Two men have been sentenced to decades in prison following guilty pleas in a case involving 23 “take-over style” masked, armed robberies in the Bay Area last year that included a Berkeley barbecue joint, pizza shop, Walgreens and Ethiopian restaurant.

Nine of the 23 robberies took place in Berkeley, police said previously. The businesses — many of which were restaurants or bars in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Leandro, Albany, Oakland and Hayward — all were targeted shortly before, or just after, closing time by the same suspects. A task force of officers from law enforcement agencies in the targeted cities, as well as the FBI, worked together to close the case. The spree began Feb. 1, 2016, police said, and continued into April of that year.

Shawan Spragans, 41, of Oakland and Merl Simpson, 47, of Antioch were sentenced in federal court in Oakland in late April to 23 years and 20 years, respectively, U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch and FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett announced. In one of the cases, Spragans admitted he fired a gun at a restaurant employee who tried to escape during a struggle.

According to their plea agreements, authorities wrote in a prepared statement, on March 3, 2016, Spragans and a second man entered a Walgreens in Berkeley “wearing masks, gloves, and dark-colored clothing, pointed a firearm at employees and customers, and stole cash from a register.” It was Simpson who drove the getaway vehicle, authorities said.

Several weeks later, March 20, Spragans and his partner went into a Berkeley barbecue restaurant in the 3000 block of Shattuck Avenue. They “forced three employees at gunpoint to stand still while Spragans and his co-conspirator robbed the restaurant. They also robbed the employees of personal cash. They fled the restaurant with the stolen cash, and Simpson drove them away in the getaway vehicle,” authorities said.

Then, April 7, Spragans said he and his partner went into an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley, in the 2900 block of Telegraph Avenue: “They each pointed revolvers at two female employees and robbed them of the restaurant’s cash. Spragans entered the kitchen and encountered another employee, who struggled with Spragans as the employee attempted to escape. During that physical encounter, Spragans fired a bullet at the employee from his revolver. The bullet missed the employee.” The robbers fled with the stolen cash, and Simpson again drove the getaway vehicle.

Authorities said that armed robbery followed another one earlier the same day at a San Francisco pizzeria by Simpson and a co-conspirator.

Approximate, block-level, locations of seven of the nine restaurant robberies in Berkeley in March and April. Source: CrimeMapping/Berkeleyside

The robberies stopped after three men were arrested April 22 when they tried to rob a Dolores Street bar, in San Francisco, at gunpoint.

“Police already were in place conducting surveillance on the location and arrested the defendants as they attempted to flee the area. The police also arrested a co-conspirator, who was waiting in the getaway car,” authorities said. Spragans and Simpson were arrested when they tried to flee the bar, and Kristoffer Jones of Albany, who was 18 at the time, was arrested as he waited in the getaway car. (No information about Jones was released in connection with the January plea deal taken by the other two men, and no further updates about his status have been available.)

Berkeley Police Officer Peter Lee, then a robbery detective, helped break the 2016 case after speaking to other Bay Area law enforcement agencies and discovering the scale of the series during his investigation, officers said at the Berkeley Police Association awards ceremony earlier this year. Lee realized how the Berkeley robberies fit into the larger picture, became the lead investigator on the cases and developed a regional task force based in Berkeley.

Lee pushed for stakeouts at places he thought might be targeted, police said, and that surveillance led to the arrests in April. Describing his accomplishments — for which Lee got a commendation for having completed a “particularly noteworthy achievement” — another officer said, “Even though evidence was lacking, he never gave up the fight.”

In a rare move last year, Berkeley police released video from one of the robberies — they declined to say which one — in which restaurant workers can be seen turning out their pockets as the masked robbers look on. (That video appears at the top of the story.) Four of the Berkeley robberies tied to the case took place in March, and five took place in April, police said last year.

As part of the plea agreement, Spragans and Simpson were each ordered to pay $2,014 in restitution. They were first indicted by a federal grand jury in June. The men then entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in January to multiple robberies affecting interstate commerce, also known as Hobbs Act robberies, discharging a firearm in furtherance of a Hobbs Act robbery, being a felon in possession of firearms, conspiracy and attempted robbery. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers handed down their sentences April 27. In addition to the prison terms, she also sentenced them to five years of supervised release.

According to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Gullotta prosecuted the case with help from Michelle Alter Eck and Trina Khadoo of that office.

The prosecution was the result of an investigation by the FBI and police agencies in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Leandro and Albany, authorities said.

Spragans appears to have been charged more than a decade ago in connection with a masked, takeover robbery at a Hayward bank, according to media reports from 2005. The outcome of that case was not immediately available.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...