A young man walked into the Holly Farms Fried Chicken franchise at 1910 Georgia Ave. NW yesterday morning and ordered a cup of coffee and a turnover. When waitress Maria Moody returned with the food, she found the man taking money out of the cash register.

"I can't believe it," Moody recalls saying out loud.

"Well, believe it," the robber said as he walked out with the money.

"I really didn't know what to do," the 18-year-old waitress said as she recounted the incident in an interview. "I just stood there and watched the dude do his thing."

It was the third time that Holly Farms store has been robbed in recent weeks.

Five hours earlier in Southeast Washington, a 50-year-old man was getting out of his car in front of his home when he was approached by at least one person.

A neighbor heard the man plead for the return of his identification and then the neighbor heard a gunshot.William F. Horn, shot in the stomach at 2:30 a.m., died shortly afterward.

On Tuesday night three youths took $300 from Sen. Robert Morgan (D.N.C.) as he walked near the National Theater. Life in Washington "is like living in a free-fire zone," his press secretary said yesterday.

An average of 17 robberies a day occur in the District of Columbia. Robbery (fear), robbery (force and violence), robbery (armed) - the incidents fill police blotters.

Police say the number of roberies reported to them is declining, that in fact the number in the first three months of this year (1,556) was 13 percent lower than the number reported for the first quarter last year, and the lowest total for a first quarter in 10 years.

But that's scant consolation to the victims.

Brenda Bryant, manager of the Holly Farms on Georgia Avenue, says the franchise has been through about a dozen holdups in her three years there. Once, she said, a gunman fired a shot near her when she didn't move to the safe fast enough.

At that moment she was "so scared I could hardly move," Bryant said yesterday, but she has learned since to live with fear. "I try to scope out the customers, but there's no sense being up tight all the time." One employe quit after a robbery last Sunday, she said and others talk about it.

Bob Jackson, Sen. Morgan's press secretary, said one staff member has been robbed three times, and another was beaten and robbed when his car broke down on U Street NW.

"You duck a lot, you take a lot of near-misses, and it's just a matter of time before you get hit," Jackson said.

Law enforcement analysts here portray the average robber as a black male, 22 years old, who is stealing to pay for a drug habit.

Daniel Bernstein, a prosecutor responsible for identifying chronic criminals as they re-enter the criminal justice system, says the courts have dealt severely with the older, hard-core robbers his unit has identified, but that younger robbers are not deterred by their sentences.

Most of the repeat offenders among people arrested for robbery are between 18 and 23 years old and are sentenced under the Youth Corrections Act to maximum of 18 month's incarceration, he said.

"Some of them start when they are 10 and get a slap on the hand when they're caught," Bernstein said. "So they go back at it. When they're 18 and caught they get probation the first time. That does not put a scare into them. They get out, they don't have a job, and they go back to the ghetto and do what they have been doing. By the time they are 20 they are hardened criminals."

About 3,000 robberies have been committed in Washington since the first of the year. Weapons have been used in almost half of them, and 27 victims have been killed.

Capt. Fred Thomas, chief of armed robbery investigations, advises citizens to avoid dark streets, to cross the street when approached by young men, and when confronted by a robber to obey without resisting.