Witnesses thought that the man with the headphones dropped something.

That's the explanation they formed in their minds when they saw a young man run up Bowman Street in East Falls, chasing after a person with an iPhone. 

The thought vanished when neighbors saw the young man pull a gun on the iPhone bearer. 

Realizing that something was amiss, neighbors intercepted a second man who was walking nearby, hoping to use his cell phone to call 911 to report the armed robbery that they were now witness to.

"This doesn't call 911," the passerby reportedly said before asking nonchalantly for a cigarette. "It's one of those welfare phones."

He then fled the scene in the opposite direction of his armed accomplice.

String of armed robberies 

Police say the robbery described above occurred on May 6 shortly after 8 p.m. The victim was on the 3300 block of Bowman St. when he was approached by a suspect who pointed a black handgun and took his iPhone, according to police reports.

It was just one of several armed robberies that have taken place in East Falls in recent weeks.

The first episode occurred on April 22, when a man armed with a black handgun robbed a victim of her cell phone on the 3400 block of Tilden St. at approximately 5:15 p.m. The suspect fled eastbound through an alley after the heist, and was said to be chased by a second black male who never returned to the scene.

On Apr. 26, a Philadelphia University student was walking westbound at 9:50 p.m. on the 3800 block of Midvale Ave. when he was approached from behind by two males. Brandishing a semi-automatic handgun, the suspects took a wallet, a cell phone, and a MacBook laptop.

On May 11 at approximately 11 p.m., a complainant was robbed on the 3200 block of Cresson St. The complainant was stopped by two suspects who took the complainant's cell phone at gunpoint. After the robbery, police at the scene said that one of the suspects reportedly shot a firearm into the air.

The suspects, both described as being black males, were last seen fleeing toward Conrad St. via Sunnyside Ave.

Although police said a scuffle ensued, no injuries were reported in the incident.

Recognizing a pattern

At a community meeting held Tuesday night in East Falls, Matt Connelly, assistant bureau chief of the Northwest Bureau for the District Attorney's Office, said that two suspects described as black males in their 20s are believed to be responsible for all of the incidents.

In addition to the similarity of suspect descriptions in each of the incidents, Connolly said that a semi-automatic handgun was used in each robbery, the majority of which occurred in the evening hours. He said that the suspects were on foot, and have been observed hiding between or underneath cars.

"I can't definitively tell you it's the same two guys," he said, "but they're doing the same thing all within a five block radius, so it looks to be a pattern."

Connolly confirmed that an additional robbery on May 3, where arrests were made after a woman was robbed of her iPhone by several juveniles, was unrelated. In addition, he said that a neighborhood rumor of a robbery of a stroller-pushing woman was untrue.

Lt. Edward Bier, the police supervisor who oversees East Falls and other adjoining neighborhoods in the 39th District, said that he believes the suspects to be local residents based on their familiarity with the area.

Discouraging open use of cell phones 

The robberies occur at a time when local crime statistics are decreasing. Bier reported on Tuesday night that while there has been a slight rise in residential burglaries since the beginning of the year – largely in Southwest Germantown – theft from vehicles has reduced by a noteworthy 43-percent.

But while the suspects are on the loose, police are asking that residents be extra alert.

In several of the robbery episodes, the victim was described as being actively engaged in using their cellphone. Bier strongly advised against this practice, as it serves as both a distraction and a clear opportunity for the would-be thief.

"You have to make yourself a hard target," Bier advised residents present at the meeting. Connolly expanded upon this, refuting a belief that the open use of cellphones might discourage would-be thieves. Both recommended that smart phone users download tracking software to aid law enforcement in the event of a phone theft.

Combating a two-criminal crime wave 

To help prevent further episodes, police are upping patrols in the neighborhood.

Bier said that in addition to the usual officers assigned to East Falls, bike teams and plainclothes officers are being deployed, with extra attention given to the blocks affected by the robberies.

While residents are encouraged to report suspicious activity directly to 911, anyone with information about the crimes is asked to call Northwest Detective Division at (215) 686-3353/54, the tips hotline at (215) 686-8477 (TIPS), via text to PPD TIP (773847) or electronically through www.phillypolice.com.

But while police are cognizant of the impact of the crimes, they indicate that there is no cause for panic.

"All it takes is one or two criminals to have a crime wave," said Bier. "As soon as we get these guys pinched, normalcy will return."