2 Injured In Medical Marijuana Dispensary Robbery

2 Elementary Schools Placed On Temporary Lockdown

Two armed would-be robbers were bloodied by irate family members Wednesday morning in what police say was the first shooting at a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver.

Members of the Hernandez family were marking the one-month anniversary of the grand opening of their Healthy Choice Wellness Center dispensary at 3005 W. Gill Place, in a strip mall beside busy Federal Boulevard, when suddenly, a pair of 20-something Hispanic men with guns burst through the door.

"Everybody down on the floor! Where's the money?" the gunman demanded.

Rafael Hernandez, 29, who runs the dispensary with his 69-year-old father, Ruben, tried to explain that the dispensary had no cash, because they encourage credit card and check purchases to avoid having a lot of money around.

The frustrated crooks made the mistake of pointing a gun at the head of Hernandez's 19-year-old niece, Mercedes Hernandez, and demanding the laptop that the nursing student needs for college.

"When he pointed the gun at Mercedes, I lost it," said Melinda Hernandez, 45, referring to her daughter, who was applying to be an intern at the dispensary.

When one of the gunmen dropped something, the enraged mother grabbed him around the waist from behind.

"I was on him like stink on s--- and I was not letting go," said Melinda Hernandez.

"He threatened my baby. When you threaten my family, it's on!" she declared.

In a flash, the tables were turned as family and friends tackled both gunmen and began a desperate wrestling match to pry the guns from their hands.

The bandits' guns -- an Uzi-like automatic and a handgun -- fired several times during the struggle that Rafael Hernandez said lasted more than 10 minutes.

"I had a bullet graze the sleeve of my jacket. So, it was close enough," Rafael Hernandez said.

"It was life or death," said Lewis TallBull, 23, a family member who joined the fray.

Rafael Hernandez used a gun still in a bandit's grip as a hammer against his assailant.

"I broke that gun over his head," he said.

A grinning Ruben Hernandez chimed in, "We wrecked him."

The father proudly held up two bullets -- a 32-caliber shell and a 22.-caliber hollow-point round -- that they found on the floor after the fight.

One 6-foot-tall suspect was last seen running up the street with blood pouring from a gash on his forehead.

Family members wrestled the gun away from the second robber, and Melinda Hernandez and others held him on the floor until police arrived to handcuff him.

That suspect was hospitalized with unspecified injuries. Rafael Hernandez said he was covered with cuts.

Sean Thompson, a 20-something medical marijuana patient who volunteers at the clinic, was clubbed with a gun in the back of the head by a robber during the scuffle. He was treated at the hospital and released.

Rafael Hernandez said he and other medical-marijuana entrepreneurs suspect the two robbers were the same men who have recently robbed two nearby dispensaries, including a Tuesday night stickup at a place called "Mr. Stinky’s" at Third Avenue and Federal Boulevard.

"They match the descriptions of the guys who've been robbing dispensaries up and down Federal," Rafael Hernandez said.

Wednesday morning's shooting was the first at a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver.

It follows of rash of 25 medical marijuana-related robberies in Denver since July, said Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson. The crimes include 13 dispensary stickups and 12 other pot-related robberies, with targets ranging from medical marijuana growing operations to home invasion robberies of medical marijuana patients.

The Denver City Council and state lawmakers are considering legislation to tighten regulation of the booming medical marijuana dispensaries, whose large amounts of cash and drugs have made them magnets for violent crime.

"I think this whole new wave that these medicinal marijuana dispensaries are operating ... is a draw for individuals that are looking at coming and taking advantage of the marijuana," Denver police Detective John White said. "It makes it an attractive target for individuals looking to get marijuana for free."

In California, Los Angeles has seen an explosion of dispensaries -- from less than 186 pot shops to an estimated 1,000 in two years. With them has come a "Wild West" wave of violent crime as organized gangs are robbing dispensaries, triggering shootouts with armed dispensary workers and the murder of an unarmed pot-shop guard.

In Denver Wednesday morning, Dr. Nadine Nakazono was driving up to her medical beauty services salon next to the dispensary as the injured robber was running north on Federal with two men from the dispensary in pursuit.

"He had blood all over his face and the two other men were chasing him," she said.

The doctor thought about stopping to help, but the local mail carrier told her that the two men from dispensary had warned him the robber was armed.

"The mailman was going to run after (the suspect), but the two other men said, 'Don't! He's got a gun,'" Nakazono said.

Marijuana dispensaries in Colorado are unregulated by state and local government.

For business operators like Nakazono, the dispensary robbery is another worrisome barrier for merchants struggling to make it in a tough economy.

"I am so mad, look at what they are doing to our street," she said from inside her salon, gesturing at yellow crime scene tape and graffiti covered signs and buildings.

"People are afraid to come to this street and now with this ... With the police here today and the yellow tape, I'm not going to have anyone coming ... It's really is a huge deterrent," said the beauty doctor, who attracts clients from around the metro area. "Somebody called here today and I said, 'Don't come. '"