Profusion of iPhones, iPads and laptops could be driving robberies, Iowa City police say

Video: UI students react to Hawk Alert

In the last two weeks, Iowa City police have responded to five robberies – all of them involving weapons, at least two involving guns.

No one was injured in the incidents, including two armed robberies that occured late Tuesday night. But robbery numbers for the Iowa City and University of Iowa police departments already are up over 2011 with two months still left in the year, and officers suspect the increase might have something to do with the value of items students are toting around on their backs.

“People are carrying around more expensive things – like iPads and iPhones,” Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said.

Many students carry laptops, she said, and some of the purses and bags themselves are worth more. Stolen credit cards and debit cards also are easier to use these days, as many store clerks never see the cards or they’re swiped at self-checkout machines.

“It does appear we are having more reports of this,” Brotherton said. “It certainly is something we’re concerned about.”

Tuesday night’s armed robberies occurred in Black’s Gaslight Village in Iowa City about 11:30 p.m. Officers were called about an armed person in the rental apartment “village” at 422 Brown St., and they learned that two separate people reported being robbed within minutes of each other at separate locations in that area.

Both victims said a man approached them, displayed a handgun and pointed it directly at them before demanding their purses, according to police. One victim was smoking at the time and ran into her apartment to get away from the suspect, Brotherton said.

The other person gave the suspect her purse, and lost an undisclosed amount of property and money, police reported.

The suspect fled east on Brown Street, and although officers reported flooding the area, they weren’t able to locate the man, who they believe committed both armed robberies.

The suspect, who was wearing a red bandana over his face, was described as a thin black male, about 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall, in his 20s to 30s. He was wearing a dark blue or black hooded sweatshirt with white writing, and dark pants and dark shoes with white edges, police reported.

The UI sent out a Hawk Alert overnight notifying students that there was a report of an armed robbery, with the suspect walking towards Van Buren Street with a bandana over his face. UI police on Wednesday released a statement recommending students be alert when walking, especially late at night, and to call 911 if they see anything suspicious.

Just a week earlier, Iowa City police arrested three suspects in connection with a separate armed robbery in a residence at 409 South Dodge St. In that case, three men entered the home and one pulled out a handgun, according to police. He pointed it directly at two separate victims and demanded they put their laptop computers into a backpack.

All the suspects fled the area, but police caught up with them a short time later and arrested them on suspicion of a handful of charges, including first-degree robbery. They also arrested the getaway driver, according to police.

Until police arrest suspects and complete their investigations, Brotherton said, it’s difficult to know their motive. But, she said, the value of everyday electronic devices that many students carry around are enticing to criminals.

“It’s an incentive to thieves,” Brotherton said, adding that the Iowa City-area also might be appealing. “There is so much foot traffic and people walking around late at night.”

Robbery numbers have been on the decline in Iowa City since 2009, when they reached 60 on the year, according to police statistics. Last year they were down to 25, but so far this year there have been 29 robberies, a majority of which involved weapons.

“People come here for predatory reasons,” Brotherton said. “They know young people will be out carrying those expensive items and maybe they’ll have their guard down.”

Brotherton said some robbery reports don’t make the statistics when, for example, officers can’t confirm the information because alcohol was involved and the victim doesn’t remember details.

But, she said, officers always recommend reporting suspicious activity. And, Brotherton said, no one should ever risk their life to save their property.

“I would rather see someone get their cell phone stolen than an assault or rape,” she said.

UI freshman Maddie Cavallaro, 18, said the recent robberies are “scary,” and she would follow police advice if faced with an armed robber.

“If someone had a gun pointed at me, I would say, ‘Here take it,’” she said. “Nothing is worth that.”

Cavallaro was getting ready for bed Tuesday night when she and her roommate received the Hawk Alerts. Both of them were “freaked out,” and Cavallaro said she’s going to be holding her phone and other electronics a bit closer when walking at night.

“I will hold them tighter and walk faster,” she said.

When UI sophomore Alexis Bauer, 19, received Tuesday night’s Hawk Alert, she was walking home alone after studying.

“So I was kind of freaked out,” she said. “And this morning when I didn’t wake up to something saying they did get him, I was kind of scared to walk outside.”

Bauer said she was planning to be especially cautious on Wednesday, with it being Halloween.

“A lot of people are going to be out,” she said. “So I’m probably not going to wander around by myself today or any time soon.”

UI junior Laura Gibbs, 20, said she too tries to get rides when possible and avoids walking alone. But, she said, leaving her laptop at home is not a realistic option.

“I don’t even consider that because I do need my laptop,” she said. “But it definitely spikes my anxiety a bit. It’s too bad we have to be scared walking home from the library at night.”


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