Man is charged in five attacks after violent robbery in Wheaton
By Matt Zapotosky and Dan Morse,
The 77-year-old lawyer from Silver Spring had just bought a shirt and robe at Macy’s in Wheaton on Sunday afternoon and was headed to his car when a stranger with a yellow-handled box cutter approached.
“You know what this is?” the man asked. “You better listen to me. Get in.”
A suspect was charged Wednesday in a string of daytime attacks in the Maryland suburbs. The robber drove the lawyer to at least three ATMs, police said. The robber took out about $1,800. The victim was hit in the face — his nose was broken — and he was cut on the leg. Over and over, the attacker threatened to kill him.
The victim screamed at first, then crouched in the passenger seat, his eyes closed.
“I was just down there bloody. I thought this would be the end of me,” he said Wednesday as he recuperated in his bedroom, a bandage around his left calf and bruises under each eye. “He was a pro. I just felt like he knew what he was doing, like he does it every day.”
Police said that for the past two weeks, the robber did do it almost every day.
Henry L. Sanders, 50 — who has a history of convictions in Maryland and other states — was charged with kidnapping, carjacking, robbery and other counts in connection with five crimes over a 10-day stretch, according to police and court records. In four, police said, Sanders abducted men from parking lots and tried to force them to withdraw cash from ATMs. In the fifth, according to court papers, he stole cash and a credit card and tried to steal a car.
In most of the cases, the victims had been walking from stores to their parked cars when the assailant approached. In some cases, the attacker started with a ruse: He once asked for a ride to visit his sick mother at the hospital. Then he threatened, often with a yellow-handled box cutter. The lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy and safety, said that before the robber left him, he wiped the steering wheel clean — apparently to get rid of any fingerprints.
Another victim was leaving a Home Depot in Hyattsville on Nov. 20 when an attacker approached. Fasil Gebremedhin believed the man when he said he was tired and needed a ride. He had a good story: His brother was supposed to pick him up but got caught up in watching a football game and wasn’t coming.
Gebremedhin invited the man, who police said was Sanders, into his car and drove toward the Fort Totten Metro station.
Then the stranger pulled a knife, telling Gebremedhin to give up his wallet and keep his hands on the steering wheel.
“I told him, ‘I have two little boys. Whatever you need, I want to give it to you,’ ” Gebremedhin said. “He kept saying, ‘You want to die? You want to die?’ ”
Gebremedhin, a 37-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who lives in the District and owns a home-improvement business, said they rode for nearly 45 minutes looking for an ATM. As Gebremedhin begged for his life, the robber swore at him. At one point, Gebremedhin said, the man drew what looked like a handgun and said that “he wanted to blow my head off.” The attacker threatened to go to the address on the stolen driver’s license, should his plan be foiled.
Gebremedhin did as he was told. He and his attacker got out at a Bank of America branch and walked to the ATM together. Gebremedhin purposely entered the wrong pin code several times. The man grew increasingly agitated, eventually saying: “Get in the car. I want to kill you.”
Gebremedhin ran and said his attacker chased him but gave up after he was able to flag down passersby. The next day, Gebremedhin said he looked out his apartment window to see the man standing on the front steps. He left without a confrontation.
“I couldn’t sleep the last two weeks,” Gebremedhin said. “I was just watching for him.”
Court records show that Sanders has an extensive criminal past, with more than a dozen convictions or charges. Several of those cases are ongoing — including one this year in Prince George’s County in which Sanders tried to sell construction equipment he did not own, court records show. He was out on bond on a robbery charge when the recent spate of attacks began.
Sanders was arrested in early November on suspicion of calling a tow truck driver to Landover to remove several junked vehicles, then took $800 from him at knifepoint, court records show. He was charged with armed robbery and related counts in that case and was released Nov. 13 after posting $100,000 bond, court records show.
Detectives were led to Sanders in the recent cases by someone who called police after recognizing the suspect in surveillance photos released by authorities, said Montgomery Detective Jordan Satinsky.
Police think Sanders lived most recently at an address on Brightseat Road in Landover. The white home with a red roof sits at the end of a dirt road. Piles of trash and boards litter the yard. A man who answered the door there Wednesday declined to comment.
Reached by phone, a nephew of Sanders’s said his uncle was one of 14 siblings and a father of six. He said he knew Sanders as a “nice guy” who would joke with him at family gatherings. He said that the large, close family was “devastated” by news of Sanders’s arrest, especially because Sanders shared his name with his late father, a respected church pastor.
“This is definitely something that we’re not used to,” said the nephew, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern for his family. “This is not our character at all.”
Police said the first crime in Sanders’s latest string occurred Nov. 18, when he assaulted and robbed a 79-year-old man in Hyattsville. In that case, court papers say, Sanders asked the man for a lift to the hospital to visit his sick mother, then began punching him in the car. Sanders took the man’s wallet — which contained $35 — and tried to force him out of the car, but the man was able to make his way to a nearby business and get help.
The following week, when three similar attacks occurred within five days outside the Westfield Wheaton shopping center, police suspected a serial predator. On Monday, they released surveillance video of the suspect, taken as he strolled out of a Target at the shopping center.
Gebremedhin said he was relieved that police had made an arrest, although he was disappointed to hear that one of the victims had been seriously hurt. He said that he lost his wallet, credit cards and $511 but that he was just happy he was alive.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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