By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
A year or so ago, they were probably just a bunch of punk car thieves.
It was a night in September 2003, and a group of them -- friends, most of them teenagers -- were hanging out in a Wal-Mart in Royal Palm Beach looking for a car to steal. The car they picked was a black Ford Crown Victoria, and they couldn't have missed the police radio and blue lights in the grill. They took it anyway. Its owner, Pahokee Police Chief Rafael Duran, came out of the store with a bag of toothpaste and office supplies just in time to see the bandits speed away in his cruiser.
The crew of automobile heisters may have planned nothing more sinister than a late-night joy ride. But at some point, they popped the trunk. They found an arsenal lying on top of the spare tire: boxes of ammunition, a pistol, a shotgun, and a Colt AR-15 assault rifle. The Colt looked like an M-16 semi-automatic used by the military; the choice of snipers and military assault teams, it can slice through car doors or pierce a bulletproof vest. The car thieves unloaded the cache of weapons and left the Ford abandoned on an airport access road.
The guns would quickly open a new, sinister chapter in their criminal careers.
Two weeks after stealing the car, the young men pulled up in front of a Fidelity Federal Bank on Broadway in West Palm Beach in a stolen white Taurus. In what would soon become their calling card, they wrapped black T-shirts turban-style around their faces and bolted toward the bank, new arsenal in hand, like an NFL special team pursuing a punt receiver.
Security guard Al Lettieri, standing in the bank's parking lot as they charged, saw them coming. The astonished Lettieri ducked quickly through a side door. He could've called the cops, maybe even taken up a defensive position to fight the men off, he acknowledged later, but he told police that he didn't think what he saw warranted calling the authorities. Lettieri, a retired cook who will turn 78 years old this December, kept his jacket on over his security guard uniform so they wouldn't know he worked there.
Lettieri is nobody's fool. "I wouldn't have tried to stop them, no," the bank guard, a rifleman in World War II, said when reached at his home in Margate. "I would've got shot, I'm sure."
So the young men charged unchallenged into the bank. It was a few minutes after opening, and the bank was empty except for a handful of employees. Out past the wall of windows that faces the tellers, rush hour traffic was still whizzing by on Broadway. The men ordered Assistant Manager Vera Jones to fill a pillowcase with money, and she complied, quickly handing over what looked like a hefty stack of cash.
The booby trap device that Jones slipped into the heist money is called a dye pack, an exploding, radio-controlled device packed with an indelible red stain. As the rookie bank robbers sped away from the bank, the pillowcase erupted, sending red ink everywhere.
The learning curve for novices in the felonious cash removal trade is usually short. Amateurs tend either to get caught quickly or, like high achievers in any field, to graduate in short order to professionals.
The Palm Beach County robbers, who continued to brandish Duran's prized assault rifle in banks across the county, would learn from their initial mistakes, developing holdup techniques that would begin to work like clockwork. In just a year, they have become South Florida's most sought-after gang of crooks. And the brash rookies who didn't know about dye packs have developed into a hardened gang with a reputation for violence, assaulting tellers and customers, often for no reason. In the past year, the band has robbed at least 16 banks, authorities say. The most recent tally puts their loot total for six robberies through April at more than $283,000, according to court papers. The gang has knocked off at least ten more banks since then.
So far, authorities have had little success at slowing them down. In April, West Palm cops had a promising break in finding the clique's hideout. Police and FBI agents nabbed four of the gang members, including alleged getaway driver Juan Bannister. They hoped those in custody would rat out the others and put an end to their activities. No such luck. Instead, the clique has continued robbing banks while investigators struggle to find a way to stop them.
The FBI allots more of its resources these days to chasing terrorists than on bank robbers. There's a bank robbery every other day in South Florida, and across the country, about two dozen banks are robbed daily. Catching the robbers often comes down to luck -- a cop who happens to be passing by or a customer who turns into a hero.
The clique's success, though, has begun to frustrate bank officials. In September, several local banks banded together to offer a $10,000 bounty on the group. Calvin Cearley, chief executive of Palm Beach County Bank, says fellow bankers have become impatient with the FBI's lack of success. "We want this to stop," Cearley says. "We have offered this reward in hopes of helping this investigation."