NEW YORK — Three workers at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens were transporting hundreds of thousands in dollars in cash on Saturday night when they were accosted by two gunmen, the police said. The thieves made off with more than $200,000, aided in part by surgical masks they wore to conceal their identities.
The masks, conspicuous items to wear at a racetrack, appear to have given the bandits cover among patrons who are increasingly wearing them as a protective measure against the coronavirus, people at the racetrack said on Sunday.
The three workers — a racetrack employee and two unarmed security guards — took the cash from gaming machines and were moving it to a safe upstairs as the racetrack was preparing to close on Saturday night, the police said.
The masked gunmen, dressed all in black, accosted the workers in a hallway and forced them into a room at gunpoint, the police said. The thieves confiscated the workers’ cellphones before fleeing with the cash.
The police believe the gunmen made off with $200,000 to $270,000 before the workers called 911 at 10:22 p.m. Investigators were still searching for the culprits on Sunday.
They might not need to look far. Investigators believe the heist was an inside job, and they are looking into why several employees called out sick that night, a police official said.
Thieves commonly use surgical masks to conceal their faces, and the ones used on Saturday night made for a notable choice during the coronavirus outbreak. Several patrons were wearing them at the racetrack on Sunday.
“I think a lot more people are wearing the masks out of fear,” said George Donate, who said he goes to the racetrack every other weekend.
In January in Chicago, a local television news truck recorded a group of teenagers wearing surgical masks as they fled a smash-and-grab robbery of a Gucci store on Magnificent Mile. And last month, Georgia authorities said they were looking for a man who wore a surgical mask during robberies of six banks in the suburbs north of Atlanta.
The Aqueduct Racetrack and the adjacent casino have been targeted by thieves for decades. In 2012, prosecutors said a Queens man stole $63,000 after handing a cashier a note demanding money; he was later arrested when the police found his fingerprints on the paper, and he pleaded guilty to grand larceny in 2017.
The 1985 Breeders Cup trophy and several laptops were stolen during a burglary at the track in 2014, and the following year a security guard was brutally beaten by a man who then stole the guard’s Lexus sedan.
In 1969 and 1970, thieves who targeted armored trucks servicing the racetrack made off with nearly $2 million. The robberies were timed precisely to the truck workers’ meal stops, which led the police to believe they were inside jobs.
At the start of the first race at Aqueduct on Sunday afternoon, the track was operating as usual. No police officers were visible, and employees said they were not aware of any extra security measures in place.
One employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said the security department seemed short-staffed.
The worker said the lack of armed guards made the person transporting the money a target. Security at the racetrack is handled by peace officers, who typically do not carry guns or have as much authority as police officers. In contrast, the guards at the Resorts World Casino, which is adjacent to the racetrack, have many more resources, the worker said.
Other Aqueduct employees who are involved in the racetrack’s security said staff members had previously gone to management to express concern about being robbed and to ask for more protection. But they said they had been ignored.
Representatives for the New York Racing Authority would not say why the security guards are typically not armed.
“We will be reviewing all our security protocols and procedures,” said Patrick McKenna, a spokesman for the authority, which operates the racetrack.
At Aqueduct on Sunday, regular patrons said there were no signs that there had been a robbery the day before; many had not even heard about it.
“It feels like a normal day,” said Abdul Shaffie, who comes to Aqueduct every weekend. “Nobody even knows anything about it.”
But regulars said that, in general, they did not feel particularly safe at Aqueduct. The racetrack is open until 11 p.m. on Saturday nights, and people stay late to place bets on races at tracks across the country.
“Security is very slack here — look around, I am drinking a beer right here,” Bernard Niranjan said, pointing to a can of Budweiser he had brought from home, which is against the track rules.
Lorna McPherson, who comes to the track every weekend, said news of the robbery had not deterred her from visiting on Sunday. She would just make a point to be cautious.
“The key thing is when you win, you don’t let people know, and you don’t cash out the same day,” she said, adding, “You have a lot of people who are broke, are crooks, who watch people so they can wait for them in the parking lot.”