By Clarence Williams
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 12:53 AM
A half-dozen members of an alleged robbery crew, described by investigators as ruthless and well disciplined, were about to get in cars outside a District office building one night this month, carrying nine pistols and an assault rifle. Their evening's work, the planned stickup of a drug dealer, was soon to begin.
Or so they thought.
Suddenly, like a thunderclap, the deafening flash-boom of a nonlethal concussion grenade lobbed by D.C. police stunned the men. Then another exploded, and another, as helmeted officers of the Emergency Response Team, armed and clad for combat, rushed at the disoriented suspects.
All six were arrested in the dramatic March 10 takedown, which law enforcement sources say capped a week-long sting operation in which undercover officers infiltrated the crew and gave the men guns from which the firing pins had been removed.
The sources said the targeted drug dealer was fictitious, invented by police to lure the suspects to where they were arrested.
On Friday, an indictment was unsealed in which the men were charged with conspiring to commit armed bank robbery and possessing firearms during a crime of violence. The indictment, issued by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in the District, stems from an alleged plan to rob a bank in Pennsylvania.
Undercover officers helped the men formulate the plan, sources said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, the sources said police suspect the men robbed at least seven stores and a bank in the Washington suburbs. The group might have committed similar crimes in other states, the sources said.
"Major bad guys," said one investigator.
"There's a coldness about them," another said.
The investigation began when a confidential police informant put undercover officers in touch with the alleged robbers, sources said. They declined to specify what personas the officers took on to gain the crew's trust as the sting unfolded during the week and investigators worked day and night.
Sources said conversations that were secretly videotaped caught the men boasting to undercover officers about robberies they had committed locally and elsewhere.
Two of the suspects allegedly said they had learned their trade amid the chaos of the Salvadoran civil war. Another allegedly boasted of killing someone.
The men named in the indictment are Luis Lopez, Serfido Trinidad Perez Florian, Vahelo Alay Escobar, Armando Palma Alonzo, Jose Martin Ruis-Cacho and Edgar Geovani Perez-Suniga. Their immigration statuses were not immediately clear.
The indictment deals with an alleged plot to rob a Wachovia bank branch in Horsham, Pa., north of Philadelphia. It alleges that the suspect asked the undercover officers for "eight vehicles, multiple firearms and a female driver" for the job.
Sources said the undercover officers joined the suspects in casing the bank. The indictment says this occurred March 5. The officers went inside the bank, then returned to the car to discuss the building's layout and security.
During the conversation, one source said, members of the crew discussed taking hostages in the bank if they were trapped by police and said they had to be prepared to shoot the captives one by one if necessary.
After the trip to Pennsylvania, sources said, the robbery crew went off to case another bank without the undercover officers.
On March 9, the indictment alleges, the six suspects met with the undercover officers and "inspected multiple firearms and a sample of the bullet-proof vests that they believed the officers would provide to them" for the planned Wachovia robbery.
Based on chilling talk about possibly shooting a guard, sources said, police decided it was time to arrest the six suspects.
And they had to act fast, sources said, because there were hints the crew had another job lined up for that week - at a Pennsylvania bank or a check-cashing business in Baltimore. So the undercover officers told the suspects about a drug dealer who was ripe for a robbery, sources said, and the men allegedly took the bait.
According to the sources, the men said they needed two cars and seven fresh guns. The undercover officers agreed to oblige and arranged to meet the suspects on the night of March 10 at the office building. Sources declined to disclose the building's location.
They said three undercover officers met the six men inside. The two cars, courtesy of police, were parked in front, and the undercover officers, good to their word, handed over six pistols and a semiautomatic rifle, neglecting to mention that none of the weapons had a firing pin, sources said. They said the suspects also were armed with three handguns of their own.
They went over the robbery plan, then walked outside, headed to the cars.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Three of the six men threw away their weapons and tried to flee, but officers had cordoned off the block, and there were police dogs and an armored vehicle on the scene, sources said.
The explosive takedown lasted about two minutes.
Assistant Chief Peter Newsham said the arrest operation - run by the ERT, the Narcotics and Special Investigation Division and the FBI - was "extremely risky for our folks." He praised the officers involved for arresting six men, three armed, with no injury to anyone.
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.