The crew had been watching the Amegy Bank off of Beltway 8 for weeks, trading out cars and shifts so as not to be noticed as they scoped out the Loomis armored truck that, each week, stopped to restock cash in the ATMs. They spent time driving the streets surrounding the bank, learning all the possible routes of escape. They rented a black Jeep Cherokee, installed a hidden GPS tracker, and returned it with a duplicate key, the better to steal it a few days later once it had been rented again. They used burner phones, filling the memory cards with video surveillance of the targeted ATM.
What they didn’t know: the FBI was already listening, according to an affidavit filed by special agent William A. Applegate of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force.
It was late 2016, eight months into a joint investigation between the Houston Police Department and Applegate’s FBI division into a series of armored car robberies last year that left two guards dead and served as an uncomfortable reminder that, for the past four years, Houston has claimed the title of armored-car-robbery capital of the United States—and maybe the world.
On the morning of December 7, Redrick Batiste and his crew took their positions outside the bank and waited for the targeted truck to arrive. But as newly installed Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo would tell reporters later that day, “Unfortunately for the suspects, the armored car was being driven by members of the Houston Police Department.”
Three men—Marc Anthony Hill, Nelson Polk and Trayvees Duncan-Bush—were arrested fleeing the scene, while Batiste was killed after firing at officers. Five men in total have been indicted for conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery. Acevedo has strongly suggested that there will be additional charges; the FBI affidavit filed with the indictment offers evidence connecting Batiste’s crew with the violent robberies that killed Loomis guards Melvin Moore last March and David Guzman in August.
Between 2013 and 2016, according to FBI data, there were 30 attempted armored-car robberies in Harris County, with a high of 11 in 2013. That’s about a fifth of the average nationwide total during the same period. Houston doesn’t have particularly high rates of other violent crimes, so why is it that when it comes to this crime, our town has suddenly become The Town?
One “uneducated” theory put forth by FBI director James Comey during a visit to Houston in 2015 is that the city’s “breathtakingly large surface area” makes it hard for police to effectively patrol and helps criminals disappear from crime scenes. Dr. Everette Penn, professor of criminology at UH–Clear Lake, similarly notes that the “sheer number of opportunities”—thousands of banks and ATMs spread across the city, and the distance armored cars must drive to service them—could account for the elevated statistics.
“It’s a very specific person that takes on an armored car, but if you look at crime-clearance rates, they see an opportunity—even if it’s just for a few thousand dollars, and even if it means risking their lives,” says Penn.
Another factor that seems to play a role is the multiplicity of freeways. Plotting all 30 robberies doesn’t show any geographic correlation (aside from a small cluster near Greenspoint), but most took place within a couple blocks of a freeway—and frequently near the intersection of two major arteries, upping the potential avenues for a quick getaway.
That’s part of what makes these crimes so frightening, even if you aren’t an armed guard. They are happening across Houston in broad daylight: in front of a junior high in Deer Park, in a busy Target parking lot near the Med Center, and just blocks from the Galleria, where Brinks guard Alvin Kinney was murdered during a robbery in 2015.
“Each and every one of these crimes is serious and alarming because in each incident you have armed robbers who are choosing to target guards who are also armed. It is a more brazen and aggressive robber who is willing to go up against an armed guard, and one who typically possesses a complete disregard for human life,” says FBI special agent Shauna Dunlap.
Speaking after the sting operation in December, chief Acevedo offered another potential cause: juries giving those convicted of violent felonies a “slap on the wrist,” something that he said he’d be working with the district attorney to curb.
The difference between a normal year in armored-car hold-ups—four or five is typical in Harris County, according to Dunlap—and a spike to eight or nine, as seen here in 2014 and 2016, could be the data-skewing work of a particularly ambitious and dangerous crew like Batiste’s.
It could even be thanks to a single assailant, like William H. Williams, who pled guilty to two robberies in the summer of 2013, pulling a gun on armored-car drivers at a Movie Tavern and a Chase Bank ATM in North Houston and relieving them of the bags of cash they were carrying. Eventually, Williams recruited two other men and took his spree in a more violent direction, shooting a Garda Cash guard six times during an attempted robbery at an ATM in Humble in October 2013. (The guard miraculously survived.)
“Typically these types of crimes are [committed by] serial offenders, so you’ll see the numbers spike, but once you catch them they go down again,” says Dunlap.
At this point we should mention that even without the whole going-up-against-armed-guards thing, robbing an armored car is a spectacularly bad idea. Like any other bank robbery, it’s a federal crime that carries a hefty sentence. Also, big-money heists—like the $4 million one on the UH campus in 2013, an inside job that led to prison sentences for the culprits—are rare. More common are robberies that only net whatever the guards are transporting into or out of a store or ATM, often less than $5,000. But the most common outcome of all is would-be robbers getting away with nothing, even when extreme violence is used. Of the 11 attempts in Harris County in 2013, for example, only four successfully got away with cash, and one would-be robber was killed.
It remains to be seen whether December’s sting operation, along with a couple of other high-profile prosecutions, means this will be a quieter year for armored-car drivers and guards. Let’s hope so. “Houston: Barbecue Capital of the World” sounds so much better.