HOUSTON (CN) – Two men were tense sitting in an SUV in the parking lot of a Houston bank in December 2016, waiting for an armored car to pull up, a guard to get out with a cashbox, their ringleader to pull the trigger on his scope-mounted rifle, and to watch the guard fall dead, federal prosecutors say.
In opening statements Tuesday, prosecutors laid out their case against four Houston men whom they claim were involved in a string of heists in which they helped steal $120,000 as two armored-car couriers were murdered.
Their defense attorneys tried to lay the blame on their purported leader, Redrick Jevon Batiste, an aspiring real estate developer known for keeping his house immaculately clean, who prosecutors claim fatally shot the two guards in March and August 2016 at long range from a hole he cut into the back of a white Toyota 4Runner.
The FBI began investigating Batiste after the March shooting.
In November 2016, FBI agents observed Batiste, Marc Anthony Hill, 48, and Nelson Alexander Polk, 40, casing an Amegy Bank in North Houston observing the comings and goings of a Loomis armored car, FBI special agent William Applegate wrote in an affidavit.
Federal prosecutor Heather Winter said in her opening statements that law enforcement observed the men sitting in their cars in the bank parking lot for hours in shifts. One would leave and another would arrive shortly thereafter.
They did a “scrimmage” before heist day, driving around the bank and telling their accused accomplice Trayvees Duncan-Bush, 31, who was tasked with jumping out and grabbing the money, “If you hear gunshots, don’t hesitate, they aren’t for you.”
“Dec. 7 is game day, as Batiste would call it,” Winters told the five-man, nine-woman jury.
Police say the investigation culminated the morning of Dec. 7 as Polk and Duncan-Bush sat in the 4Runner in the bank parking lot and watched the Loomis truck pull up to an ATM behind the bank.
Unaware that SWAT officers had surrounded him, police say, Batiste was looking on from the driver’s seat of a Jeep Cherokee at a nearby apartment complex from which he planned to shoot the courier as soon as he or she stepped out of the truck to fill the ATM.
Houston police ambushed Polk and Duncan-Bush, ramming the 4Runner with an armored police vehicle. They fled on foot but were quickly apprehended.
Batiste traded fire with SWAT officers, was shot in the leg and chest, and died at the scene. He was 37.
Hill and John Edward Scott, 43, were arrested and charged with serving as lookouts for the attempted heist. Bennie Charles Phillips, 31, is charged with helping recruit Duncan-Bush to be the pickup man.
All five men pleaded not guilty at their January 2017 arraignment in Houston federal court.
In a deal in which he agreed to testify against the other defendants, Duncan-Bush later pleaded guilty in September 2018 to attempt to interfere with commerce by robbery and aiding and abetting use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Phillips and Scott face those same charges for their alleged involvement in the attempted robbery in December 2016. If convicted on the gun charges, they will be handed 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.
Hill and Polk are facing two additional charges because prosecutors say they were involved in an August 2016 heist of $120,000 from an armored-car courier who Batiste shot dead.
If convicted on all counts, Hill and Polk will be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in federal prison for the gun charges and U.S. District Judge David Hittner could tack on an additional 40 years to their sentences.
Hittner, a Ronald Reagan appointee and Eagle Scout from Schenectady, New York, is a tough-on-crime judge who has a particular disdain for armed robbers.
In 2015, Hittner sentenced two men who burglarized several cellphone stores after threatening employees and customers at gun point to 153 and 119 years in federal prison.
Hill is representing himself. An entrepreneur who owned several businesses including a gourmet-popcorn shop, he said in his opening statements, which were interrupted by continuous objections from the prosecutors, that he had not coordinated with any of the other defendants because the only one he knows is Polk, his nephew.
Hittner rejected his claim that forcing him to wear ankles shackles violates his Sixth Amendment rights.
With his shaved head shining in the courtroom lights, he also questioned why police had not arrested Batiste sooner and let him continue to roam the streets if they knew he “had committed these heinous crimes”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I demand this court to allow you to hear and see evidence that will prove my innocence,” Hill said.