Police arrested a Hempstead man they believe is responsible for more than two dozen knife-point robberies of small businesses on Long Island and Queens, finally cornering the suspect Wednesday morning in a Floral Park parking lot after an hours-long manhunt.
Khalif House, 24, committed at least 27 heists — beginning in Queens as early as February, and including 13 in Nassau and 4 in Suffolk -- to fund his heroin addiction, authorities said. His girlfriend, Lisette Veltri, 24, is accused of assisting him in 7 to 10 of the robberies by serving as the getaway driver.
Veltri identified House to cops from surveillance photos from the robberies and an earlier NYPD mugshot, according to a criminal complaint. She was arraigned Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on charges of interfering with interstate commerce by robbery. She has no prior criminal record, was represented by a public defender and was released on $150,000 bond.
Veltri told cops, the complaint said, that she drove House to small businesses in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens, and then picked him up a short time later on 7 to 10 occasions. House, sources said was hospitalized after his arrest because of his heroin addiction.
He is expected to be arraigned in federal court Thursday morning, authorities said. He is being held in connection with four of the robberies, police said. It was unclear whether he has an attorney and no one came to the door at his last known address in Hempstead.
The arrest was the result of months of detective work by the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, the NYPD and the FBI.
“This is a very fluid investigation at this time; there’s still a lot of pieces to be tied together, a lot of work to be done,” said Nassau Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki. “But we are confident that the two individuals that are in custody at this time are responsible for a good portion, if not all of these cases, and we will continue our investigation for the next several days to prove that case.”
Police said the robber in the pattern was armed with a large butcher knife — which has not been recovered — but he never physically injured any of the victims. The suspect proved elusive through the spree that terrorized store clerks even though cops stepped up patrols and distributed several surveillance photos of him in action.
But House’s arrest ultimately came, authorities said, after old-fashioned police work and a resident who called police after House allegedly broke into his living room to sleep on the couch.
About 80 NYPD officers were deployed throughout southeast Queens Tuesday night, in search of the suspect as a man tried to rob a Dollar Tree on 14th Avenue in College Point about 9:50 p.m. without success.
A female clerk fought him off, and he fled. Cops kept a heavy presence in the area, however, figuring that he would probably strike again soon, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a briefing at Nassau police headquarters in Mineola.
It was the first time, according to cops, that the robber in the pattern had been unsuccessful in getting cash from a heist, which included mostly Dunkin’ Donuts, Carvel, 7-11’s and Subway sandwich shops. “That’s a great kick by her, by the way,” Boyce said as he pointed to the struggle on the Dollar Tree surveillance video.
When House was seen about 15 minutes later by officers from the 105th Precinct near a Dunkin Donuts on Hillside Avenue at Little Neck Parkway in Queens, the cops approached. But he fled on foot, police said. Cops found Veltri in a 2015 silver Honda Accord, a vehicle Nassau cops had advised was likely involved in at least some of the heists, a few blocks away.
“As soon as she saw the officers, she ducked down... gave conflicting statements left and right,” said Boyce, adding, “We did not believe her.”
She was taken to the 105th Precinct for questioning, he said, and “the case progressed at that point.”
Meanwhile, House, who has a criminal record including charges of drug and stolen property possession and a DWI, made his way to Floral Park. There, police said, he broke into the home of a resident.
Floral Park Police Commissioner Stephen McAllister said his department received a 911 call from a resident on North Tyson Avenue, who said a man was sleeping on his couch about 7 a.m. Wednesday, prompting a massive search.
Bill O’Keefe, a retired electrician, said he woke up Wednesday morning and found a stranger on his living room couch.
“I see somebody moving on my couch,” O’Keefe, 75, said Wednesday. “He saw me, I saw him. . . . I said, ‘What the hell you doing here?’ and he took off.”
O’Keefe said the man, who didn’t say a word, ran through his living room, dining room and out the back door. O’Keefe said he called 911 and followed him down the block, and pointed in the direction he fled for responding Floral Park cops.
O’Keefe said he thinks the man got in his house through an unlocked back door. He went to bed about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night and didn’t hear any noises, he said.
“I didn’t even think about being afraid,” said O’Keefe, as he recounted the story hours later for reporters outside his home.
Once the description of the man, which matched the knife-wielding robber, was sent out, cops from Nassau, the NYPD and U.S. Marshals Service descended on the residential neighborhood in Floral Park and conducted a grid search, using K-9’s and helicopters, police said.
Another 911 call from a Floral Park resident came in about 10 a.m. reporting they’d seen a man matching the suspect’s description in the area, police said. After leaving the North Tyson home where he was on the couch, House hid for a time in the rear of another house on nearby Van Siclen Avenue, police said.
Sometime after about 11 a.m., the same man emerged from the backyard of the home and walked “nonchalantly” across a parking lot, according to witnesses.
Ann Marie Crociata, who owns a Curves gym on Jericho Turnpike at the intersection of Van Siclen, was talking to Farhana Shabnam on the street as cops milled about further down the block.
“He just came out ... and walked really slow and I said, ‘that’s him!’” said Crociata. “It looked like he waited until everyone left. I was screaming like a lunatic.”
At 11:14, cops swarmed into the area. House, who was seeking to hide inside of a burgundy van in a parking lot for a gym and other businesses on Jericho Turnpike, was arrested, police said.
“This is truly a model of how law enforcement should work together,” said Nassau Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter. “This subject has plagued Long Island and New York City for several months.”
With Gary Dymski, Robert E. Kessler, Laura Blasey, Kevin Deutsch and Ted Scala