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Don’t Rob Mid-City

I wanted to write something cheerful for the end of the year. I certainly didn’t want to cite another story from the newspaper about killing in my neighborhood. But I can’t help it. The details surrounding this incident are just too compelling.

A little background: La Finca is a restaurant/bar that used to be on Tulane Avenue near Carrollton. Katrina forced a move to Jeff Davis & Baudin, where the Delta Blues Grill used to be. Xy and I stopped in for dinner a couple weeks ago. It’s a working class Mexican joint, serving a style of food which is distinctly different from Taco Bell or Juan’s Flying Burrito. For example, the tacos have only beef and onion, plus cilantro — no cheese, no beans, no sour cream. We were the only non-Latins there, and Fox Sports Español was playing on the television. The food was all right, but the music was blaring at an almost painful level.

It seems that in the wee hours of yesterday morning, two guys tried to rob the place. They came in with guns and held some patrons hostage. A security guard on duty shot one of the guys. The other guy got away, but the guy who was shot died.

I’m not happy that anyone was killed, but my sympathies are with La Finca on this one.

Here’s the whole story from the Times-Picayune:

Would-be robber killed by guard in Mid-City bar
Patrons pelt dying suspect with debris

Sunday, December 31, 2006

By Karen Turni Bazile
Staff writer

Bar owner Frank Barrera acted quickly and quietly when he spotted two men pulling out pistols as they entered his newly opened Mid-City business Saturday about 2 a.m.

Pulling an armed security guard behind a wall next to the bar, Barrera waited a few moments as one of the men grabbed a patron and dragged him behind the bar, and moved toward Barrera’s wife, Maria, who had been counting money near the cash register. As the bar customer wriggled free, the guard fired a shot into the robber’s torso, dropping him on the spot.

“That’s the best thing we had to do. I had seen the guys walking in, and that was good. So we got ready,” said Barrera, who opened his La Finca Home Plate Inn at 542 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway six weeks ago. “It’s very hard to explain because it was so fast and happened in maybe 30 or 40 seconds. It’s very scary.” He said his wife of 19 years “almost got shot in the head.”

The 22-year-old wounded suspect died at the scene after taking a pounding from debris thrown onto him by people in the bar, while his companion disappeared on foot, according to witnesses and a bar videotape. Police haven’t yet released the dead man’s name, but said he is from New Orleans.

Police and business people in some New Orleans neighborhoods have struggled in recent weeks to cope with armed bar robberies. It wasn’t known if suspects involved in Saturday’s incident will be linked to other incidents that have terrorized patrons and bartenders.

Barrera, 54, said he had operated a nearby restaurant for 30 years before Katrina and worked for months to open the new business, but knew he would need a guard and security cameras to protect his customers in a post-Katrina climate.

According to witness and the New Orleans Police Department, the gunman behind the bar was shot once in the left torso by a former criminal sheriff’s deputy working a security detail.

The single shot apparently hit a major artery, said officer Sabrina Richardson, police spokeswoman.

The Police Department classified the shooting as a justifiable homicide and filed no charges against the guard, but Richardson said the district attorney’s office will review the incident. The department wouldn’t immediately identify the guard.

Caught on tape

Beyond official police statements, a security camera tape captured the drama. It shows two armed gunmen charging the bar, which had several customers at the time, and grabbing two patrons as hostages as they tried to get to money that Maria Barrera was counting.

As a male hostage broke free behind the bar, the guard reached out from a spot near a corner of the bar and shot the gunman, who had grabbed Maria Barrera. The other gunman fled when the shot was fired. Then patrons took matters into their own hands until police arrived.

The customer who had been held hostage behind the bar grabbed the robber’s gun on the floor as the wounded man reached for it. Still clutching the bag of money, Maria Barrera maneuvered around the would-be robber while two other female bartenders, who had hid under the bar, scooted out with her.

Patrons threw various objects at the gunmen as one fled and the other remained on the floor, struggling to get up. Bottles and at least one bar stool were hurled at the prostrate man, and the tape shows one patron climbing over the bar and stripping off his shirt before someone stopped him.

In the tape, the security guard took the suspect’s gun away from the patron who had grabbed it, and the customer reclaimed his stool at the bar and immediately took a swig from his beer.

Fed up, fighting back

With Spanish and English music blaring from the juke box during service to a lunch crowd Saturday, about 10 hours after the incident, Barrera and others at the split-level restaurant spoke openly about their post-Katrina crime worries.

“I was very lucky,” said Maria Barrera, who added she didn’t know how she managed to move quickly as she faced armed men. “I was looking at two guns,” she said.

Miguel Lara, taken hostage briefly in front of the bar by the gunman who would escape, wasn’t able to free himself. “He was crazy,” Lara said. “He had a gun in my face.”

Others encouraged the Barreras to add security to discourage other bandits.

“This needs to be a wake-up call to the thieves that the people are not going to tolerate their thuggery and are going to arm themselves and protect themselves,” said Ronnie Waguespack Jr., an amusement machine operator and longtime friend of Barrera who came to empty the juke box Saturday.

Barrera was pleased to hear promises from police officers who responded to the attempted robbery, who said they would be more vigilant. The bar owner said he wants his customers to feel safe now that he has worked hard to renovate a building that had been badly flooded.

Barrera said he has no regrets and rested easily, although for a brief time, before returning to the restaurant Saturday morning.

“I slept well,” he said. “We saved my wife. We saved all the other ladies and other customers.”

Police described the second suspect as 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds, wearing blue denim jeans and a white shirt. Homicide Detective Barret Morton is in charge of the investigation. He can be reached at (504) 658-5300.

. . . . . . .

Karen Turni Bazile can be reached at kturni@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3321.

Update: A few days later and the T-P runs a follow-up on the front page. Choice quotes:

Thomas “The Midget” Garcia: “I almost got killed. Crime is so crazy. I could leave this city. But I love this place. It’s halfway dead around here, but halfway dead ain’t so bad.”

Bar owner Frank Barrera: “La Finca Home Plate Inn has security. If you try to rob me, you will be shot dead. Thank you.”

and…

Mere seconds after his flirtation with a flying bullet, Garcia climbed back on his bar stool, grabbed his Coors Light and started “searching for pretty women.”

“I lived to party another day,” Garcia said.

Published inNeighborsNew OrleansNews & Media

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