Securing Gas Stations in Violent, High-Crime Areas

Last month, Raad Alhussainy saw one man kill another.

Alhussainy, a 26-year-old attendant at a Sunoco gas station in Pontiac, stood terrified behind bullet-resistant glass as he watched a man walk into the station, turn toward him, point a gun and fire.

A customer in the station was killed, but Alhussainy says the thick glass saved his life.

The same day, July 5, three men held up the Mug and Jug Fine Wine and Liquor store on West 12 Mile in Farmington Hills, which has no bullet-resistant glass. One robber shot clerk Matthew Al-Shiek in the chest. He spent 24 days recovering at Beaumont Hospital.

Throughout the metro Detroit area -- and the nation -- owners of gas stations, liquor stores, banks and other potential armed robbery targets are trying to balance the need to shield employees from violence with the need to provide a welcoming atmosphere for customers.

But, many are frightened, and as a result, bullet-resistant glass manufacturers say, sales of the product have been steadily going up.

"People want to feel more secure," said Julie Schimmelpenningh, a spokeswoman for Solutia, a company that makes polyvinyl butyral (PVB) in a Trenton plant. The plastic film is sandwiched between layers of glass to prevent bullets from passing through. Demand for the product, she said, has "been spurred on by domestic safety concerns."

That's despite the fact that robberies are on the decline nationally and in metro Detroit. According to FBI statistics, the number of robberies nationwide declined by 3.6% in 2004 from 2003. In Detroit, robberies fell to 5,451 in 2004 -- the most recent statistics available -- from 5,817 in 2003.

Elsewhere in metro Detroit in 2003, the most recent year the numbers were available, there were 21 in Auburn Hills; 4 in Birmingham; 144 in Dearborn; 26 in Farmington Hills; 140 in Hamtramck; 24 in Mt. Clemens; 156 in Pontiac; 42 in Royal Oak, and 139 in Southfield.

Forced change
When Alhussainy's uncle, Sam Al-Mugoter, opened the Sunoco gas station at 1144 N. Perry in Pontiac two years ago, he left the window between the attendant and his customers open during the day. Within months, he said, he put the glass up permanently to protect himself and his employees.

At first customers complained about it, he said. Now, some seem to empathize with the owners.

"It's for their protection," said Donnie Granderson of Pontiac, who regularly stops at the gas station.

If he could, Al-Mugoter said, he would enclose the entire station in bullet-resistant glass. Since the station never closes, customers stroll into the convenience store section at all hours. Sometimes, patrons linger between shelves where they are not visible. Often, they pay in cash, meaning there's cash in the till.

The attendant works in a room enclosed in bullet-resistant glass. Surrounding him are cigarettes, cigars, scratch-off lottery tickets, telephone calling cards, disposable cameras and other targets for shoplifters. Receipts from customers who did not have enough money to pay for items are taped to the window. Al-Mugoter says he sometimes lets customers go on credit. When there is a rush, customers line up at the window to pay for gas. The glass barrier muffles their voices.

Money, credit cards, lottery tickets and cigarette packs are passed through a 1-by-12-inch opening in the cashier window.

July 5, 2005
The morning the Sunoco station was robbed, David Bingham, 38, of Pontiac had just purchased $10 worth of gas on Pump 4 when he was approached by gunmen who demanded his 1993 Silverado truck.

He ran back into the station, asked for the phone and was talking with police dispatchers when one of the robbers came in and began shooting.

The station's security camera captured video of bullets striking Bingham, who fell to the floor. Alhussainy, behind the protective glass, ran into an adjacent room.

"After he was shot, I heard him struggling to breathe. I could not stand that sound. Maybe the other man was coming to kill me," Alhussainy said.

After the shooter left, Alhussainy ran out from behind the glass, called 911 and started yelling: "Send an ambulance!" Bingham, a divorced father of two, was pronounced dead at the hospital within an hour.

Impersonal, but necessary
Despite the safety concern, some business owners don't want to put a barrier between them and their customers. Despite the robbery at his store, Mug and Jug owner Nathan Jamil is one of them.

"We never thought this would happen here," Jamil said last week. He has added surveillance cameras since the robbery. But he said he won't install protective glass. That would send a signal to would-be robbers that he could be bullied, he said.

"We're not going to be afraid," he said.

"It's a negative, negative way of operating a business," said Jamil, who has operated the Mug and Jug in Farmington Hills for eight years. "You cannot communicate with your customers. You cannot touch them. You cannot shake hands. I have worked behind glass in Detroit. I would close down the store before I do that again."

Farmington Hills Police Chief William Dwyer said that the stickup -- and shooting -- is unusual in the suburb.

"Bulletproof glass is probably used more in places like Detroit," he said. Even though bullet-resistant glass provides some protection, it separates clerks from their customers and leaves other customers vulnerable. He added: "It doesn't guarantee no one is going to be hurt."

Police have arrested three men suspected of robbing the liquor store.

Roummel Ingram, 21, of Oak Park was charged with six felonies, including assault with intent to commit murder and armed robbery. Shannon McGriff, 21, of Oak Park and Kim Thomas, 20, of Detroit were charged with armed robbery. All three are being held in the Oakland County Jail.

The two men who police said killed Bingham -- Christopher Jackson, 17, and Cordero Landrum, 18, both of Pontiac -- were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Landrum has a preliminary exam on Wednesday. Jackson is to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and return to court Aug. 25. Both are being held in the Oakland County Jail without bond. Police said they killed Bingham to silence him as a witness.

"I wish," Alhussainy said, "I could have done something to save his life."

Even though Alhussainy is protected at the gas station, he is no longer willing to work the night shift.