One man held a gun. The other had a knife. Together, they herded six robbery victims late Sunday night into the International House of Pancakes backroom, where the restaurant safe was located.
When no one gave the robbers the combination to the safe, they forced the manager of the Thruway Plaza restaurant to call the chain’s regional manager.
And that’s when the threat got even scarier.
“One of the suspects got on the phone and said they were going to shoot the manager if they didn’t give out the combination,” Cheektowaga Police Capt. James J. Speyer Jr. said Monday.
The regional manager replied that he didn’t have it, according to police.
Luckily for all involved, the two thieves fled without resorting to violence.
But that didn’t stop the robbery and potential hostage situation from turning into a bizarre 2½-hour chain of events that led the six victims to lock themselves in the office before walking out hours later with their hands held high in the air – as a precaution.
The incident began at about 9:30 p.m., when the two armed intruders burst into the restaurant.
The six victims – three employees, one of their friends and two customers, all of whom had locked themselves in the office to get away from the robbers – left the restaurant at about 12:15 a.m. Monday. They had remained holed up in the restaurant for that long because no one was sure that the robbers had fled.
“We erred on the side of caution,” Speyer explained Monday. “We treated it as a hostage situation until we were sure it was not.”
After the phone call from the manager, the regional manager called police at about 9:40 p.m. to report the possible hostage situation.
At about the same time, when the robbers were outside the back office, one of the six victims managed to lock it from the inside.
Meanwhile, Cheektowaga police officers who had rushed to the scene found what looked to be an empty restaurant. Officers then talked by phone with the six victims, but it wasn’t clear for a while that the robbers had fled, said Lt. Gerald F. Jankowski, supervising officer on the scene.
“[The robbers] fled before we arrived on location, probably within seconds of the phone call made to the regional manager,” Speyer said. “But the employees didn’t know that at the time.”
The two robbers, though, didn’t leave the scene empty-handed.
“One of the suspects got an undetermined amount of tip money from one of the waitresses,” Jankowski said.
Outside, heavily armed officers, shrouded by a light fog and darkness, surrounded the restaurant. Walden Avenue and nearby Harlem Road remained open, but Erie County sheriff’s deputies and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority patrol cars blocked entrances to Thruway Plaza.
Emergency medical technicians also were called to the scene.
After Cheektowaga police were able to contact the workers inside – and concluded that the robbers had left the restaurant, Jankowski said – police ordered the witnesses to come out with their hands up, one at a time, which is standard procedure in such situations.
The Cheektowaga police SWAT team then went inside to make sure the building was cleared.
One of the six victims later was evaluated for what police called a minor injury. No one else was injured.
“The victims did a good job of separating themselves from danger,” Speyer said. “They were able to defend themselves without putting themselves in harm’s way by locking themselves in the office.
“We’re thankful,” the police captain added. “This could have been a lot worse.”
After police continued interviewing the victims Monday, detectives provided a limited description of the two robbers.
The one with the handgun was described as about 6 feet tall, wearing a green scarf over his face. His knife-wielding accomplice is about 5-feet-4. Both are black males who wore gray hooded sweatshirts.
At the end of the night, a situation some initially feared might have ended violently was more than enough excitement for Jankowski, who has worked in the department for nearly 32 years.
He doesn’t need any more on-the-job thrills at this point, he said.
“I’m retiring on Wednesday.”