Shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon on Dec. 31, 2003, Amare Lucas, owner of the Best-In Liquors on P Street NW, was ringing up a customer when he saw three teenagers dressed in puffy winter jackets, hoods pulled over their heads, saunter inside. He knew what they had come for. At least four times since October, the same boys had entered his store, grabbed as many bottles of liquor as they could stuff in their coats, and walked out. The last time they had hit his store was two days before Christmas. “They’re very bold,” says Lucas.

When the liquor bandits appeared on New Year’s Eve afternoon, Lucas says, more than a dozen customers stood slack-jawed as he confronted the thieves. “I asked them for ID,” Lucas recalls. “They used the F-word…#and then they left.” But apparently not before restocking their bar.

“They like Rémy V.S.O.P. [cognac] in a box,” he says, pointing to one of the higher shelves in the front of his store. Cost: $37. Next on the raid list is Hennessy cognac. Cost: $57. The bandits’ champagne tastes are also top-shelf: Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial, $38. “Because nectar is sweet,” Lucas guesses.

At 2:49 p.m., Lucas says, he set off his alarm to alert the police and called 911. The 911 dispatcher told him that theft wasn’t an emergency; he would have to call 311. Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Officer Junis Fletcher says the dispatcher was correct: Theft is a Priority 2 call.

The police arrived an hour and 10 minutes later, Lucas says. He was so fed up with the police response he didn’t even file a report. He had already filed two reports in late October, when the band of teens stole liquor from his store three days in one week.

During one of his run-ins in October, Lucas faced off against his assailants outside his store. According to witnesses and Lucas, one of the thieves suspected that Lucas had a gun because Lucas had his hands in his pants pockets. The teen began shouting, “‘Pull it out! I got a bigger one. Want me to show it to you?’” Lucas recalls. The boys then began to circle him. A Whole Foods Market employee on a smoking break witnessed the showdown and dialed 911. The incidents made the front page of the November issue of the InTowner.

When the police arrived a half-hour later, however, they didn’t pursue the Hennessy bandits, whom Lucas says he saw heading east on P Street toward 14th Street. Instead, Lucas says, the cops stopped to quiz him over police-report boilerplate such as how much money the thieves had made off with. (According to Fletcher, when the value of the stolen merchandise is less than $250, the crime is only a misdemeanor.) “I told them, ‘Ask me later. You can catch them right now,’” says Lucas. The police then drove Lucas around the neighborhood in a fruitless search for the perpetrators.

Lucas has tried to take matters into his own hands. He’s installing security cameras. When he gets tips from his customers, such as the tag number of the boys’ getaway car, Lucas passes the intelligence on to the police. So far, however, no arrests have been made.

Lucas blames his troubles in part on the store’s success. He finished renovating the interior about a year ago to better fit in with the luxury lofts rising across the street and the Whole Foods next door. Lucas tore down drywall to open up the space, more than half of which had been storage. He painted the walls a warm shade of maroon and replaced the plastic bulletproof checkout hutch with an open, copper-covered counter top.

Only after the renovations, Lucas says, did the store become a target. About a year ago, burglars broke in twice through the front door. Then came the Hennessy bandits. “Not even when I was in the cage did this happen,” he says, referring to the Plexiglas barricade he stood behind for 14 years. “I had an armed robbery 10 years ago. That was it.” CP