Authorities Make Arrests In Robbery Ring That Has Struck CUs In Midwest

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Seven men and one woman were charged last week in one of the most brutal-and successful-bank robbery rings, a ring that allegedly stole more than $1.4 million during nine heists in Missouri, Illinois and Ohio over the past five years.

The bandits used sophisticated tactics, including the increasingly popular taking of hostages to force entry into credit unions and banks, then into cash vaults, according to law enforcement agents. "In all but one of the cases a hostage was taken at gunpoint," said James Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Among the robberies were two of the biggest ever at credit unions, the June 2000 theft of $266,293 from the Jennings, Mo., branch of St. Louis Community CU, and the heist at the same credit union's St. Louis facility six months later of $211,590. The criminals gained entry to the credit union because the ring's alleged mastermind, Franklin Morris, ran his own security firm, which provided guards to the credit union's two sites, according to Martin. The gang used the guards' keys to enter the credit union on both occasions, he said.

The gang was also responsible for robberies of $285,505 at Cass Commercial Bank, $196,000 from South Community CU, $165,000 at Vantage CU, and $143,232 at Bank of America, all in St. Louis; as well as thefts of $75,702 from National Bank, Edwardsville, Ill; $63,469 from Southern lllinois Area CU, Swansea, Ill; and $7,485 from Alliance CU, Hazelwood, Mo., according to 24-count federal indictments unsealed last week.

The average bank robbery in the U.S. involves about $3,500.

As of last week none of the stolen loot had been recovered and authorities had little hope of finding it, according to Martin. "We think it was spent," he said. "There's no indication it was anything but spent."

Surveillance tapes and other evidence also links the gang to attempted robberies at St. Louis Community CU, again, Midwest CU, Gateway Federal Employees CU, First Community CU (twice), Kemba Financial CU (twice), Prospect Bank, First National Bank, Royal Bank and Lindell Bank. "In some of those attempts the guys got spooked and just took off," said Martin.

Charged in the indictments with bank robbery, attempted bank robbery and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence were: Franklin Morris, 42, the alleged ringleader and owner of Murphy High Quality Security; Otis McAllister, 40; David Greenwade, 43; Scott Williams, 35; Barry Ball, 27; Reginald Thomas, 30; Jeffrey Moore, 22; and Ida Merkson, 35, all of St. Louis. Both Morris and McAllister were also charged with tax fraud.

The group used comprehensive planning and sophisticated high technology to carry out the robberies, according to Martin. It included pre-placing getaway cars near the targeted institutions, usually by the rear, isolated entrances, driving vehicles with recently stolen license plates, travelling to the institutions in stolen cars, wearing physical disguises, kidnapping employees and their families to force entry into the institutions and the vaults, using lookouts and disarming alarm systems. They used cell phones, two-way radios and walkie-talkies to communicate before, during and after the robberies.

During the June 12, 2000 robbery at St. Louis Community CU, Morris allegedly gave McAllister the key to the rear entrance to the credit union's Jennings branch, according to the indictment. McAllister allegedly physically restrained a female employee at gunpoint and robbed the credit union of $266,293 and was rewarded by Morris with a portion of the cash. The same scenario is alleged to have unfolded during the Dec. 8, 2000 robbery at the credit union's St. Louis office when McAllister allegedly stole $211,590.

On Aug. 31, 2002, McAllister and Morris allegedly dressed in women's clothing and hid in a trash dumpster during the attempted robbery of Midwest CU in Florissant, Mo., the indictment said.

On Sept. 5, 2003, McAllister and Morris, wearing women's clothing and hiding behind a fence, took a female employee of Vantage CU hostage as she arrived at work and forced her to open the credit union, enabling them to steal $165,000, according to the charges.

Martin said authorities came up with the details of the heists from surveillance videotapes and other means.

Despite the weapons and threats, no one was ever harmed during any of the robberies, according to Martin.

By the end of last week, five of the suspects were in custody and three were still at large.

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