Lead and diamonds: the Richmond jewelry store shootout [Blast from the Past]
Situation: Two particularly brutal and heavily armed criminals hit an upscale jewelry store--and meet a firestorm of armed citizen resistance.
Lesson: Sound planning beats seasoned perpetrators. Sometimes, the more firepower you have, the better. The best cops in the world can't help you if they aren't right there, right now.
December 2, 1994. William "Pappy" Head, 71, and Thomas Jefferson Salter, 56, are what today's young predators would call "OGs"--"Old Gangsters." Pappy is a known hit man, on parole after serving only a year of a five year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, and both have a long history of robbing banks and jewelry stores. Salter has told his son he does it for the adrenaline rush. Both are members of a loose-knit gang of all-white robbers, killers and dope-runners known in the deep South as the Dixie Mafia.
Their target is Beverly Hills Jewelers, an upscale shop within sight of the Henrico County Police Department and the local FBI office on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. The store has already been cased for them the previous September by crooked carnival workers tied to the Dixie Mafia, when they were in town for a fair. It looks fat and easy. Pappy unlimbers his double-barrel, 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun and Tom draws one of the two handguns tucked in his belt, a 1911 .45 auto. They roll ski masks down over their faces and burst through the door.
They don't know that when they emerge, they'll be wearing body bags instead of ski masks.
In his mid-forties, married with four kids, storeowner Gary Baker was not a man who took chances. This was why he had situated his jewelry store in one of the lower crime suburbs of the area, the Wistar Mall on Staples Mills Road. The interior had the showcases laid out in a squared-off horseshoe pattern, reasonably well secured from unauthorized entry behind the counters. At the back of the store, the office area was elevated, offering a view of the store proper but shielded by an invisible steel-walled partition that Baker has designed himself.
A shooter since boyhood, Baker always snorted at police handouts that told merchants to surrender to armed robbers and put themselves at their mercy rather than resist. Not long before, it became apparent that an anti-gun governor was going to ramrod through a "one gun a month" law in Virginia. It seemed like a good idea to stock up. Baker had purchased eleven Rossi .38 Specials, five-shot snubbies, and laid them out at ten foot intervals behind the counters, invisible to the public but readily accessible to staff. All were loaded with Remington 125 grain semi-jacketed hollow points. He wanted simple "point and shoot" guns that all worked the same, and could be easily deployed under stress. In addition, he secreted his own Remington 870 12 gauge pump gun where he could reach it near the door to his office. Under one back counter, as incongruous among the little matte blue .38s as the Great Dane among the wiener dogs in the Disney flick "The Ugly Dachshund," lay a stainless steel Ruger Super Blackhawk single a ction .44 Magnum with ten-inch barrel.
Gary had hoped that he would never need these guns. But this morning, he would be glad he put them in place.
It's a quarter past ten AM, fifteen minutes after opening, when the two men rush through the door wearing ski masks. One is physically huge, pulling along a wheeled suitcase with one hand and wielding what Gary recognizes as a blue steel Army .45 automatic in the other. The second, average-sized, stands a few steps inside the doorway with a sawed-off shotgun. "You don't believe it's happening," Gary will say in a guest lecture to one of my LFI classes later. "It takes a few moments for the reality to sink in." The one with the pistol is rapidly moving up the aisle toward him, screaming, "We're here to clean you out!" The man with the shotgun fires a blast into a display case, and the employee behind that counter dives to the floor.
The reality has sunk in. Gary Baker's hand closes over the rubbery stock of a Rossi .38.
The fight is on.
War On Two Fronts
Massively muscled from years of pumping iron in prison, Thomas Salter easily leaps to the top of the four-foot counter at the left rear of the store as it faces the street. Directly ahead of him and slightly above is Gary Baker, who simply raises his right arm to eye level, directs the .38 at the masked giant's chest, and fires three fast shots. Within a heartbeat Gary's younger brother Charlie has also seized a Rossi .38 and, firing in the exact same stance, pumps three more shots at Salter from the criminal's left side.
The big ex-con pitches forward and falls behind the counter. He sprawls next to a female employee who has already hit the floor, with a Rossi .38 in one of her hands and her other hand stabbing at the holdup button, the silent alarm. She brings the gun to bear on the fallen gunman to protect herself, his masked face inches away from hers, but she realizes that he is not moving and holds her fire.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the store at the public's entrance, the second half of the armed robbery problem remains to be solved. Pappy Head points his sawed-off down the aisle at Gary and cuts loose. His wide-spreading swath of double ought buckshot goes wild.
But not the storeowner's return shots. The distance is some 40 feet and now Gary Baker takes careful aim, aligning the tiny sights of the revolver, and rolls off the last two shots in the cylinder. Pappy Head ducks behind a solid corner at the store's center island, a square of four showcases, and screams, "I'm hit!"
Charlie Baker fires at him, but without effect, and his .38 goes dry. Another employee hands him the big single-action .44. It occurs to Charlie that between the accuracy of its long barrel, adjustable sights and the barricade-penetrating power of its Remington 240 grain Magnum semi-jacketed hollow point bullets, this revolver might let him reach the well-covered gunman. He fires four shots.
Nothing has changed. Setting down the Ruger, Charlie seizes the nearest fully-loaded Rossi and moves forward across the back wall behind the counter. He has to step over the prone employee and the downed Salter to do it, and lie also crosses his brother's field of fire. Both Bakers are alert enough not to endanger the other.
Gary has dropped the empty .38 and grabbed his Remington 870. Now, as they face the second threat with the shotgun, Charlie is on the left with a .38 extended to arm's length and Gary is above and behind him, to his right, with the shotgun. They have the remaining gunman triangulated. Charlie orders the surviving criminal to surrender and throw his gun out. Head yells back that he's giving up and that he's going to toss out the shotgun. The Baker brothers hope that it's over, that the killing will end here.
But they don't know what a stone killer they're up against. Pappy Head has been trying to lull them off guard, and now he shoves the sawed-off out past his cover and fires at Gary, who can't get a clean shot at him at this angle. Charlie opens fire furiously, his gun extended in a right hand only position, looking over the sights and aligning it on Pappy's position and firing double action as fast as he can pull the trigger, moving down the counter toward the deadly gunman. The gun clicks dry. He snatches up another, empties it, drops it, picks up another, and continues, a relentless drumbeat of gunfire with one Rossi .38 after another as he closes rapidly on the threat. He is trying to stop Head with bullets, and if he can't do that, at least pin him down to where Head can't shoot at his brother anymore.
Pappy Head ducks out and fires another blast, this time at Charlie. The younger Baker is ducking down to retrieve a fresh revolver from behind the counter, and this saves his life. He feels and hears the buckshot go past his head. For Charlie Baker, fear has already coalesced into a controlled but white-hot anger. He picks up this next .38 and pumps more lead at the man who has tried to murder both him and his brother, still running forward toward the danger, closing the gap, trying to get an angle on Head where he can deliver a stopping shot.
Meanwhile, Gary Baker can see the shotgun blast directed at his brother, and the Remington 870 is already at his shoulder, and now that Pappy has raised his gun above the counter to aim at Charlie, Gary has a clear shot at him at last. Sighting carefully down the barrel, he squeezes the trigger. The gunman's head and shoulders disappear, and Gary pumps two more loads of double ought at the same place, just hoping to keep him down and prevent him from shooting Charlie.
But, from his position on the side, the advancing younger brother has seen what Gary could not. He has seen the buckshot hit the gunman in the head, seen him go down. But is he down in a prone shooting position and only wounded, playing possum again? Charlie can't tell, and it's no time to take chances. He shoots Pappy Head, now that he has advanced forward enough to have a clear target, and shoots him again. The masked man with the shotgun is now lying very still.
Charlie grabs a fresh revolver and covers Pappy. Gary shucks an empty shell out of the 870 and chambers another round of buckshot. He moves forward. Stepping past the downed Salter, he is struck by the man's imposing size. "My God," he thinks, "one of his legs is bigger than both of mine?' Another employee is beside him with the Super Blackhawk, which still holds two live rounds. "Cover him," Gary snaps. "Shoot him if he moves." Gary advances down the aisle toward Head's position. Behind him, he hears a very loud gunshot.
Thomas Salter has moved. The employee has done as instructed. Salter isn't moving any longer.
Now Gary and Charlie are both above Pappy Head, covering him. There had been almost no blood visible on the first gunman, but this one's masked face lies in a crimson puddle. They can see that it's over.
The response to the Holdup Buttons has been swift. The first Henrico officer to enter the store takes in the scene, a masked man with a sawed-off dead, almost at his feet and a man in a suit and tie standing over him with a Remington 870 similar to the one the officer himself is issued. The cop says softly, laconically, "It looks as if you have things under control."
Gary Baker is shocked at the words, but pleasantly so. He has heard horror stories about armed citizens being crucified for defending themselves. He asks, "Do you want to take my gun?" The cop shrugs and replies, "If you want." Gary hands him the Remington, and steps outside into the cool fresh air. He has a sudden, desperate urge for a cigarette.
Short Term Aftermath
Thomas Salter and William Head were pronounced dead of multiple gunshot wounds at the scene. The criminal justice system instantly recognized the shooting as a justifiable homicide. No civil lawsuits were ever filed in the matter.
Toward the end of the shootout, Gary Baker noted his left hand was bleeding. He had been hit by a stray buckshot pellet from Head's sawed-off, which he believes may have been a ricochet. The laceration was treated at the scene by a responding paramedic, who told Gary he would need to get to the emergency room for treatment. He never got around to it, and the minor injury healed uneventfully.
Altered perceptions such as auditory muting and altered perceptions of time are experienced by a majority of gunfight survivors, and that was true here. Gary remembers hearing the gunshots but not being bothered by their loudness, and one of his strongest memories is the eerie silence between shots in the high-volume firefight. Charlie tells me he was aware of the gunfire, but also aware it seemed muted and that his ears did not ring after it was over. Gary said the gunfight felt as if it lasted at least two minutes, while Charlie perceived it to have happened very quickly, probably thirty and no more than forty seconds from first shot to last.
The exact count of the gunshots fired is unclear, but it is well over thirty. Greater Richmond is a high crime area, and the police see no need to waste limited resources gathering artifacts from closed cases. Having quickly determined the only crimes at this shooting scene were armed robbery, aggravated assault, and attempted murder by Head and Salter, and that these crimes were cleared by their deaths, authorities swiftly closed the case. Evidence became simply artifacts. There was no need for an official, detailed reconstruction.
Multiple showcases were shattered in the exchange of gunfire, as was frontal window glass. No innocent persons were harmed by any of the shots, save for Gary Baker's minor hand laceration from one of Head's buckshot pellets, though two unoccupied cars parked outside were hit. The store was a crime scene that belonged to the police until mid-afternoon. Workmen stayed until two AM the next day replacing broken glass and squaring away blood-soaked carpeting. After re-entering, Gary noticed white powder all over everything. It took him a while to realize that it wasn't fingerprint powder, but dust from the suspended ceiling that had been knocked loose by the concussion of the intense gunfire. The following morning, Beverly Hills Jewelers was open for business as usual.
Experts in "post shooting trauma" tell us that after even the most righteous shooting, we can expect periods of sleeplessness and also the "Mark of Cain Syndrome," a sociological phenomenon in which your having killed someone becomes the defining thing about you as you are seen by others. Gary spent a sleepless night on his front porch, protecting his family with a .357 Magnum in his lap, because by now he had learned the men he and his brother had killed belonged to the Dixie Mafia. It took him a while to be convinced that unlike the real Mafia, these gang members cared only about themselves. Like Pappy Head, they were more likely to murder one another than they were to hunt down someone who had killed one of their own in self-defense. Eventually, the brothers learned to rest easy. There were no reprisals.
Much media attention came their way, and the Bakers became reluctant celebrities. Neither of the brothers welcomed it. Charlie avoided it studiously -- to the best of my knowledge, his interview with me was the first time he has told his perspective of the incident to a writer. Gary felt that having guns had saved the lives of himself, his brother, and his staff, and that he owed a duty to talk about the importance of the right to bear arms. He has since been written up in many venues and discussed the matter on TV and radio.
The employee who shot the downed Thomas Salter with the .44 Magnum when he moved will not be named here. Within 24 hours of the shooting, he called police to "confess" that he had shot a helpless man in the back. The police gently explained to him that shooting a violent, armed criminal when he makes a movement consistent with going for a gun is not a crime. Salter was lying on his .45 the entire time. The Baker brothers did not know that Salter had been carrying a second gun until a friend among the authorities told Charlie it had been discovered on his person when the corpse was undressed. Autopsy reportedly indicated that Salter was already dead when the .44 slug hit him, and that the movement the employee saw was almost certainly a post-agonal response ("death throes," in lay terminology), but in any case, he did no wrong in firing under the circumstances.
When I toured the shootout scene in September 2002, I was struck by the fact that bullet damage was still evident in the store. Discreet surveillance camcorders are now in place, but no video exists of the shootout. The brothers differ in their feelings about this. Gary says, "It's just as well. I wouldn't want my wife to see a videotape of me shooting a human being, and, if the outcome had gone the other way, I certainly wouldn't have wanted her to ever have to look at that." Charlie says, "If it had been captured on videotape, it would probably be useful for training people and waking people up. Frankly, I've never seen anything like it."
Long Term Aftermath
The Baker brothers are in their early fifties now. They hope there will be no repeat of this incident, but they don't take chances. There are even more guns in the store than before. Gary keeps a long barreled Dan Wesson .357 Magnum on his desk and carries a Smith & Wesson in the same caliber. He wasn't impressed with the number of .38 Special rounds it took to drop big Tom Salter.
Charlie Baker can't remember how many revolvers he went through in the gunfight. He sequentially fired at least five and possibly six Rossi .38s in the shootout, plus the .44 Magnum. Most were run dry, but he fired only four rounds from the .44 and only four from at least one of the Rossis. Charlie now owns a higher capacity 9mm auto that is often within his reach.
The incident made national news, and the papers made it sound as if every single employee had opened fire on the robbers. In fact, of the six or seven personnel counting the owner, only the Baker brothers actively engaged in the gunfight, with one employee firing one shot in the immediate aftermath. However, all but one employee did at least draw a gun during the incident.
There have been no further attempted robberies at Beverly Hills Jewelers.
I read it two or three times
I found myself reading back through each line and then going back and re-reading. I could picture the entire layout in my mind. Interesting. I have a friend who owns a small jewelry store. He has a similiar setup on a smaller scale.