By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Police are looking for five young black men in connection with a number of robberies committed under the guise of raising money for a community basketball team. Most recently, they robbed a man at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant in Flatiron on Sunday evening.
Deputy Inspector Steven Hellman, commanding officer of the 13th Precinct, told community members at a community council meeting on Tuesday that police have identified at least one of the suspects as a 15-year-old boy who has previously been arrested for violent assaults and robberies throughout Manhattan.
In other recent incidents, the boy and four others whose ages are unknown have gone up to victims while holding a clipboard to solicit donations for a basketball team that doesn’t exist.
In the incident at Blue Smoke, a 24-year-old host at the restaurant at 116 East 27th Street was standing inside around 7:20 p.m. when one of the five suspects went up to the victim while holding a clipboard, before grabbing cash out of his hands and fleeing. When the victim ran after the group, one of the suspects allegedly punched him in the back of the head once he got outside and none of the suspects were caught.
Hellman noted that the teen police have identified was previously arrested after he snatched a woman’s phone in Madison Square Park on January 27 and assaulted two other people on the Upper East Side and East Harlem. When he was ultimately caught, he was reportedly in possession of the first victim’s phone. Hellman said that he was locked up for those incidents but was released on February 27. Police have surveillance video of the suspect but have not released it to the public due to his young age.
Hellman said that there have been two other similar incidents since the beginning of January in which the group has targeted businesses between East 27th and 29th Streets from Third to Lexington Avenues, including an incident in Van Diemens Bar and Kitchen on Third Avenue between East 27th and 28th Streets in which the group went up to a woman and punched her in the face, although nothing was stolen.
Hellman advised community residents at the meeting not to engage the suspects if they see them.
Neighborhood resident Kathleen Kelly, a Community Board 6 member and a social worker, expressed concern at the meeting that the 15-year-old wasn’t getting the social services he needs as a minor and Hellman said that he was sympathetic to the teen’s situation but noted that the precinct is focused on catching him because of the nature of the incidents.
“Alternative sentencing doesn’t factor into this because of the violence of the crimes and there are certain parameters,” he said. “Right now I want to catch him but I do understand it’s important to look at why this young boy is resorting to these tactics.”