The Big Score
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."
Clinton says the robbers' modus operandi was to drive up behind a walker and ask for directions, and when the person turned around to tell them where to go, the robbers flashed the gun and demanded the person's wallet. The problem is that most people who are walking to work or to the bus stop usually don't have loads of money. And even if they do, people don't carry their life savings when they're out for an evening stroll. "The main reason there were so many robberies was because they didn't get hardly anything," Clinton says. "There was no money in it."
Especially since everyone didn't happily hand over their wallets. On Thursday afternoon, Mariano Gonzalez, a superintendent for a building company, was standing by his truck making some phone calls. The Pontiac pulled up, and the passenger demanded his wallet three times. Each time, Mariano said no. Eventually the robber gave up, said, "Just kidding" and drove off.
The next afternoon the robbers met another man who wouldn't relinquish his money. Lloyd Thomas, a 49-year-old waiter, was walking down Jack Street toward the bus stop. The Pontiac pulled over, and its occupants asked for directions to Montrose Boulevard. "Any idiot in this area knows where Montrose is," Lloyd says. "The red flag went up. I don't mean to give robbery lessons 101, but ask for a side street." He said to take any street to the left and they'd hit Montrose. The car drove off but then circled back. A guy in the backseat asked Lloyd if they were headed the right way.
Yeah, Lloyd said, and kept walking.
Give me your wallet, the guy said.
To hell with you, Lloyd said. I'm not giving you a damn thing. "I was in one of my moods," Lloyd says. He spotted the gun in the guy's hand and started running. He took the Texas-shaped diamond-studded ring (the last gift his mother gave him before she died) off his left ring finger and slipped it in his pocket. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the gunman was on the sidewalk chasing him. "I kicked on the afterburners," he says. "All I could think was "Get in traffic.' I'd rather get hit by a car on Richmond than shot on a side street. At least somebody is going to stop."
He made his way across Richmond, ran to the Mobil station and called 911. Lloyd spent the next several days acting like Paul Revere, warning people he met at the bus stop, Paks or Lobos that some "bad hombres" were roving the streets.
Chasing after people and not getting much money (if any) was tiring. So the boys took Saturday off. "They rested," Clinton says. He believes they spent all the money they had stolen partying that night at JU Hall, a hip-hop club on South Main Street. They were back at work by noon Sunday.
The Pontiac stopped beside 67-year-old Detlef Haubald, who was walking home from the mailbox without his wallet. Another car drove by, and the Pontiac drove off. The same thing happened a couple of hours later when Brian Erwin was walking home from a Halloween party. Still wearing his bright yellow polyester pants and purple silk disco shirt, the 27-year-old was trying to figure out if it was a real gun being pointed at him when another car came by and spooked the gunman. "He looked at me and smiled at me with his big gold teeth and said, "Just kidding' and put the gun away and was off."
Not a very productive afternoon.
About two miles after Westheimer turns into Elgin, the neighborhood shifts. On the other side of downtown the streets are full of people. But these people shop thrift stores because they have to, not because they think it's fun. They don't buy hand-dipped Haitian candles and offer guests glasses of herbal, spiced apple tea. At 1 p.m. on a Wednesday men sit in folding chairs drinking gold cans of Olde English.
Here in the Third Ward, pregnant dogs run on the road, and overturned shopping carts and rusted trucks litter yards guarded by broken fences. The battered houses are mashed up against each other; the one with new red trim looks out of place, and there are bars on its windows.
A blue HPD patrol car with "Gang Task Force" lettered on the windshield cruises the street. Houses sink and lean to the left; front steps crumble and fall before they reach the porch. "Beware of the Mean Dog" signs are tacked to old trees.
Billie Marie Jordan climbs her front steps with the help of her cane. Her arthritic hands and ankles burn from cleaning River Oaks houses. A box of Epsom salts waits on the kitchen table.
Her house is dark and hot; the fake red roses look wilted. The bulb in the one lamp is burned out, so the only light comes from the TV that is always on. "We go to bed with TV and wake up with TV," she says. Exhausted, she sinks into a chair; she works all day without taking a lunch break or a rest. She's tired. She doesn't even know the name of the pit bull in the backyard.
Her three grandsons have lived with her since their mother died of lung cancer about ten years ago. Their father had long since left -- he appeared last year, gave each son $50 and then vanished. They think he lives in Milwaukee, but they don't know what he does for a living or if they'll ever see him again.
The paneled living room walls are covered in smiling school pictures. There isn't a picture of Montreal, the oldest, the one who looks just like his father and the one who's in jail, again. Montreal dropped out of school in the tenth grade. He did janitorial work at the water company, but after he was laid off, he was arrested for delivering and trying to sell less than a gram of cocaine. He went to boot camp, but after marijuana showed up in his monthly urine test, he spent a year in jail drawing colored-pencil portraits of Jesus.
On the walls of Montreal's bedroom are baseball caps, pictures of Biggie Small and Polaroids of him and his brothers. There isn't a speck of dust on the porcelain teddy bears and bunny rabbits sitting beside his apricot sea kelp facial scrub. A holograph of Jesus at the Last Supper sits on the TV. Montreal went to church every other Sunday; he missed services that week.
Montreal made money giving $5 fades and tapers to neighbors; he told his grandmother he wanted to go to barber college. When he wasn't cutting hair, he spent his time watching TV, playing basketball or hanging out with his girlfriend. His grandmother didn't like the company he was keeping; she didn't like his friends.
"I would tell 'Trell to run with some nice boys," she says. "I told him, "Don't be messing around with bad company. You run with bad company, you gonna get messed up with bad company.' You really can't run with nobody. You don't know what people are going to do."
She's talking about the boys Montreal was arrested with. There's Jermaine Harris, Montreal's best friend, who worked as a gofer at a tanning salon. The boys used to live on the same street, and went to school together until they both dropped out. Jermaine played basketball for Yates and was arrested last December for stealing a woman's ring. He spent 30 days last August in the Harris County Jail for violating parole and evading arrest.
Then there is Kendrell Jenkins, a tenth-grader the same age as Montreal's little brother, Meco. Kendrell plays football for the Yates Lions, loves video games and watches a lot of professional football on TV. "He's all right," Meco says.
And then there's Ray Ray. Mention Ray Ray, and Meco's face closes off. "Ray Ray, he bad." He used to take boxing lessons and has four gold teeth, all with diamond chips. Ray Ray has a juvenile offense on his record, but neither the assistant district attorney nor his lawyer, Marcelyn Curry, will say what it was for. "Something involving dogs," Curry says.
Montreal was watching TV with Meco when Billie Marie left to go visit her mother that Sunday night. She wanted Montreal to stay home, she says. "But he loved to ride."
Christine Biehle and her fiancé bought each other bikes for their birthdays. On Sunday, October 29, around 7:30 p.m., they were riding home from Walgreens. It was dark as they rode down Westmoreland; a car swerved, almost hitting Christine's bike.
"What the hell are you doing?" she asked the driver angrily. He pulled out a gun and demanded her wallet.
She edged closer to her fiancé, William Strickley, who handed over his backpack, which had his wallet (filled with a whopping $3) and the Pop Rocks, panty hose and hair dye they had bought. The gunman searched the empty pockets of Christine's overall shorts himself.
"He called Bill a pussy and told him he ought to shoot him just for the fuck of it," Christine says. "And then they jumped in the car and took off." Her fiancé called the police on his cell phone. The Pontiac stopped in the middle of the street and started backing up. The couple thought the robbers were coming back to kill them.
But when the car stopped a block away, it was to rob Mary Brandes, a 59-year-old school librarian, and her nephew. They got $20 and her voter registration card. In the next five minutes they robbed both 30-year-old Kyle Cleek, who was walking home from Paks with $8 in his pocket and a bag of potato chips, and Tommy Gothard, who was coming home from having a couple of Cuba libres, listening to the jukebox and watching the drag show at the Brazos River Bottom country-western bar. Tommy says the gunman was shaking and seemed more scared than he was, "which made it worse."
The robbers crossed to the other side of Westheimer and started trolling the streets, fishing for their next money machine. Pay dirt was 28-year-old Ryan Wells, a waiter at Blue Agave, who had about $150 in tips. After they took his money, Ryan demanded his Ralph Lauren leather wallet back. They tossed it out the window.
The gunman told the next couple they held up to hold still. But Richard Torres and his girlfriend started running. The gunman got out of the car and chased them down the sidewalk until they pounded on the door of a well-lit house.
About a mile away, the robbers turned onto Kipling and tried to rob the couple walking their baby. The waiter who wanted his wallet back lives a few blocks down the street; he watched that attempted robbery. Five minutes after that job proved unsuccessful, the Pontiac crossed back over Westheimer and cruised the streets just behind the Pier 1 on West Gray.
There, Hjalmar Sundeen was walking his dog Wuppie Puppie, a 55-pound black "muttweiler." Hjalmar, 51, took his usual route down Woodhead to the corner of Morse. The eight-year-old dog was sniffing the grass when Hjalmar spotted a car with only the parking lights on. The passenger yelled something at him, but Hjalmar couldn't understand if the guy was asking for his wallet or wondering where Waugh is (it's just around the corner). Hjalmar says he turned around, said, "What?" and a guy standing three feet behind him shot him in the face.
"It was like someone coming up and slapping a brick upside your head," Hjalmar says. The bullet hit below his left lip and lodged in his neck dangerously close to his carotid artery. Hjalmar reached into his pocket and pulled out his .380-caliber Colt pistol and started shooting. Hjalmar is licensed to carry a concealed weapon and target-shoots every weekend at Top Gun Texas. If someone shoots at him, he shoots back.
The first bullet shattered the passenger window. The next two rounds went into the door but didn't hit any of the boys. "The problem is I didn't have the right gun," Hjalmar says. Usually he carries an H&K .40-caliber revolver. "I could've gotten 'em for sure," he says. Hjalmar's wife heard his bullets and opened the front door; the dog came running in.
Speeding away, the robbers ran two red lights and were spotted by an HPD officer at the corner of Westheimer and Hazard; the chase was on. They zigzagged through the Montrose roads they'd traveled all week, ignoring stop signs and speed limits. They jumped onto the South Loop, headed east and took the Scott Street exit into the Third Ward.
Montreal's grandmother was sweeping the kitchen's cracked brown linoleum. His little brother was still sitting on the couch staring at the television when he saw cop cars go by with their lights flashing. Meco walked outside and saw several other patrol cars; he followed the crowd of people a few blocks down the street to see what was going on.
The Pontiac turned down Tierwester, a dead end. They were trapped; the passenger and the driver got out of the two-door car and ran. The front-seat passenger ran and ran and was lost in the night. The officers caught the driver and arrested the two boys in the backseat.
Meco stood among his neighbors, silently watching as both his classmate and his big brother drove off in the back of a patrol car.
The driver, Jermaine Harris, thought the 20-minute chase had lasted two hours. He gave the police a videotaped confession saying that he, Ray Ray and Kendrell had committed five robberies in the afternoon, then gone home for a dinner break. He says they picked up Montreal around 7:30 p.m. and started the second shift. Jermaine says that Ray Ray was the gunman in most of the robberies. The next day a lineup was held, and the three arrested boys were all picked out by 12 of the victims. In a photo lineup, Ray Ray was identified as the gunman by one of the victims, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The address on Ray Ray's driver's license is in Clayton Homes, a complex on the edge of downtown. Flanked by train tracks and the on-ramp to I-10, the buttercream-colored buildings look like apartments for young professionals, but Ray Ray lived in the back. His was one of the brick buildings owned by the housing authority; most people call it the projects.
The screen door to his apartment is open, the refrigerator is in the living room, and the doors are torn off the kitchen cabinets. The windows are broken, and the light fixtures are shattered; the cloudy glass lies on the ripped-up carpet. The only thing left in the place is a phone book -- the maintenance guy says the building is slated for destruction.
The police went to Ray Ray's grandmother's house with the warrant. She lives down the street from attorney Marcelyn Curry, who drove Ray Ray to the police station so he could turn himself in. "He was very polite," Curry says. Ray Ray's going to spend his 18th birthday this week in prison.
Monday morning Billie Marie sits in the criminal courthouse with tears resting on her cheeks as she waits to see her grandson. Clutched in one hand is a Bible quote; in the other is a crumpled envelope with Montreal's lawyer's name on it. She stops every man wearing a suit and asks him if he's her lawyer. Assistant District Attorney Lance Long says that no, he's not her lawyer, and no, her lawyer isn't here, but he should be soon.
Billie Marie's niece whispers to her that Long is the man who wants to keep Montreal locked up.
Billie Marie looks crushed; Long seemed so nice.
The boys are each charged with one count of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Right now the state isn't making any offers or cutting any deals. Except for Kendrell, the boys are being held without bond while Long tries to figure out what role each of the suspects played in the robberies. Each boy has given a different story. Kendrell said he spent the afternoon hanging out with Montreal, but Montreal said he was hanging out at the Fiesta by himself when the three boys picked him up and said they would give him a lift to a party. Both of the boys in the backseat say they didn't know what was going on and they didn't touch the gun.
Their stories don't match, and Clinton doesn't believe any of them. "The way I picture it was they all took turns," Clinton says. "But that's yet to be proven." The detectives are meeting with the D.A. to go over the more than 20 incident reports the officers believe are related to the case. Calls keep coming in. After Hjalmar's wife appeared on the television news, the police received 15 phone calls from people who said they had been robbed too, says Sergeant Anthony Jammer. Not everyone called 911 after they were held up.
Jermaine was positively identified as the driver of the car in a police lineup. Ray Ray has yet to give a statement. "It looks like a bunch of inexperienced boys who got in over their heads," says his lawyer, Curry.
The suspects face anywhere from five years to life in prison, Long says. "If you're going to do a robbery -- if you're doing it for the money -- this is not the type of robbery you want to do," Clinton says. "This holds the same jail time as robbing a bank. Their future is pretty much ruined. Nobody wants to hire an ex-con that's been in prison for aggravated robbery."
Two hours go by, and Billie Marie's lawyer still hasn't shown up. Ray Ray's lawyer has already left, and the others are reading through the case file taking notes. Long notices that Billie Marie's still sitting there. The tears still haven't fallen down her cheeks; they sit below her lashes. He tells her Montreal's lawyer is stuck in a trial in Conroe and the hearing is rescheduled for January.
She doesn't get to see Montreal today. Walking out of the courtroom, Billie Marie's niece tells her she'll take her to visit Montreal on Saturday. Billie Marie nods gratefully.
"I can't believe he has to spend another month in there," she says. "Pray for him."
Hjalmar's cheek looks like he has a baseball-sized wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. His face never stops hurting. "It's a dead, dreadful ache," he says. The surgeons had to wait four days before they could remove the bullet. They put a steel plate in his jaw and inserted hinges to hold the top and bottom of his head together. In a few months they plan to transplant bone from his leg into his jaw.
At work he feels dizzy and can smoke only a third of his cigarettes. His jaws are wired together, so he drinks all his meals through a straw; he's lost 14 pounds already. His face is so swollen and sore that shaving last week took him two hours. The razor blade felt like a hammer pounding into his raw nerve endings.
The next person he sees holding a handgun he's going to drop immediately. He won't hesitate.
"I wish I would have shot him and killed him," Hjalmar says. "I know he'll do it again."
Mary Jenkins opens the door wearing a leopard-print sateen nightshirt. Her two-bedroom Tuam apartment is heated by the open oven. Cans of heavy-duty starch are scattered throughout the living room and Kendrell's bedroom. "He likes to iron," she says. He ironed all his jeans and his school clothes and told his mother he wanted to join the air force. She says this past month has been a nightmare.
"My baby ain't never been in no trouble," she says. Until now. Kendrell took a bath and left the house that Sunday afternoon. She didn't ask him where he was going, and she says she doesn't know any of the boys he was arrested with. She stayed awake all night waiting for him to come home, but he didn't. She's a custodian at the federal courthouse, so she asked people she's met down there to call and see if Kendrell was in jail. That was the first place she thought to look.
On the news, she saw three boys being arrested, and one of them was wearing a red T-shirt. Kendrell had left the house in his red Michael Jordan shirt, she says. He called her later that day and asked if she knew where he was. She said yes. He swore to her that he didn't take part in any of the robberies; he said he didn't know what was going on. She wanted to know why he got into the car in the first place. He said he just wanted a ride to a party. When she visited him in jail, he broke down into tears telling her that he didn't rob or shoot anyone.
"Kendrell don't have reason to do nothing like that," she says. Kendrell is the youngest of five children. One of his older sisters is a nurse at Ben Taub Hospital, and his other siblings are managers at separate McDonald's. They give him money whenever he needs it, and his mom gives him $40 out of every paycheck.
Kendrell's being held on a $30,000 bond. His family is trying to scrape together the money to bring him home. His room doesn't look like a teenager's room. The walls are blank except for a few pictures of clowns and some mother-of-pearl flowers. A bag of his baby niece's toys sits in the corner. In the living room, right beside the front door, Kendrell hung his autographed poster of the late DJ Screw. It says, "Screwed for life."
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