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Man uses flashlight to clobber, disarm gun-toting bandit

A man who showed the kind of cool bravery that Americans have come to expect from movie superheroes foiled an armed robbery in a Town of Tonawanda convenience store as he used a flashlight to clobber the daylights out of a would-be bandit armed with a handgun.

As the bandit pointed his gun and the store clerk nervously withdrew money from a cash drawer to hand over, the flashlight-toting man entered the store, rushed up behind the bandit, whacked him three times over the head, and then took his gun from him after the dazed thief fell to the floor.

It happened late Tuesday night at a 7-Eleven store at 749 Sheridan Drive, and it was all captured on a store video that is likely to amaze people across the nation once it starts to circulate.

Police released the video on Friday, while announcing the arrest of the alleged bandit, who fled the store – empty-handed – after his encounter with the flashlight hero. The suspect was identified as Robert M. Samson, 59, of the Sheridan-Parkside neighborhood. Police said Samson is also charged with two other armed robberies in the town.

Capt. Joseph F. Carosi said Samson was arrested on Wednesday after he was found hiding in an attic at his home.

Samson “was immediately transported to the hospital for head injuries believed to have been suffered during” the attempted robbery, Carosi said.

Police declined to identify the man who used his flashlight to foil the robbery.

Although he called the man’s actions “very brave,” another police captain cautioned that attacking an armed robber is not a good idea for most citizens.

“My professional opinion is that an untrained average citizen should not take action against someone who is armed with a gun and committing a crime,” said Capt. Jesse Haug, a 17-year town police veteran who watched the 7-Eleven video. “If that same scenario played out 10 more times, it unfortunately wouldn’t always work out the way this worked out. People would get hurt, good people.”

It was fortunate that the bandit, after being hit in the head, didn’t fire off a shot at either the store clerk or the man with the flashlight, Haug said.

“My general thought is that the average citizen who comes upon a scene like that should back away, get to a safe place and call 911. Let us handle it and work on being the best witness you can be for us,” Haug said. “But it’s great that it worked out in this case. The man with the flashlight was very brave.”

And how is the flashlight hero – a solidly built man, perhaps in his 40s, apparently wearing eyeglasses, a blue and black ski jacket and baseball cap – doing? So far, police have not released his name or any other information about him, but anyone watching the video of him in action will think they are looking at a younger version of Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford.

The video shows the scraggly haired bandit threatening the cashier with his handgun about 10:55 p.m. The bandit is seen pointing his gun at the clerk’s upper body. The man with the flashlight – who had seen the stick-up in progress through the store window – opens the door, strides toward the gunman and repeatedly bashes him in the head from behind with a long, black flashlight.

The bandit falls to the floor, looking like he has been seriously hurt, and drops his gun. The flashlight hero, after a few seconds, calmly picks up the gun, backs away from the fallen man and stands watching him as he struggles to get up.

The bandit rises to his feet, appears to make a brief move toward the man with the flashlight, but then seems to think better of it and stumbles away, out of the store. He was captured a day later.

Samson is being held in lieu of $75,000 bail in Erie County Holding Center.

A man working in the 7-Eleven store Friday night declined to discuss the incident with a Buffalo News reporter, or to identify the man with the flashlight. The store worker said he was upset that, in his view, the news media has not done enough in recent years to publicize dangerous robberies at convenience stores in Western New York.

A law enforcement official who watched the 7-Eleven video noted that the long, black flashlight used to subdue the bandit appeared to be the kind of heavy-duty equipment often carried by police officers or security guards. Most people do not carry that kind of flashlight, the official noted.

While saying the man who foiled the robbery was not an off-duty police officer or security guard, law enforcement sources declined to specify what he does do for a living. One source said the man is someone who is familiar with the operations of convenience stores.

Two customers at a nearby convenience store – Andy Gretch, 30, and his wife, Christine, 31, of North Buffalo – said they were amazed at the actions of the man with the flashlight.

“That’s a man of courage in that video. Foolish courage, perhaps, but courage indeed,” said Andy Gretch, who added that he has worked in stores in the past. “It’s definitely a risk he took, but sometimes adrenaline and instinct just take over.”

Authorities said Samson, the alleged bandit featured in the video, has been in trouble with town police before.

They noted that, in July 2008, Samson and another Tonawanda man were charged with breaking into two town cemeteries after dark and stealing metal vases that were part of gravesite headstones. The vases, many of them made of copper, were sold off as scrap metal. An official at Mount Olivet Cemetery told The News that 170 or more vases had been stolen from his cemetery and the Elmlawn Cemetery.

Samson and his alleged accomplice, James Howard, were charged with grand larceny, criminal mischief, trespass and cemetery desecration. The two men were later sentenced to jail terms of up to six months and ordered by a judge to pay $32,362 in restitution. Defense lawyers told a judge that the two men suffered from addictions to crack cocaine, which led to their crimes.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com