Suburban trio's alleged robbery binge driven by heroin

Elizabeth A. Albertson, the alleged driver.
Elizabeth A. Albertson, the alleged driver.
Posted: March 25, 2014

In "The Buccaneer" yearbooks from a decade ago, the three former Cinnaminson High School students looked happy.

Bryan Hawthorne sported a sharp orange suit and stuck his tongue out at a school dance. Charles Richards grinned without teeth in the standard tuxedo top worn by seniors. And Elizabeth A. Albertson appeared in an old photo of Mrs. Logandro's kindergarten class, just a few feet tall.

But in a Stratford liquor store on Super Bowl Sunday this year, the picture was much different.

Richards and Hawthorne allegedly donned gloves and ski masks and aimed a black pellet pistol at the woman behind the cash register.

"Whatever you want," the frightened woman said, thinking the gun was real, "take it." The men snatched two pint bottles of Hennessy Black and the cash - later spending it, as they often did, on heroin in Camden, according to police. They hopped in a getaway car with Albertson allegedly at the wheel.

The series of events described by police and convenience and liquor store workers repeated itself in a three-week spree of armed robberies in Camden and Burlington Counties.

When it ended on Feb. 7, a total of 14 convenience and liquor stores had been targeted. All but two were robbed. No one was injured.

Albertson, Richards, and Hawthorne are being held at the Burlington County Jail, with bail ranging from $350,000 to $450,000. They have not entered pleas.

The case of the "Cinnaminson Trio," as authorities have dubbed them, illustrates how three young adults from neighborhoods of draped American flags, decorative green shutters, and swing-set backyards landed behind bars, and how heroin use - identified by authorities as a factor - had far-reaching effects.

Heroin brings problems

Deborah Hawthorne paused when she saw the yearbook photo of her son in the orange suit.

She smiled. The suit, she said, made him a hit at school dances. In the sophomore-year photo, he wore a black hat resembling a sombrero and was standing by two smiling girls in purple-and-black dresses.

That Bryan, who graduated in 2004, and the 26-year-old Bryan who sits in jail with bail set at $350,000, are two different people, his parents acknowledged.

His problems with heroin began in 2006 and have continued off and on since, said Bryan's father, Lawrence, in a brief interview at their home.

In November 2012, Bryan Hawthorne was charged with theft. The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office declined to provide a complaint detailing the incident, but the charge was later downgraded.

Hawthorne's parents thought he was better recently - until they learned of the robberies.

"We were shocked to get the call," Deborah Hawthorne said.

"He got involved with the wrong crowd. That led to his downfall," Lawrence Hawthorne said.

"He realizes that he's got to face it."

That "crowd" was allegedly Albertson and Richards, who police said lived a half-mile away.

Albertson and Richards, both 28, have dated since at least June 2012, when they were listed as "in a relationship" on Facebook. Richards' Facebook page says the two traveled to Colorado that year "to start fresh in a brand new place," he wrote. They returned to New Jersey that August.

Before that, Albertson attended the Empire Beauty School in Bordentown. She had also considered a career helping children. Her mother, Betsy Lorenz, is a sixth-grade math teacher at Cinnaminson Middle School.

Lorenz declined to comment, as did Richards' family. Albertson, Richards, and Hawthorne did not respond to letters requesting interviews.

On the job search website indeed.com, Albertson described herself as a "hard worker looking for a career change." She said she helped children with autism at Behavior Counts Therapy in Cherry Hill, and worked as a nanny for several families.

"This experience taught me responsibility, patience, multitasking," she wrote, "and mostly how to be a positive example for children to look up to."

But by July 2013, Albertson was facing drug charges in Cherry Hill for possession of heroin. Richards was arrested that month on the same charge.

Heroin has become a growing problem in South Jersey. In Camden County between 2009 and 2012, the number of heroin-related deaths jumped from about 97 to 138, according to the county Health Department. In Ocean County last year, there were 112 deaths, up from 53 the year before. The state Medical Examiner's Office, which combines heroin and morphine-related deaths, reported Burlington County had 23 deaths in 2011 and 35 in 2012.

The drug creates a ripple effect of problems, especially theft. Often stealing from loved ones and friends, addicts pawn whatever they can - necklaces, TVs, laptops - to satisfy an addiction that will otherwise punish them with withdrawal symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea.

"When you're that desperate, you go to amazing lengths to get what you want," said Bill Wilson, director of the Delaware Valley addiction treatment program for Volunteers of America.

A robbery binge

The robberies started Jan. 14, at a Sunoco station in Maple Shade.

The plan often executed, police said, was quick and simple: Hawthorne and Richards would steal cigarettes, cash, and liquor using an air gun that looked real, with Albertson waiting in a car. Then, frequently, the cash was used in Camden for heroin, police said.

The robberies continued at a furious pace, growing increasingly daring. After robbing three stores in five days, the trio hit two on the same day - Jan. 21, during a blizzard, police said. At a Shell gas station in Cinnaminson that evening, Hawthorne and Richards allegedly told a cashier they wanted drinks. When the attendant refused to open the locked door, Hawthorne showed a weapon, police said, before fleeing.

The hold-ups continued, with more than $1,000 stolen from four Camden County stores, and an unknown amount from those in Burlington County.

"They pulled it off very easily," said Arun Patel, 50, a cashier at Good Spirits Liquor in Maple Shade, which was held up Feb. 6. "Because they didn't fear. They didn't fear at all."

On Feb. 7, police said, Richards and Hawthorne sat in a silver Ford Focus and prepared to rob a Town Liquor store in Florence that they had hit 11 days earlier.

But a resident, finding the car suspicious, called police. Officers found an air gun, ski mask, gloves, and heroin inside. Hawthorne and Richards were arrested. Albertson was arrested later after police learned of her alleged involvement.

The three have since retained public defenders, and their cases are headed for a grand jury.

Authorities are still investigating the possibility the trio was connected to another armed robbery, which would bring the total to 15.

Store owners, meanwhile, are trying to recover from the hold-ups. Some have brought in extra employees for certain shifts or locked their doors early.

The owner of Wine Nova liquors in Stratford remains worried about the Cinnaminson suspects, despite their arrests.

"We don't know what they will do in the future," he said, declining to name himself for fear of retaliation.

"We are scared."


mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc

Inquirer staff writer Jerry Iannelli contributed to this article.

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