The mysterious phone call arrived about 9 p.m. Saturday night.
A Danville, Kentucky, dispatcher answered, but the other end was silent. Instead of hanging up, the dispatcher continued to listen, fearing an emergency might be unfolding in the central Kentucky town of 16,000.
Eventually, the dispatcher was able to make out tidbits of a conversation between two male voices.
“They were saying things like, ‘What if I went in there with a gun and what if we robbed the place?’ ” Danville Police Chief Tony Gray said. “Then the other one said something like, ‘What if they know it’s us? We go there all the time.’
“They mentioned wearing a ski mask, and then, at one point, my name was mentioned as well,” he added.
The longer the dispatcher listened, Gray said, the more it became clear that this wasn’t an ordinary conversation, but something potentially dire – a criminal plot in the making.
The problem, Gray said, was that while the men seemed to be discussing plans to commit a robbery, they never referred to a target by name or specified their own location. Danville police had a unique challenge on their hands: preventing a vaguely outlined crime before it materialized.
Gray had just finished dinner at Brothers’ BBQ and Brewing Co., one of his favorite local dinner spots, when the news reached him.
“A bunch of us were all sitting around, just talking and joking, and an officer walked in,” the restaurant’s owner, Mike Southerland, told the Advocate-Messenger, noting that the officer said hello and had a pleasant smile on his face as he made his way over to Gray.
“They start to walk out together, then Tony gets a call – I see Tony’s police face come on, so I knew something was up,” Southerland added.
Gray directed dispatch to continue trying to “triangulate the call,” which was still in progress, and to “pinpoint the exact location of the caller.”
Meanwhile, at least five officers began scouring an area near South Fourth Street – in the vicinity of where the call had originated – looking for signs of an impending crime.
Gray moved to the back of the restaurant and remained on the phone to stay in touch with officers without drawing attention to himself. What he didn’t know at the time was that the call – in the words of the classic horror movie trope – was coming “from inside the house.”
Not exactly inside, Gray said, but pretty darn close.
“From the back of the restaurant, the caller was actually about 30 feet away in the parking lot,” he said.
Within minutes, dispatch had pinpointed the call to the Brothers’ BBQ and Brewing Co. parking lot. Police located two men – identified as Robert Bourne and David Grigsby – in a vehicle, Gray said. Police didn’t find any weapons on the men or in the vehicle, but one of the men had a ski mask in his pocket, Gray said.
Gray said that both of the men were “highly intoxicated” and that one of them, though he didn’t realize it at the time, was still on the phone with dispatch. The chief said he recognized one of the suspects from his high school class.
“He had accidentally butt-dialed emergency dispatch after they started talking,” Gray said. “The entire phone call from start to finish was about 14 minutes.”
Southerland said he didn’t realize anything unusual was taking place until a customer asked him why his parking lot was full of police officers with assault rifles. He estimated about 80 customers were packed inside the restaurant, as well as a blues band. That almost nobody inside knew what was going on outside was a credit to the police, he said.
“When I went outside, someone told me that there was a couple of guys out there who were thinking about robbing you,” Southerland said, noting that the gravity of the situation hit him once he saw the ski mask police had confiscated.
His reaction upon seeing the suspects: “No way!”
“They’re regulars, and I recognized them both because they had just been inside the restaurant drinking beer,” he said.
“Who does that?” he added.
Gray, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure that the men would’ve carried out their plan. Because they didn’t reveal more intent, he said, police charged them with public intoxication instead of attempted robbery or worse. Grigsby also was charged with possession of an open alcohol container in a vehicle and disorderly conduct.
If you thought nearly getting robbed was the standout moment of Southerland’s week, you’d be wrong. That moment occurred Tuesday, when he looked outside and saw Bourne and Grigsby pull up to his restaurant in a truck. Southerland said the pair weren’t there to apologize – they were “looking for lunch.”
“When they got out, I heard one of them say he wanted a sandwich!” he said. “Most people would’ve been ashamed to show their faces like that after trying to rob a business. I was amazed.”
Asked whether the men’s return was a testament to the quality of his food, Southerland laughed.
“I guess if people will risk public humiliation for your barbecue, it’s gotta be good,” he said.
He turned them away anyway.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Holley