Two reputed members of the Rollin’ 60s Crips were sent to prison Monday for helping make Los Angeles the bank robbery capital of the world--a feat the FBI says they accomplished by recruiting schoolchildren, arming them with high-powered assault rifles and aiding their getaways with brazen carjackings.
Masterminding the scheme was Robert Sheldon Brown, who, though just 23, has been implicated in 175 bank heists over the last four years, more than anyone in U.S. history. Having pleaded guilty to his role in five of them, he received a 30-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who blamed him for “a bank robbery spree of vast and perhaps unprecedented proportions.”
His cohort, Donzell Lamar Thompson, 24, pleaded guilty to his role in two of the holdups and was handed a 25-year term. Dressed in a blue prison uniform with shackles around his hands and feet, Thompson contended that he was framed by other bank robbers who fingered him in exchange for lenient sentences. “I truly and honesty feel this is . . . the beginning of modern slavery,” he told the judge.
Remarkably, neither of the defendants ever entered a bank during the crimes. In a detailed 29-page sentencing memorandum that reads like the anatomy of an invasion-style robbery, federal agents describe how Brown, known as Casper, and Thompson, known as C-Dog, honed their technique with indiscriminate violence, a touch of ingenuity and “an unquenchable daily thirst for more” even when nothing seemed to be going their way.
Often offering money or drugs as bait, the pair allegedly used their status in the gang to recruit dozens of impressionable wanna-bes--some as young as 13--to perform the riskiest tasks while they remained at a distance, far from surveillance cameras and security guards. Authorities say that on one particularly prolific day--Aug. 21, 1991--Brown orchestrated a string of five bank robberies between West Los Angeles and Montebello, using a 16-year-old boy as the lone front man.
Last April, according to the memo, Brown organized a team of three high school students--one of whom had been lured away from campus during his nutrition class--to rob a First Interstate bank on Wilshire Boulevard. The plan fizzled, however, when two of them approached the bank’s front door, but could not summon the courage to push it open. Police caught them after being alerted by bank employees who were amazed at the sight of the hesitant youths standing out front with a pillow case.
In one robbery at a Wells Fargo branch in Downey on Aug. 14, 1992, one of the boys struck a woman with his gun, then sprayed the ceiling with bullets. When police surrounded the bank, the youths smashed a window and burst out, guns blazing. Officers killed a 15-year-old recruit.
“Boys do not rob banks unless someone shows them how,” two assistant U.S. attorneys, John Shepard Wiley Jr. and Michael Reese Davis, wrote in the sentencing memo. “Brown and Thompson showed them. They took disadvantaged teen-agers and turned them into felons of the most serious degree.”
In a nod to the Charles Dickens’ classic “Oliver Twist,” the prosecutors compared the defendants to the character of Fagin, who trained young pickpockets and lived off their spoils. “Dickens invented Fagin as the exploiter and debaucher of youth to inspire horror and revulsion in his Victorian audience,” they wrote. “Brown and Thompson inspire the same horror and revulsion today. The difference is that Fagin was only fiction.”
It was this compulsion for using teen-age henchmen, authorities allege, that ultimately led them to Brown and Thompson. The youngsters were so inexperienced and panicky, officials said, that they were frequently arrested and often willing to squeal on their mentors.
After a 15-count grand jury indictment was issued against the two defendants, FBI agents conducted an all-night search before arresting Thompson on May 28 outside a Crenshaw Boulevard restaurant. Brown was arrested the same day as he stepped from a taxi cab that had just taken him from a Norwalk motel to a South-Central Los Angeles residence.
“It was very clear that these were some bad boys,” Davis said after an afternoon news conference Monday.
The alleged crime rampage coincided with an alarming increase in bank robberies across Southern California, where 29% of the nation’s bank robberies are recorded. Between 1989, when FBI agents first began linking Brown to the holdups, and the record year of 1992, annual bank robberies here almost doubled--from 1,440 to 2,641.
During that time, authorities grew particularly concerned by a sudden jump in invasion-style robberies, with gunmen using terror to get their money rather than the old-style approach of handing the teller a discreet note. After the number of such takeover robberies tripled last year, the FBI blamed the trend on a shift by gangs into more profit-motivated endeavors.
In their memo, authorities allege that Brown’s robbers fired bullets in 20 of the heists, assaulted 15 bank employees and five customers, and individually robbed seven customers and five employees.
“Brown and Thompson worked relentlessly to make Southern California more violent, more traumatizing, more forbidding, more deadly, more laden with fear and loss and pain and grief,” the memo states. “Their harm to others was daily, sometimes even hourly. Their violence continued for years. It ranged from the merely shattering to the completely lethal.”
Brown embarked early on a life of crime, beginning with a juvenile conviction for first-degree burglary when he was 14. In their memo, prosecutors say that he “has a loving mother and the rest of his family lives in an intact home,” but Brown’s attorney, Jerry L. Newton, challenged that assessment.
“If being on the streets since you were 14 is a stable home environment, then the prosecutor and I grew up in very different neighborhoods,” Newton said.
Brown, authorities say, began to rise through the ranks of the Rollin’ 60s, a Crenshaw-area gang that is perhaps the city’s most notorious Crip faction.
In one particularly savage attack, two members of the gang burst into the home of former NFL star Kermit Alexander’s family in 1984, killing his 58-year-old mother, his sister and two young nephews. As it turned out, they had misread the address and entered the wrong house.
Four years later, in another act of violence that sent shock waves across Los Angeles, a 23-year-old member of the gang opened fire on a rival along a crowded Westwood street, missing his target and fatally striking a graphic artist from Long Beach, Karen Toshima.
But even as the Rollin’ 60s became associated with reckless gunfire, they were changing the gang world in a far more profound way. During the 1980s, according to authorities, they emerged as one of the first Los Angeles gangs to expand their operations beyond turf rivalries into the more lucrative pursuit of cash.
Brown, who has been convicted for selling crack, soon took on the title of O.G.--original gangster--a sobriquet usually reserved for the most senior and respected members.
“He was a good kid, but with no family background, no one who really cared and he was forced to deal with the streets,” said Chilton Alphonse, director of Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation, a Crenshaw district gang prevention agency. Alphonse said that Brown came to him looking for a job earlier this year, but that he was unable to help.
“Sadly . . . there’s a lot of kids like him out there, young people who feel alienated from the system, who do not feel they can share in the American dream,” he said. “He was reaching out for help, but there was no one who could help him.”
In just a few years, the FBI says, Brown also became the most sustained bank robbery phenomenon that agents have ever confronted.
The previous record holder was Edwin Chambers Dotson, dubbed the “Yankee Bandit” for his New York baseball cap. He was arrested after 64 holdups around Southern California in 1983 and 1984 and is still in prison.
William J. Rehder, a 26-year FBI veteran who studies bank robbery trends in Southern California, said in a declaration added to the sentencing memo that as many as 50 agents and officers had worked to track Brown down.
He alleged that Brown frequently changed addresses, concealed his assets in other people’s names and routinely used evasive driving tactics--"on par with the most sophisticated Colombian drug trafficker.”
He also had a gift for improvisation.
During December, 1991, according to the memo, Brown hired an addict to perform three separate robberies, paying him in crack for each one. In another case last April, he allegedly picked up a homeless man and persuaded him to try to rob a bank with nothing more than a note.
Using a sawed-off shotgun supplied by Brown, authorities say, gunmen commandeered a getaway car from the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 54th Street and Western Avenue. Another of Brown’s alleged henchmen tried to carjack a vehicle from a Van Nuys apartment complex, but his first victim turned out to have a Mercedes--far too conspicuous for a bank robbery. While the driver lay on the garage floor, the gunman waited for a second victim, who turned over her Ford Escort.
But none of Brown’s moves was as brazen as the time he allegedly used a yellow school bus to pull off robberies in Long Beach and West Covina.
“This is genuine innovation,” Rehder wrote. “Never before have I heard of getaway school buses.”