It was a busy day at a popular foreign currency exchange centre cum jewellery shop on Main Street, Negombo last Monday. About 15 employees were attending to a similar number of customers changing currency and buying jewellery.Shortly after 1.30pm, two men wearing full-face helmets walked up; the security guard welcomed them in, opening the door. [...]


Robberies: Retreat on full-face helmets causes mayhem

Police warn businesses to boost security as bandits roam in broad daylight

Wearing full-face helmets, robbers got away easily with two bags filled with foreign currency and jewellery removed from this jewellery shop in Negombo town. Pic by Athula Devapriya

It was a busy day at a popular foreign currency exchange centre cum jewellery shop on Main Street, Negombo last Monday. About 15 employees were attending to a similar number of customers changing currency and buying jewellery.Shortly after 1.30pm, two men wearing full-face helmets walked up; the security guard welcomed them in, opening the door. One of the men, held what appeared to be a pistol and forced the security guard onto a seat while the other ordered the customers to raise their hands.

One of the men jumped over the counter and started collecting foreign currency while the other held a gun at the head of the cashier. The rest of the people in the shop remained in their seats with their hands up. After a 10-minute swift operation, the two men walked out unchallenged with two bags filled with foreign currency and jewellery.

Just then, a traffic policeman unaware of the drama arrived outside the shop. The two men moved away hastily, watched by the policemen. It was only after they got some distance away that people rushed out from the shop shouting “Horek! Horek!” (robber, robber). The policeman started up his bike and gave chase but could not catch them.

Due to a function elsewhere in town attended by a VIP, many police officers were deployed at that venue and thus security in Negombo town was relaxed, enabling the two men to escape with two separate motorcycle riders waiting for them. The motorcycles were later found abandoned in Seeduwa. Both bikes had been stolen the previous day from Katunayake and Seeduwa.

The gang of four had switched from bikes to a car for the final part of their escape, according to preliminary investigations. Despite the shop running both money exchange and jewellery businesses security measures were lacking. The shop had only fitted closed circuit television cameras (CCTV). “The shop did not have any alarm system and the robbers were able to jump across the counter and have access to the cash,” a police officer involved in the investigations said.

CCTV footage handed over to the police for investigations shows that one of the robbers also had easy access to the safe and drawers which were left unlocked.
Foreign currency and jewellery worth Rs. 20 million had been taken. Five separate police teams are carrying out investigations under the Directions if the Officer in Charge of the Negombo Police station, IP Gamini Hallawa.

Then on Thursday, two people arrived on a motorcycle and parked near the Nations Trust Bank in Matugama. Both of them walked in wearing full-face helmets. One was armed with a knife and the other with a pistol. The customers were threatened at gunpoint and the men got away with Rs. 900,000 in cash. The incident was captured on CCTV but the bandits’ faces had been obscured by the helmets.

The security guard, who was unarmed, had been inside the bank when the robbers walked in and no attempt had been made to prevent the thieves walking into the bank with full-face helmets, police said. Robberies in broad daylight are on the increase with another such case being reported last week in Padukka where Rs. 10 million worth of gold jewellery was robbed from a pawnshop during the day.

A breakthrough came in that case, however, when less than a week afterwards police found out that the father of one of the employees had planned the robbery.
“The father had made casual inquiries from the daughter about the security arrangements. He had been told that the CCTV camera did not function properly. Contrary to her claim, however, the CCTV was in operation and we were able to get the pictures of the two suspects involved in the robbery,” Padukka Police OIC Chief Inspector Bimal Perera told The Sunday Times.

The employee’s father and his friend who helped in planning the robbery have been arrested but two disabled soldiers who carried out the robbery are still on the loose. Both robbers had been wearing full-face helmets when they entered the pawn shop but one of them had taken off the helmet enabling the police to identify one of the suspects. He was found to be a friend of the shop employee’s father.

Police have recovered 800g of the 1.5kg of gold stolen from the shop. Police last November imposed a ban on full-face helmets’ on grounds the safety gear was being misused by robbers; but the ban was lifted after objections from some helmet importers and motorcyclists. This week, police spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana pointed out that the ban on the use of full-face helmets was necessary to reduce crime. Motorcyclists, however, continue to oppose any move to ban such headgear.
“One of the main advantages of this type of helmet is that it provides additional protection for the eyes. You need such helmets, particularly in Colombo where there is so much road construction,” said one rider, Priyankara de Silva.

“We believe that the police and other law enforcement authorities should take other precautions instead of penalising motorcyclists who cannot afford vehicles,” Mr. de Silva said. Deputy Inspector General of Police (Crimes) I.M. Karunaratne said the usual practice of robbers using full-face helmets was to visit the targeted place in advance with the helmets on and to walk around to see if they are stopped and checked. ‘‘Security guards in such places should be very vigilant about such behaviour to avoid robberies,” he said.

“Even if the face cannot be identified people can give other information about any features they note regarding the suspect. This can be a tattoo, any special marks on the body or any other sign. Such information is very useful for the investigators,” he said. He said institutions similar to those that were held up in recent weeks should have additional security precautions to minimise the chances of robbery. “Vigilance is one of the ways that such robberies can be prevented,” the DIG said.

UNP Negombo organiser arrested; party calls for action against UPFA members also
The United National Party (UNP)’s Negombo Chief organiser Royce Fernando was arrested yesterday in connection with Monday’s Rs. 20 million heist at a jewellery shop in Negombo, police said. According to police, Mr. Fernando was taken into custody following information provided by a suspect.

Mr. Fernando, a candidate in the upcoming Provincial Council elections, is also the opposition leader at the Negombo Municipal Council. Reacting to the arrest, the UNP yesterday called for an impartial and transparent investigation into the incident, disallowing political interference or partisanship during the election season and to restore public faith in the country’s justice system.

“The impunity enjoyed by criminal elements within the ruling party, from Ministers and Provincial Councilors to Pradeshiya Sabha Members who stand accused of grave crimes has eroded public confidence in the country’s legal system. “In recent times disgust has built among the general public about the ruling regime’s patronage of and asylum for hardened criminals, drug barons, rapists, and murderers within its ranks.“If the law enforcement agencies who act with speed against opposition members show similar zeal towards inquiries in drug scandals that have erupted in the high office of the Prime Minister no less, faith in the system may be restored,” the party said in a statement.

It added: “When the residence of UPFA Western Provincial Minister Nimal Lanza was raided by the Special Task Force (STF), President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived by helicopter to smooth the situation and prevent the investigation from going any further. “The party will neither protect nor defend criminal elements, whatever their rank, profile or affiliation. There is no room for members who fail to uphold and respect the law of the land, the statement concluded.”

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