Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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It could have been a big pay-off.

The money truck eased to a halt near the corner of 31st and V streets NE on Feb. 12. It was mid-morning on a Saturday, when some of the light industrial area’s two-story office buildings would have been closed, the streets in front of them relatively empty.

And according to court papers, Ricardo Hunter, 53, Nathaniel Bailey, 57, and Daniel Webster Chapman, 23, sat nearby in a green Ford Taurus, a handgun, a revolver and an AK-47 at the ready. Court papers say the men tailed the vault-like truck there from a Shell gas station on nearby New York Avenue with Bailey at the wheel. (Bailey’s lawyer, Heather Shaner, insists her client is being railroaded. Chapman and Hunter didn’t have lawyers yet at press time.)

What authorities say they were planning to pull off—an armored car robbery—has become more and more common in the District recently. FBI statistics show there were four such robberies here in 2008, and only two in 2009. But in 2010, the number jumped to nine. Though it might seem like a statistical blip at first, in fact, the increase makes D.C. the armored truck robbery capital of the nation, and the trend has the FBI concerned. The attempted robbery Hunter and his crew allegedly tried this month was the second truck heist in 2011, so far.

Some of the recent ones have been brazen. On March 12, as two armored truck guards loaded an ATM at 14th Street NW and Park Road with cash, two men robbed them at gunpoint at around 10:15 a.m. On April 27, a Garda armored truck was robbed of an undisclosed amount of money at around 6:30 p.m. in the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE. On Sept. 1, in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in the 4000 block of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, two men robbed an armored truck at gunpoint. Less tan two weeks later, an armored truck guard was shot in the face in the 600 block of Malcolm X Avenue SE. The list goes on.

This month, at least, the FBI appears to have gotten ahead of the game. In a raspy voice that seems to fit his career choice, Special Agent in Charge Ronald Hosko of the FBI’s criminal division explains how this month’s bust went down. He tells me the FBI received “reliable intelligence” that Hunter was planning to knock over a Brink’s truck. (Court papers say the FBI had an informant.) Brink’s is the country’s oldest armored truck company; one of their earliest armored prototypes involved welding steel plates to a school bus. The firm didn’t return requests for comment.

On the day of the alleged heist, a task force made of members of the FBI and Metropolitan Police Department watched Hunter and Bailey as they left Hunter’s house at about 9:15 a.m. The two then swung by to pick up Chapman, who later told authorities he’d been recruited for the job just a couple of weeks before, according to court papers. He got word of the when of the job a day before the robbery, though, implying the two older men kept him out of the loop on the particulars.

As they waited for the truck, Bailey handed Chapman a silver revolver, Chapman told authorities. Moments later, the armored truck passed them, and Bailey pulled off after it.

The “cash-in-transit” part of an armored truck company like Brink’s services banks and businesses, among others, safely shipping cash from Point A to Point B. Most carriers are also in the “cash management” business, which includes processing the funds. That means the company pretty much acts as a bank, both picking up and storing money. Transporting cash to and from ATMs is also a regular component of the business, with some armored truck companies even providing the machines. But it’s not just about cash; anything valuable, from gold to sensitive computer hard drives, can also end up in the truck.

An armored truck can be a major temptation to a criminal foolhardy enough to try to take one on. A robbery pays well, maybe even better than robbing a bank. Bank robberies rarely involve getting into the vault, where most of the real money is, Hosko says. Instead, the thief runs off with the contents of teller drawers that can hold as little as a few hundred dollars.

Some armored trucks, on the other hand, can yield a lot more. Routes can involve as many as 10 or 20 stops. With every destination, more valuables get crammed into the hull. After the armored truck heist that took place on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, robbers escaped with $600,000.

Most criminals still aren’t interested. FBI stats say area bank jobs swamp D.C. armored truck jobs. In 2008, the District had 70 bank robberies. In 2009, there were 81. In 2010, there were 79. (Unlike armored truck robberies, the District’s bank robbery stats are in line with national averages.)

That could be because robbing a truck takes a lot more work and planning—and a lot more could go wrong. A bank is relatively easy to knock off: A note will usually suffice. Armored trucks, on the other hand, are formidable bulletproof transports. While a bank might have just one unarmed security guard for protection, armored trucks are protected by “an oppositional force,” Hosko says. The guards are armed, trained, and likely to resist. That’s one of the reasons a spike in armored truck robberies is so worrisome. The individual and crews who go after armored trucks are more likely to be ready for combat and bloodshed. “It’s high risk, high threat, and high pay off,” Hosko says.

That’s likely why, as Chapman and Hunter allegedly walked toward the bulletproof Brink’s truck, there were 70 officers waiting, including a large presence from the police paramilitary SWAT force. Confronted with a platoon’s worth of opposition, the three men were arrested without incident.

That was a significant victory for law enforcement. But Hosko is bothered by not knowing exactly why there’s been an increase in armored truck robberies here. He sometimes thinks a single crew might be responsible for the trend, and that crew might be Hunter, Chapman, and Bailey. If that’s the case, Hosko believes investigators will eventually find the evidence. The investigation will be thorough, he promises: “It could take us five years, but we’ll find it.”

But if armored truck robberies continue to climb, you won’t see it in your bank fees. Armored truck expert Jim McGuffey who’s been in “security management’ for almost four decades says insurance covers the contents of a truck if those contents are stolen. Neither the armored truck companies nor the banks are on the hook. But there’s still a tremendous cost, he explains. Guards and their families are traumatized by the violence, or threat of violence, that comes along with a robbery. The guards and their families suffer, he says. “It’s a very devastating event,” he says. “These guys are just out there trying to make a living.”

There’s also another trauma the guards and their families have to face after a theft: Being scrutinized. One of the first things the FBI does after a heist is take a long look at the armored truck crew, Hosko says. It seems to pay off: An armored truck guard on duty during the truck robbery at the Wendy’s, the one that netted $600,000, later told authorities she was involved. According to court papers, when interviewed by investigators, the driver said the men who robbed the truck had forced her to participate in the plan by threatening her family. She also said one of the ways she contributed to the scheme was by telephoning an “acquaintance” with the location of the truck. She was supposed to receive proceeds from the holdup.

Get caught up in such a plan, and you can land in prison for a long time. Even if you never get a chance to touch the money, a federal law called the Hobbs Act may come into play. Enacted in 1946, the law, once meant to clobber organized crime, can be used against stick-up crews that infringe on “interstate commerce.” Robbing an armored truck qualifies. The law can tack on extra years for however long in advance such a caper is planned, Hosko explains. A caught armored truck raider could easily get hit with 25 years. “It’s just not worth it,” warns Hosko. Apparently, some people in D.C. would disagree.