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Hotel Manager Shot Dead at the Comfort Inn, Columbia, Missouri

By T.J. Greaney, Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 25, 2007 - A 55-year-old hotel manager died yesterday morning after being shot in the head during a robbery at Comfort Inn.

Cynthia L. White was working overnight as general manager of the hotel at 2904 Clark Lane. She fell dead in her office, just steps away from the front desk.

Columbia police officers responded to the hotel at 6:14 a.m. after guests reported they had repeatedly called the front desk and no one answered. Officers discovered White's body and found that an undisclosed amount of money was missing from the cash register.

The same hotel was targeted in a similar robbery Nov. 16. Then, a black man in his early to mid-20s entered the hotel, which then was called Fairfield Inn, about 2:20 a.m. and said his car had broken down, police said. He asked a 50-year-old female clerk whether he could wait in the lobby until someone came to pick him up. After 20 minutes, he brandished a small-caliber handgun and stole the clerk's 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix. Police have not apprehended the man.

The day of that incident, a television crew from KRCG-13 interviewed White. She said she had been a hotel manager for 13 years and had never been so afraid. "No, I don't feel safe, not in this town," White told the TV station.

Yesterday, the hotel had no guests, and yellow police tape marked its perimeter. The hotel will reopen tomorrow.

Employees said they were instructed by hotel owner George Pate not to speak to reporters. A message left for Pate was not returned.

White's murder comes on the heels of two other violent robbery attempts.

On Nov. 13, just before 8 p.m., a man entered the Hampton Inn at 3410 Clark Lane with a handgun and attempted to force his way into a hotel room.

He fled the scene, and police are still looking for him. Yesterday, Columbia police Capt. Brad Nelson released a surveillance photo of the suspect.

"What I can say is that first robbery, we want to find that guy and talk to him and see if there are any similarities. We're not even saying he's a person of interest" in the murder, Nelson said.

On Nov. 15, a man assaulted and attempted to kidnap a 33-year-old woman outside the Residence Inn at 1100 Woodland Springs Court and then stole a car outside The Zou, a sports bar off Clark Lane. James Pitchua, 39, later surrendered to police in connection with those two crimes.

"We're certainly looking into the possibility that they're related," said Nelson of the Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn crimes.

"What we can tell people right now is we're putting forth every resource we have to identify and arrest those responsible."

For people who work in the area, that offers little comfort.

"This happening right behind us is really scary, especially when you leave here late at night -- sometimes as late as 11 p.m.," said Chrissy Sanning, a server at Bob Evans, which backs up to the Comfort Inn. "I work with younger girls, and I tell them be careful and be aware of your surroundings when you go to your car at night because you never know what's going to happen."

Even veteran police officers admit to being shaken by the rise in crime.

"I went to Bass Pro Shops last week at closing time and had to leave my wife in the car and was scared to death the whole time she was out there," said Officer Mike Hestir of the Columbia Police Department. "So I left her my off-duty gun, and that's a pretty well-lit parking lot. But that's our view from the streets. Our eyes are open to what's going on. We're not in the dark."

Hestir said more violent crime is a reality for what is no longer a small town.

"We've become a big city. In the last three years we graduated from small Midwestern town to big city. And now the genie's out of the bottle. It's going to take a lot more resources to fix it," he said. "You won't hear our city fathers or administrators say that, but that's how it works. ... It's not Mayberry anymore."

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To see more of the Columbia Daily Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbiatribune.com/.

Copyright (c) 2007, Columbia Daily Tribune, Mo.

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