After armed customer scares off potential threat leaving Kroger last month, investigation shows 44 ‘incidents’ at Riverbend since March 2018, ranging from assaults to armed robbery to vehicle theft. Violent 2016 attack never was solved.

After armed customer scares off potential threat leaving Kroger last month, investigation shows 44 ‘incidents’ at Riverbend since March 2018, ranging from assaults to armed robbery to vehicle theft. Violent 2016 attack never was solved.

A customer was accosted in the parking lot of the Rome Kroger on Feb. 6. (Hometown photo)

By Natalie Simms

Ledbetter Properties is looking at options to improve security at its Riverbend shopping center, just off Turner McCall Boulevard and Riverbend Drive in Rome, after a shopper was recently accosted in the parking lot. It’s one of more than 40 reported criminal/suspicious incidents occurring since March 2018, not to mention the serious mugging incident in December 2016 that left a woman hospitalized. The shopping center,  opened in fall 2003, includes Kroger, TJ Maxx, Ross, Barnes & Noble and more.

The latest attack occurred Wednesday, Feb. 6, around 11:30 a.m. in the Kroger parking lot. The victim, a 59-year-old Rome woman, says she was followed out to her vehicle as she left the store by a black male in his 20s, wearing a blue hoodie and baggy pants.

According to the customer, who asked not to be named citing a recommendation from Rome Police, gives this account:

  • She first noticed him at the self-checkout. He walked out ahead of her; she was about 10-15 steps behind him, when he stopped suddenly in front of her. He says, “Excuse me,” and the victim proceeded to her car when she noticed him following her.
  • She gets to her car, places her buggy between the car and the suspect on passenger side, throws her purse in car and grabs her gun.
  • At this point, the man is on the other side of the buggy at the rear of her car. She says she told him, “You know what I have in my hand, it’s loaded and I will use it, you better back up” and man smirked. She repeated the warning two more times before he finally backed up and went toward TJ Maxx.
  • “I’m thankful I had the buggy between us and I got to my gun so he could not do to me what he intended…it just terrifies me to talk about it,” she says.
  • She immediately called her husband and walked back into Kroger and got store manager Steve Van Meter, who called police. Van Meter escorted her out of the store to wait for police to arrive at 11:48 a.m. It had been about 15 minutes, so there was no sign of the suspect male at this point, she says.
There are several light posts in the Riverbend Shopping Center parking lot, but no security cameras. (Hometown photo)

Kroger does have security cameras inside the store at check-out areas, as well as at the exterior entrance into the store. There are no security cameras in the parking lot of the shopping center. Rome Police says the video footage was secured from Kroger with the assistance of the store manager.

“The footage showed that a male subject was near the victim as she exited the store. No contact was made other than the male saying, ‘excuse me’. We were able to identify the male subject,” says Assistant Chief Debbie Burnett.

“After reviewing the footage and speaking with the victim, the investigator determined there is no probable cause to indicate a crime was committed. The victim told the investigator that the male subject was near her at her car and when she didn’t feel comfortable, she presented her firearm. The male subject walked away. As far as we can determine, the male never made any overt acts toward her and did not threaten her in any way.”

An initial report/charge of simple assault was filed in the case but Burnett says, “it was determined there was insufficient probable cause to make criminal charges.”

Incidents over last 12 months

The Rome Police Department provided Hometown Headlines with statistics on incidents reported or occurring near Riverbend, from March 2018 to present. Click here for entire report.

The majority of the incidents were traffic stops in the area; however, there were 44 other cases at the shopping center including assaults, vehicle thefts, an armed robbery and a kidnapping attempt. Here is a brief summary of these incidents (note: Larceny report includes theft/shoplifting):

  • March 2018: 1 larceny report at Ross; 1 larceny report at Kroger
  • April 2018: 4 larceny reports at Kroger; 2 criminal trespass report at Kroger; 1 disorderly conduct report at Kroger; one armed robbery and kidnapping report at Ross
  • May 2018: 2 simple assault reports at Kroger
  • June 2018: 1 larceny at Kroger; 1 disorderly conduct at Ross; reports of simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespassing and vandalism at U.S. Nails.
  • July 2018: 2 larceny reports, 1 trespassing and 1 vehicle theft at Kroger
  • August 2018: 1 larceny of vehicle at Kroger
  • September 2018: 5 larceny reports and 3 drug violations at Kroger; 1 larceny of vehicle at TJ Maxx
  • October 2018: 1 counterfeiting report, 1 disorderly conduct and 2 larceny reports at Kroger
  • None in November 2018
  • December 2018: 1 report of intimidation, aggravated assault with gun and disorderly conduct at Kroger; 1 larceny report at Kroger
  • January 2019: 2 larceny reports at Kroger; 1 criminal trespass at Ross
  • February 2019: 1 larceny at Barnes & Noble; 1 drug violation, 3 larceny and 1 simple assault report at Kroger

Burnett says they haven’t noticed an increase in incidents at Riverbend but they do patrol the parking lot as often as possible.

“We do not designate areas as ‘hot spots.’ We do monitor areas and look for areas that may have spikes in criminal activity and focus our attention on those areas. This can occur anywhere in the city and we monitor that through our crime data,” she says.

Video showing the two suspects in the December 2016 assault outside Kroger.

A violent assault in December 2016

There also was a very highly publicized incident that occurred Dec. 18, 2016, where two individuals allegedly assaulted and robbed a female customer in the Kroger parking on that Sunday evening. They reported punched the victim, causing her to sustain a concussion and broken nose as they grabbed her purse. They fled on foot behind Kroger on the railroad tracks. A video of the men walking through the Kroger drive-through pharmacy lane was shared by thousands on Facebook but no one has ever been arrested in the case.

“While there was some video of the suspects in this case, the video was not clear enough to identity these two suspects. No further updates on this case,” says Burnett.

Response from Ledbetter Properties, Kroger

Wright Ledbetter, chief operating officer of R.H. Ledbetter Properties which owns Riverbend, says his company is looking at new security options.

“Yes, the victim (of the Feb. 6 incident) met with members of our asset management team last week after the troubling incident. As a result, we are looking at all reasonable options to evaluate security at Riverbend and see where we might make deterrent improvements, including increasing the current security presence, adding fencing behind the center, asking the Rome Police Department for more help, and adding security cameras,” he says.

“We currently have an on-site security guard six days a week, and pending our evaluation of other options, we should start making changes soon.”

Hometown Headlines contact Van Meter, the store manager, who said he could not make any comments and referred us to their Corporate Affairs Department.

Felix Turner, the director of Kroger Corporate Affairs, issued this statement in response:

“Thank you for reaching out to us. Kroger has cameras both inside and outside our building and contracts with third-party security. Additionally, the landlord provides plaza security seven days a week. The safety and security of our customers and our associates is first and foremost. We would like to thank the Rome Police Department for their investigation into this incident. We have provided video to the police department and are cooperating fully with their investigation.”

What’s next

The victim of the Feb. 6 incident says she will continue to share her story and hopes security changes are made.

“It is way past time for business owners, property owners and individuals to take back this town from thugs, drugs and thieves. We shouldn’t have to be victimized…this town is not what it used to be. I grew up here and lived here almost 60 years,” she says.

“I think any kind of security would be an improvement… a truck, golf cart or something with flashing light, may deter these folks…its better than nothing. I will keep telling my story and hope to get something done…if I can help one person not be victimized, it’s worth it.”

The Rome Police Department also offers these safety tips:

  • Everyone should always be alert and aware of their surroundings. Citizens should practice this in every situation.
  • Have your keys out and ready to enter your car.
  • Keep your head up and eyes looking around as you walk. Don’t become so engrossed in a phone conversation (verbal or text) that you are not aware of others around you.
  • If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. If you are leaving a store and you feel uncomfortable don’t hesitate to walk back inside for a minute.
  • When loading your packages in your car look around. It’s always okay to stop a minute and be aware of what or who is around you.
  • Don’t leave your purse or wallet in your shopping cart while you unload it. Place it in a secure spot in your vehicle first.
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