Armed men have robbed eight fast-food restaurants and two gas stations in Amherst, Buffalo and Cheektowaga since July, and detectives are piecing together evidence to determine how many of the robberies are connected.
Most of the holdups occurred as employees prepared to close, reducing the robbers' chances of being spotted. Armed with handguns and sometimes a machete, the robbers ordered employees to empty safes or cash registers, police said.
In some cases, employees were left in back or refrigerated rooms, allowing the suspects to get away without their cars being seen, police said.
Seven of the robberies -- five of them fast-food restaurants and two gas stations -- were in Amherst. Two fast-food chains have been robbed in Buffalo, and a third in Cheektowaga. More than $6,000 have been reported stolen.
Recent arrests, however, have provided authorities with their first breaks.
The breakthrough came when four Buffalo men were arrested after the robbery of Zinni's Mobil on Dodge Road in Amherst on Dec. 22. One of the four told detectives his two cohorts took part in a Burger King robbery Dec. 12, Amherst Detective Joseph Ciliberto said.
Danny Kirkland, 25, of 442 William St., implicated two of his companions -- Herman F. Johnson, 20, of 115 Wakefield Ave., and Gregory Price, 20, of 144 Mulberry St., the detective said. A fourth suspect, Randy Applewhite, 18, of 32 Marne Road was also charged in the Zinni's holdup, Ciliberto said.
"We're feeling a good possibility that these guys we got at the gas station were involved in the other robberies," Ciliberto said. "They're the best suspects we have, but we're not positive so far."
Ciliberto said police will show mug shots of the four men to the victims in the hope of establishing a connection. The detective also said a court-ordered lineup of the suspects may be used.
Although Ciliberto said Kirkland gave little information and is not expected to cooperate further, other factors have given detectives reason for optimism.
For one, Ciliberto said, a white Chevrolet Chevette with front-end damage was seen leaving a Quick Fill Gas Station at Harlem Road in Amherst moments after the station was robbed Oct. 24. A witness got a partial plate number, the letters EKB and possibly the numerals 4 and 5, Ciliberto said.
Another car, a black Nissan Pulsar, may have been driven by the man who robbed a Burger King on Main Street in Amherst July 19, he said.
In addition, Ciliberto said a machete was recovered when police arrested Kirkland and the other three men. And a machete or large knife was used in at least three other robberies, all of them Burger Kings in Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Amherst.
"I guess the machete is a common denominator in a couple of them," said Cheektowaga Detective Dennis Gibbs, who is investigating the Dec. 18 robbery of a Burger King in his town.
In that robbery, at 440 Pine Ridge Road, two masked men in their 20s forced the manager to open the safe as he and a female employee were preparing to close at 12:30 a.m. The woman suffered a minor cut when one of the men ordered her to crawl on the floor to avoid being seen by passers-by, and he used the machete to prod her along, police said.
Detectives also said that in six of the robberies -- five of them in restaurants -- employees told police they were robbed by two young men of similar descriptions.
But in other cases, one man was involved or more than two were seen. And the descriptions are not all the same. For instance, employees of a McDonald's at West Ferry Street said the man who robbed them Wednesday was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed about 250 pounds. Buffalo Detective David Rivera said that suspect was shorter and heavier than other suspects.
"Most of ours have been late at night, near closing time, mostly between 10 and 12 o'clock," said Ciliberto. "I think it's just a spur-of-the-moment thing, where they're cruising around and then looking for a place to hit before closing time."
Police said some of the robberies appear to be well planned, like the holdup of the Burger King on Main Street Dec. 12.
In that robbery, two men forced their way in 15 minutes after five employees left for the night and threw a female employee to the floor, holding a gun to her head. The 36-year-old employee was slightly hurt when one of the men -- who was armed with a machete -- cut her hand, police said.
After taking an undetermined amount of money, the robbers made the employee sit in a refrigerated room, police said. They also cut the phone wires on the way out.
But in other holdups, like the one at Arby's on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst Dec. 19, the robbers had not been so careful. In that holdup, one man walked into the restaurant and allowed his face to be seen before putting on a ski mask. He then herded four employees into a cooler, making two come out moments later to unlock the safe, police said.
The same Arby's was hit Nov. 24, when a man eating in the dining room waited for all the customers to leave before displaying a small-caliber automatic handgun and ordering employees into a cooler, police said.
In at least two holdups of Burger Kings in Buffalo and Cheektowaga -- employees were slightly injured after being prodded with a machete, Rivera said.
"They appear to be very threatening," Ciliberto said of the gunmen. "I don't think they're just (fooling) around."