Waked Tahini, owner of TNW Fuel Stop Sunoco at 12600 Gratiot, greets customers behind a pane of protective glass. Tahini said most are good people, 'but the criminals make it bad for everybody.' (Photos by David Coates / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Police have investigated nearly 700 violent crimes at Detroit gas stations during the past year, prompting city officials and citizen patrol groups to try to quell the steady beat of murders, carjackings, shootings and armed robberies.
Gas stations in Detroit have long been breeding grounds for crime; some residents feel they’re risking their lives patronizing what often are the only viable neighborhood businesses, while many suburbanites refuse to fuel up in the city.
City officials have put a new focus on making gas stations safer by enacting a recent ordinance requiring owners to install security cameras by Aug. 31.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson caused a stir in January when, in a New Yorker article in which he criticized Detroit, he said: “You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking.”
Patterson echoed the sentiments of many suburbanites, including Max Mohr, whose brother-in-law, Steve Utash, was severely beaten by a mob outside an east-side gas station last month after he stopped to aid a child he accidentally struck with his pickup.
“There’s no way I’d stop at a gas station in Detroit,” said Mohr, of Clinton Township. “If my car was on empty, I’d just pray to God I could make it out of the city — but I wouldn’t stop.”
Police Chief James Craig says gas station violence has gotten out of hand.
“It’s something I’ve not seen as frequently in other cities: In Detroit, gas stations are magnets for criminal activity,” Craig said. “We’ve seen far too many shootings, carjackings and other criminal activity.”
Community patrol groups have volunteered to stand guard at gas stations.
“Too many of our seniors and women have been violated at gas stations, so something has to be done to show we’re not going to tolerate it,” said Martin Jones, spokesman for the citizen patrol group Detroit 300, which stood guard Tuesday at a Citgo station in northwest Detroit. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ll continue.”
Bodyguards Detroit, which provides guards for a fee, also has volunteered to patrol gas stations.
“We were originally contracted to provide security for a company that does work ground water testing for gas stations,” Bodyguards Detroit President Mark Phillips said. “There were issues in the past with people accosting them, and there were shootouts at places they were trying to work. So they hired us.
“We’re a for-profit entity, but we also like to give back to the community, so we will post on Facebook that we’re going to patrol certain stations, so that residents can feel safe,” said Phillips, whose guards have patrolled several stations throughout the city in recent months.
'Bad for everybody'
Rain drips through a bullet hole in the roof of the TNW Fuel Stop on the city’s east side, where Waked Tahini greets customers behind a pane of protective glass.
“Most of the people who come in here are good people,” said the owner of the gas station on Gratiot, the site of a recent unsuccessful robbery attempt that ended with a gunman opening fire before running away. “But the criminals make it bad for everybody.”
Tahini praised the city ordinance requiring better video systems, and said he already has a state-of-the-art system installed.
“I think all gas stations should have good working video systems,” he said. “Anything that can help the police catch these guys is a good thing.”
But Auday Arabo, president of the Farmington Hills-based Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, criticized the ordinance.
“It’s a concern,” said Arabo, a former prosecutor from California. “If the city wants to reduce crime, don’t pick on just one segment of the business community. Putting in a new camera system would present a financial hardship for many station owners, who are already hurting in many cases because there just aren’t as many people in the neighborhoods anymore.”
Arabo added: “Crime is one of the biggest issues we face. In gas stations, you have criminals waiting to prey on people. It’s scary. Even the people who run the stations are scared. It’s one of those issues where we’re all in it together, and I don’t think an ordinance will solve the problem.
“Any time the government mandates something like this, your eyebrows go up a bit,” Arabo said. “Is this what government is supposed to do? Mandate you become the surveillance company for the government?”
Although Tahini said his video system is in good working order, he said police haven’t yet caught the man who opened fire in his station.
'Most owners are afraid'
April 6, four days after Utash’s beating, was a typical, violent day at the city’s gas stations, with three violent incidents:
Two gunmen followed a man from church at about 2:30 p.m. When the victim entered a Mobil station at Van Dyke and Harper, the suspects stole his wallet and shot him in the chest. The victim lived.
At about 4 p.m. a 38-year-old man was beaten to death at a Valero station at Seven Mile and Pierson. Police say the victim was fighting with another man, who was taken into custody.
About 5 hours later, a limousine driver was carjacked at a Citgo station near Van Dyke and McNichols. He was struck in the head, and suffered non-life-threatening injuries. The limo was found a few blocks away.
Craig said gas station owners often are complacent when it comes to crime.
“In a lot of cases, the owners have allowed people to loiter on their property, and look the other way when people are dealing drugs, committing robberies,” Craig said.
Arabo argued some station owners feel it’s too dangerous to report crimes.
“I’d wager most owners are afraid,” he said. “They’re on an island by themselves. I’ve had people talk about this all the time: If you call the Police Department, and they show up, they’re there for a half-hour. For the other 23 hours, the employees are there on their own. It gets leaked out that the owner is working with police, and who’s protecting the owner?”
Leonard Turner, 48, was twice the victim of attacks in Detroit gas stations. On the first occasion in 1992, two men stole his 1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass on the city’s east side.
“Two guys came up on me,” said Turner, a former middleweight boxer who trained at the legendary Kronk gym. “One of them knocked me down and jumped in my car; I got up and choked him and tried to cut the ignition off, but his partner ran up with a shotgun and said ‘let him go.’ ”
Turner said he held on to his car while the pair sped away. He was dragged several feet before being thrown off.
The second attack, two years ago at a station on Seven Mile, ended better for the ex-boxer, who pummeled his would-be carjacker, Brian Hardman, and held him until police arrived.
“I was putting air in my tire when this guy pulls out a .40 (caliber),” Turner said. “What am I going to do? I don’t play with someone with a gun; my sister was killed in the streets back in 1990. So I grabbed his arm, threw him to the ground, and took his gun from him. Then I whipped his (expletive).”
Hardman was convicted last year of assault with intent to rob while armed, and is serving a 2- to 10-year prison sentence at the C. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson.
“You need to be real careful when you go to the gas station,” Turner said. “Get your gas during the daytime.”