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Police seek suspect in hold-ups of southeast Queens hair salons

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That is what a 22-year-old West African immigrant said when asked last week about a recent gunpoint hold-up of her hair-braiding shop in downtown Jamaica.A law enforcement official said the robber, wanted in a string of salon stickups across four boroughs over the last two months, actually used a gun that fired blanks, like those used to start races at track meets. Police released a sketch of the suspect last Thursday, describing him as a man wearing a dark-colored bandana on his head who is in his mid-20s and is 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-5 with a heavy build and blotchy spots on his neck. No one has been hurt during the crimes, police said.Interviewed at work several hours after the sketch's release, the woman at the Jamaica salon and her sister, a co-worker, had not known the weapon was fake and noted it was the first time they had seen a gun."I'm scared," said the 22-year-old, who asked that her name and the name of the salon, on Jamaica Avenue near 168th Street and owned by her aunt, not be used to protect the victims' safety. The 22-year-old works at one of the many small beauty shops that dot downtown Jamaica and specialize in cornrows and other types of braiding. Some of the stores are at street level, while others are on an upper floor. The man police were still looking for as of Tuesday was suspected of committing 21 robberies between March 4 and April 23 in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, many of them at such salons. Police said the outlaw went into the shops and asked employees questions before leaving, only to return later with a black handgun to demand money and jewelry before fleeing. The law enforcement official said the robber was likely targeting the salons because he knew they had cash and were run by women. The suspect met his match with one of those women, however, in a Brooklyn salon April 23, leaving without his weapon after a female worker dumped a bucket of scalding water on his head, the official said. The encounter left him facial burns, which could further help in his identification, the official said.The 21 robberies included two in Jamaica: one at the 22-year-old's shop on Jamaica Avenue and another at a salon on a nearby side street also owned by a West African immigrant. Both are around the corner from the 103rd Police Precinct.The 22-year-old, her sister, 26, their aunt , her child and a customer were all in the Jamaica Avenue salon when it was robbed April 18. The man had come to the shop several times in preceding weeks to ask the cost of a particular female hairstyle and the sisters thought he had been acting weird. In retrospect they realized he was casing the salon to hit it on a busy day, but at the time they did not think they were in danger.On the third visit, however, the robber told them the hairstyle cost too much, then pulled out the weapon. It was the first time the immigrants from Mali had seen a gun."He said, 'Give me the f---ing money,'" the 22-year-old said, and they complied, handing over cell phones, more than $350 in cash and jewelry, including the 26-year-old's prized wedding ring.It was a similar story nearly a month earlier at the nearby store, run by a 37-year-old woman from Guinea, West Africa, who had only seen guns in movies. The man came upstairs to her salon and asked how much it cost for him to get cornrows, she said. He then left to get some money, only to come back two weeks later. When he did so, he asked for a business card and the price of a girl's haircut. He went out again, only to return 10 minutes later with a gun."It was the first time to have something happen to me," she said. "I was so scared." The man fled in a gypsy cab with $140, phones and jewelry, the 37-year-old said. She now keeps her shop locked and only lets in customers she knows."We don't open the door to no one," the salon owner said. "He makes me feel I'm not safe."The 22-year-old was also hoping for the robber's arrest. In the meantime, she was still having nightmares, looking behind her on the street and thinking of going back to Mali."Now I'm worried I'm going to die in America," she said.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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