The Valentine's Day incident was the first of two brazen attempts within 30 minutes of each other in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Police suspect both incidents were committed by the same person.
In Palo Alto, a man in his 20s approached the victim at about 8:15 p.m. on the 200 block of Walter Hays Drive near Stanley Way. He shined a flashlight into the victim's eyes and pointed a handgun at him, Palo Alto police said. The robber demanded the victim's wallet and ordered him to empty his pockets and drop everything on the ground. Then he told the victim to turn around and walk away. The victim complied and was not harmed, police said.
A half hour later, a man attempted to rob a 52-year-old Menlo Park woman at gunpoint. He approached her on the 400 block of Laurel Avenue near Gilbert Avenue, pointed a handgun and demanded her wallet. But when she told him she didn't have any property on her, the man hopped into the passenger side of a waiting, dark-colored van, Menlo Park police said. The van drove west on Laurel Avenue.
The robber was described as a black male about 5 feet 10 inches tall.
Palo Alto residents living in the Walter Hays Drive area were jittery Wednesday after hearing about the armed robbery. Some expressed dismay that so brazen an act could occur in their quiet neighborhood of tree-lined, labyrinthine streets.
"This is so shocking. This is a safe neighborhood. I feel so violated," said a woman on Lois Lane who did not give her name Wednesday morning.
Karen White, president of the Duveneck/St. Francis Neighborhood Association, called the street robbery "terrifying."
"We've never had a fear of physical harm. At times in the past we've had a rash of car break-ins," said White, whose own car has been burglarized. "But this is a personal crime. This feels quite a bit more frightening."
Walter Hays Drive resident Jim Conley agreed.
"It implies desperation," he said.
Conley and his wife often walk their dog in the neighborhood during evenings and know all of their neighbors, he said. Many people walk their dogs in the evening and meet their neighbors on the street.
Dave Vroom, another Walter Hays resident, called the news about the robbery "a little bit shocking.
"I've always considered this to be a safe neighborhood," he said.
The only precaution Vroom thought people could take would be to not walk at night anymore.
But some residents were not entirely surprised by the incident. One woman said someone broke into her car months ago.
Nonetheless, the idea of a man out walking his dog being held up at gunpoint was disturbing, she said.
"We'll have to watch out for our children," the woman added, as she loaded young ones into an SUV Wednesday.
White, the neighborhood leader, said she hoped police would expand patrols in light of the robbery.
"I certainly hope we would have a dramatically increased police presence along the Channing (Avenue) corridor," she said. She also would like for the city to host a neighborhood update at Duveneck Elementary School.
Palo Alto police Lt. Zach Perron said Wednesday that patrols are being increased in the area and the department will expand use of its unmarked patrol cars. Police had already increased daytime patrols due to a rash of daytime burglaries in the area, he said.
"If you don't see a marked car on your street, it doesn't mean there isn't an officer out there," he said.
Perron said the department at this time does not plan to hold a community meeting given that the incident was solitary.
Palo Alto detectives are working with the Menlo Park police department to find the robber. The department is looking at regional crime trends to see if a similar suspect has been active in other cities, he said.
"There may be some leads, and hopefully there will be an arrest. Suppressing violent crime is our priority. We absolutely want to catch this guy," he said.
Perron said residents should not take matters into their own hands but should be the department's "eyes and ears." He said neighbors should heed advice that is given to every rookie cop: "When you see behavior that's out of the ordinary, don't try to rationalize it. Pick up the phone and call us."
Palo Alto police are asking anyone with information about either incident to call 650-329-2413 or send anonymous tips by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by text messages to 650-383-8984.