Wellsboro man held for trial on armed robbery charges

After hearing nearly three hours of testimony from more than a half a dozen prosecuting witnesses, a judge ruled Wednesday there was sufficient evidence to hold a Wellsboro man on all but four charges stemming from a rash of four armed robberies in October.

Jess David Keck will face further court action on the most serious charges, which included multiple counts of robbery, theft, receiving stolen property, terroristic threats and simple assault.

Keck, who will turn 29 at the end of the month, is charged with the following holdups: the Nittany Minit Mart, 1430 E. Third St., on Oct. 7; the Uni-Mart, 1944 W. Fourth St., on Oct. 12; and the Smokes-To-Go outlets at 1930 Lycoming Creek Road and 1725 E. Third St. on Oct. 10 and Oct. 14, respectively.

The Smokes-To-Go chain has changed its name to Cigarettes Outlet.

“A man came in and pointed a gun at me. He said ‘Give me all the money,’ ” testified Mishend Patel, the victim who was robbed at the East Third Street cigarette and check-cashing business.

“This never happened to me. I thought he was a customer who was joking with me,” Patel said.

“He then said he was going to count to 10 and then blow my head off,” Patel said.

Patel and his wife, Rupal, managed both outlets. Rupal was behind the counter at the Lycoming Creek Road business in Old Lycoming Township when a gunman walked in and demanded money.

“He put a bag on the table and said, ‘Put the money in the bag,’ ” the woman told the court. “I was so nervous. He pointed the gun at my stomach.”

The bandit fled both businesses with cash.

Another clerk who was robbed was Erica Engel, who was working at the Nittany Minit Mart.

“He walked straight up to the counter and pulled out a gun,” Engel said.

The woman testified that she apparently was not moving fast enough because the robber told her to “Hurry up.” She said the gunman was “in-and-out of the store in two minutes.”

Also taking the stand was Joseph Roeder, a Uni-Mart clerk. When the robber pulled out a gun, “I started shaking so bad,” Roeder said. “He pointed the gun at my chest.”

Investigators believe Keck wore a black hooded sweatshirt and disguised himself by wearing a fake mustache and beard as well as a pair of glasses when he allegedly committed the holdups.

All four clerks testified they could tell the mustache the bandit was wearing was fake.

“The mustache was way too black to be real,” Roeder said.

While none of the four clerks were able to identify Keck as the alleged robber, Patel, the victim in the last hold up, testified, “I can’t say it’s him, but if you put a fake beard on him, it’s him,” as he looked at the defendant.

The holdups are a joint investigation involving state, city and Old Lycoming Township police because the crimes occurred in three jurisdictions. The cases were merged and testimony was presented before District Judge Gary A. Whiteman.

Investigators have said that the break in the string of robberies occurred while officers still were gathering evidence at the 4:20 p.m. holdup at the Cigarettes Outlet on East Third Street on Oct. 14.

About 30 minutes after the robbery, Keck suddenly pulled up in front of the business in a pickup truck and attempted to enter the store in an effort to get his cellphone, police said.

Keck’s cellphone indeed was on a counter in the store. Patel testified the cellphone was not in the store before the holdup and that the business had been closed to customers since the robbery.

Keck was detained in a police cruiser while investigators questioned Pizza Hut employees, including Shawn Morrill. The pizza business is next door to the outlet.

Morrill told police that the man being detained had spent much of the afternoon sitting in his truck in the Pizza Hut parking lot. Witnesses reported seeing the man throw items in a dumpster.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Morrill testified that when he first saw the man in the truck, he had on a black hat and black sunglasses. Morrill also said the man, sitting in the driver’s seat, had a beard and a mustache.

Morrill testified that shortly after 4 p.m., when he left Pizza Hut to make a delivery, the mystery man still was sitting in the truck.

Morrill told the court that when he returned, police officers were at the cigarette outlet business next door. The truck still was in the parking lot and the driver still in it, Morrill testified.

Another Pizza Hut employee had written down the truck’s registration and Morrill decided to take it over to the investigating officers.

As Morrill was talking to the officers, the same truck that had been in the pizza place parking lot suddenly pulled up.

However, this time the driver had no sunglasses, no hat and no beard, Morrill said.

There was no question in Morrill’s mind who was sitting in the truck. From the stand, he identified Keck as the one had been in the vehicle.

Also presented at the hearing was testimony from investigators who said they recovered lottery tickets from the dumpster that matched those taken in the Oct. 12 robbery at the Uni-Mart.

In his closing remarks, William J. Miele, Keck’s defense attorney, argued that charges implicating his client in the first two holdup should be dismissed.

He noted discrepancies in the victims’ testimonies in which the suspect’s age ranged from late 20s to mid 30s and the suspect’s height ranged from 5-feet, 9-inches to 6 feet.

“There is a whole lot of jumping to conclusions,” Miele said.

However, Whiteman said that while “there are some leaps, I’m willing to make them based on the testimony I heard today.”

The judge did toss out four counts of carrying a firearm without a license because of insufficient evidence.

Police believe Keck allegedly committed the robberies to support his heroin addiction. Keck remains jailed in the Lycoming County Prison in lieu of $750,000 bail.