D.C. police arrested two men yesterday in an alleged scheme to recruit teen-agers from a Northeast public housing project and have them rob downtown banks during the last six months.
The two men trained the youths in holdup techniques, drove them to the banks and gave them holdup notes to present to bank tellers, police said. The youths, ranging in age from 14 to 16, then brought the loot to the men who paid them $50 to $135 each for their efforts, according to police.
The unarmed youths, all from the Keniworth public housing project in Far Northeast, hit at least 17 banks between last May and early this week. Police would not say how much money was taken from the banks.
Police have also arrested four juveniles, two of them females since May in connection with the alleged scheme, and say their investigation is continuing.
The two men recruited the teen-agers to minimize the chances of the two adults being caught, police said. Police added that the two men were apparently so sophisticated that they used unarmed juveniles, knowing that if the youths were armed when caught, they could be prosecuted as adults and suffer more severe punishment.
Residents and community leaders in the Kenilworth area had been alarmed in recent months by rumors that adults in the area were using teen-agers to commit bank roberies.
"We're were sick of it," said Gladys Roy, a mother who lives in the housing project. "It's a shame that the little ones were being used by the older ones."
Michael Harrison, another Kenilworth resident, said the teen-agers probably got involved because of a combination of factors, including peer pressure and depressed economic conditions in the area. "The whole environment plays a part," said Harrison, who noted that many of the youths in the public housing project live in fatherless households where there is no male role model.
D.C. Police Capt. Ronald D. Cryzter, head of the robbery branch, said the two men "were prostituting these youngsters. Considering the economic situation in the area, they had no problem getting teen-agers to work for them."
Two of the juveniles already have been convicted and are serving time in detention centers, according to Sgt. Edward L. Dory, who headed the investigation. Two others are awaiting trial, he said. Some of the juveniles were involved in more than one bank robbery, Dory said.
One youth told detectives he was taken by the men to three banks before he got the nerve to present the teller the note demanding money, police said. In one case, police said, a juvenile told them he left a demand note at the teller's cage and walked out before she handed him the money.
Police said in a few cases the juveniles would write the demand not in the bank after the men told them what to write. On Wednesday this week, police arrested a 15-year-old junior high school student after he tried to rob the D.C. National Bank at 1801 K. St. NW. The youth presented a note to the teller that said: "This is a robbery. Give me your 10's, 20's, 50's, and 100's or die." The note used in that robbery attempt was similar to ones used in the other juvenile-related robberies, police said.
According to Cryzter, investigatiors in the robbery squad first suspected that juveniles were being coached to rob banks when two 16-year-old girls were arrested for a bank holdup in May. "We knew they were nof familiar with the bank," Dory said.
Through further investigation of the two girls and the subsequent arrest of a 14-year-old boy for a bank holdup a few weeks ago and the 15-year-old this week, police said they were able to connect the two men to the holdups.
Arrested were Clifton Henson, 36, of 4439 Ponds St. NE, and Avery Barber, 25, of 926 48th St. NE, police said. Barber was charged with bank robbery. Henson was charged as a fugitive from Prince George's County, police said. However, additional D.C. charges will be placed against him later in connection with the juvenile bank holdups, police said.