WORCESTER - Police believe that the robbers had hit eight local businesses in the past several months. Each time, they grabbed the clerk by the shoulder, shoved a handgun in the clerk's face, took cash from the register, and fled.
Wednesday night, their spree ended in death when they stormed into Big Bob's Liquors, where the owner is known to keep a semiautomatic pistol tucked in his waistband.
It was 10 p.m., an hour before closing time. Robert "Big Bob" Varderesian was sitting on a stool behind the counter. His brother, Kevin, was counting cash from the register. Suddenly, the robbers burst inside, wearing masks.
Evan Louis Rivera, a convicted felon with a history of armed robberies dating to at least 1988, pressed a loaded revolver to Kevin Varderesian's temple and told him to hand over the cash. But while he was looking at the money, police said, Robert Varderesian pulled his gun from his waistband, reached behind his brother's back, and fired multiple shots into Rivera's chest, killing him.
The entire episode lasted less than a minute.
Rivera's accomplice fled and was at large last night as police mounted a massive manhunt with dogs and officers on foot. Varderesian, who was licensed to carry a gun, had not been charged with a crime.
"He felt that he was in a life-and-death situation, and he took action," said Sergeant Kerry F. Hazelhurst of the Worcester Police Department.
The killing rattled shopkeepers in the tight-knit neighborhood where it occurred, midway between Newton and Tatnuck squares. Many of the business owners are immigrants, who said the area is safe, and they could not recall any armed robberies in many years.
"It's really such a rare occurrence, if it happens at all," said Andrew Baxter, who owns Dooley's Cleaners, across the street from Big Bob's Liquors. "Here, it really feels out of place."
Like many local shopkeepers, Baxter said he believed that Varderesian had done the right thing in shooting Rivera.
"It sounds like it's totally justified," he said. "I think there was maybe one of two outcomes, and what would have happened if he didn't shoot him? Then maybe he and his brother wouldn't be here."
Next door, at Moscow Nights deli, owner Yuriy Fastovskiy said he was going to buy a gun to protect the shop he opened 13 years ago. "I'm going to try to get a license," he said. "The area is safe," he said, but added that criminals could come from other parts of Worcester to rob him.
Hazelhurst, however, cautioned against anyone rushing to buy firearms in response.
"Clearly, everyone has a right to defend themselves," he said. "However, we prefer to let that be handled by the police. We don't want people running out and getting guns now. We certainly hope they'll think long and hard about that. It's a great responsibility to own a firearm."
He said it is too soon to say whether the shooting was justified. Investigators interviewed Varderesian Wednesday night and have recovered Rivera's revolver. They are also reviewing video from the store's security camera, which recorded the shooting.
"The debate's going to be: 'Did he do the right thing or not,' " Hazelhurst said. "And who are we to judge if we weren't there."
Varderesian, who declined comment at his home yesterday, is a well-liked figure in the area who opened Big Bob's about five years ago.
"He's a nice family man," said George Makos, who owns Pleasant Market, a convenience store adjacent to Big Bob's Liquors. "He's a very nice guy."
Still, he said, "it's terrible for everybody, because, in my opinion, only God has the power to take a life. But these things happen."
Rivera, who was 40 and had a last known address in Worcester, had a long criminal history. Florida prison records show he served two months in prison in 1988 for burglary and grand theft and was sent back to prison from 1989 to 2002 for a string of armed robberies.
Police believe that he and his accomplice were responsible for at least eight armed robberies in Fitchburg, Worcester, and Auburn, where they took cash from liquor stores and an auto parts store.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.