Houston has long been known as the armored truck robbery capital of the world! The criminals who commit these brazen acts are generally more violent and sophisticated than your “typical robbery crew” often evolving and developing a rarely observed level of operational maturity not seen in the world of serial commercial business robberies; the motivation being that the successful robberies of armored trucks are often very lucrative.
Beginning in 2015, the law enforcement and armored truck community in Houston faced an armored truck robbery crew employing deadly tactics. This crew initially began by ambushing and shooting armored car couriers in close range assaults/assassinations. In one example of an ambush style robbery, which occurred in the Galleria area, a Brinks courier was gunned down at close range and the crew was able to empty the armored truck of nearly $1 million in cash!
Best Practice: Use a Sniper
It appears that over time this particular crew evolved and developed a “best practice strategy” – that being the shooting of the courier(s) from a great distance using a sniper armed with a rifle equipped with a telescopic sight. The sniper would be hidden and concealed in a specially modified vehicle. This specific type of robbery tactic has not been previously seen in the United States, much less Houston.
These sniper-type-initiated robberies were also very operationally complex, involving months of scouting and preplanning on the part of the suspects. In conjunction with the sniper, the crew utilized other armed members to move in immediately after the guard was killed to retrieve the money bags. In addition to other members who would conduct extensive surveillance of the planned sniper attack so as to identify the route and/or schedule of the targeted armored truck, as well as to identify any possible law enforcement intervention.
On March 18, 2016, a Loomis armored truck courier was shot and killed while replenishing a drive-up automated teller machine (ATM) at a Chase bank on Airline Drive. Surveillance video and witness statements revealed that the courier was shot and wounded from a vehicle used as a concealed sniper platform.
After the courier was shot, several suspects in a second vehicle moved in to take the money from the courier. The badly wounded courier engaged the suspects with his weapon, preventing the loss of any money. The suspects fled the scene; however, the courier’s wounds were soon fatal. Investigation by HPD Homicide and the FBI was unable to positively identify any suspects or develop any significant leads. This sniper-style tactic, where the courier was shot from a distance with a .223=caliber rifle was both brazen and alarming, this being the first time a sniper attack was used in a robbery of this nature.
On August 29, 2016, a Brinks armored truck courier was shot and killed by a sniper while replenishing a drive-up ATM at a Wells Fargo bank on Hollister Road. The courier was fatally shot with a .223-caliber rifle as he serviced the ATM. Immediately, a vehicle occupied by several suspects pulled up to where the courier’s body had fallen. A single male occupant exited the vehicle and grabbed a money bag containing $120,000 before he re-entered the vehicle and fled the scene. Surveillance video again revealed the fatal shots were fired from a sniper position concealed from within a white Toyota 4Runner parked over 100 yards away, across the street. As in the earlier sniper-initiated robbery, there were no initial investigative leads.
However, a day or so after the latest sniper attack, HPD Homicide Division received a tip which was then passed on to FBI Special Agent J. Coughlin and Sgt. David Helms. Sgt. Helms is assigned to the HPD Robbery Division and is also a task force officer with the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force. Sgt. Helms and Agent Coughlin were able to exploit the minimal information within the tip and identified Reddick Batiste as a possible subject.
Helms and Coughlin then painstakingly sifted through historical cell site data which indicted the phone associated to Batiste was in proximity of the Brinks robbery in August. Additionally, analysis of call detail records identified other phone numbers in contact with Batiste prior to and during the robbery which might indicate possible coconspirators.
Immediately after receiving the tip about Batiste, the FBI leadership reached out for assistance from the North Patrol Division’s Tactical Unit.
Beginning in 2014, Capt. Larry Baimbridge, who was then the captain of North Patrol, had redirected his DTU from the traditional “prostitutes and dope” type divisional DTU enforcement activities to “single-minded” proactive enforcement activities directed against commercial business robbery crews. Capt. Baimbridge had redirected his DTU because a 2014 FBI study had revealed that the north side Houston/Harris County led the nation in violent commercial business robberies.
The North DTU was then under the command of Lt. Craig Bellamy (now captain) and under the supervision of Sgts. Chris Andersen and Hilario Torres. Sgt. Andersen, at the start of the Capt. Baimbridge’s “redirection,” had envisioned a vehicle tracking surveillance strategy and had then facilitated a partnership with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms (ATF) and was then able to develop this vehicle tracking surveillance strategy to a fine art.
Teamwork and Technology
The North DTU then began systematically dismantling these serial robbery crews and facilitating aggressive federal prosecution. The end result of this initiative was an unprecedented reduction in violent crime. By 2016 the North Patrol Division (3 and 6 District) had realized an 82 percent reduction in commercial business robberies as well as a 59 percent reduction in murders!
On Sept. 4, 2016, shortly after meeting with the FBI, the North DTU in a middle-of-the-night operation was able to covertly place a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device on Batistes’ personal vehicle. Shortly after this Sgt. Andersen developed and maintained a detailed and tactical surveillance plan which included the use of pole cameras, multiple (GPS) tracking devices and physical surveillance. Critical to Andersen’s plan was not only gathering evidence related to the Brinks and Loomis murders/robberies, but also preventing Batiste and his crew from carrying out future murders.
On Sept. 7, 2016 members of the North DTU, while following Batiste in his personal vehicle, located a white Toyota 4Runner parked in a northside apartment complex. This 4Runner matched the description of the vehicle identified across the street from the Wells Fargo bank on August 29. The 4Runner was a rental vehicle which had been reported stolen (by VIN) in 2015 and had two different license plates belonging to other Toyota 4Runners. Additionally, there was a keyhole-shaped cutout on the tailgate of the 4Runner (“sniper’s loop hole”). This sniper’s loop hole would easily allow Batiste or others to use the vehicle as a sniper platform.
A GPS tracking order was obtained for the 4Runner as well as several other vehicles associated with the crew and the North DTU established and maintained surveillance on the members of the crew, their vehicles and residences for the next three months!
Agent Coughlin and Sgts. Andersen and Helms worked in nearly daily consultation with prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office. Even though there was sufficient evidence to arrest Batiste for Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle, in connection with the stolen 4Runner, it was decided to continue the surveillance operation in order to obtain sufficient substantial evidence against all the members of the crew and prove up the multiple Capital Murders. Knowing that any misstep on their part would lead to the murder of an innocent man, the North DTU as well as their FBI and ATF partners maintained an exhausting 24-hour, seven-day-a-week surveillance on the suspects.
In late November the North DTU, while conducting surveillance on Batiste, observed that he had recently come into the possession of a Jeep Cherokee, which was legally rented for one day from Enterprise by a female associate. At about the same time, Helms and Agent Coughlin obtained a court-authorized Title III cell phone intercept which revealed that Batiste and his crew were now in the planning phase of a third sniper-initiated armored truck robbery.
The wire intercept also indicated that Batiste had made a copy of the rental car key, placed his own GPS tracking device on the Jeep and was going to have the vehicle returned to Enterprise. In timely fashion, Batiste and his crew planned to utilize there tracking device, relocate it and steal it the next time it was rented out. They would then utilize this Jeep as a sniper shooting platform for their next planned armored truck robbery.
While this plan was unfolding, the North DTU, in a “nail-biting” race against time, was able to obtain a tracking order and covertly place one of their own GPS tracking devices on it right under Batiste’s “nose” – while he was in very close proximity of the vehicle.
After Agent Coughlin and Sgt. Helms identified Batiste’s plan to steal the rental Jeep in the robbery plan, Sgt. Andersen then devised a counter plan to thwart the possible or likely murder of an armored truck courier.
When Batiste had the Jeep returned to Enterprise, FBI agents were immediately able to locate it by virtue of the North DTU’s GPS tracking device and rent it back out. It was then confirmed that Batiste had indeed copied one of the keys and placed his own tracking device on the vehicle. A few hours later, while waiting on standby, the Bureau flew in technicians from the FBI’s Strategic Vehicle Technologies Unit in Quantico, Va. This crew landed in Houston and installed interior audio and video surveillance, a vehicle kill switch and another GPS tracking device in the rental car. At this time the Jeep now had three tracking devices on it North DTU’s, FBI’s and Batistes’!
Zeroing in on the Criminals!
Shortly after the installation of this equipment, Batiste and his crew located the Jeep using their tracking device and while the North DTU watched, they stole it from a hotel parking lot where it had been placed in south Houston.
In late November and early December, surveillance by Sgt. Andersen and the North DTU identified the Amegy Bank in Houston’s Greenspoint area as the crew’s probable next target. Similar to the previous robberies, the crew planned to set up a sniper platform from within the stolen rental Jeep. Batiste would execute the armored truck courier with a precision shot delivered from his rifle while the courier serviced the ATM. Other members of his crew would then drive up to the executed courier and take the money, while still other members conducted counter surveillance in the area.
Sgt. Andersen and the North DTU then planned for a complex multi-layered operation to prevent the shooting and arrest Batiste and his crew.
On Dec. 7, 2016, a joint operation was conducted by HPD and the FBI to arrest Batiste and his crew, thus preventing another murder. In the early morning hours, HPD SWAT and North DTU established secure positions in the vicinity of the Amegy Bank.
Later, Batiste and his crew arrived at the targeted bank and set up their ambush, waiting for the scheduled arrival of what they believed to be a Loomis armored truck. Unbeknownst to Batiste and his crew, the Loomis truck was a decoy driven and occupied by North DTU officers.
When the decoy Loomis truck arrived at the bank, the arrest of Batiste and his crew unfolded. As SWAT approached Batiste in the Jeep Cherokee, Batiste engaged them with his .223-caliber sniper rifle. SWAT returned fire and Batiste was killed. Five other members of Batiste’s crew were arrested as they attempted to flee the scene. No innocent civilians, officers or agents were injured during this very complex operation, which undoubtedly saved the life of the Loomis armored truck courier who would have serviced the Amegy Bank.
Even though the Armored Truck Sniper crew has now been dismantled and the surviving members are in federal custody awaiting trial, Special Agent Coughlin and Sgt. Helms’ investigation into their past activities is still very much ongoing. As now credible, evidence has linked them to the unsolved high-profile murders of several prominent Houston area businessmen who were executed during the course of robberies.
In an unprecedented award, FBI Director Christopher Wray saw fit to single out Houston Police Sgts. Chris Andersen and David Helms for their tireless and innovative work throughout this investigation. The FBI flew them along with their families to Washington, DC, where on Sept. 13 Director Wray personally presented them with the FBI Director’s Award for Excellence.
The diligent efforts of Sgt. Andersen and Helms not only saved lives, but also brought to justice the violent criminals responsible for the previous robberies and murders.