Fresno police Tuesday announced the arrest of two men and a juvenile from the Stockton area that detectives say committed a series of high-dollar armed robberies targeting Fresno-area cigarette merchants.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the bandits went after retail store owners buying thousands of dollars worth of smokes before cigarette taxes take a $2 jump on April 1, when Proposition 56 goes into effect.
In custody are Adrian Sarraraz and Edward Balanon, both 20, and the unidentified 17-year-old juvenile. Dyer said the three staked out the Sam’s Club in the 7600 block of North Blackstone Avenue and waited for convenience and liquor store owners to show up and buy large quantities of cigarettes to beat the deadline.
The first robbery took place Feb. 8 at a liquor store at First Street and Herndon Avenue, as the merchant returned from Sam’s Club with $8,000 in cigarettes. After the merchant went inside to fetch a dolly, police say, two bandits broke a window on his vehicle and began taking cartons. When asked, “What are you doing?” by the store owner, one of the men pulled out a handgun and shouted, “get back!” The bandits fled in a gray Chevrolet.
On March 2, a merchant with a store in the 3000 block of West Shields Avenue maxed out his credit card at Sam’s Club buying $10,000 in smokes. A short time later, he and his brother were confronted by bandits. The merchant tried to slam his trunk, but was also stopped at gunpoint. Three hooded robbers took the merchandise and fled in a 2017 black Honda Accord with paper plates.
Dyer said Sam’s Club workers cautioned store owners about the danger of buying big quantities of cigarettes. Apparently, the lure of a good deal overcame the warnings.
On March 6, the owner of a liquor and convenience store in the 3200 block of North Palm Avenue pulled up at his store with $5,000 in cigarettes in his vehicle and was confronted by two men, one armed. Dyer said the victim knew about the robberies and shouted, “call police!” But the robbers took the cigarettes and fled in a gray Mercury. The chief said a witness, who saw the bandits put on hoodies to disguise themselves and then saw the robbery, followed the getaway car for about a half mile on Shields to North Fruit Avenue before he lost it. (Dyer said police do not advise citizens to follow armed bandits.) However, the witness was able to see the logo “BabaCars” on the disappearing vehicle and tipped detectives, who traced the car to a Stockton dealer of that name.
Turns out, one of the suspects, who had purchased the Mercury, recently called to complain that his “check engine” light was on. That led to the suspects, who detectives followed to Fresno. All three were arrested at Sam’s Club, where the chief said it appeared they were preparing to commit another robbery.
Dyer said he “had no doubt” the robberies would have continued, with the chance a victim might have been shot by the bandits.
Most of the cigarettes, however, are still out there. Anyone with information about the missing products is urged to call Detective Pat Mares at (559) 621-2080.