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Cops crack Dairy Queen stickup case

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

A Union Township man who allegedly used a toy gun to rob a Dairy Queen is facing real jail time.

“The gun was fake, but the charges are real,” Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman said. “The incident was real.

“The victims didn't know the gun was fake. It was enough to scare them and send them out into the night.”

Police Tuesday charged James Benitto, 28, of 24 Circle Drive, with robbery, aggravated assault, terroristic threats, possession of offensive weapons, recklessly endangering another person, possession of a controlled substance/heroin, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

During a search of Benitto's home Tuesday, police discovered a stamp bag of suspected heroin, syringes, a switchblade knife, and a double-edged blade inside a cane, Hartman said.

Police allege Benitto robbed at gunpoint the Dairy Queen on Route 88 in Union Township shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday.

On store video, the suspect is seen chasing employees through the store and outside the building, yelling and pointing a weapon at them.

The suspect took off on foot on Route 88 and subsequently got into a car driven by his girlfriend, Dairy Queen employee Michelle Mueller, 28, of 24 Circle Drive. She was charged Tuesday with criminal conspiracy.

Benitto and Mueller provided police with written confessions, Hartman said.

Benitto was placed in the Washington County Correctional Facility in lieu of $250,000 straight cash bond. Mueller was released on her own recognizance.

According to an affidavit of probable cause, Dairy Queen manager Jim Olah told police Mueller abruptly quit and left the store shortly before the robbery.

Benitto – on house arrest for driving while operating privilege suspended/DUI–related – was wearing an electronic monitor ankle bracelet at the time of the robbery.

The bracelet “pinged,” alerting a parole officer that Benitto was out of his allowable range during the alleged burglary, Hartman said. The chief added that Benitto was back in range right after the Dairy Queen incident.

Benitto lives a quarter-mile from the Dairy Queen. A monitoring bracelet “pings” when a suspect on house arrest is more than 50 feet from his or her home.

Family and other witnesses told police that Benitto “walks like a duck.”

The suspect, whose face was covered by a black hood, limped.

While being driven from the Dairy Queen, Benitto threw the toy gun and the clothes he was wearing out the window, police said.

Police were in the process of recovering those items late Tuesday, Hartman said.

Hartman said the public aided in the investigation.

“We ran down every lead,” Hartman said. “We were fortunate we were getting information directly to the police station and through social media.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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