Authorities are still searching for a suspect, described as a black male in his 30s approximately 175 pounds and 5'8", in connection with a botched armed robbery in the early evening hours last week on Tuesday at Magruder's Grocery on Maple Avenue in downtown Vienna.
According to police reports, at approximately 5 p.m. on March 6, the suspect stepped up to the customer service desk and asked for a job application from an employee.
After following the female assistant manager to the back of the store, he moved in close to her and asked if she knew the policy for robberies. He then pulled up his sweatshirt to show her a gun tucked into his waistband before threatening her life if she didn't show him to the safe, according to records.
When the assistant manager returned to the front of the store for her keys, another manager noticed that something was bothering the woman and asked if she needed any help, causing the suspect to abruptly turn around and leave the store empty-handed.
"In this case everyone did what they needed to do and fortunately nobody got hurt and he didn't get any money," said Wally McClanahan, store manager of Magruder's, who was present during the incident.
Still, the attempted robbery has caused the employees and managers to review its security policies, McClanahan added.
"I've worked in a lot of different places … and you don't think that something like this would normally happen in Vienna," he said. "Needless to say, this is one of those incidents that snaps you out of a state of complacency."
WITH THE NEWS of the attempted robbery comes a renewed call from local authorities for grocery store customers to monitor their belongings while shopping, a common environment for thieves looking to steal money or wallets. Each week, Vienna police receive one to three reports of wallets or valuables being stolen while a customer is shopping, according to Vienna Police Department officer V.L. Palmore.
"These larcenies have been happening since people have been grocery shopping and they will continue to happen on a regular basis until people stop putting their bags in their carts and walking away," Palmore said.
Common tactics used by thieves in this sense involve waiting for someone who has left a purse or other bag unattended in their shopping cart to turn their heads or leave the bag unattended as they reach for something on the shelves, according to Palmore.
"A customer will leave their purse and turn around to check on one item, and that second of time is all that a thief needs," she said. "You have to be mindful of your things at all times."
More advanced strategies will involve a team of thieves, with one working to distract a customer by asking a question or asking for assistance while the other takes the opportunity to steal a wallet or purse, Palmore added.
THE KEY TO STAYING safe while shopping is to remain aware of surroundings and never let a bag or purse to get out of your sight, according to Beverly McCoy, store manager of Safeway supermarket on Maple Avenue in Vienna.
"I don't think we're in a crime-stricken area by any means … but people always need to be aware of their surroundings," McCoy said. "When you eliminate the opportunity, that's how you stop these things from happening."
And it is sensing that opportunity that might cause a crime that might not have been the initial intention of the perpetrator, McClanahan said.
"A lot of people might not think of [stealing] normally, but if you walk away from your cart and have a purse open with money sticking out, sometimes they might take that opportunity," he said.
While stores do provide surveillance cameras and security officers who watch out for customers as well as merchandise, visitors still must remain vigilant for their own security, according to Jamie Miller, corporate public affairs manager for Giant Food Supermarkets.
"I think a lot of it is common sense … don't let your purse out of your sight when you come into a store," Miller said. "It's a public gathering place and obviously for that there's a lot of people in one area," making a supermarket a place where petit larceny takes place.
All three of the stores encourage their employees to look out for people who may have left a purse or wallet where it could be vulnerable to thieves, according to representatives. But the first line of defense against theft has to be with the customers, Palmore said.
The best way to do that, she added, is by keeping purses and wallets locked in car trunks while shopping, taking only what is necessary to shop with.
"If people want to avoid these incidents … they need to eliminate the opportunity," Palmore said. "These incidents ... are so avoidable, people just need watch what they're doing."