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For more than a month, Dragon Jones regularly walked into quiet San Diego businesses wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. He’d calmly move toward the store’s clerk, grab some merchandise and then open a little suitcase.

Inside, Jones would show the clerk, was a black pellet gun. Then he’d demand the store’s cash. The registers sometimes netted Jones a few hundred dollars while others had less than $50. Each time, Jones was gone before police arrived.

“I had this very itchy feeling. This nervousness,” Jones said in an interview about the experiences. “At the same time, I had nothing in my pocket. As a father and a husband, I was not being a provider.”

Jones said his restaurant in Tijuana had failed and he was strapped for money. So he began robbing businesses at gunpoint almost every three days. By the time of his arrest in October, Jones had robbed 20 businesses across the county, including bakeries, yogurt stands, pet stores and beauty salons.

Jones was not the only robber holding up the county’s small shops. The number of armed robberies countywide peaked last year with 153 in October — steadily climbing up from 125 in July. (Stats from December aren’t available yet.) Police attributed last fall’s increase to a few serial robbers like Jones, who, rather than robbing one store a month, robbed numerous stores in a short period to collect as much as possible.

Police sent security videos or pictures of the robbers to news media and nicknamed each person to help grab an audience of potential tipsters. Jones became known around town as the “Back Room Bandit” because he told clerks to go in the back of stores before he left.

“I figured that would give me a little more time to get away,” Jones said. He didn’t know about his infamous nickname until a friend approached him in Tijuana and said he looked like a robber on TV.

“The second time he approached me, he said, ‘Are you sure it’s not you?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s not me. You know me better than that,” Jones recalled.

But Jones knew he’d get caught.

Jones lived in Tijuana, and while crossing the border to San Diego on Halloween, federal agents detained him, suspecting he was the Back Room Bandit. He was arrested and charged by prosecutors with 20 counts of armed robbery, which carried a maximum penalty of 24 years in prison. He pleaded guilty in December.

In the months since his arrest, other suspected serial robbers have also been picked up. Prosecutors have charged Roger Jones, 44, as the suspected “Long Jaw Bandit” and Joel Chacon, 32, as the suspected “Sunset Bandit.” Though not connected, they are accused of robbing dozens of businesses.

In November, the number of armed robbery incidents returned to normal levels in San Diego County. Capt. Jim Collins, who oversees the San Diego Police Department’s robbery unit, said crime levels have stayed normal because the serial robbers were arrested.

In December, Jones pleaded guilty under an agreement with prosecutors that he would face up to 16 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Monday, but he agreed to talk about the robberies from his Chula Vista jail Thursday.

Jones moved to Tijuana from Los Angeles in 2004 and ran a successful restaurant until business declined with tourism and the economy. About a year-and-a-half ago, the restaurant failed, so Jones found work back in Los Angeles. He sent some money to his wife and two daughters in Tijuana and some to his ex-wife and two sons in Los Angeles.

But he wasn’t able to keep up with the payments. His 6-year-old daughter will be starting school soon and he’d fallen behind on child support to his two sons. He called it the worst period of his life.

Near the beginning of September, Jones found a broken pellet gun among the tools in his truck and started to think about robbing for cash. He had no criminal history at the time and Jones said he had never robbed before.

Jones was born in South Korea in 1961 with the name Yong Kyung Chung. Yong, in Korean, can mean Dragon. He adopted the last name of Jones from his step-father, a U.S. Army soldier who served in the Korean War and later married his mother in the United States.

Jones was raised in a strict Christian household and his brother is a minister in Michigan today. He knew his family would be ashamed of his robberies, but he felt cornered.

“I guess I was in a desperate situation to do that because I wasn’t raised that way,” Jones said. “I’m a sinner. I’m not a perfect man, and I know that.”

On Sept. 25, Jones started his spree by driving around San Diego, looking for businesses to rob. He targeted small stores with female clerks who would not resist him. He doesn’t remember how much he stole from all the businesses, but estimates less than $7,000.

Police had trouble capturing Jones because he didn’t choose targets based on any geographic preference. Detective Hector Hoyte of San Diego Police mapped each location and realized the targets were always close to freeways. He suspected it meant Jones didn’t live in San Diego. There was also little reaction from the media campaigns airing security footage of the robberies.

“When it first started, he was immediately put on the media, and nobody knew him,” Hoyte said.

Now in jail and waiting for his sentence, Jones is displaced from those few people who do know him. He receives letters from his mother and cousin, but has chosen not to contact his wife in Tijuana yet. He wants to wait until the sentencing so he can explain how long they will be apart. He paused, started to imagine that conversation, and his eyes filled with tears.

“She’s got to live her life,” he said.

With time to reflect on his crimes, Jones said he also wants to apologize to the store clerks who became the victims of his spree last year.

“What I’ve done was horrible and cruel. I’m deeply sorry for the pain, suffering and the trauma you’ve gone through because of me,” he wrote in a letter to the judge who will decide his sentence Monday. “I’m sorry I didn’t apologize sooner. I was ashamed of myself.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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