Crime

Bellingham gunman pleads guilty to 5 armed robberies, ending trial

Security footage shows Dennis Jeffrey Ridley, 65, wave a pistol as he robs a Bellingham farmers co-op in early 2015.
Security footage shows Dennis Jeffrey Ridley, 65, wave a pistol as he robs a Bellingham farmers co-op in early 2015. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A Bellingham robber pleaded guilty mid-trial this week to armed heists of restaurants and cafés two years ago in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

Dennis Jeffery Ridley, 65, admitted guilt Tuesday to robbing the Whatcom Farmers Co-op in Fairhaven and Lafeen’s Donuts in Burlington. However, he took four armed robbery cases to a bench trial in Whatcom County Superior Court.

On the first day of trial prosecutor Dave McEachran called a dozen witnesses. By the next day Ridley’s public defender reached a deal, and Ridley pleaded guilty to three of the four Bellingham robberies – Man Pies, Iwana Moka, and Zoom Zoom Espresso. Charges in a case where a masked man robbed Westside Pizza were dropped.

The deal dismisses what is called an aggravating circumstance, too, that would have allowed a judge to give Ridley significantly more time for the crimes.

According to charging papers:

Westside Pizza

The robbery spree began around 10 p.m. Nov. 6, 2014, when a man walked into Westside Pizza on Cordata Parkway armed with a handgun and wearing a Groucho Marx mask, a stocking cap, and military boots.

“This is a robbery!Get down!” he shouted, corralling the employees and ordering them to empty the till. He took two employees’ car keys, but left them behind as he fled on a bicycle.

Man Pies

Three days later Ridley – in a red rain jacket, black gloves, and drag khaki pants – walked into Man Pies in downtown Bellingham through a back door around 8 p.m. He brandished a black pistol, told employees to get on their knees, and demanded their cellphones.

Ridley put the money in a coat pocket before fleeing out the back door. A city police dog found a pair of gloves, pants and shoes that had been abandoned nearby.

I Wana Moka

A bicyclist rolled up to I Wana Moka on Old Fairhaven Parkway around 5:50 p.m. Nov. 26, and told the barista, “Open the door now!” She did.

He pointed a black semiautomatic handgun at her, and told her to turn off the lights and give him the money. He told her to give him her cellphone, and to go across the street to call police. She didn’t see how he left.

Zoom Zoom Espresso

The same week, on Nov. 28, a man in sunglasses entered Zoom Zoom Espresso, 845 Lincoln St., while a barista talked with a customer. The man had a black gun.

He took bags of money from the café’s safe, and put them in a reusable Trader Joe’s bag. Outside a witness saw the man riding off on a bicycle.

Lafeen’s

Another small business was hit in Skagit County on Nov. 30, when a man in a black hoodie pointed a semiautomatic handgun at the only employee inside of Lafeen’s Donuts, 151 N. Burlington Blvd. As he ordered her to fill a bag with money, she saw him move toward the business’ phone, as if he would disable it.

“Fearing what would happen if he did this,” the charges say, “she picked up a napkin holder, charged the robber and struck him repeatedly in the head area, and fought with him.”

She chased him out of the store, and chased him back inside. He dropped his gun, the money, a dark pair of socks he wore as gloves, and a pair of sunglasses. He grabbed the gun, and police believed he fled in a silver SUV.

Whatcom Farmers Co-op

The robber struck again Jan. 19, 2015, at the Whatcom Farmers Co-op, across the street from I Wana Moka on Old Fairhaven. Ridley had walked inside the store and asked an employee a question about a nut and bolt he had brought in.

Then he went to the front of the store, pointed a black handgun at a cashier, and shouted: “Show me the money!”

Security footage shows he wore a brown baseball cap, a dark jacket, and thick-rimmed glasses. He waved the gun at employees and told them to run to the back of the store, while he ran out into the street.

Detective work

All of the victims described the robber as a white man with gray hair, who looked around 50 years old, and about 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-11.

Security footage from the Lafeen’s robbery ran on Washington’s Most Wanted, and Burlington police got a tip that the robber looked like Dennis Ridley, who had a history of robbery in California.

A crime lab found DNA from the sunglasses matched a sample from the gloves recovered in the Man Pies robbery – and a sample from Ridley, who had been staying in a home off Chuckanut Drive, where he had been allowed to use the residents’ bike and a silver Acura SUV.

Inside the house they found a Groucho Marx mask, like from Westside Pizza; red hooded jacket, like from Man Pies; and a brown GAP baseball cap, like from the farmers co-op.

Authorities in California arrested Ridley in Orange County, Calif., and he was extradited to Washington in June 2015. Last week a change of venue was granted in the Lafeen’s case, the only robbery Ridley confessed to immediately. So all of the cases were heard in Whatcom County.

Ridley faces about 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week. Since the robberies he has grown a long beard.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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