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Published: Saturday, 12/10/2005

Thieves enter Toledo Zoo, take off in van with ATM

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A zoo employee was ordered at gunpoint to help load the ATM

Thieves dressed in black drove onto the Toledo Zoo grounds through a gate along Amherst Drive early yesterday and drove off with an undetermined amount of money inside a free-standing ATM they stole from the Carnivore Cafe.

A 56-year-old zoo custodian, who arrived 35 minutes early for work because of concerns about the overnight snowstorm, told Toledo police he spotted the white Chevrolet panel van backed up to the cafe's front door at 4:25 a.m.

"I thought it was a delivery truck," Michael Gendaszek, a 15-year zoo employee, said of the windowless van.

He noted that caterers and others often come to the zoo early to set up for special morning events or meetings.

"I poked my head inside [the cafe doors] and asked the guys what was going on. And there they were, stealing the ATM."

Mr. Gendaszek told police that he saw one suspect on the floor by the automatic teller machine.

A second suspect suddenly knocked him down, put a gun to his head, and ordered him to stay down.

The suspects apparently had trouble loading the automatic teller machine into the vehicle, however, and Mr. Gendaszek told police they ordered him to help.

He told The Blade in an interview later that the thieves had apparently underestimated the ATM's weight, and that he helped them load it in the van because he feared for his safety.

"I just wanted to get them out of there," he said.

The custodian said at least two men, and possibly a third person inside the van, were trying to get the ATM.

The two men he saw were wearing black clothing with ski masks.

He said he was unsure of their race, but a police report indicated one suspect was a black male about 5-foot-10.

After the machine was loaded into the van, Mr. Gendaszek was escorted into a restroom in the cafe and ordered to stay on the floor while the suspects fled.

"I didn't know what he was going to do. I was just scared," the custodian said. "Luckily, he told me to lay down. He told me to count."

Hours later, Mr. Gendaszek said he was still shaken by the ordeal.

"It was the most frightening thing I ever went through," he said.

Mr. Gendaszek said that he was afraid the thieves might panic and mistake him as a security guard, then inflict serious harm upon him.

As it was, he said, he was thrown to the floor and roughed up. He expressed relief that he was not more seriously injured.

No information was available from the zoo or Toledo police about how much money was inside the stolen automatic teller machine.

Police said the thieves apparently gained entry to the zoo grounds through a gated driveway entrance off Amherst Drive, which runs along the zoo property between Broadway and the Anthony Wayne Trail. At least one suspect apparently scaled a perimeter fence, then opened the power sliding gate so that they could drive the van onto the zoo grounds. They apparently left through the same gate, the custodian said.

Mr. Gendaszek said he never saw the thieves enter or leave, but said he observed tracks in the snow after they left. The custodian said the incident is the only act of violence he has experienced on the job, which he said has been largely a pleasant experience. He said he does not hold the zoo responsible.

Andi Norman, a Toledo Zoo spokesman, said security policies and procedures will be reviewed as a result of the incident, but declined further comment.

"We don't want to share a lot of details because we don't want to hinder the police investigation," Ms. Norman said.

Police yesterday afternoon were looking for leads. Anyone with information is asked to call the Crime Stopper program at 419-255-1111.

Tips that lead to the arrest and indictment of those involved could result in cash awards. Information can be provided anonymously, police said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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