Berkeley café owner recounts tip jar robbery with gun

Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. Image: Google Maps
Caffé Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. Image: Google Maps

A local coffee shop owner on Telegraph Avenue fought back after three teens with a gun tried to rob him in late September. The Alameda County district attorney’s office charged the young men with robbery this week.

According to court documents, Jeremiah Lee, Willie Smith and Markeise Prince — all three of Oakland — were loitering inside Caffé Mediterraneum, at 2475 Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, when Prince grabbed cash from the tip jar and tried to run away just before 11:40 p.m. on Sept. 28.

The café owner, 61-year-old Craig Becker, confronted Prince and tackled him, wrote police. A struggle ensued, and Lee began to punch Becker to try to free Prince, authorities said.

In an interview Wednesday, Becker said he and a friend had been playing a board game when the theft took place: “I saw this guy reach into the tip jar and steal some tips. I ran out and caught him just as he was reaching our door. I told him to give it back. We ended up getting into a fist fight and rolling around on the floor.”


Becker said he felt someone hitting or kicking him while he fought with Prince, and heard the “crashing and banging of dishes” in the background: “Eventually they sort of got loose and ran away.”

Police said one of the men also threatened on-lookers that he had a handgun, but Becker said he didn’t hear that.

Had he known there was a gun involved, Becker, a Berkeley resident, said he’s not sure he would have had the same reaction. But he was motivated in the moment by a drive to protect his staff, his customers and his property.

He noted that the tip money didn’t amount to much, and that it would have gone to staff and not him. But that wasn’t the point, he said: “It’s the idea of somebody coming in and thinking they can rob something from the shop. It was only a couple dollars, but it wouldn’t really matter whether it was $1 or $1,000. The principle is the same. I don’t want to allow people to come in and steal stuff.”

The teens fled south on Telegraph on foot. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots, and police later found two shell casings at the northeast corner of Dwight Way and Telegraph. Becker said he didn’t hear the gunshots but was told that the young men may have been firing warning shots at people who followed them outside.

Police who responded detained Lee, 19, and Smith, 18, in the 2600 block of Regent Street. They located Prince hiding behind a trash can in the same block. One officer found a loaded 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun with a large-capacity magazine in the front yard where Prince, 19, had been hiding, authorities wrote.

Witnesses identified the three men, and they were arrested on suspicion of robbery. Police also noted that a records check regarding the weapon showed it to be clear and unregistered with the Department of Justice.

Becker said, since he bought the business seven years ago, he’s had a few run-ins with drunks who come inside and cause problems, or people knocking over the recycling bins out front. But he said he generally considers the neighborhood “very safe,” and thanked police for their speedy response: “How often, when three guys run away like that, how often are the police able to catch them? And they caught all three.”

This week, the district attorney’s office charged all three men with second-degree robbery. A special allegation regarding the discharge of a firearm was noted for Lee. Authorities also included “armed with a firearm” clauses for Prince and Smith. All three would be eligible for state prison if convicted.

The young men remain in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Lee with a bail of $250,000, and Prince and Smith with a bail of $75,000. They are scheduled for a pre-trial hearing Oct. 10 at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland.

Related:
2 women charged after Berkeley stun gun robberies (09.30.13)
Oakland parolee charged after 2 robberies in Berkeley (09.24.13)
Berkeley pedestrian robberies up 35%, burglaries up too (09.17.13)
Op-Ed: We need to be able to walk our streets and not be afraid (08.21.13)
2 arrested after UC Berkeley campus robbery, 2 at-large (07.18.13)
Police seek 3 after armed robbery on Warring Street (06.25.13)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.