Using some old-fashioned detective work combined with modern cell-phone records tracing, Homer Police about 8 p.m. on Friday arrested a Homer man they said robbed at gunpoint the Grog Shop on Dec. 26. Michael R. McClendon, 29, was taken without incident near his Main Street home. He’s charged with first-degree robbery, third-degree assault, theft of a firearm, first-degree misconduct involving weapons for felon in possession of a firearm, and tampering with physical evidence.
McClendon is in custody at Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai. He was arraigned on Saturday and Judge Margaret Murphy appointed him a public defender.
“The police did a great job,” said Grog Shop owner Mel Strydom. “They really worked hard at it from the beginning. Their perseverance paid off. I hope it’s a deterrent for people trying this again.”
In an affidavit written by Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns, police said a masked man they later identified as McClendon robbed the Grog Shop at 10:48 p.m. Dec. 26, firing a shot with a weapon into the floor when the clerk didn’t move fast enough. The clerk was not physically injured. The robber made the clerk lie down, took $1,100 in cash and then ran out of the store and headed south toward Klondike Avenue from Pioneer Avenue. Police identified the suspect as being a man between 6 feet and 6-feet 2-inches.
Police later got a break when they compared a 911 call made about five minutes before the robbery with audio and video recordings made at the Grog Shop. According to dispatch records, a man made a 911 call the same night saying he ran off the road near Mile 2 East End Road and that his girlfriend was bleeding and needed an ambulance. The man said his cell phone was dying. Police and Homer Volunteer Fire Department medics went to the scene but could not find a car crash. Police also contacted South Peninsula Hospital, but found no records of anyone seeking emergency treatment. Kuhns wrote that he and police believed the 911 call had been a decoy call to draw emergency responders out of downtown and increase response time to the Grog Shop robbery.
Comparing the 911 audio recording and the Grog Shop video and audio recording, Kuhns and Officer Steve Smith said they believed the voices were similar in inflection, tone and a distinctive stammer. Through dispatch records, police identified the 911 cell phone number, a 299-prefix number.
Officer Larry Baxter did a reverse lookup on the number and found it was an AT&T prefix. AT&T staff in Homer looked it up and told Baxter it was associated with a TracFone, a brand of prepaid cell phones sometimes known as “burners” because there is no subscriber information required to purchase one. Criminals often use burners as a way to make cell phone calls without being traced, such as for drug transactions.
However, after police served a search warrant on the TracFone company in Florida and got call records, they saw that the suspect cell phone had been used to call a Hoquiam, Wash., phone number belonging to the McClendon family. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said that other numbers had been called, too, and could have been used to identify McClendon.
Police found two McClendons living in Homer, including a Michael R. McClendon living on Main Street between Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway. Police had contacted McClendon earlier in association with another incident and he was in police records, but he was not charged with any prior crimes, Robl said. Police believe McClendon has been living in Homer since August, Robl said.
Police also looked up Michael R. McClendon’s Washington driver’s license information and found it matched the Hoquiam phone number where the suspect cell phone had called. Based on a physical description on the license, police determined McClendon was 6-feet, 2-inches and weighed 195 pounds, matching the description of the robber in the Grog Shop video.
On Jan. 10, police got a search warrant on McClendon’s cabin. During the search they found a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and a black mask similar to that worn by the Grog Shop robber. The rifle handle had been shaped into a pistol grip and covered with black electrical tape. That rifle turned out to have been stolen from a Homer man, Robl said.
While police were at the cabin, they saw McClendon walking by the driveway. Police arrested McClendon and read him his Miranda rights. McClendon confessed to the robbery, Kuhns wrote. He said he placed the 911 call as a diversion and that he had shot the rifle into the floor. The rifle police seized was the same one he used in the robbery, Robl said McClendon told police. Police initially believed the Grog Shop robber used what looked like a Snakecharmer .410-caliber shotgun. Police found a badly mangled bullet in the Grog Shop floor, but it was not usable to link it to the weapon seized, Robl said.
McClendon also said he threw away the clothing he wore as well as the TracFone into a Dumpster. Police searched Dumpsters in the area of the Grog Shop but did not find the phone or clothing, Kuhns wrote.
Robl said it took awhile for police to get the TracFone cell phone records, but once they did, they quickly wrapped up the case.
“There was some good, diligent paper chasing on this one,” Robl said. “There was a bit of a delay there, but we put it all together.”
Police said McClendon also is a convicted felon out of Washington state on multiple felony offenses for burglary and weapons violations.
McClendon has a preliminary hearing at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Homer Courthouse. Under court rules, defendants in custody on felony charges within 10 days must either be indicted or have a preliminary hearing.
Strydom praised Homer Police for their work on this case as well as earlier Grog Shop thefts.
“This is the third big incident I’ve had in over a year,” Strydom said. “All three perpetrators are in jail. I’ve had two armed robberies and I had one major shoplifting incident where the person stole over $2,000 and he’s in jail. I’m just very thankful for the work our police department does.”
Strydom said he is reviewing security procedures at the Grog Shop and will be using a drop safe to deposit large bills and to keep a minimum amount in the cash register till.
First-degree robbery is a class-A felony and the other felony charges are class-C felonies. If convicted of robbery, because McClendon has a prior felony conviction, he could be sentenced to a minimum sentence of 10 years and up to 20 years if aggravators like shooting at a victim are applied.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.