By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The sidewalk was too rough, so Steve Biegel pushed his daughter's stroller in the street. It was the Sunday before Halloween; Steve and his wife, Diane, were walking two blocks home from a kids' pizza party. They had spent the afternoon on a friend's ranch, so by 7:40 p.m. their 20-month-old was tired. Strapped into her top-of-the-line yuppie jog stroller, Lauren was sucking peacefully on her pacifier when they heard a car coming behind them. Her parents moved over to the curb and walked single file, Steve in front. A dark green Pontiac Sunfire cut Steve off, almost hitting the stroller as it pulled into a driveway. The driver stuck a .38-caliber revolver out the window, aimed it at Steve's chest and told him to hand over his wallet.
Steve said he didn't have a wallet -- he took cookies to the party, not cash.
The gunman repeated his order; he looked a little younger than Steve's 19-year-old son. Again, Steve said that if he had his wallet, he'd give it to him, but he didn't.
Diane started slowly backing up. The boy with the gun didn't see her, and she thought if her husband got shot, one of them had to stay alive and raise Lauren. "They didn't even notice me," she says. "They were totally focused on him."
But then she panicked. The revolver was two feet from Steve's heart, and she thought she saw the gunman's gaze stray toward the stroller. She thought that maybe the gun was shifting toward her daughter.
She started screaming, "Not my baby! Not my baby!"
Steve pushed the stroller up the driveway; it flew over the sidewalk and rolled 20 feet into the grass. "He sent her on a Six Flags ride," Diane says. If Steve didn't have a wallet, the gunman wanted to know what he did have. His hands now free of the stroller, Steve pulled out the pockets of his jeans to show that he really, truly didn't have any cash. The passenger got out of the car, and Diane was afraid he was going after the baby, so she ran to the stroller. Steve stood still, his eyes locked on the gunman.
The passenger looked at Steve and said, "Hey, man. Get your baby," then he got back into the car and drove off.
Diane looked at her watch, memorized the license plate and then started screaming, crying and hyperventilating. The family sprinted home, scared that if they stayed in the street they would die in the street. Diane called the police. The officers were already on the lookout for the Pontiac. Police believed that the same group of boys had robbed more than 20 people that week. The robberies all took place in Montrose within about a mile of each other, and usually the robbers got only a few dollars a hit, if anything at all. A group of boys had tried to rob a dozen people that day alone. The next man they met, lucky number 13, they shot.
Montrose is a neighborhood filled with pretty lawns and friendly people who spend weekends replanting monkey grass and training ivy up their trellises. Montrose has a suburban feel, but it also has a big-city urban nature because those cute, hip houses are just blocks from bars and restaurants. People can walk to buy a Sunday-morning bagel or a Marble Slab sundae. This is a neighborhood filled with people walking their dogs or strolling to the grocery store.
This is the neighborhood the robbers decided to hit. "People feel safe out there and walk around," says Sergeant John Clinton of the HPD robbery division. "Anytime you're walking around out there by yourself, you might be a target." Police say the boys found the Pontiac on the lot of CarTemps USA in northwest Houston. The renter returned the car, leaving the keys tucked in the visor. Police believe that two teens, Jermaine Harris and Ricky Ray Howard, who goes by "Ray Ray," walked onto the lot and drove the car off. In the morning, the rental management assumed the renter still had the car. "That's why it wasn't on the hot list," Clinton says.
The first robbery the police have on record happened in front of a high-priced apartment complex on Bagby. People who live there have money, but Michael Davis doesn't live there. The unemployed 26-year-old from Pasadena was dog-sitting. After being pent up in the apartment all day, Zeke and Sadie wanted to run. Holding the Labs back, Michael heard a car pull up behind him; the passenger asked for directions. When he turned around, he saw the young man was holding a gun.
Michael tossed the wallet his parents gave him last Christmas into the car. He had $3 cash.
They had better luck with the next man they met that night; he had $105 on him. The guy after that had only $2 in his pocket. In his police confession Jermaine said they robbed three or four people every day that week. "They started getting more bold," says Clinton. "When they found out it was so easy, they decided to do more of it." The gun was their instant ATM machine; they were interested only in cash, so they threw credit cards out the window. "It sounds like the pattern of people that are on crack," Clinton says. "But none of these guys seemed to be on drugs." He says they kept robbing because they weren't making much money and because they were getting away with it. "You wonder if the boys weren't out for kicks and doing this for the adrenaline of it," Clinton says. "They weren't doing it for the money."