A federal jury convicted six men yesterday of carrying out a series of commando-style bank robberies in the Washington area last year.
The gang's bold tactics put the public on edge as its members stole more than $360,000 from six banks in the District and Maryland in as many months. Wearing body armor and masks, the robbers struck quickly, entering banks while waving assault rifles and handguns. During one robbery, they unleashed a volley of 30 bullets at police.
The men showed little emotion when the verdicts were read in a packed and heavily guarded courtroom. The outcome capped a lengthy trial in which prosecutors called more than 100 witnesses, including bank tellers, bystanders and forensics experts.
The star witnesses were two men who said they participated in the crimes. The men, who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the robberies, helped provide jurors with a vivid account of the gang's activities, prosecutors said yesterday.
"We're very satisfied," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara E. Kittay. "We're happy for the victims, who showed an enormous amount of courage in coming forward."
The jury reached its verdicts after a two-month trial and more than three weeks of deliberations. Jurors convicted the six men of conspiracy, racketeering, bank robbery and other charges. The defendants included the gang's alleged leader, Miguel Morrow, 27; Carlos Aguiar, 25; Lionel Stoddard, 22; Bryan Burwell, 27; Aaron Perkins, 28; and Malvin Palmer, 20. Morrow, Aguiar and Stoddard are from Northwest Washington. Burwell is from Lanham, Perkins is from Fort Washington and Palmer is from New York City.
The six, who have been in custody since their arrests, face a minimum of 30 years in prison. No sentencing date has been set.
Defense attorneys left the courtroom without comment. Family members of the defendants declined to talk about the verdicts.
Several jurors appeared to be overcome with emotion during the reading of the verdicts. The forewoman had to stop several times to choke back tears, and two others also appeared to cry.
Kittay said the case relied heavily on forensic evidence, including DNA that linked the robbers to body armor and clothing used in the crimes, in addition to the testimony of the two men who admitted their roles in the crimes.
One of them, Noureddine Chtaini, 30, said that his former best friend, Morrow, masterminded the crimes because he wanted quick strikes yielding high profits.
Chtaini told the jury that it was Morrow who in early 2004 suggested robbing an armored truck that he had seen delivering money to a bank on Wisconsin Avenue NW. The men were in place, but the truck never showed up, Chtaini testified. The robbers grew hungry, eventually abandoning the plan in favor of getting pizza, he said.
After that first setback, the crimes progressed swiftly.
The robbers waved assault rifles and wore ski masks and camouflage flak jackets, prosecutors said. They typically used stolen vans to get to and from the banks, then torched the vehicles to destroy evidence.
In the first bank robbery, Jan. 22, 2004, Chtaini, Morrow and two other men walked out with $144,000 from the Bank of America branch in the 5900 block of Blair Road in Silver Spring, Chtaini said. That robbery was not problem-free, however -- Chtaini testified that the men forgot to bring a bag for the loot.
Three more holdups would take place in the District and two in Prince George's County, authorities said. The men fired shots in three robberies, but no one was seriously hurt.
The aftermath of one of the robberies -- a holdup at a SunTrust Bank branch on Connecticut Avenue NW -- was captured by a WTTG-TV (Channel 5) news crew that was in the area on assignment.
Police worried about a shootout. During the robbery of a Chevy Chase Bank in Prince George's, three gang members engaged in a gun battle with a police officer. No one was injured in the exchange.
The trial began in April and unfolded under special precautions in the courtroom of Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. The security extended outside the courthouse; a team of federal marshals was stationed in a sport-utility vehicle with agents carrying high-powered rifles. Yesterday, more security was added, with heavily armed officers patrolling the hallways and lobby.
Prosecutors said that the quick cooperation of Chtaini proved invaluable. Chtaini was arrested in Alexandria last July and pleaded guilty in August to his role in the bank robberies. He led federal agents to the others and gave addresses for stash houses, where agents seized guns and money, they said.
Chtaini could face 30 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but his cooperation is expected to reduce the time he serves.
The other robber who cooperated, Omar Holmes, 27, was arrested in a Texas border town last August.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.