IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fast-food restaurateur fights off armed robber

KFC franchise owner tells TODAY he heard the gun click, and decided in a split second that he either needed to fight the man or risk being killed.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Mitch Penneau had a gun to his head — literally. And when the manager of the Statesville, N.C., Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise heard a click and the gun didn’t go off, he wasn’t going to give the man robbing his store a chance to pull the trigger again.

“At that point, I just figured no matter what I did, this guy was going to shoot me,” Penneau told TODAY co-anchor Matt Lauer on Thursday.

The 25-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard had been squatting on the floor in a corner of his office, nervously trying to open the store’s safe, the hulking gunman, his face masked by a scarf and clad entirely in black, looming over him with the long gun.

The man had already clubbed Penneau with the butt of the rifle, cursing at him to hurry up. He had held the barrel of the gun against Penneau’s head. So, when the gun didn’t fire and the would-be robber pulled back to reload, Penneau sprang into action.

“When he stepped back — I was watching out of the corner of my eye — I could see him pulling back the bolt to chamber a round,” Penneau said. “That split second where he wasn’t completely focused on me, I figured, ‘That’s it. I gotta fight back, because this guy is going to shoot me, and if I don’t fight back, I don’t have a chance.’”

The gunman had come out of the bushes outside the store at 10 p.m. on Monday, just as Penneau was finishing up mopping the floor and was closing the franchise. He ordered Penneau to open the safe, threatening him as he fumbled nervously with the combination lock.

“You’ve got one more spin and then I’m shooting,” the gunman yells on surveillance tapes.

Tense moments
Penneau was scared. “I swear to god, you’ve got me nervous as hell,” he told the man.

But he was also ticked off at his attacker’s cruelty and impatience. The store had recently installed cameras to guard against employee theft, and they captured the dramatic scene as Penneau lunged toward his assailant, grabbed the barrel of the gun and then got his other hand on the gunstock.

For the next five minutes, the store’s cameras recorded Penneau’s life-and-death wrestling match for control of the rifle on the slippery tile floor with a burly man who was just as desperate not to let go.

Penneau said his Coast Guard training helped him during the battle.

“I knew I couldn’t get the gun away from him, but you were always taught, if you can’t get control of the gun, keep the other person off balance,” he told Lauer. “Don’t let them have control of the gun. At that point, that was my sole purpose, to keep that gun pointed in a direction anywhere but at me.”

He kicked at the robber and got hit a couple of times in the forehead with the rifle, but he never released his tenacious, two-handed grip on the weapon.

Finally, it was the exhausted and now-terrified assailant who promised to leave if Penneau would just let go of the gun. Penneau managed during the battle to pull the bolt back and eject the round in the chamber, and when he knew the gun was empty, he pushed the man outside and let go.

Police brought dogs to track him into a nearby cemetery, but then the trail gave out.

During the battle, Penneau never got a look at the man. “Besides the fact that he was big and he was completely covered, there’s really not much that I can help as far as the description goes,” he said. “I can remember his voice.”

“We feel this is a very dangerous robber, and we need the help from the citizens to identify this individual and get him into custody before he does kill someone,” Statesville Police Chief Stephen Hampton told NBC in an earlier interview.

“I have some bruises,” Penneau told Lauer. “He hit me in the back with the gun. During the fight I got some cuts and gashes on my forehead, but nothing that’s really that serious.”

Earlier, he had told NBC News that one thought carried him through the battle: “I wanted to go home to my wife and kids, and one way or the other, I just was not going to let go of that gun.”