Joe Bakus had just returned from the grocery store about 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The 76-year-old Korean War veteran was getting bags out of his car at the apartment complex where he lives, in the 7500 block of Flamingo Road, near Tenaya Way, when two boys, one looking no older than 14, approached from behind.
They weren’t there to help.
"There were these two punks with big guns. They had bandanas over their faces like Jesse James’ mob," Bakus recalled Friday. "I wasn’t afraid of it. I didn’t think it was real at first. I thought they were toy guns."
But one of the two boys said: "We want your money. This is a stickup," according to a police report.
Bakus said he had none, and one of the would-be robbers "gave me a whack with the pistol on the head."
Blood flowed from the inch-and-half gash, he said. "I was yelling ‘robbery, robbery,’ and they took off running," Bakus said.
The two didn’t go far.
Within moments, they were onto their next victim in the same apartment complex.
"This is broad daylight," Bakus said. "I couldn’t believe this."
Bakus was the first victim in a spree of robberies police say were committed by three teens Tuesday before they were snagged by officers.
The stickups are part of a crime wave in the southwest valley involving three gangs of high school-age youths.
Police say the incidents started in January as burglaries and escalated to violent robberies.
Since Tuesday’s arrests of Keshone Maurice Owens, 19, and two juveniles, 17 and 14 years old, for the robberies, police say the crime wave has stopped.
"What we’ve done is taken out some significant players," said Sgt. Jim Young of the Southwest Area Command’s problem-solving unit. "The question is whether the junior (members of the gangs) will step up and take their place. Or will they realize it’s not worth it and straighten up."
The gangs have picked on random victims. They ask for directions or stake out ATM machines, or follow drivers home.
"These kids are not a gang in the true sense," Young said. They don’t sell drugs or guns or run prostitution rings.
"They are a group of neighborhood kids who got together and named themselves," he said.
During the school year, the crimes started after school let out for the day. Since summer vacation began, police have seen the robberies begin at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.
In the past two weeks, there have been a dozen of these types of attacks, Young said.
After attacking Bakus, the muggers ran to another part of the complex and found Ivstvan Csiki, 35. He thought they were joking when they demanded money. Then one of them fired a shot, the report states.
The robbers took Csiki’s cell phone and wallet and hopped over a wall.
About 90 minutes later, 42-year-old Nicole Cruz pulled into her apartment complex on the 7600 block of Jones Boulevard, near Robindale Road. She was on her cell phone when a man walked up, grabbed her phone and took her wallet from her purse, the report states.
A second teen walked up and pointed a gun at Cruz. The first robber then said, "Who do you think you are?" and fired a shot toward her. The bullet hit a tire on her car.
Less than 20 minutes later, Rachael Liga, 42, and neighbor Juliet Siever, 44, were chatting in Liga’s garage on the 6400 block of Eldorado Lane when a young man ran into the garage and snatched Liga’s purse.
Liga thought it was a joke and chased the teen.
"I took one step out of my garage, and he’s got a gun pointed at me," said Liga, a Pepsi saleswoman.
She froze and the teen escaped. He didn’t look older than 15, she said.
"It’s sick. He hasn’t even had his foot into real life yet, and he’s already thrown it away," Liga said.
By then a police helicopter was buzzing overhead, searching for the suspects.
While the gangs have watched and learned from police tactics, officers put on a huge show of force to catch the robbers Tuesday.
Police used patrol officers from different area commands, gang unit and robbery detectives, the air unit and K-9 units. "This was a departmentwide effort. It shows the priority that this was," Young said.
While the histories of the 17- and 14-year-old boys are not known because of their status as juveniles, the Review-Journal learned this was not Owens’ first run-in with the law.
He is a convicted felon who served time in Nevada’s toughest prison.
Owens, then 17, was arrested in September 2005 after exchanging gunfire with a man who confronted him as he broke into a car. The man, Jason Griffith, was eating lunch when he noticed Owens and another teen peering into cars in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Russell Road near Rainbow Boulevard, according to a police report.
Griffith armed himself with his .40-caliber Glock handgun and asked Owens whether the car was his.
Owens said yes and reached into his pocket like he was getting keys, but he pulled out a gun instead, the report states.
Owens fired four shots at Griffith and missed every time. Griffith squeezed the trigger of his gun and hit Owens four times, the report states.
Wounded and bleeding, Owens grabbed a handful of CDs, ran to his accomplice’s car and got away.
Police found him after he was released from the hospital.
Owens pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and attempted auto burglary. He served 11 months at Ely State Prison before being paroled six weeks ago.
"He didn’t learn the first time?" Liga said after learning of Owens’ criminal past.
Meanwhile, investigators will be going over crime reports for the past six months in the southwest valley to determine whether any incidents can be linked to the gangs.
"We have several investigations that we anticipate will lead to more arrests," Young said.
The youths who have been arrested have been dismissive of the juvenile justice system, Young said.
But prosecutors and police are working together, and it’s because of that relationship, Young said, that police have been able to learn more about the gangs and clamp down on them.
A police source could not say whether a robbery and assault alleged to have been committed by two young men that left an elderly woman injured and her husband dead May 29 at the Tahiti Vacation Club near Tropicana Avenue and Decatur Boulevard was carried out by members of the gangs.
A $12,000 reward is being offered for information in that case through Crime Stoppers at 385-5555.
For Bakus, the attacks have him thanking God his injury wasn’t more serious.
"I believe in God. God’s been watching over me, and sure enough he was watching over me with all that (expletive) that I’ve been through."
Bakus isn’t going to move. He and his wife are too old, he said.
He said he hopes police can stop the gangs, but he’s afraid their hands are tied.
"I don’t know what can be done. The schools are full of them (gangs)," he said.
In the meantime, Bakus is telling people he knows in the complex to watch their backs.
"I’m telling people in the complex to be aware, or carry a bazooka," he said.THE GANGS They go by the names MOS, which stands for Murder One Squad; MOB, Money Over Bitches; and Da Block. Police say they are neighborhood kids who formed crews while attending Sierra Vista and Durango high schools and emulate the gangster or thug lifestyle portrayed in popular culture. They are made up of 20 to 30 people, ranging in age from 12 to 20. Unlike most valley gangs, these groups are not exclusive by race. Members include whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. They pick on easy targets such as people who are not paying attention to their surroundings, including people talking on cell phones. The attacks occur in spurts, sometimes four or five times in a few hours. ROBBERY PREVENTION TIPS • Be aware of your surroundings. • Don’t flash large sums of cash. • Be careful when wearing jewelry. • While driving, watch for someone following. • Be aware if someone takes an interest in what you are doing. • Don’t leave valuables, including firearms, in vehicles. • Don’t leave garage doors open.