Elizabeth Penney said she wasn't sure she quite heard the man when he first approached her from the other side of the convenience store counter and told her, "This is a robbery."
"I said, 'What?' and he leaned over and reached into the cash and said, 'Open the register.' He said to hurry," Penney told a St. John's court Wednesday.
The young woman, who was working as a cashier at Marie's Mini Mart on Topsail Road at the time, said the man took three $20 bills from the cash drawer and then asked her for a carton of cigarettes. In a nervous state, Penney said, her first reaction was to ask him what kind he wanted. When he didn't reply, she handed him a carton of Rothman's. He then left the store.
Penney said she saw the man's face, even though he had his hood up, and had noted another detail: an orange and black tattoo of a nautical star on his wrist, visible above his sleeve as he reached for the cash. She later sketched the tattoo on paper and gave it to RNC investigators.
Const. Pat Hickey with the RNC's criminal investigation division went to the convenience store after receiving the robbery report late in the afternoon last July 9.
Reviewing surveillance footage captured in the store, Hickey said, he noticed similarities between the robber and Jeffrey Earle, with whom he was familiar. When a database search revealed Earle had an orange and black nautical star tattoo on his right wrist, he requested officers prepare a photo lineup to show Penney.
Police officers presented Penney with the photo lineup a few days later, and the court heard she told them she was unable to choose between No. 5 and No. 12. Once the officers left, Penney called them to come back, saying she had made a mistake.
"I was still thinking about it in my head," she testified. "It was his face structure and his nose."
When police came back and showed her the lineup again, Penney chose No. 7, saying she believed it was the man who had held her up. It was Earle.
"How confident are you that No. 7 is the person that held you up?" Crown prosecutor Alana Dwyer asked Penney in the courtroom.
"Very confident," Penney said.
When Dwyer asked if she saw the same man in the room, Penney identified Earle.
Earle, 29, has pleaded not guilty to 22 charges related to three convenience store robberies in St. John's between July 7 and 11 last year, as well as the armed robbery of a Marie's location in Mount Pearl the previous February. Among them: charges of possessing weapons dangerous to the public — a handgun and a knife — pointing a firearm, carrying a concealed weapon, armed robbery, possession of stolen property and breaches of prior court orders.
Earle's lawyer, Steve Orr, cross-examined Penney on her recollection of the robbery, particularly the tattoo. He asked her if she had ever seen a similar tattoo before, and whether that had helped her remember the design when it came to drawing it.
"You can see a tattoo like that on Google, if that's what you mean," she replied.
"Did you use Google to help you draw it?" Orr asked.
"No, I drew it by memory alone," Penney said.
Orr also questioned Penney on her reasons for changing her mind when it came to the photo lineup, asking her if she had felt disappointed in herself when she was first unable to identify the robber.
"No, I understand that sometimes you might not be able to remember," Penney replied. "I wouldn't identify someone if I didn't truly believe it was them."
"Did you overhear the officers talking?" Orr asked.
Penney said no.
"Are you really confident in your pick? Could you still see it being No. 5 or 12 at all?"
"No," Penney said.
The court also heard details and saw video footage of the February armed robbery, in which a man alleged to be Earle entered Marie's Mini Mart on Dunn's Road in Mount Pearl and stopped briefly in front of the counter before walking behind it, holding a knife. The video showed the clerk opening the cash drawer and the man taking bills from it before grabbing cartons of cigarettes from a shelf and leaving.
RNC Sgt. Neil Duggan said he was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene after the call for assistance came in. After taking the clerk's statement and broadcasting a description of the suspect to other patrol officers, he received information that the suspect might have gone to the nearby Mount Pearl Hotel. Other officers were already there.
Surveillance video from the hotel showed a man — wearing the same clothes as the robber and carrying what Duggan believes were cigarette cartons — pulling into the parking lot in a Dodge Journey and parking it in the middle of a lane before getting out, leaving the motor and the wipers running. A woman was seen meeting him next to the car before walking with him to a back door of the hotel.
The vehicle was determined to have been stolen from the parking lot of the Village mall.
Video from inside the hotel showed the same man walking down a hallway before returning moments later in different clothes. Upon reviewing the footage on site, officers believed it was Earle.
Duggan said he interviewed a taxi driver later that day, who told him that he had picked up a man and woman at the hotel and dropped them off on Cowan Avenue, near Barachois Street. Duggan drove toward that area and saw a man resembling the suspect and wearing the same jacket walking on the sidewalk.
"As I got closer, I saw it was Jeffrey Earle," the RNC officer testified. "I got out and identified myself and advised him he was being detained for armed robbery."
Earle was taken to RNC headquarters, where his jacket was seized. Duggan presented the jacket to the court, taking it from a brown paper evidence bag.
The next time Duggan had anything to do with Earle, he said, was in July, when investigators were looking to identify the man responsible for the string of robberies in St. John's. Duggan reviewed the video and still photos taken from the crime scenes and determined it was Earle in all of them.
"It's difficult to explain how I'm able to do this," the officer told the court, saying he had previously spent a number of years doing surveillance. "I'm not able to quantify it, but I believe it was Mr. Earle."
"You'll agree you can't really see the suspect's face clearly in any of the videos, that it's obscured?" Orr asked Duggan on cross-examination.
"We took our time and reviewed them, pausing the video and starting it again," Duggan replied. "By the time I was done watching all those videos, I was positive it was Mr. Earle."
Earle's trial will continue Thursday.