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2 `clown' robbers are convicted in botched heist at bar

Two men who dressed up as clowns and passed out roses in a botched scheme to rob a Salt Lake bar two years ago were convicted of robbery and assault charges Tuesday.

A gunbattle broke out when police arrived at the bar. Dozens of shots were fired, and three persons, including one of the robbers, were wounded in the Sept. 24, 1995, shootout at the Million Dollar Saloon, 3420 S. State.The 3rd District Court jury convicted Philip E. Hollen, 35, and Jeffery D. Mecham, 28, after a five-day trial.

Hollen, who was wounded during the shootout, was convicted of aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and two counts of aggravated assault, both third-degree felonies.

Mecham was convicted of one count each of aggravated assault and aggravated robbery. Both men, who are serving prison terms for prior convictions, were charged with a first-degree felony - attempted murder for exchanging gunfire with Salt Lake County deputies.

But the jurors chose to convict them on the lesser charge of aggravated assault, a third-degree felony. Four counts of aggravated kidnapping were dismissed.

According to testimony, the two men entered the bar after closing time, dressed in clown outfits, wearing Bozo masks and jester hats and passing out roses.

But when one suspicious employee went to call police, the two clowns pulled out handguns and announced a robbery.

One took the manager into his office, ordering him to open a safe. The second man herded the employees into a group and began binding their hands with plastic cable ties.

The robbery went awry when a police dispatcher, alerted by the first interrupted 911 call, called back to find out if there was a problem at the bar.

Sgt. Mike Julian of the sheriff's department was met at the bar's side door by one robber, who ordered him inside. Julian turned and ran and was wounded in the arm by one of four shots fired by Hollen.

As more sheriff's units and police from local agencies began arriving, Hollen and Mecham decided to make a run for it, according to witnesses.

Hollen fired out the door but was attacked and knocked down by Scott York, a former police officer who was in the bar after hours waiting for his girlfriend. York jumped up and rushed the robbers. He was wounded during the ensuing scuffle.

York maintains in a lawsuit that he was shot by police, not the robbers, during the struggle. But the bullet, which lodged in his left buttock, has not been removed, and ballistics experts cannot determine from X-rays whether the slug was fired from one of the .22-caliber handguns carried by robbers or the 9mm weapons carried by police.

Hollen was hit in the leg by police gunfire in the parking lot outside the bar and captured immediately.

Mecham was captured a few minutes later when a police dog located him in a trash container behind a nearby restaurant.

The estimated $3,000 in cash the robbers forced the saloon manager to remove from the safe and put into black nylon gym bag was left behind on the office floor as they fled.