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String of Armed Robberies in Oak Forest Area Has Business Owners on Edge

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He was only picking up drinking water from Restaurant Depot to prepare for his bar Ritual's annual White Linen Night party in the Heights — but then a bullet flew over his head. And like everyone else in the store, all Ken Sheppard could think to do was run for his life through aisles of restaurant supplies.

Sheppard was about 25 feet from Restaurant Depot's front door when three men armed with shotguns stormed in, shooting into the ceiling. Sheppard followed employees and customers out the store's back door and ran west along TC Jester Boulevard toward Ella Boulevard. He was yelling on the phone to a Ritual employee as he ran, saying “Don't come here! They're shooting at everyone!” “He said I sounded hysterical,” Sheppard recalled.

No one was hurt or killed during the robbery. Houston Police Department spokesman Victor Senties said the suspects quickly stole some cash and fled with a getaway driver in a mid-2000s Mercedes SUV. Though he was a bit shaken up that day, Sheppard was on his way to forgetting about the incident.

That is, until one of his own restaurants, about a mile north of Restaurant Depot, was robbed on Friday. And now he and other local business owners recently victimized in the same area are not so sure what happened to them is random.

Just as a Pink's Pizza employee was hanging the “CLOSED” sign on the joint's front window at 11 p.m. Friday, three men armed with shotguns, wearing bandannas and construction masks over their faces, stormed in. One held a gun to the employee's head. Jason Parmet, Pink's operations manager, said the robbers demanded to be taken to the safe, from which they stole $250 before speeding away in a two-tone pickup truck. All in plain view of several witnesses enjoying drinks outside the lively bar next door. Parmet said the employee with the gun to her head remembered noticing the masked man's hand shaking more than her own.

“To come in with three shotguns for a matter of $250, it just blows me away,” Parmet said.

Parmet and Sheppard are concerned the two incidents were carried out by the same perpetrators. Their concerns are only multiplied by the fact that Pink's Pizza is just one of three businesses on North Shepherd Drive to be robbed in the past month, plus two others who were robbed around the time of the Restaurant Depot stickup.

Binh Le, owner of LV Nails Salon on North Shepherd, said two armed men held up his salon on a rainy Sunday afternoon in mid-August and went as far as pointing a gun at a nine-year-old girl who was at the salon with her mom. The robbers left when Le told them honestly that the salon does not accept cash payments. That same weekend, Kimberly Alvarez, owner of several area businesses including the restaurant Jus' Mac, was pistol-whipped in front of her Oak Forest home by an armed robber wearing white mask, who jumped out of a pickup truck and first robbed her boyfriend. And just over the weekend, Le said the Sunny Food Store just up the street from him was robbed, and one of the employees was injured, too.

“It's just a bad thing when there's honest people out there trying to make a living, and then there's people who within an instant want to take it away from you just like that,” Parmet said. “It could have been a lot worse than it was. We're all on edge, to be honest.”

As KHOU reported following the nail salon and pistol-whipping incidents, the Oak Forest Homeowner's Association decided to increase the neighborhood private security patrol by 50 percent. Likewise, victimized business owners are investing in more security features; at LV Nails, for example, Le said customers can't even freely enter anymore — they have to be buzzed in. Parmet implemented the same type of lock at Pink's which kicks in after 9 p.m. He said he is considering hiring a nightly security guard too.

Last month, the Houston Press also explored a string of restaurant burglaries — some of the burglars being sophisticated enough that they crawled through the store so as to avoid setting off alarms. Some business owners, all of whom also had to implement extra security precautions, told the Press they were dissatisfied with police action.

Senties said that the HPD robbery division is still investigating these recent thefts, though it is too soon to say whether or not the incidents are related.

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