WOONSOCKET — An ex-con on an armed robbery spree got caught after holding up McDonald’s in North Smithfield early Saturday morning.
Vernon Lamont Thomas, 37, of 372 Robinson St., committed three of the crimes in five days and the last two in less than seven hours, according to police.
Thomas was arrested at Grove and Logee streets about 5:26 a.m. Saturday, about a mile from McDonald’s, still carrying a heavy cash drawer witnesses had seen him lugging away from the Park Square restaurant about an hour earlier, according to reports.
Patrolman Jesse Nunnemacher reported that Thomas confessed to all the robberies — the first two involved gas stations — en route to the station in a cruiser.
“I’ll own up to all of ‘em,” Nunnemacher quoted him as saying.
Thomas allegedly embarked on the criminal bender Nov. 20 when, brandishing a box cutter, he wrestled with the clerk of the Shell station on Social Street before fleeing with cash.
He is also charged in the armed robbery of a Gulf station on Park Avenue hours before the robbery at McDonald’s.
An employee of the restaurant was also assaulted in the incident at McDonald’s, according to a North Smithfield police statement, but they did not release any further details despite several phone inquiries.
Thomas’s penchant for violence was evident during an armed robbery a week ago at the Shell station at 450 Social St. The clerk, a 31-year-old man, told police a tall black male wearing a black hoodie and matching pants walked in about 9:30 p.m., held a box-cutter to his neck and demanded money.
The clerk told police he wrestled with the robber for almost a minute but he was eventually overpowered. The intruder ordered him to “give me the money” and the cashier opened the drawer of the cash register. Thomas made off with about $120.
On Friday night, police responded to a report of another armed robbery involving a knife at Gulf Express, 852 Park Ave.
The clerk of the gas station gave police a description of the robber that was remarkably similar to the one given by the Shell worker. The Gulf clerk said the suspect was a tall black man entirely clad in black, including gloves and a uniquely patterned pair of black and blue footwear.
About 10:47 p.m., the clerk said, the suspect walked in the store, not wearing his hoodie, and began perusing a display of knives. The suspect walked out saying he had to call his wife before buying anything.
After a few minutes, he returned with the hoodie pulled up and a knife in his hand.
The Gulf clerk said the suspect lunged toward the counter, grabbed him by the arm and demanded that he open the register. The robber fished through the register drawer, removing most of its contents.
The robber was irked that there weren’t any $20s in the pile, however, and demanded the rest of the money. The clerk told him he had just made a deposit in the station’s “drop box” and couldn’t get it.
After hearing the explanation, Thomas “walked casually out the door,” the clerk told police.
Less than seven hours later, at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Nunnemacher was monitoring the police radio and heard North Smithfield report of a holdup alarm at McDonald’s. The suspect’s description matched that of the robbery at the Gulf station.
After an hour of searching around Park Square, Nunnemacher stopped Thomas for questioning about a mile inside the city line. Thomas was carrying a heavy cash box allegedly taken from McDonald’s, and police found a folding knife in his back pocket, officers said.
It was actually on Nov. 6 – before any of the armed robberies – that Thomas first turned up on the police department’s radar. A 29-year-old bartender at Rick’s Bar & Grill told police someone stole her wallet, with $120 in it, from a counter behind the bar.
She told police she suspected a bar patron whom she had noticed shuffling about suspiciously. Police later examined a surveillance video and saw a man they recognized reach behind the bar from his seat.
It was Vernon Lamont Thomas – a name that would come up again in the weeks ahead as a suspect in the armed robberies.
Thomas has a police record that dates back to the early 1990s and includes numerous arrests for domestic assault, obstruction and other minor charges. But in 1999 he was sentenced to 20 years, with four to serve at the ACI, after pleading no contest to robbery. Two years earlier he entered a similar plea to possession of a sawed-off shotgun and got five years’ probation.
Thomas is still on probation following the 1999 robbery conviction and will be charged as a violator. Police said Thomas also faces two counts of first-degree robbery and misdemeanor larceny for the crimes that occurred in Woonsocket, plus an additional count of first-degree robbery, simple assault, disorderly conduct and larceny under for the incident at McDonald’s. Meanwhile, he’s held without bail at the ACI and is due for an appearance today in Third District Court.