Armed masked men targeted Eastbourne stores in a terrifying robbery campaign that left staff fearing for their lives.
Staff were told they would be stabbed if they did not hand over cash in three late-night robberies earlier this year, a court heard.
Faced with a terrifying armed robber late at night, two members of the public showed incredible bravery.
Police believe multiple people were involved but only one man – 29-year-old Richard Watsham – has been convicted.
Watsham, of Etchingham Road in Eastbourne, pleaded guilty to three counts of robbery and appeared at Lewes Crown Court on Friday for sentencing.
Prosecutor Jonathan Rosen said: “This case involved three robberies of convenience stores in Eastbourne.
“On each occasion the robbery was committed by a male with his face covered with a weapon.”
Stores on the outskirts of Eastbourne were targeted late in the evening on February 1, February 4 and February 6 last year, the court heard.
According to the prosecution only one of the three robberies was actually carried out by Watsham – but he was linked to the other two through joint enterprise.
February 1: One Stop, Winston Crescent
About 9pm on February 1, Karen Murrell and Tristan Goodwin were working at the One Stop store in Winston Crescent.
Mr Goodwin’s attention was drawn to the sound of a door rattling.
When he went to investigate he saw a masked man standing there who told him he was being robbed, the court heard.
The prosecutor continued: “The male became aggressive. He was telling Mr Goodwin to go back to the till and empty it.
“He then produced a large knife and proceeded to bang it on a Taser.”
The robber told him that if he did not hand over any money he would be stabbed. He was counting down as a threat, the court heard.
However the quick-thinking bravery of Mr Goodwin’s colleague turned the situation on its head.
“Ms Murrell looked at the male, saw that his hand was no longer on the large knife and she grabbed it and retreated backwards.”
After this courageous act from Ms Murrell, the robber turned and ran out of the shop.
February 4: McColl’s, Holly Place
On the evening of February 4, Daniel Patterson and Lorraine Burke were working at McColl’s in Holly Place.
Mr Patterson heard a voice saying ‘both tills and safe now’, the prosecutor said.
A man wearing dark clothing and brightly coloured gloves with his face covered came into the store, the court heard.
He was holding a claw hammer.
The prosecutor said: “The male came round to where Mr Patterson was standing and banged the till saying hurry up.”
Held up the hammer and threatened them saying: ‘If you give me the keys to the till and the safe I won’t hurt you’.
The masked man took the money – about £700 in cash – and left the shop.
February 6: Co-Op store, Coppice Avenue
The third robbery took place at the Co-Op store in Coppice Avenue, two days after the McColl’s robbery.
The prosecutor continued: “A man wearing a red jacket went into the store and the Crown say this man was Richard Watsham.”
Watsham was wearing a baseball cap had a scarf covering his face.
“He was holding a claw hammer and a Taser.
“He said ‘tills and safe’, banging the hammer on the Taser which made a noise and spark.”
Watsham left the store with two shop tills, the court heard.
However he was pursued by a brave member of staff – franchise owner Mr Patel – down the street.
Describing Watsham’s role in the robbery spree, prosecutor Jonathan Rosen told the court: “This defendant was identified in an identity parade as certainly the person who had gone into the third shop and also present at the other two robberies.
“It was not necessary to identify who went into the premises on each of the occasions. The robberies were considered to be a joint enterprise.”
Watsham was arrested in the early hours of February 7.
Watsham was 'in the grip of a drug addiction' at the time of the robberies
Defence barrister Kevin Light said Watsham has been making good progress in prison since June last year.
“He was in the grip of a drug addiction abusing Class A drugs, also abusing alcohol.
“He knows that this is not an excuse for what happened whatsoever.
“He is in the process of rehabilitating himself, changing his life.”
He asked that Watsham be given credit for his guilty plea.
Judge: This type of robbery is a blight on our community
Judge Gareth Hawkesworth told Watsham: “They were definitely carefully planned robberies.
“You targeted vulnerable community stores and targeted at a time when those stores would be vulnerable to attack.
“And in the course of these armed robberies weapons were produced and used to threaten and intimidate the staff, the most evil of which being a Taser, otherwise a knife and a claw hammer.
“It is completely immaterial who it was who went into the store and physically brandished these weapons because this was a joint enterprise.”
Judge Hawkesworth said it was inconceivable that those who did not go into the stores would have been unaware of what was going to happen.
He continued: “These sorts of robberies are a real blight not only for the hardworking people who work in those stores but for the communities they serve.”
Watsham was jailed for six years.
Praise for brave members of staff
Speaking after Watsham had been sent down, Judge Hawkesworth praised the members of staff for their bravery.
“The members of staff are to be highly commended, in particular Ms Murrell who had the bravery in removing the knife from the robber’s pocket and for Mr Patel to have taken up pursuit of the robber in the way that he did.
“They all showed tremendous public spiritedness.”