MANATEE -- A local bar owner hosted a rally Monday to teach safety to bar employees and to raise reward money after a recent spate of armed robberies at Manatee County bars.
Each armed robbery has been similar. Three to four men enter the bar near closing time, threaten employees and customers with guns and then run with money and sometimes liquor. They have even robbed patrons. In
the past week, it happened at Bubba's Too, the Oasis and Three Oaks Bar.
A few hours after the rally, it happened at Scalawags on Whitfield Avenue, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
"You can never say for sure, but we're operating under the assumption that these are related," Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said before the most recent robbery.
In April, two similar robberies occurred at Bubba's Too and the Dolphin Lounge. Brent Cohenour, the co-owner of the Dolphin Lounge and the Gator Lounge and Package, decided to do something about it before more friends in the industry fell victim to a robbery.
He's also hoping to raise enough money for a significant reward for information leading to the arrest of the masked robbers.
Standing behind a microphone inside the Dolphin Lounge at 2608 Ninth St. W., Bradenton, Cohenour stressed safety to a crowd of patrons, fellow bar owners and bartenders.
"I don't care if you've got a gun or whatever. You might think you can but you can't, so don't jeopardize somebody else's life by trying to be a hero yourself," the 53-year-old Cohenour said. "That's what we need to do -- is to be safe."
According to Cohenour, the employee who was threatened when his bar was robbed was ordered onto the ground at gunpoint along with a customer quit and took another job where she doesn't have to work nights.
"She was pretty traumatized by the whole thing," Cohenour said. "So that's why I'm doing this, I'm tired of people threatening our employees."
Manatee County Sheriff's Office officials also attended the rally. Lt. Robert Mealy described the "problem" in Manatee County.
He said he couldn't speak about the intricacies of the recent burglaries because the investigations surrounding them are active.
"Our No. 1 concern is the safety of all of you folks," Mealy said. "Our number one concern is for the safety of that bartender, the two bartenders that are in a bar at 2 a.m. when there's not a lot of people out ... we are working to find out exactly what happened and put all the pieces of the puzzle together."
Mealy said the Sheriff's Office plans to visit each bar establishment that attended the rally to discuss how they can maintain greater safety.
The crowd applauded his words.
"Every bar is different, every layout is different," he said. "You walk in, the bar's in a different place, restrooms, the doors to walk in, exit -- all that, everything's different. So everybody's going to kind of be in their own unique situation."
One woman asked Mealy what to watch out for.
"The biggest thing is just be aware of your surroundings. If you work somewhere, you know who belongs there, who doesn't belong there," he responded. "You know if you see a suspicious car outside."
Joe Cuervo, who co-owns Drift In -- which has a location in Bradenton Beach and another in Cortez -- attended the rally.
"The police department, the sheriff's department -- they're only so many people," the 62-year-old bar owner said. "We're like a big family. We try and stay together because we're all here trying to make an honest living."
Frank Brunner, executive director of the CrimeStoppers of Manatee County Inc., also spoke at the rally.
According to Bristow, there are a few things bar employees and owners can do to prevent or at least help themselves in the case of an armed robbery.
"They need to make sure they have an up-to-date video surveillance system," Bristow said. "Check on them and make sure they're working."
Bubba's Too had a working surveillance system at the time of the bar's latest robbery, Bristow said, and the sheriff's office is working on releasing that video to the public.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Follow her on Twitter @KateIrby.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.