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Suspected 'Toolbox Bandit' Nabbed; Patrolman Takes Down R.I. Serial Robber

The arresting cop credits luck, instinct and experience in the apprehension.

BY GERALD M. CARBONE, The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

Providence, R.I. -- Police Chief Dean Esserman stood before a phalanx of 20 police officers from 6 towns yesterday, and announced: "The 'Toolbox Bandit' is caught."

With the capture of Luke Thomsen, 22, of 28 Upland Way, Barrington, the police believe they have solved a spree of nine robberies in which the robber used common household tools -- a hammer, a crowbar, a screwdriver -- to bully clerks in coffee shops, liquor stores, and gas stations into emptying their cash registers.

At yesterday's news conference in the Public Safety Complex, Patrolman Scott McGregor told the story of how he found the alleged Toolbox Bandit in a grocery story parking lot Tuesday night, and arrested him at gunpoint.

About an hour into McGregor's 3 to 11 p.m. shift patrolling the city's south side, he heard a broadcast over the intercity police channel: Be on the lookout for a gray Volkswagen Golf, bearing Rhode Island registration MU-160.

The Warwick Police said that the Volkswagen was the getaway car for a man who had just robbed a Shell gasoline station on Route 5 by threatening the clerk with a monkey wrench.

McGregor filed that information in his mind as he drove Car 221 through the city's streets. About a half-hour after sunset he drove beneath lighted street lamps down Elmwood Avenue toward the Cranston line. As he passed the Savers Mart near Roger Williams Park, McGregor spotted a gray Volkswagen Golf parked in a line of cars on the north edge of the store's parking lot.

McGregor wheeled into the parking lot and parked behind the Golf, trapping it between a house and his cruiser. He saw the license plate: MU-160. The car's hood was raised; a man seemed to be tinkering with the engine, his hands out of McGregor's sight.

McGregor drew his gun. "Put your hands up!" he said.

The man complied. McGregor ordered the man to the ground, cuffed his hands behind his back, and put him in the cruiser. The license plate traced back to Thomsen and his car, a 1987 Volkswagen.

Police reports describe Thomsen as 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, with blond hair. Providence Chief of Detectives Paul Kennedy said Thomsen has no previous convictions, and has spent time in drug treatment centers for addictions to cocaine, heroin and alcohol. He's unemployed, and apparently was living with his parents on Upland Way in Barrington.

Kennedy said Thomsen would be charged with nine counts of first-degree robbery and one count of second-degree robbery; the charges stem from 8 other robberies committed in 10 days in 6 towns besides Warwick: Barrington, North Providence, Woonsocket, East Providence, West Warwick, and Providence.

No one was hurt in any of the robberies, but Thomsen allegedly threatened to strike store clerks with a monkey wrench, jack lever, hammer, crowbar and screwdriver.

"We've seen people who have substance abuse problems go on these types of sprees," Kennedy said, though he had never before seen a serial robber use household tools as weapons.

Thomsen appeared in Providence District Court yesterday where Judge Michael Higgins ordered him held without bail pending his arraignment on Jan. 7.

"I don't know how [McGregor] saw this guy," said Robert Avizinis, a detective sergeant with the Warwick Police. "It saved a lot of headaches. This was a good guy to get off the streets."

McGregor, a Coventry native and a six-year veteran of the Providence Police force, credited the arrest to luck, instinct, and experience. "I definitely see more now than I did when I first got on" the force, McGregor said. He grew up in police work: his father, Peter McGregor, was a captain with the state police.

McGregor said that he did not talk to Thomsen while he waited for detectives to arrive. He said it's not a patrolman's job to question suspects; his job, he said, is "To go out there and catch the bad guys."

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