HAZELWOOD • On the same night Brian Johnson was fatally shot while delivering pizzas to a home in Dellwood, another pizza delivery driver was robbed about five miles away.
That other driver, who did not want to be named or photographed Wednesday, described the robber as a teenager who asked him for change for a $100 bill. When he told the kid he didn’t carry that kind of cash, the youth swiped his pizzas and ran.
That encounter on Nov. 5 didn’t deter the driver from returning to work at the Imo’s pizzeria in Hazelwood. His co-workers said they have heard that a few drivers have left their jobs in recent days amid a spate of similar holdups. One of the now ex-drivers had been robbed earlier this week at gunpoint by a man wearing a Spiderman mask.
The robberies prompted St. Louis County police to set up a meeting Wednesday with executives from Imo’s and other pizza companies, Chinese restaurant owners and representatives of companies that deliver rented goods to discuss an undercover sting targeting would-be robbers.
“The police being proactive like this is important to us, because our priority is the safety of our drivers,” said Steve Conway, chief financial officer for Imo’s. “We’re appreciative that they’re getting this far involved.”
The police sting involves sending undercover officers to deliver pizzas. They’ve already made their first arrest — but not for robbery. An officer delivering a pizza to a home in the 1400 block of Attica Drive in Bellefontaine Neighbors on Tuesday smelled marijuana coming from a car where the 21-year-old customer was waiting.
The customer never tried to rob the officer, and allowed officers into his home. Inside, they found heroin, a loaded firearm and more than $2,000 cash. The suspect has a criminal history, which includes trying to assault police officers, said St. Louis County Officer Randy Vaughn.
“We’re not just focused on robberies,” he said. “If an officer sees a law, any law, being broken, we’re going to investigate. And now we have a very bad guy off the street.”
Sending undercover officers to deliver pizzas isn’t a new policing strategy. In Pensacola, Fla., in 1995, an undercover officer carrying his weapon beneath a pizza box shot and killed a 15-year-old who pointed a shotgun at him, according to news reports at the time.
The officers involved in the county’s detail typically spend their time working undercover investigating narcotics cases, Vaughn said.
“They know what they’re doing and they know what to look for,” Vaughn said. “They can usually tell if somebody is armed just by looking at them.”
About four years ago in Alton, an officer disguised as a Domino’s pizza delivery driver arrested a robber who had targeted drivers there, said Gary Bugajski, the local operations director.
Bugajski attended Wednesday’s meeting and said many of the suggestions officers had for drivers to keep themselves safe on the job are already used by companies that deliver pizzas.
Domino’s drivers, for example, don’t carry more than $20 cash, and they wear name tags noting that they have less than that amount with them, he said.
Nathan Cook, a district manager for Domino’s who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, talked about networking with competitors to share phone numbers and locations that have caused problems in the past.
He recalled how a Domino’s store warned a nearby Imo’s store in south St. Louis earlier this year of a phone number that appeared to be connected to a robbery. Workers at the Imo’s store alerted police when they got a call from that number, and officers were able to thwart a robbery, Cook said.
The unincorporated areas of the county and the cities the county police patrol have logged 19 pizza delivery robberies since January 2011. That number doesn’t include robberies in cities with their own police forces, Chief Tim Fitch said.
Municipal police departments from North County, where the robberies have occurred, were invited to Wednesday’s meeting.
Fitch said he expects the undercover operation to last at least a few months.
Vaughn said the publicity about the sting might be enough to deter robbers. “This might make them think twice about taking that chance that the guy delivering their pizza might actually be an armed and experienced undercover officer,” he said.