Members of a local rap group whose songs extol guns, money and a street-thug culture apparently lived up to their gangland-style lyrics, according to D.C. police who say members are suspected of stealing cellphones from dozens of stores in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
The brazen thefts over the past 16 months cost shops $77,000 and were carried out as customers browsed, authorities said Thursday, noting that some phones were taken by stealth — under the noses of distracted clerks — while others were forcefully ripped off shelves.
Arrested were members and associates of a group called Jet Gang, including rappers known as G-Five Weezy and Astronaut Mac. The case illustrates D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s continued crackdown on cellphone thefts, which account for about half the District’s 3,000 armed and unarmed robberies this year, but also shows that despite police efforts, the black market remains a lucrative place for stolen phones.
Earlier this week, police raided an electronics store on H Street NW and arrested the owner on charges that he trafficked in stolen phones and computers. They found laptops taken from a District school and a cellphone allegedly taken during a street robbery by a youth who police said sold the phone to the store, gave his parents the $250 and got a McDonald’s meal in return.
D.C. police Cmdr. Melvin Scott, who heads the narcotics and special investigation unit, called the arrests “very significant” in the ongoing battle against robberies. “These cellphone [thefts] are the root of a lot of violent crime we have in the city,” he said.
Scott said investigators continue to probe how and where the stolen cellphones were sold. The suspects, Scott said, “had a long reign.”
Police said they built their case after noticing a pattern targeting primarily T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T stores, reviewed video surveillance and recruited an informant who had participated in some of the thefts. Court documents said the suspects staked out the stores, looking to see if they “had a significant number of expensive, late-model cellular telephones on display.” They also noted the placement of the display cases, how many employees and customers were inside and whether there were security guards.
Dustin Perry, who manages a Verizon store in Columbia Heights that was targeted Aug. 19, said three men came in about 4 p.m. and walked over to the counter. With an employee watching, Perry and police said, the men grabbed two Samsung Galaxy phones, each worth $375, yanking them out of zip-ties that held them to the tabletop and severing a cord that tethered the phones to the display case.
“It was basically a snatch and run,” Perry said. He said a phone cord snapped and hit a clerk, and one of the men shoved a sales representative into a wall during the escape.
“It takes someone pretty brazen to do this,” Perry said. “Theft is a serious problem. We have to do everything but board up the doors to keep the public from taking our stuff, which really impacts how we market our products.”
Managers of other stores listed in the police reports declined to comment.
Court documents say an informant tied the group to 17 burglaries in the District, 23 in Maryland, four in Virginia and two in North Carolina. Areas targeted include the H Street corridor — where one T-Mobile store was hit four times — Columbia Heights, Chevy Chase, Dupont Circle and two stores blocks from the White House. Two stores listed are in Laurel and Hyattsville.
The five suspects are charged with multiple counts of second-degree burglary and conspiracy to commit a crime of violence. Police identified them as Dasheem Smith, 22, of Northeast Washington; Darien Wilson, 24, of Northeast; Christopher Brice, 22, of Southeast Washington; Taiwo Johnson, 20, of Southeast; and Dalvez Watkins, 22, of Suitland. Smith is known as G-Five Weezy and Wilson as Astronaut Mac.
Attempts to reach relatives were unsuccessful. Smith, who was arrested Monday, became a suspect after an August traffic stop during which police said they found two phones still sealed in their boxes allegedly taken from a Cricket store. A lawyer listed in court documents did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Representatives for the rap group’s promoter, Swagga Ave Entertainment, also could not be reached. Jet Gang has several compilations and songs on the Internet, many on YouTube, in which they flash cash and rap about guns, violence and alcohol. Members are seen downing 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and flashing weapons as they say: “Where do you work? Put him in the dirt.” They also reference “piles of 9s,” slang for 9mm handguns.
Law enforcement authorities confirmed that the suspects arrested are the men seen in the videos; the rap group is named in court charging documents.
One video is shot in front of a sign for the Hartman-Berkshire neighborhood playground in Suitland and along H Street Northeast, where many of the thefts occurred near a community filling with restaurants and nightlife.
In another video, the rappers go back and forth in a freestyle contest with an artist named Starchill. Someone from Jet Gang raps, “We go hard to the fullest; [expletive] want to rap with a semi on my side; [expletive] went pop, pop, pop and die; hang with eights; I murder any [expletive] who eat off my plate.”