman told inspectors he had been robbed 15 times in his eight years with the company.

When safety inspectors visited stores, they found the company was violating its own policies meant to prevent violence, including the amount of cash on hand and visibility problems including mirror placement and signs blocking windows, according to an inspector's report.

"Quik Mart was aware that the measures it implemented were insufficient to protect employees from workplace violence," the inspector wrote. "Quik Mart's refusal to do more to improve employee safety is difficult to comprehend."

The Industrial Commission of Arizona cited the company for failing to protect employees who were exposed to workplace violence and issued a $70,000 fine in November, but Quik Mart contested the citation and fine.

Lawyers for both sides agreed that the company would pay $35,000 -- $10,000 to the state, $10,000 toward improving workplace safety for Quik Mart employees and $15,000 to the Hardman estate. The settlement has not been finalized, Norton said.

The case is just one of two in which Quik Mart locations in Arizona have been inspected by the state safety division in the past 10 years, records show. Besides the Hardman case, in 1998 state safety inspectors were referred to a store at 1898 S. Mission Road.

Safety inspectors typically inspect convenience stores only when a serious accident or fatality has occurred, Norton said. Many other complaints are handled by phone, he said.

Workplace homicides are rare in Tucson. Nationwide, workplace homicides are on the decline, falling 42 percent from 1994 to 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workplace violence, including assaults and suicides, accounted for 16 percent of all work-related fatal injuries in 2003, the agency said.

More than two-thirds of those deaths were the result of a robbery or attempted robbery. About 60 percent of work-related homicides occur in the retail trades and services.

"It does bring to the forefront that employers need to look at this as a potential safety threat to employees," Norton said.

Those most likely to become victims work with cash, such as clerks and waiters. Other high-risk jobs are taxi drivers, truck drivers and guards. Other risk factors include working alone, working in a high-crime area and selling valuables.

--Reporter Becky Pallack contributed to this article.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.