Armed robbers have been targeting the South Berkeley neighborhood east of the Ashby BART station in recent months, with a spike in robbery reports since mid-November.
Over the past 60 days, there have been at least 28 robberies reported in the area between Adeline Street and Telegraph Avenue — between Ashby and Alcatraz avenues — in South Berkeley and North Oakland. (That number includes several reports just outside those borders.)
From mid-July to mid-September, there were six reports in that area, according to crime statistics posted online by local police agencies. During the next two months there were seven robberies reported in the vicinity. Most of those incidents, from both periods, took place in Berkeley. Then, from mid-November through mid-January, there were 15 reports, split nearly equally between Berkeley and Oakland. At least eight of those involved firearms. (One of those incidents happened Tuesday and does not yet appear as part of the available data set.)
The Berkeley Police Department began a joint patrol with BART Police officers in early December, and is collaborating with the Oakland Police Department to investigate a rash of armed robberies involving stolen cars that had been concentrated within a few blocks of each other on the North Oakland-South Berkeley border near Ashby BART station. There have been at least five reported incidents in the area since then.
Earlier this week, a man was robbed at gunpoint while walking home from Ashby BART at the same intersection, at Woolsey and Tremont streets, where a pregnant woman was robbed by men with a gun in December. At least six of the 28 incidents reported over the past six months have been listed as having occurred in that same intersection. (As of publication time, this most recent incident had not year appeared on the list.)
The man who was robbed this week said he was walking home from BART at 8 p.m. Tuesday when three men surrounded him, held him at gunpoint, and took his backpack, wallet, cellphone and wedding ring. (Berkeleyside has agreed to identify him only by his first name, Adam, because he was the victim of a crime.)
He said he was walking east along Woolsey near Tremont and noticed three men who were huddled together, looking down and whispering.
“They looked like they were up to no good. My instinct was to run,” Adam said. “But I thought to myself, ‘You can’t just run every time you see people huddled together.’”
He quickened his pace and continued up the street. Moments later, Adam said he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling, so he started to turn around. Two of the men he’d seen earlier were right there. They each grabbed one of his arms, and pulled him toward a nearby fence. The third man was holding a gun on him.
“He put his hands in my pockets and started taking stuff,” said Adam, adding that the men were mostly silent during the incident. “The guy behind me took the backpack off me. Then they casually walked away. They didn’t run. It was like it was no big deal.”
They told him to walk the other way. But it wasn’t over.
“One of them said, ‘The ring, too. Don’t forget his ring,’” said Adam. The man with the gun ran up to him and took his wedding ring off his finger.
Adam said he then took a chance, realizing he’d have no way to get inside his home, and asked the robbers to give him back his keys. Before leaving, they threw the keys his way and headed off down the road into an alley.
Immediately, Adam began asking passers-by for help. He said he hadn’t been the only one walking home at the time of the robbery, but that no one else was especially close. A man gave Adam his phone so he could call police.
Berkeley officers arrived within what seemed like only a minute, said Adam. He made the report and, a short time later, was joined by his wife. She hadn’t known about the robbery but was walking home herself when she saw her husband surrounded by police. An officer drove them home after the report was complete.
At 11 p.m., Adam said he was checking email when he received a message from a woman who said she had found a backpack with his email address on it as she was cycling home on San Pablo Avenue near 54th Street, about two miles away.
Adam said, right around that time, he got a call from the patrol officer he’d spoken with earlier, Jitendra Singh, who said he wanted to go pick up the bag himself.
Throughout the night, Adam said he’d been checking the Find my iPhone app to see if his phone’s signal might appear. The robbers had turned off the phone immediately after the robbery, and there had been no sign of it. Around 11:30 p.m., the phone suddenly showed up in East Oakland near 85th Avenue and San Leandro Street.
He said he called Berkeley Police dispatch immediately to report the discovery. A dispatcher told him, however, that since the phone was in Oakland, he’d have to call the Oakland police. After 10 minutes spent navigating different menus and trying to get through to someone in Oakland, however, he gave up.
“Right at that time, officer Singh came by our house with the backpack,” said Adam. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this signal on here.’ He was definitely interested.” Singh rallied up three other Berkeley Police officers, and headed over to Oakland.
Adam and his wife stayed up watching the screen to see what would happen with the phone signal, which never seemed to move. At around 2 a.m., the signal went off. Then, at 2:30 a.m., Singh arrived back at their house with the phone.
From what Adam understood, Singh told him that the men had apparently robbed at least one other person, then gotten into a car and been chased. They had crashed the car in East Oakland, and taken off on foot, leaving much of their loot in the car. An Oakland police officer had turned on the phone when he found it in the car. The ring, however, was still missing.
“The officer [Singh] said he just tore the car apart hoping to find it,” said Adam on Thursday night. “He really seemed like he cared. And today we saw him patrolling the area.”
(The couple is still hoping the ring turns up. It’s described as hammered metal with an inscription of “My Podmate” on it. They have posted a notice on Craigslist to try to track it down.)
All in all, Adam said he felt lucky that nothing worse had happened, and that he had gotten back most of his belongings.
“My wife keeps saying I seem just remarkably calm about the whole thing,” he said. “I just feel sad that they feel that this is their only option… that that’s what they think they have to do.”
Better lighting may make a difference, some say
Neighbors and officials have said they believe a lack of adequate lighting in the area may be contributing to the danger.
Nancy Carleton, co-chair of the Halcyon neighborhood group, said neighbors have been asking for help from the city to improve what she described as “subpar” lighting. She noted that Jim Hynes, from the Berkeley city manager’s office, had visited the neighborhood Friday morning to get a better sense of the problem.
Carleton said she’s seen better lighting make a difference to improve safety.
“When we were having a series of robberies on Prince Street some years back, addressing the lighting issues seemed to have a positive effect,” she said, via email. “We hope and trust the City of Berkeley will act quickly to address the subpar lighting on Woolsey Street near the Ed Roberts Campus.”
She said the president of a nearby neighborhood group, the LeConte Neighborhood Association, encourages residents to walk with flashlights after dark “both to add light and also as a clear signal to potential robbers that you’re paying attention and alert and they won’t be able to escape without being seen and described.”
Added Carleton, “We also do our best to encourage neighbors to leave on porch lights.”
Local council members are also getting involved with the effort.
Councilman Kriss Worthington said Thursday that he is working together with Councilman Max Anderson’s office to refer the lighting issue to the city manager’s office and the public works department.
“It’s a heavily trafficked area with all the people getting off of BART and walking home,” said Worthington. “I’ve gone and walked and ridden my bike around there. It definitely is not very brightly lit.”
He said the city has struggled to keep up with lighting needs because its streetlight fund “is very limited” and “not in very good shape.” Worthington said he has pushed for LED lighting because it’s cheaper in the long term and could make a big difference.
(The city has applied for a loan to install LED lighting throughout Berkeley. According to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, the city has received a “preliminary award,” and is still discussing the terms of that offer, but “should know more by the end of the month.”)
In the meantime, said Worthington, the city needs to take a closer look at whether overgrown trees may be blocking existing lighting, and redouble trimming efforts. He said that, though the city’s resources are limited, firm steps must be taken if there’s an obvious problem.
“We need to look carefully,” he said. “Anywhere there’s a pattern of negative behavior in terms of robberies, we need to prioritize it.”
Police join forces on Berkeley-Oakland robbery series (12.11.13)
Pregnant woman robbed at gunpoint in South Berkeley (12.10.13)
Berkeley man shot Sunday night at Ashby Flea Market (12.02.13)
4 Oakland teens arrested after Berkeley robbery attempt (11.07.13)
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