Colorado Springs liquor store owner slain in robbery described as a fighter

February 16, 2017 Updated: February 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm
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photo - Flowers and teddy bears left outside Empire Liquor Store Thursday, February 16, 2017, the day after a clerk was found shot in the store. The clerk was taken to a local hospital where he died of his injuries. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Flowers and teddy bears left outside Empire Liquor Store Thursday, February 16, 2017, the day after a clerk was found shot in the store. The clerk was taken to a local hospital where he died of his injuries. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

The owner of an east Colorado Springs liquor store, described as someone a thief could not intimidate, was shot and killed during an armed robbery just minutes before closing time at midnight Wednesday, police said.

The victim's name has not been released by police, but employees of other businesses in the largely vacant north Academy Boulevard strip mall identified him as Donat Herr, owner of Empire Liquor. According to police, he was in his 60s.

"If somebody tried to rob him he would fight back, that's the kind of person he was," said Amy Nguyen, who works two doors away at Spa Pedicure. "He was strong."

Police responding to a burglary alarm at 11:54 p.m. at 3381 N. Academy Blvd. found a man in the store who had been shot. He was taken to a local hospital where he died, police said.

Edward Baham, who works at Legendary Right Touch Barber Shop, had only known Herr since early January, but said "he was not the type to take any (expletive)."

Police have not released information about the robbery, including whether they believe the victim resisted or if anything was stolen. No arrests have been announced and no suspect information has been provided.

Herr's family could not be reached Thursday. A cardboard sign that hung on the store door said "closed." Stuffed animals were beginning to collect at the door.

Police Lt. Howard Black said it's too early to know whether Wednesday's robbery was related to any previous ones this year, but said it's something police are looking at.

He recommended store clerks confronted with a gun hand over whatever is demanded.

"My advice is to comply," Black said. "Comply with their demands. Be a good witness, but keep yourself safe."

Some store owners aren't convinced that's the best advice.

After a rash of robberies at liquor stores in January last year, several store owners said they were beefing up security and allowing employees to arm themselves.

Bob's Liquor on North El Paso Street remains among the most fortified in the city.

Doors are locked. Employees tote firearms on their hips, a bulletproof cubical offers security, and a trained guard dog, Phantom, sits behind the counter, awaiting the "attack" command, said the owner, Drew, who declined to give his full name.

Thursday, Drew said he was "perplexed" more store owners haven't followed suit.

At the very least, liquor and convenience stores should be locking their doors during slow business hours and after dark, and use a buzzer system to monitor which customers are let into the store, Drew said.

If a robber breaks through the glass, employees should have other means of protection, but at least the robber has lost the element of surprise, Drew said. A full bulletproof system to protect clerks behind the counter could cost upwards of $100,000, Drew said, but a modified cubical made with used glass like his cost about $7,000.

"It can be very expensive, but having a locking front door where you buzz people in isn't expensive at all," Drew said.

Bob's Liquor employees also are told to react to robbers in a way they feel is safest for them, Drew said. Sometimes that means giving in to the robber's demands and other times it means fighting back.

"It's totally up to them," Drew said. "It's not about the money; we have insurance for that. Statistically, giving them the money is probably the way to go, but there are those outliers where even if you give over the money, bad things are going to happen."

Black said a store owner or employee being killed in a robbery is "extremely rare" in Colorado Springs.

According to Gazette archives, the last time a store employee was killed during a robbery was in 2010. Esteban Garcia was shot shortly after closing El Ranchito taqueria on Airport Road, which was owned by his son. A robber demanded money from Garcia as he was leaving the business and shot the man when he said he didn't have any.

In 2006, Erwin Hoffman Bermundez was beaten to death during a robbery at the Video Game Exchange on East Platte Avenue.

Robberies, lately, have been brazen and violent, according to police records.

Of 46 robbery investigations in the city this year, 30 involved weapons, police said.

Attacks are happening in pairs and at all times of the day, though the majority occur in the early hours of the morning. In several of the cases, three or four robbers were involved, as well as weapons.

In a string of robberies targeting pharmacies, a man has used four different disguises, always keeping his face partially hidden with a hat and sunglasses.

Still, police statistics dating back to 2011 show robberies are happening less frequently in the city.

In 2011, the department handled 453 robberies, annual police reports said. In 2012, numbers jumped to 515 cases, but have since been going down. In 2013 there were 426 cases; 412 cases in 2014; 377 cases in 2015; and 439 cases in 2016.

Police are asking anyone with information about Wednesday's killing to call 719-444-7000 or leave an anonymous tip with Pikes Peak Crime Stoppers at 719-634-7867.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the business Esteban Garcia worked at.

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