Ypsilanti Township comic book store employees recount attempted armed robbery; 17-year-old faces charges
An Augusta Township youth accused of attempting to rob an Ypsilanti Township comic book store Monday now faces charges.
According to a Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office report, a young man showed store employees what he said was a bomb during the encounter Monday. The device was later determined to be inert, authorities said.
Mitchell Tyler Baum, 17, was arraigned Wednesday on charges of "assault with attempt to rob while armed," a felony offense carrying a maximum penalty of life in prison, and attempted larceny from a person, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, according to court records.
Baum's family declined to comment at the arraignment. Attorney James Makowski is representing Baum and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
James Conniff said he was working at Fun 4 All, 2742 East Washtenaw Ave., Monday afternoon when a young man entered the store wearing what appeared to be a long, blond wig, a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, a bandanna over his face, a baggy, black coat and dark sunglasses.
Conniff said the man's appearance caught his attention but he wasn't overly alarmed at first.
“Sometimes we do have customers that dress a little out of the ordinary, so I just kind of got behind the counter and asked if I could help him out with anything right away," Conniff recalled. "And he handed me a note, written out in, like, green marker on a piece of paper. The top was hardly legible, but I could see at the bottom of the note it was different set names for one of the card games we have in the store."
Conniff said the list of merchandise — most, if not all, of it Yu-Gi-Oh! cards — was lengthy. He estimated the total value of the items to be about $500 to $1,000.
At first, Conniff said, he didn't think the fact that the customer handed him a note was unusual either.
"We have people who hand us lists for stuff all the time, be it looking for particular issues of comics or cards for different games we sell, so I often will have people hand me stuff and I just start looking things up," he said.
Conniff said he found the amount of merchandise listed on the note to be odd and then he noticed the note also said something to suggest the young man was being made to steal the merchandise from the store by his uncle. The note implied that the uncle was waiting outside in a red pickup truck.
"I was just kind of taken aback by it and kind of, you know, asked him, ‘OK, what’s really going on here?' And I had him kind of go through the story of how his uncle was making him come in here and take stuff, and if we didn’t give him stuff, something was going to happen, you know, there was something on him," Conniff recalled. "He ended up saying he had a bomb on him and his uncle had the detonator in the car, and that if he didn’t come out with this stuff, he would, you know, set it off."
Conniff said he thought the story seemed strange but was initially concerned for the welfare of the customer, if what he was saying was true.
“I felt like it was just really bizarre, his story just seemed really strange, but at the same time, when he’s saying, ‘My uncle is making me do this,’ I kind of felt concerned for him, too," he said. “He told the story of his uncle, his crazy uncle, making him go in and rob places — that his uncle had been making him do this for years.”
Conniff said he yelled to his boss and store owner Richard Nelson, who was the only other employee and the only other person in the store at the time, to call security.
Nelson, unaware of what was going on, said he stood near by, picked up the phone and pretended to call security while listening to the customer retell his story to Conniff.
When he heard the word "bomb," Nelson called 911.
Conniff said the customer then pulled an object partially out from where it had been concealed in his coat.
The men described the device as being a green 2-liter pop bottle containing some loose change with another, smaller bottle, possibly a contact lens solution bottle, attached to it. They said wires attached to the device led back into his coat.
"It looked fake, but, at the same time, maybe it wasn't," Conniff recalled thinking.
Conniff said the customer seemed alarmed by the fact that the store owner had apparently called security and said he reassured the customer they were trying to help him get out of a bad situation.
“He kind of like freaked out and said, 'Oh, if I don’t get some product and get out of here right now my uncle could set this off, if he sees security guards coming in here,' " Conniff said. "So, he then asked if he could buy a couple packs of cards."
Conniff said he sold the customer two packs of cards, which he paid for with cash. And then the customer left in a car.
Nelson said he walked outside to get a vehicle description to give to the police.
Both men said while the situation was frightening at first, by the time police arrived, they found the scenario more strange and funny than scary. They said they even laughed about it later.
"The situation was bad at the beginning and the longer it went on, the less believable it became," Nelson said. "I became less and less alarmed as things went on that anything was going to happen."
Conniff said he and Nelson did not recognize the young man at the time, but said he was shocked to learn later that Baum had been arrested. Conniff said Baum was a regular customer.
Nelson wanted to assure customers that his store is a safe place and the situation was highly unusual.
"This stuff doesn't happen here," he said.
Conniff agreed, "I've been working here for five years, I've been a customer for longer."
Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office spokesman Derrick Jackson said Baum was arrested Monday after deputies spotted a vehicle matching the vehicle description given by store employees drive into a Burger King parking lot in the 4800 block of Washtenaw Avenue in Pittsfield Township.
Deputies found a potential improvised explosive device in Baum's coat pocket and incriminating evidence in the vehicle, according to a sheriff's department media summary.
The Michigan State Police bomb squad responded and determined the device was inert, according to the release.
Jackson told AnnArbor.com on Tuesday that Baum explained to deputies after he was arrested that the incident had been an attempt at conducting a social experiment to see how people react to stressful situations.
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for March 30.
An official at the jail told AnnArbor.com about 5:15 p.m. Wednesday that Baum had just posted bail and would be released shortly.