From ghost routes to empty bags, how Houston police foil robbers in armored car heist capital of U.S – Houston Chronicle

In the two weeks leading up to a thwarted armored truck heist outside a Walgreens in November, a team of Houston police officers was tracking a crew of men who were apparently amassing stolen cars and casing the entrances to a supermarket, a drug store and a meat market. These were all places where armored trucks carrying cash made regular drop-offs.

When unmarked police units and camera surveillance detected the robbery crew was poised to strike, Sgt. David Helms employed a tried and true strategy to foil the plan. From an unmarked car and again from his office far from the scene, he contacted the armored trucks making deliveries and told them to ditch the drop-offs, according to his testimony at a hearing for two men arrested in the incident.

“I am personally disrupting routes, calling routes off,” explained Helms, an HPD officer assigned to the FBI Violent Crime Task Force who specializes in robbery.

He called these scenarios where no cash is dropped off “ghost routes.” The aim is to protect the couriers and, of course, to prevent crime.

With Houston leading the nation year after year in armored car heists, law enforcement in the region follow complex and coordinated crime-fighting techniques, which at peak moments may involve dozens of task force members to disrupt a single robbery crew, according to testimony and interviews with task force members.

About 20 percent of all armored truck heists nationwide occur in the Houston region and more fatal armored car robberies happen in the area than anywhere else. Cash deliveries take place across the city at a vast range of businesses that need bills and coins. One reason Houston attracts this category of crime more than other cities is its spiderweb of freeways, which allows robbers multiple routes to flee the scene of a heist, according to the FBI task force.

“The targets are generally within the Beltway — with recent exceptions in Pearland,” said Helms. “The way the city is set up allows them to do a robbery and get home.”

Robbing an armed crew in a reinforced vehicle requires a more sophisticated plan and a greater degree of bravado than sticking up a convenience store, said Special Agent Jeffrey Coughlin of the Houston FBI. Coughlin said the typical suspect in these cases is a man in his late 20s to 40s with a significant criminal history who has served multiple terms for prior offenses.

Deadly standoffs

The standoffs in these cases can be deadly. Six armored truck employees have been killed in such heists in the past few years, including four in the Houston region. The victims include 68-year-old Loomis courier Francis Hazzard who was shot at a Popeyes in northwest Houston on Oct. 24 and 60-year-old Alvin Kinney who police say was ambushed by three men as he made a cash delivery in February 2015 at a Capital One bank on Westheimer. Kinney’s employer, Brinks, jointly with Crime Stoppers still have a $100,000 reward posted for information that leads to an arrest.

In addition, Houston leads the nation in the number of suspects killed attempting to rob armored couriers. Three of four suspects killed across the country died in this area, including Javahnte Jawun Parker, 27, who was shot by a Brinks employee during an attempted heist in Willis on Nov. 20. Another man police believe was involved in that robbery was critically injured but evaded arrest.

To keep these brazen daylight heists at bay, specialists like Helms at HPD and Coughlin from the FBI said they maintain close connections to armored truck companies so police and the businesses targeted by suspects can benefit from each other’s intelligence. Helms stays in close contact with carriers throughout the year, and sometimes daily. He hosts a biannual meeting with banks and armored truck companies and attends the industry’s yearly conference where officers look for trends and insights about open cases and cases going to trial.

“Disrupting routes and ensuring that the public remains safe at all times is our utmost concern and priority,” Helms said. “If we got a tip, we would coordinate with the armored truck company and change the route. We wouldn’t let that route exist.”

John Shimp, a supervisory special agent for the FBI who oversees Helms and Coughlin, said law enforcement and cash couriers have a strong cooperative relationship.

“They don’t want to be robbed, and they don’t want any of their employees to be hurt and, because of our great relationship, we’re able to do sophisticated investigative law enforcement techniques if necessary,” Shimp said.

Symbiotic partnership

The attempted robbery outside the Walgreens offers a rich illustration of this partnership. For weeks, the FBI task force and Houston police communicated directly with the three major armored car companies when they received clues in the case. Investigators advised couriers to abandon some deliveries mid-route, or deliver empty bags rather than cash, in circumstances where it wasn’t safe to carry out drop-offs, Helms testified.

At the hearing for two suspects in the case, Helms told the court a common response when robbers are detected in such instances is to have the truck drive up to a delivery location but instruct couriers not to get out. In other circumstances, a messenger may exit the truck without currency.

Each time police suspected the criminal threat was elevated with this crew, Helms said, “We did not let anybody exit the vehicle.”

That’s what happened in the Nov. 1 incident at Walgreens. Three suspected robbers fled in a stolen Ford-250 pickup when they realized no one was getting out of the armored truck, federal prosecutors said. Officers pursued the pickup to the back of a shopping center in the 16100 block of South Post Oak and initiated a traffic stop, leading to an exchange of gunfire that injured one of the men in the pickup.

Coughlin, from the FBI, said some cases require police to be proactive — like in the case of Redrick “Red” Batiste, who ran a shoot-first-rob-later crew linked to at least one courier fatality. Batiste died in a gunfight with police during a heist on Dec. 7, 2016 that was thwarted by police and FBI agents.

Law enforcement invested deep resources keeping tabs on Batiste’s crew for months before the police sting, according to testimony at the trial of his four surviving accomplices. Investigators tapped the crew’s phone calls and installed a GPS tracker on a stolen car they’d traced to the robbery ring. They placed a camera inside a stolen rental car which allowed for compelling live footage which prosecutors showed the jury — silent images of Batiste donning his battle gear and shooting at officers during the heist.

SWAT officers stationed inside the Brinks truck were ready to respond when Batiste pulled his weapon.

Four of Batiste’s members were convicted in March and are serving life sentences for aiding in the scheme.

“Higher-risk” market

On the corporate side of this equation, the so-called “cash in transit” companies endeavor to make their employees’ days uneventful and routine. The companies boast on their websites about their use of smart safes, electronic locking devices and encryption software as well as training programs to ensure safe and efficient replenishing of ATMs.

A number of experts in the field declined to talk about best practices, as the act of disclosing their expertise about routes and cash handling constitutes a violation of best practices.

Among many cash delivery executives contacted for this story, only GardaWorld provided a statement. The company noted that in “higher risk” markets like Houston, taking special precautions and investing in the best fleet, equipment, technology and training is paramount to deterring criminals.

“What our industry confronts in this market is well-documented, and unmatched by any other major U.S. city,” the statement said. “We have had the opportunity to work in collaboration with local enforcement agencies in Houston, and they are doing an excellent job with the resources they have to thwart this type of crime … Given the situation in Houston, we continue to allocate additional resources and to implement additional measures to ensure the safety of our employees and assets.”

Defense attorney Paul Tu said he understands why police would use decoys and engage in cat-and-mouse techniques to try to thwart would-be robbers. Tu represents Jeremy La-Marque Boniaby, one of two men awaiting trial in the Walgreens incident that involved “ghost routes.” In Boniaby’s case, Tu said, three SWAT officers were riding in trucks along with the couriers.

“For me its no big deal as long as they are precautionary steps,” Tu said. “It’s a thin line.”

“Obviously, these armored robberies are becoming prevalent. I understand the need for public safety. … What concerns me about my client’s case is they drove off, they drove out of the parking lot and law enforcement chased them down and rammed them.”

The defense lawyer said he was troubled that his client was not arrested in the Walgreens parking lot but down the street.

As police help resolve cases where there has been an arrest, the local task force also dedicates “proactive” resources to the steady tick of new robberies. In four years’ time, greater Houston saw 41 of these heists — with 13 in that tally from fiscal year 2019 alone.

Task force members like Coughlin understand that Houston is a challenging place to combat this crime..

“We can’t slip up,” he said, “and let another robbery happen knowing the propensity for violence.”

gabrielle.banks@chron.com