By Tim Eberly
On his right foot, Greg Szudera wore a polished black leather shoe. Laced on the other was a sneaker.
The Hill County sheriff also wore a hooded camouflage jumpsuit with a scarf tied around his waist and a lime-green cloth concealing his face.
Then Szudera and his secretary, Vicky Thomas, who was also incognito, drove to the office of local cable provider AT&T Broadband, and robbed them with a handgun and pepper spray.
"I scared the hell out of them," Szudera said. "I screamed at everyone to get down on their knees and to give us the money."
Szudera and Thomas have not turned to crime. Rather, the duo was helping train cable office employees in robbery prevention.
"They should be actors," AT&T Broadband general manager Bonnie Hansen said. "They pulled it off beautifully. They gave us a taste of what it would really be like."
On Tuesday afternoon, Hanson spent two hours on training with her 20 or so employees at the request of AT&T Broadband's corporate headquarters. She walked through the proper procedures to follow in the event of an armed robbery, including compliance with demands and observation of the criminal's appearance and disposition.
At Hansen's request, Szudera and Thomas performed the mock robbery late Wednesday morning to put the employees' freshly learned skills to action. They wore the outlandish clothing so Hansen's employees could pick out accessories that would identify them.
Hansen placed fake money in the cash registers of her three customer service representatives. She told all her employees to expect a simulated robbery Wednesday, but revealed no details.
So when Szudera marched into the Second Street West office brandishing a handgun, which was not loaded, people hit the floor.
"I landed right on the floor facing that way," said technical operations manager Erv Hamblock, pointing to the rear of the office. "It was pretty intense for a while."
Szudera did all the talking. Altering his voice, he told two of the money-handlers the third woman missed the ordeal with a restroom break to put their money in plastic bags. About 16 cable technicians in the office's back room were ordered onto the floor. The incident was brief, but Szudera hammered the point home.
"I think the biggest thing about it is how much it really rattled us, and how poor we were at identifying the suspects," Hansen said. "Even though we all knew something was going on, we felt more vulnerable than we thought we would."
Thomas, who wielded the pepper spray, stole $1,170 in play money from Mary Lou Smith, one of the customer service representatives. Smith gave over the money willfully, but not without a minor glitch. "I couldn't find my keys to get the drawer open," she said.
Szudera stole some cash from the other employee, but in the heat of the moment, he inadvertently dropped it on his way out. "I dropped my money because I was as scared as they were," he said.
And how did the employees do in the test? Only two people realized that more than one robber was present. Szudera's aggressive behavior drew much of the attention to himself, while Thomas quietly took her money.
Of the two people who identified more than one robber, only Smith identified Thomas as a woman. Also, no one properly identified the license plate on Szudera and Thomas' getaway vehicle, which was an unmarked sheriff's office vehicle.
"The only thing I remembered was that she was a woman and he had camouflage pants," Smith said. "Everything else was a blur."
Yet Hansen was pleased with how her employees obeyed the robbers' demands, and laid on the floor at Szudera's command.
"Of all the assets we have, employees are the most valuable and we don't want anybody getting hurt," Hansen said.