Managers 'petrified' by robbery training session
BY DAVID HENDEE
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Hugging the floor of the convenience store and cradling her head in her arms, Kristin Johnson waited to hear the click of the trigger.
One image seared her mind: Norfolk, Neb., where five people were killed last year in a bank massacre.
"My first thought was, 'Oh, my God, I am going to die.'"
But the terrorized Johnson wasn't physically injured. She and six other managers were unknowing participants in an armed-robbery training session organized by their employer, the Lincoln-based Gas 'N Shop convenience stores.
The episode took only seconds to unfold Nov. 14 at the company store in Schuyler, Neb., where the managers gathered for one of their periodic meetings. Johnson said she still has panic attacks and headaches because of the incident and quit her job because of the anxiety.
"I can't do this anymore - wondering what's coming in when you hear the doorbell," Johnson said.
Johnson, who would have marked her second anniversary next month with Gas 'N Shop, said the incident unnecessarily traumatized her and could have ended in disaster if a hunter or other armed passer-by intervened.
Gas 'N Shop executives were not available for comment Monday. Dorothy Bockoven, the company attorney, had no comment beyond saying: "This is an internal training matter and not for public comment."
Gas 'N Shop Inc. operates about 70 gasoline station-convenience stores in Nebraska. Last year, the company had 530 employees and revenue of $107.6 million.
Schuyler Police Chief Leonard Hilter, whose department provided two officers to pose as the bandits, declined to comment.
Nebraska State Patrol Major Bryan Tuma said reality-based training is a widely accepted practice by law enforcement agencies.
"People react in situations the way they are trained," Tuma said. He said he was commenting generally and not on the Schuyler episode.
Johnson said that she assumed the managers' meeting last month would be about hiring and other "simple things."
Four of the 11 managers and supervisors at the Schuyler store that morning knew in advance of the bogus holdup.
One was the Schuyler manager, who was told by police not to load a video tape into the surveillance-camera system. The other was the Norfolk manager, whose store was the site of a killing in 1995.
Johnson described the Schuyler incident this way:
"We were just chit-chatting, waiting for a manager who was late, and these two guys come running into the store. One yelled, 'Get down on the floor! Get down on the floor!' He had a shotgun. . . .
"I immediately hit the floor. He started yelling for our purses."
Johnson's purse was on the table. "I was petrified."
A shotgun-toting man wearing jeans, a dark stocking cap and a hooded gray sweatshirt stood over Johnson and 10 colleagues.
Johnson's mind raced. "I figured that they were going to kill us just like those other guys did to the people at the bank in Norfolk. I lay there and thought to myself that I was never going to see my husband and children again. I thought of my daughter and how attached she is to me. I thought I'd never see my son graduate."
About 30 seconds later, the gunmen left, and the managers locked the door and dialed 911.
"I didn't know if I was going to puke or pass out," Johnson said.
A uniformed Schuyler police officer, who apparently learned of the ruse only minutes earlier, soon arrived and had the victims describe the gunmen.
Then the gunmen returned and displayed their police badges.
The managers were told that the guns were not loaded and that the exercise was to see how they would react.
"I heard very little of what they said," Johnson said. "I was angry; I was just glaring. They told me to get over it."
Johnson said she couldn't bring herself to go to work the following Monday because of anxiety. She worked a few hours Tuesday and quit.
Johnson, who has been the victim of "grab-and-run" robbers who take beer or soft drinks, said Gas 'N Shop policy is for employees not to resist robbers.
If they would have been carrying they could be cop killers by now... See? CCW is MMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmbbbbbbbaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad. Mkay? [rolleyes] NsB