weather icon Clear

One clue helped FBI, police solve daring armored truck heists

A rare look inside the gang from California behind a string of armed robberies in Las Vegas — and what it took to catch them

By Jeff German Las Vegas Review-Journal

Illustrations by Severiano Galvan and Wes Rand Las Vegas Review-Journal

One clue helped FBI, police solve daring armored truck heists

Updated June 18, 2020 - 12:16 pm

On a sunny Friday morning, three robbery suspects were sitting in their 2001 Nissan outside a Chase bank in a southeast Las Vegas strip mall, poised to strike another armored truck.

The three, part of a gang of five men and women, were responsible for a string of four robberies in less than four months, netting the gang more than $187,000 in cash.

It was thought to be the most armored truck thefts carried out by one group in Las Vegas in two decades.

The men preparing for the ambush were not considered sophisticated criminals. They were members of the same Los Angeles street gang and had robbery arrests dating back to their days as teenagers, according to investigators.

Law enforcement officers were eager to capture the suspects.

After the second robbery, police sought leads from the public and distributed a dramatic photo showing a man with a black face mask pointing a gun at an armored truck officer with a bag of cash just a few feet away.

“There was a lot of pressure to solve the case so people wouldn’t get hurt,” said retired Las Vegas police detective Sam Smith, one of the lead investigators. “They had their guns out when they committed the crimes, and that led us to believe they had a propensity for violence. We were worried that if a security officer pulled out his weapon, it would lead to a gun battle.”

Court records, interrogation transcripts and video recently obtained by the Review-Journal provide a rare look into how police and FBI agents cracked the 2017 case with only a slim lead from a witness.

In a confidential police report, investigators were directed to maintain “loose” surveillance on the suspects to avoid being detected. “They are not to commit another robbery,” the report stated.

Just 13 days before they were arrested, gang members had robbed their fourth truck at gunpoint outside a Wells Fargo bank.

The investigators were determined to keep the suspects from following through with a fifth holdup in front of the bank on East Windmill Lane, records show.

The armored truck was called off from making its stop, and agents kept the Nissan under surveillance as the suspects waited for 20 minutes in the parking lot.

A black SUV pulled up behind the Nissan to block its path. Seconds later an unmarked van drove up, and six heavily armed FBI agents jumped out, pointing their automatic weapons at the white Nissan. More agents wearing SWAT gear arrived to surround the car.

The agents threw a flash-bang grenade to disorient the suspects. The car doors opened amid another flash-bang, and one by one, the three men, all dressed in black, stepped out with their hands up, leaving their weapons behind. The arrests were captured on video by a surveillance plane.

The precision takedown lasted only a few minutes.

“This is a highly unusual case in a sense that it is very rare to see anyone trying to rob an armored truck now,” said Paul Padda, a former federal prosecutor who regularly appears in federal court as a defense lawyer. “These vehicles are very sophisticated, and the odds of getting caught are very high because the government has the latest GPS and other tracking technology at its disposal.”

Crane Pomerantz, another former federal prosecutor, said it’s even rarer for one group to carry out so many of these kinds of robberies.

“Hitting an armored truck is not a crime of convenience,” Pomerantz said. “It takes a lot of planning.”

The gang

Not much is known about how or why the gang of five gathered in Las Vegas for the series of robberies.

But the suspects did some planning, Smith said. They conducted their own surveillance on the trucks in all four thefts to get familiar with their routes.

The three men taken into custody on Sept. 8, 2017 — Trayvale “Baby Rat” Harrison, Randall “Little Dog” Burge and Phillip “Tiny Smurf” Shiel — have quietly pleaded guilty in the robbery case in federal court.

Investigators believe Harrison and Burge were the ringleaders, but in court papers, Burge’s lawyer Terrence Jackson denied Burge called the shots.

Burge, 38, who worked as a dog groomer, and Harrison, 33, both are waiting to be sentenced. Burge’s first name also has been spelled “Randel” and “Randell” in court papers. Shiel, 24, whose first name also has been spelled “Philip,” was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison in California. He said after his arrest that he was unemployed with a 1-year-old daughter.

Harrison, who lives in Barstow, California, told investigators he worked for a service that cared for the elderly and supported his family, which included three young children.

His ex-wife, Shantae Williams, 33, and Burge’s girlfriend, Ianthe Rowland, 37, also are charged in the criminal conspiracy and are set to stand trial in August, amid a court system slowed by safety measures to reduce the threat of the coronavirus.

Rowland was arrested on the same day as the three men, driving a black BMW near the now-closed Chase Bank branch. She lived in Las Vegas with Burge at the time.

Conspiracy starts

Federal authorities allege the conspiracy began on June 5, 2017, when a Loomis truck was robbed of $16,447 outside a Green Valley Grocery store at 5324 South Fort Apache Road.

A month later, a GardaWorld truck was held up at a Walmart at 490 E. Silverado Ranch Blvd. The suspects got away with $23,510.

Then they struck again on Aug. 14, 2017. A Loomis truck was robbed of $5,549 outside a Wells Fargo Bank at 101 N. Pecos Road.

But the biggest haul of $138,000 came from the Aug. 25 robbery of a Loomis truck at another Wells Fargo Bank at 445 E. Windmill Lane.

Loomis and GardaWorld officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“There’s a saying among prosecutors that when a cause is righteous, good things always happen,” former Clark County District Attorney David Roger said. “In this case, these were bad guys. The agents did great police work, but they also got a lucky break when they thwarted another robbery.”

Roger obtained convictions in a series of armored truck robberies in Las Vegas 20 years ago. In one of those heists, the suspects shot to death two security officers.

Break in the case

The break in the 2017 case came after a witness gave investigators half a license plate number from a getaway car used in the fourth robbery, records show.

In a little more than a week, investigators traced the license numbers to a car Harrison rented in Barstow and identified the other suspects by tracking Harrison’s cellphone calls. They also pinpointed the use of cellphones by the suspects in the areas and times of the robberies.

Investigators closed in on the gang by putting the suspects under physical surveillance, listening to their phone conversations and planting an eavesdropping device in at least one of their cars.

Smith said the success of the investigation was the result of strong cooperation between FBI agents and Las Vegas and Henderson police.

“This was definitely a group effort,” he said. “We had some guys doing surveillance that worked incredibly hard.”

Transcripts of the post-arrest interrogations, which read like a script for a television crime series, show Smith and now-retired FBI Agent Henry Schlumpf relied on years of experience in an attempt to persuade the suspects to cooperate.

Schlumpf, now a fraud investigator with the Nevada attorney general’s office, declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.

Trayvale “Baby Rat” Harrison

Harrison, one of the three men caught that September day, denied having a role in the holdups.

Schlumpf acknowledged during Harrison’s interrogation that investigators had gotten little evidence from the first three robberies.

“And then we had one on (Aug. 25) at another bank, another Wells Fargo, and you scored $138,000,” Schlumpf said. “So we got a break on that case where you guys switched cars in a residential area … and, uh, a witness had given us a partial California (license plate), just the first couple letters.”

“So it’s like, ‘OK, we got our guys identified in like about a week’ and what happens? You come back to Las Vegas. So it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re gonna hit again.’ And we just geared up for the week, and what we did was we had surveillance on you, we had a wiretap on your phones, we had locators on your cars …”

When Harrison proclaimed his innocence, Schlumpf responded: “I mean, we’ve got a lot of evidence, and I never call any case a slam dunk, but, you know, I’d have to say this one’s a slam dunk.”

Randall “Little Dog” Burge

The FBI agent told Burge in a separate interview that investigators had placed his cellphone at all four robberies and had evidence of phone conversations between him and Harrison.

In the days leading up to the fifth planned robbery, Schlumpf said, investigators had put tracking devices in both of Burge’s cars and a “bug” in one of them.

“And, uh … I remember one thing … said in the car today was ‘we got our masks, we got our gloves, we got our burner phones, we’re gonna get rich, fellas.’ Somebody said that in the car,” Schlumpf explained during the interrogation.

“So then, you know, once you guys were in a position, it’s like we can’t let you do a robbery, you know. We had all the armored trucks cleared out just so nobody would drive up on ya, and we went and scooped ya up.”

Burge claimed he was just sleeping in the car waiting for a nearby KFC restaurant to open and wasn’t part of the planned robbery.

“This is what you’re going to say in court?” Schlumpf responded. “OK, uh, if that’s your defense, I mean, you can go with that, but it’s gonna sound unbelievable to the jury.”

Phillip “Tiny Smurf” Shiel

The investigators told Shiel that he faced serious prison time and could be reunited with his baby daughter much sooner if he cooperated.

“We see two kinds of people in here, real badass dudes who don’t care about anybody or who they hurt,” Schlumpf said. “And then people, which I think is your case, ’cause you seem like you’re an all right guy, just somebody who was desperate, you know, did some stupid stuff that they’re sorry for and they wanna make it right.”

Shiel admitted participating in three of the robberies.

“How’d you feel when you did it?” Smith asked. “I felt bad ’cause I tried to lead myself the right way,” Shiel replied.

Ianthe Rowland

Rowland at first insisted she knew nothing about the robberies.

But an FBI complaint states Rowland assisted the robbers in several ways, including driving a “switch vehicle” in one of the holdups. Rowland admitted to investigators that she received $10,000 from one of the robberies.

Several times, the investigators accused her of lying. They said they had her under surveillance buying televisions and other electronics with the stolen money.

“We got a video of you walking into the house with the TV,” Smith said. “Four times, four times Little Dog (Burge) comes back with cash after Baby Rat (Harrison) was in town, and you’re gonna sit there and say, ‘I didn’t know nothin’ was goin’ on?’

“So lay it out. I don’t want to hear anything else until I hear, ‘OK, this is what happened on all the dates, this is who participated, this is what I did.’ ”

“You’re gonna get me killed,” Rowland responded.

But Smith told her that wasn’t going to happen.

“Randall is goin’ to the federal penitentiary for a really, really long time,” the detective said.

Eventually, Rowland acknowledged that the three men had participated in the robberies. But after turning on them, Rowland did not plead guilty in the conspiracy.

Las Vegas police circulated these photos from 2017 surveillance videos of two suspects and a getaway car.

Her defense lawyer, Chris Rasmussen, insisted in a recent interview that she was not part of the robbery conspiracy.

“Ms. Rowland has committed no crimes and was an unknowing participant in the robberies as a result of her violent boyfriend, who was directly involved with the robberies,” Rasmussen said. “We are confident that a jury will follow the evidence and conclude that Ms. Rowland was an innocent pawn.”

Williams rejected a plea deal. She is charged with laundering illicit proceeds with Harrison. The couple bought two vehicles, including a GMC Yukon, for more than $21,000 after the last robbery, court records show.

“We look forward to a jury reviewing the facts of this case, which will show Ms. Williams had no idea that her now ex-husband was living a double life in another state while she was in California taking care of their children,” her lawyer Dustin Marcello said.

“She had no involvement other than to be duped by the man she loved.”

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. German is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Support our journalism.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.