'Open the till or I'll shoot you' robbers tell Hamilton dairy owner
"Open the till or I'll shoot you," the armed gunman told the Hamilton dairy owner, pointing the pistol at her head.
Usha Patel could see the eyes of the masked robber glaring out from between his cap and bandanna as he aimed the gun at her face and made the demands.
She'd just been grabbed and dragged back by the man and his mate as she tried to escape through the back door of her dairy on Saturday afternoon.
"They told me open the till or I'll shoot you. I was very scared," she said, still shaken on Sunday morning by the 40-second experience.
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Usha was working alone on a sleepy afternoon at Mitcham Avenue Dairy in Forest Lake, which she owns with her husband, Dipak.
She had stocked the cigarette cabinet and was pottering behind the counter when she spotted the approaching robbers on the store's internal camera monitors just before 3pm.
The Hamilton mother of one tried to make a dash for the back door, but the pair, wearing sports gear and bandannas wrapped around their faces, grabbed her as she fled.
At least one wielded a gun.
"They were about 18 to 20 years old. They had covered their whole faces, you could just see their eyes," Usha said.
"They had a gun."
Grabbing her with their hands, they dragged Patel back to the counter, where one began clearing cigarettes from the cabinet. They took an estimated $800 to $1000 worth of tobacco products.
The other accosted Usha, shunting her to the till while holding a black pistol above her head.
"I just tried to open the till, but as soon as the till opened, they saw a car pull up outside and the customer was there.
"I was very lucky the customer came, otherwise they would have taken all the cigarettes and money."
Spooked the customer, the pair fled the dairy and headed towards the nearby netball courts.
They were spotted by a passing motorist, who decided to follow the pair in her car, Usha said.
The driver and her teenage daughter managed to record the registration plate of the car the pair fled to, and notified police.
Police said on Saturday they had public help in tracking the fleeing vehicle to Maori Point Road, Whatawhata, west of Hamilton.
Armed Offenders Squad members could be seen surrounding a cream-coloured weatherboard house in the semi-rural area enroute to Raglan.
Police arrived at the property and stopped the driver as he tried to leave in a car.
After a short time, a 21-year-old man was arrested and taken into custody. He has been charged with aggravated robbery and will appear in Hamilton District Court on Monday.
The Armed Offenders Squad remained and cleared the address where detectives found an imitation pistol and clothing used in the robbery.
The Patels were incredibly grateful to those who had interrupted their day to help.
"We say thanks for those people who helped me," Usha said. "There was another lady who stayed here with me until the police came."
The couple have owned the dairy for the past 14 years and this was the first time Patel had ever experienced a robbery.
The last time the dairy was hit was in 2012.
"We've been here a long time and it's happened to me a couple of times, but this is the first time for her," Dipak said.
"At least they didn't hurt her - that's the main thing, that she is safe."
Just a few days ago, Dipak had commented to a friend that they felt lucky they had not been hit in what has been a recent spike in robberies across the region.
The couple work seven days a week at the corner dairy, opening at 7am and closing at 8pm.
"I'm doing hard work here the whole day," Usha said.
"It's typically very safe here. We have had no problems for a long time but it is happening everywhere now."
Figures from Waikato police show aggravated robberies and burglaries on small and commercial businesses have skyrocketed since August.
From August 1 to September 29, there were 30 such offences, including the theft of cars used to commit crimes.
These figures only include crimes tallied under Operation Chronos - a name given to the Waikato police operation investigating robberies and burglaries police believe are linked.
Last month, the owner of Te Kowhai Food Centre decided to stop selling cigarettes after being robbed and ram-raided 10 times.
Dipak believes the penalties for those committing these crimes are too soft.
"These teenage kids will come back in six months' time and do it again. It's not going to stop. We need harsher punishments."