Two days after firing at two men suspected in a recent string of violent south Minneapolis robberies, Edward Curtis, 61, wanted people to know he wasn't proud of what he'd done.

But given the beating the men were giving him Tuesday night, he figured he had no choice but to use his handgun, he said.

"I had to do what I had to do," he recalled Thursday. "I thought they were going to kill me. They didn't get a chance to."

The attack on Curtis was the fourth in four nights in the Uptown and Whittier neighborhoods, and after a quiet Wednesday night, most people along Hennepin Avenue on Thursday were preaching a simple message: Be careful. Be aware.

The assaults, the first of which occurred early Sunday, happened suddenly -- even after people gave up their belongings, victims and witnesses say. Some ended up with concussions from being beaten.

Curtis, blindsided outside his Pillsbury Avenue apartment building, was left with a broken nose and fractured right eye socket, he said.

Kaleb Melton, 30, who lives near Hennepin Avenue and W. 25th Street, said that the brazenness of the crimes had him thinking of his girlfriend walking home alone at night. Pointing to the English bulldog and a surly rescue dog that he had with him, he said: "I'll definitely make sure she has one of these around."

Police are pursuing "promising leads," Lt. Mike Fossum said. Evidence points to as many as four males driving along residential side streets at night, picking targets at random, he added. The victims, he said, "were just in the wrong place at the wrong time." No victim was drunk.

Fossum said three detectives were working on the case full-time and that some of the leads include the use of victims' stolen credit cards.

He said police have yet to find any evidence that Curtis' shots hit either of the suspects who fled Tuesday night.

As for whether the shooting was justified, Fossum said: "We don't have any plans at all in having him charged with anything. In fact, he's more like a hero than a villain, that's for sure."

His conclusion: Curtis, a Marine veteran, "certainly had justification to defend himself."

Out of nowhere

About 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, Curtis said, he was returning to his apartment in the 2500 block of Pillsbury Avenue S. after playing bingo.

He knew of the assaults on the three previous evenings. But to Curtis, that was Uptown, he recalled Thursday, an entirely different neighborhood. (The nearest attack, in fact, took place about a half-mile away in the 2500 block of Colfax Avenue, authorities say.)

Near the front steps, Curtis said, were two men, one a heavyset Hispanic man and the other an 18- to 20-year-old man whom he believed to be white. The second man appeared to be talking on a cellphone. Curtis said he wasn't paying close attention. But as he got to the steps, the Hispanic man rushed him and struck him, said Curtis, adding that he went down.

Then he went for his weapon. "They yelled, 'Gun!'" Curtis recalled. And he fired. Fossum said there were three shots. The suspects fled, and Curtis, his face now so bloody that he could no longer see, yelled for help. A neighbor shouted: "Man, the police are coming, put the gun down!"

On Thursday, Curtis said he was aware that some people might praise him for what he did, but he said he wasn't one to wield a gun: "I'm not that individual. I'm quiet," he said. "Life is precious. That's what I'm trying to say here."

At Sudz Salon, 2400 Hennepin Av. S., Steven Spafford, an assistant manager, recalled an afternoon robbery two years ago during which a masked man threw a female customer down and ordered everyone else to hit the floor. But like other people there and at the neighboring Spyhouse Coffee Shop, Spafford said he generally felt safe in Uptown.

"As with every environment, you have to be aware of and present in your surroundings -- no matter what time of day," he said.

Erika Byrd, 28, who lives in the Whittier neighborhood, said she might be more mindful now of what happens at night. But she said she already practices common sense in situations such as when she is approached by a group of men.

"I'll say, 'Hi guys. How's it going?'" she said. "Just see what the vibe is."

Curtis, who planned to have his right eye re-examined Friday at the VA Medical Center, said that he's learned a lesson.

"I'm cautious," he said. "But I guess I'm not cautious enough."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109