Large gang of gunmen in city shooting spree
Gobind's cambio robbed
By Andre Haynes and Edlyn Benfield
December 4, 2002
One policeman was shot dead as a large gang of gunmen let off a barrage of bullets along Regent Street yesterday morning and unleashed terror with channa bombs before making off with at least $2.5M from Gobind's Variety Store and Cambio.
Police have taken two persons into custody and are said to be searching the East Coast for gang members who vanished into the canefields of the East Demerara Sugar Estates after hijacking motorbikes from GUYSUCO workers at La Bonne Intention. Sources said that raids on specific houses in Buxton were carried out yesterday. The audacious attack and drama-filled escape heralded the re-emergence of the type of crime that besieged the country since the February 23 escape of five men from the Georgetown Prison. There had been a lull in such crimes since October 28 when two of the men were killed in shoot-outs.
The gunmen, who police say numbered between 12 to 15 are believed to have hijacked at least two cars moments before the attack on the cambio in what appeared to be a well-planned operation. The hijacked vehicles were later abandoned in Campbellville and on the Rupert Craig highway at Conversation Tree where volleys of gunfire went off. The driver and conductor of a minibus which had earlier been hijacked were detained at the Vigilance Police Station.
A release from the Police Public Relations Office said that around 9 am the first vehicle, a burgundy coloured motor car, HA 9402, registered with the Bayridge Taxi Service, "was hijacked on Sheriff Street by two armed bandits, who placed the driver in the back seat of the vehicle and drove to town." The release further added that a Route 44 minibus, BGG 1031, was hijacked in the vicinity of Regent and King Streets, also by two armed men. It is not clear whether this reported hijacking was before or after the robbery at Gobind's, which is said to have occurred also sometime around 9 am.
It was while Gobind's was being raided that Constable Quincy James was gunned down as he marshalled traffic at the junction. He was said to have taken at least 10 bullets, many of them in his chest.
According to police three unmasked bandits, armed with what eyewitnesses described as long guns, entered Gobind's, discharged several rounds, causing employees to dash out of the store leaving $2.5M and an undisclosed amount of foreign currency.
Stabroek News understands that the men called for the owner by name and discharged several rounds forcing the proprietor and his employees to hustle out the rear exit. The police said, "it is alleged that the bandits stole the money and escaped in vehicles which were previously hijacked."
The gunmen also entered the Alim Shah Wholesale and Retail Store, just one building away from Gobind's. Reports reaching Stabroek News suggest that two of the bandits may have mistakenly entered this store thinking it was the cambio.
One man, armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, stood at the entrance and discharged several rounds into the store, forcing everyone to duck for cover. An employee said one of the bandits came in and told the guard: "Close the door or I'll shoot."
He said another man then entered, "hollering, give me the money! Give me the money!" While they lay on the floor, he said, the man kept saying "Gimme de money or I'll kill." "We gon kill y'all if y'all don't give we de money." Employees and customers, according to the eyewitness, however made their way out through the store's rear exit.
Another eyewitness who had remained in the store said the gunman started to fire off rounds. But either he ran out of bullets or the gun jammed. The second man provided him with another magazine, then entered the store with a cigarette lighter and lit a channa bomb, which he threw into the well of the store. It exploded and ignited a fire, later put out by employees. At least two other channa bombs were left at the scene. Channa bombs were found in one safe house raided by the police on October 28. The discovery raised concerns about what use they were to be put to. Stabroek News was told that the men made off with an undisclosed sum of money from the Alim Shah store.
All the while gunmen standing guard were controlling the area by firing shots any which way. One eyewitness said the gunmen had been shouting, "Lock off that side!" as they continued the heavy fire. This caused massive damage to nearby vehicles and stores as pedestrians as far as Water Street dashed for any kind of cover. Stores along Regent Street shut tight in an instant even as bullets pierced their windows and walls.
At a press conference later Deputy Commissioner of Police Winston Felix said reports police had received, including the hijacking on Sheriff Street, had not mentioned the Gobind's raid and he suggested that "... a certain call or certain information ...may have tended to put the police in the wrong direction."
Meanwhile the Esso Gas Station at the corner of Regent and King Streets was being riddled with bullets which shattered two store doors and windows. The side of the Avishkars building was also sprayed with bullets.
Police said the bandits continued to fire as they moved in a convoy of three vehicles east towards Camp Street, including the Burgundy Bayridge taxi, HA 9402.
At the junction of Regent and Wellington, the gunmen according to police, fired upon a police booth. A diesel fuel pump at the Guyoil Gas Station was also damaged.
On reaching Regent and Camp Street gunmen took aim at another traffic policeman who sustained minor injuries trying to scramble into a nearby businesses. Meanwhile the gunmen hijacked another vehicle, PHH 5550, between Camp and Alexander streets. The men, Stabroek News was informed, again cleared the street by continually firing shots both in the air and at the nearby B&A store.
After hijacking the vehicle, the men got off Regent Street, going north into Alexander Street, firing all the way. At each point bewildered persons dashed for cover and were left in a state of panic and chaos.
As the bandits made off north into Alexander Street 32-year-old Sheik Mohammed was shot twice in the upper left side of his back. Mohammed told Stabroek News that he had been riding his bicycle west along Regent Street, when he heard the sound of the gunfire and immediately turned around. He said he pedalled into Alexander Street and as the vehicles with the gunmen passed he threw himself to the ground. Soon after he got to his feet, he felt searing pain in his back and discovered that he had been shot. He was taken to the Georgetown Public Hospital, where he was treated and sent away.
According to the police, the taxi HA 9402 was later found abandoned at Stone Avenue and First Street, Campbellville, with extensive damage to the front portion.
An eyewitness told Stabroek News that the bandits were forced to abandon the vehicle when it was hit by a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. The source said following the collision, a white car closely following the taxi also hit the vehicle from behind. The gunmen emerged from the taxi and entered the white car. The eyewitness recalled that one of the men, who was armed with a "long gun," was nearly left stranded as the white car took off. However the vehicle slowed for the man and he managed to jump into the back passenger seat, along with the others.
Meanwhile PHH 5550 which had been hijacked at Regent Street, was later found abandoned at Conversation Tree, East Coast Demerara.
It is believed that the bandits, using both the white car and the minibus, BGG 1031, which had been hijacked at Regent and King Streets, made their escape to the Plaisance backdam. Sources said that the vehicles unloaded the men near the canefields.
This was confirmed in the police report which said the men "hijacked four motorcycles from estate employees, one of which was later recovered at the Lusignan Backdam." An army source told Stabroek News that two motorbikes were found, one at the Lusignan Spring Bridge and one further behind the same village.
The minibus was later detained by police at Plaisance and the driver and conductor were taken into custody, "pending inquiries," the police said.
Constable James, of Thomas Street (North), Kitty, who enrolled as a member of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) in March of this year, is the eleventh law enforcement officer to be brutally gunned down since the February 23 jailbreak in which a prison guard was killed and another critically injured.
James' elder sister, Monette McAlmont, yesterday described him as quiet, friendly and a jovial person. The police officer leaves to mourn, in addition to his sister, his parents; Brenton McAlmont and Leona James (currently in Antigua) and his brother, Kenton.
Besides Mohammed, a number of persons were injured in the ensuing crossfire including attorney-at-law Roger Yearwood, who received a superficial wound to the forehead where a bullet grazed him. According to reports, Yearwood was at the time returning to his chambers after leaving the Supreme Court when he was hit at the junction of South Road and King Street. The lawyer, who was admitted to the Bar in October, was treated at a city hospital.
Additionally, Kevin Campbell, 28, was also treated at the GPHC for gunshot wounds. Campbell, a bystander, is believed to have lost part of an ear.
A source told Stabroek News that an off-duty Special Constable attached to the Tactical Services Unit (TSU) said he was standing at the junction of Regent Street and Avenue of the Republic when he saw a white Toyota Corona #PFF 4051 closely followed by a burgundy Toyota Corona HA 9402 turn into Regent Street from King Street. At that stage, approximately nine men armed with AK-47s and M70 rifles alighted and began firing rapidly in all directions fatally wounding James and injuring a number of other persons.
Asked about the police response time, Felix said the rampage took no longer than two to three minutes. "I can tell you at first hand that we did not get (any) information (about the robbery). We heard about a shooting at Hinck Street and I sent off a vehicle to check that. We heard about armed men in a vehicle at Conversation Tree. We sent off to check that. We heard the shooting was at Nandalall's place on Regent Street, and we heard about somewhere in Stone Avenue. All these areas we had dispatched to until we got confirmation that the shooting was specifically at the corners of Regent and King Streets. We had all this information on different places (but) none was specific. We checked all until we confirmed that spot."
Asked if the police had been distracted Felix said "I thought that the shooting indiscriminately to escape was a distraction device to remove immediate attention from their escape so that they would not be immediately followed".
Asked whether there was any consideration of arming policemen who have been positioned in larger numbers on the streets for the Christmas season, Felix said "the Guyana Police Force like other Police Forces is basically a semi-military organisation. We are not a combat unit, we intend to police the country using minimum force. Only those policemen who need to carry firearms will be issued with firearms. But, incidents like these would tend now to raise the threat level and bring such considerations to the fore. So we may have to consider our peace time method of policing in at least the city".
This is the first large scale raid after a month in which many had hoped signalled the end of what has become months of murder and mayhem ignited by the escape of five prisoners from the Camp St Prison on Mash Day. This scourge was temporarily halted on October 28 when five men including two of the escapees were killed in separate early morning incidents. With another escapee, Andrew Douglas killed a few months earlier it was suggested the remaining two might lay low. But it appears with yesterday's raid, citizens' hopes for a quiet Christmas have been severely dashed. (Additional reporting by Kim Lucas and Patrick Denny)
How it happened
*9 am: Two gunmen hijack taxi (HA 9402) on Sheriff St, push driver in trunk.
*Minibus reported hijacked on Regent and King Sts.
*Three unmasked men carrying long guns storm Gobind' Variety Store and Cambio on same Regent and King sts firing shots and making off with at least $2.5M.
*At the same time, two gunmen shoot dead rookie traffic cop Quincy James.
*A channa bomb is thrown in Alim Shah's store but quickly extinguished.
* Gang of 12-15 bandits in a convoy of three vehicles proceed down Regent St spraying bullets at stores. Bandits fire on Guyoil gas station on Wellington St, open fire but miss traffic cop at Camp St.
*Bandits then hijack next car (PHH 5550) on Regent St between Alexander and Camp Sts.
*Turn into Alexander St and shoot bicyclist in the back.
* Taxi (HA 9402) found abandoned and damaged in Stone Avenue Campbellville.
*Vehicle PHH 5550 found abandoned on highway at Conversation Tree, gunshots fired.
*Remaining vehicles drop gunmen off in Plaisance backdam where they hijack four motorcycles from GUYSUCO workers in Plaisance backdam. Two found later in Lusignan backdam.
*Minibus BGG 1031 detained at Vigilance.
*Driver and Conductor now in police custody.
*Police search houses in Buxton as part of manhunt on East Coast.