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.

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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)

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  • doug_y_doug

    The gun had a large capacity magazine. It was probably purchased from a private party across state lines. No background checks required.

  • djoelt1

    They could have made way more with no risk of prison standing outside Truitt and White for a weekend.

  • Ed S.

    I’m sure this was one big misunderstanding . . .

  • Woolsey

    A tip jar. Aspirational
    deficit? Shouldn’t they be robbing a line of casual carpoolers?

  • bingo

    Thug life, respect! Punching a 61 year old man for tip jar change. Really Oakland?

  • AnnaSumpter

    I question that statement in the article, as they didn’t say if it was after-market or standard. Glocks can hold, as a standard amount, more than 10 rounds in the magazine.

    A “high-capacity magazine” would be one of the Glock or 3rd-party 33-round magazines, or the Korean drum magazine.

    Any magazine that is the same length as the end of the grip when fully inserted into the gun is “standard capacity”.

    Need more information about the actual equipment to make the accusation “high-capacity”.

  • Truth Sayer

    The federal description under the Assault Weapons Ban is usually is a magazine that has more than a 10 round capacity. Yet, I have known the term to be where a magazine for a pistol which extends out beyond the the pistol grip. Here is a photo of one which is illegal in many states.

  • doug_y_doug

    I agree with you there because I generally consider the magazines you refer to in your third paragraph as standard capacity (as an enthusiast, of course), but in California, a high capacity magazine is defined as any magazine capable of holding more than ten rounds. Any magazine capable of holding more than ten rounds is illegal in California with limited exceptions, but completely legal in surrounding states. Those magazines are included as standard equipment with guns sold outside of California, which is one of the reasons that leads me to believe the gun was originally purchased outside of California.

  • AnnaSumpter

    They could also have made even more than *that* if they dressed less “thuggishly” and cruised one of the various and sundry boulevards looking for older white males to take them home.

    I can pretty much guarantee if they brokered decent deals, they could have bought new computers in a matter of days.

    Of course, I don’t condone that sort of action (seeing as I’m joking), but that, instead of stealing, would have been better for everyone involved.

    Though, if they continue on their course, they’ll find themselves in a very violent, restrictive environment, where they will probably… Well, the situation is *similar*, but they wouldn’t get paid for it.

  • disqus_S1ql48Vi9i

    nice bail amount!