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Cops: Robbers targeting Asian restaurant owners

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Felix Pierson

Police believe a team of armed robbers has been targeting Asian restaurant owners across Gwinnett and elsewhere for months, tracking their movements and making out with thousands of dollars in cash during late-night heists.

Two arrests have now been made — including one man charged years ago in a similar spree.

Gwinnett County police said Wednesday that Darnell Rice, 39, and Felix Pierson, 40, had been arrested in Orange County, Fla., on charges there, in Cobb County and in Gwinnett. Authorities believe the men are responsible for a five-month spree of well-planned, sometimes violent robberies against females they believed to be restaurant owners.

Eight Gwinnett robberies targeted representatives from Asian restaurants across the county — Dacula, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Norcross and Snellville — and the details differ slightly. The primary M.O., though, is similar for each crime.

“The suspects would gather intelligence and conduct surveillance on their intended targets,” Gwinnett County police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith said. “They would wait for a victim to close her business for the night and then follow her home. On the night of a robbery the suspects would lie in wait near the driveway of the target’s home.”

The men would then take the victim’s purse, using a handgun and physical force if necessary, police said. The target? Large amounts of cash, the restaurant’s take for that day or several days prior.

Local incidents reported to authorities netted Rice and Pierson at least $56,000, according to incident reports. Some of those crimes:

— The most recent incident reported in Gwinnett took place on Aug. 17. Late that night, the owners of Dacula’s Sun Garden restaurant returned to their Duluth home and began walking inside when the female co-owner, 37, realized a light was left on in the car.

As she walked back outside, two black males grabbed her purse — which had about $1,000 cash inside — and fled behind a neighbor’s house. Police later discovered the house had been ransacked, with closets and drawers emptied and mattresses flipped. Approximately $300 was taken from a child’s bank.

TVs, iPads and laptops inside were not taken.

— On July 25, the owners of China One in Lawrenceville returned to their Norcross home and backed into the driveway. They were met with two black males standing outside a silver passenger car one house down. A third male sat behind the wheel.

“(The female victim) said one of the males stuck their gun to her chest and grabbed her purse while the other male pushed her,” an incident report said. About $3,000 cash was taken.

The male victim had noticed a vehicle similar to their assailants’ circling the neighborhood on previous nights.

— On June 25, the owners of Norcross’ China Garden came home to their Duluth residence.

“Two black males wearing hooded sweatshirts came out from behind a tree in the front of their house,” a police report said, “(and) one of the males came up to (the female victim) and forced her to the ground telling her to give up her purse … The second male pointed a black gun toward (the victim) and finally she surrendered her purse.”

The victim’s Coach purse had about $17,000 cash inside.

— On April 22, in what is believed to be the first robbery and attack, the owners of Hibachi Grill on Jimmy Carter Boulevard were greeted at their Norcross front porch by “four to five black males” wearing all black. One pointed a gun at the couple.

The female victim fled on foot but was chased and pushed to the ground.

“The victim stated she was punched several times in the face and head,” police said. “The victim said one of the black males had ripped her purse (off) her shoulder and at that point the black males had ran away.”

A total of $21,000 was stolen.

Late in September, Gwinnett County police detectives reportedly learned that Rice and Pierson were likely planning a similar robbery in Orange County, Fla. They traveled south to work with authorities there.

“Working together, detectives took Rice and Pierson into custody before they could complete the robbery,” Smith said. “Upon searching Rice’s vehicle, detectives located property belonging to multiple victims from Gwinnett.”

The duo remained in custody in Florida as of Wednesday.

In addition to crimes there and in Gwinnett, authorities believe they are responsible for robberies in Cobb County. Rice was charged “in a previous series of robberies targeting Asian business owners in 2009,” Smith said.

Despite the arrests, police are still looking for possible victims.

“Detectives are concerned that additional cases involving these suspects have gone unreported,” Smith said. “They ask anyone who may have been a victim and not reported the crime to call 770-513-5300 and make a report. Translation services are available.”