‘Don’t rob the steakhouse’: How an alleged drug-fueled Harlem burglar with lengthy rap sheet was foiled by restaurant staff and cops

The third time was not a charm for an allegedly prolific Harlem burglar who victimized a local steakhouse.

Police said the suspect, Tremaine Lee, smashed his way into the Cecil Steakhouse at 210 West 118th St. on March 21-22, shattering the front windows of the establishment in order to get inside. But he went to the well one too many times on March 24, and wound up in police custody thanks to the work of the NYPD and restaurant staff. 

Lee, as it turned out, has an extensive list of prior arrests, totaling to a whopping 24 encounters, police sources told amNewYork Metro. He was also found with a quantity of crack/cocaine in his possession. 

According to NYPD reports, the suspect allegedly hit other restaurants around upper Manhattan in much the same way — used a brick in the majority of his burglaries to smash through the front entryway to gain cash.

On Feb. 28, Lee reportedly used a brick to smash the glass door of La Rubia on 3517 Broadway where he made off with $600. Lee allegedly also attempted to break the door of 57 Lenox Ave. when he was confronted by an individual inside. 

But the beginning of the burglary pattern’s end came on March 21 at the Cecil Steakhouse. That morning, general manager Brian Perez discovered the damage the suspect left behind.

He found a brick on the floor and a carpet of glass fragments. The registers had been emptied and a sense of security had been shattered, much like the large window itself. However, it wouldn’t be the last time that a sense of security would be violated.

In response to this breach, Cecil owner Raphael Benavides spent several thousands of dollars implementing a series of bars across their windows. However, before the maintenance could be completed, the heavy-handed burglar struck again.

“These are new. They were installed on Wednesday but only on this side, that’s why he tried to go to the other side on Thursday,” Perez told amNewYork, explaining that the man returned with a brick mere days after the first robbery, but this time the suspect struggled to make it through the window. “It has two sides to it. He smashed the first side and that was around 5 a.m. in the morning — nobody was around at all — but he couldn’t get through the other side.”

A window is left boarded up after the burglary.Photo by Dean Moses

Although another window was ruined and had to be boarded up, this time the thief had to leave empty handed, yet he would try once more.

“He comes in, this was Tuesday, but the third time my boss was here,” Perez said. “The only window that was available was the delivery door one and he started checking that out. My boss sees him and he says, ‘Don’t break my f**king window’ and he [the suspect] starts walking away, not running, walking and my boss had enough time to call the cops and they got him.”

According to police sources, the suspect was identified as 39-year-old Tremaine Lee of 141 West 139 Street. Perez and the restaurant’s publicist Gail Tweedy were disturbed that someone from the neighborhood would target his own community.

“It’s just really sad to see somebody from the neighborhood robbing the neighborhood. And I’m sure that as we dig into this guy, we’re gonna find out that he’s been doing it for a long time because he’s been successful,” Tweedy said. 

Perez agreed.

“You know, seeing how everything is. We’re coming back from a pandemic, everybody’s struggling to stay open and you know, to see people go through this to hurt a business that’s already hurting,” Perez said.

A window is left boarded up after the burglary. Photo by Dean Moses

When Lee was apprehended on March 29, after Cecil staff contacted the NYPD, police found him to be carrying a crack pipe along with 12 vials containing alleged crack cocaine.

Between the emptied registers, the broken windows, and the installation of the security bars, Perez estimates the business has lost about $30,000.

Still, the Cecil is looking on the bright side. They feel they helped apprehend a criminal who was wreaking havoc throughout the community.

“The moral of the story: Don’t rob the Cecil Steakhouse,” Tweedy said.