Playing Hardball

The Feds pitch a shutout in the area's first 'three strikes' case

"The first thing I think of...well, this is not a movie." Thompson described an intruder dressed head to toe in dark colors--blue coveralls, a knit ski mask, gloves, and black shoes. He had scarcely registered what was happening when the man brandished a handgun. Thompson bolted and ran toward a back emergency exit in the stockroom. "I was running back, and I hear a handgun go off, just boom," he said. "I'm thinking, you know...I was thinking of my kids, really."

The bullet intended for Thompson missed, and lodged in a store wall. The intruder chased Thompson into the stockroom, then broke the door off the hinges and burst in. He grabbed Thompson by the shoulder, then slammed a pistol down on his nose. Then he forced Thompson back to the store office, where he smashed the gun butt against the manager's head.

Woozy and bloodied from the blow, Thompson watched as the gunman helped himself to the safe's contents--some $11,500 in cash and checks in one zipper bag and $8,300 in another. After demanding the keys to the store, the man forced Thompson to the floor, handcuffed him, and fled through the front door.

Waiting in the parking lot was a car with 24-year-old Keith Marvell Walton at the wheel. Walton--the star prosecution witness in the Hays case--was convicted last year for his part in the armed robbery. He hoped to get a little time shaved off his 16-year federal sentence by testifying against Hays. During the trial, Coggins and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Finn admitted a show of leniency was possible, but insisted no deal had been struck for Walton's cooperation.

With Hays glaring at him from 20 feet away across the courtroom, Walton unraveled the getaway story. He said he drove the car--stolen from a rental agency--to a motel across the street from the Eckerd store. There, the men jumped into Hays' pickup truck and headed back to the hotel where they had stayed the previous night--a Holiday Inn on Market Center Boulevard.

Hays, Walton testified, tore the ski mask in two in an instinctual move to destroy potential evidence, then showed his accomplice "some little blue bags the money was in. He was talking like it was a nice sum of money."

The Dallas robbery was the latest in a long list of similar crimes police believe Hays and his family members have committed over a span of some 20 years.

Hays and his father, Charles Lee Hays Sr., were convicted of a 1981 armed robbery of a San Diego-area drug store. Police referred to the family operation as "The Rooftop Gang," and believed it responsible for a string of robberies. All of the crimes shared the same characteristics: a dramatic, commando-style raid in the early morning, usually through a hole cut in the store's roof. The intruder wore dark clothes from head to foot, and shimmied down a rope dropped from the ceiling to the floor. A weapon was always used--in the 1981 robbery, it was an M-1 carbine.

Hays was sentenced to four years in a California state prison for that robbery. California police records show he was paroled in January 1984 and had numerous scrapes with the law over the next eight years, including arrests for robbery and parole violations. The cases were all dismissed for lack of evidence.

But Hays found himself in serious trouble again in 1992 when two back-to-back armed robberies in Los Angeles suburbs landed him in jail. In August 1993, a Norwalk, California, jury convicted Hays of the robberies. When the panel returned with its guilty verdict, it learned what the judge and attorneys had already discovered during deliberations: Hays, who had earlier posted $100,000 bond, had jumped bail and fled.

He remained a fugitive for more than two years, hopscotching across the country and, police believe, pulling off similar robberies in Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Birmingham, Alabama. Hays spent much of his time flying back and forth between Denver, where his wife and two children lived, and Dallas, where his girlfriend was.

In late April 1995, prosecutors said, Hays began masterminding the plot to rob the Dallas Eckerd. Their reconstruction of events went like this:

On April 23, 1995, Hays bought two MarkAir plane tickets in Denver for himself and Walton. Their destination: Dallas. They brought with them a large duffel bag, rope, tools, and dark clothes. When they arrived at D/FW Airport, Hays paid more than $300 to get his Chevy pickup out of long-term parking--left there the last time he had visited his girlfriend in Dallas.

The men drove the truck to the Holiday Inn, where they spent the night. Walton testified that Hays had asked him to wake him at 4 a.m. "I kind of lounged for a while; I stayed up for a while playing a little arcade game on the hotel TV," Walton said. "I called my girlfriend in Downey, California, and talked to her for about an hour." As ordered, he woke Hays shortly before 4. They dressed and headed for the Eckerd store. Hays knew the route by heart; he had cased the place on previous stops in Dallas.

They managed to pull off the heist. It might have been perfect, but for one hitch. Back at the Holiday Inn, as Hays began to pull the cash from the zipper bags, he found it: a tiny tracking device implanted in a stack of dollar bills. "Mark said, 'Oh man! It's a tracker!'" Walton testified. "And about that time, I heard a helicopter."

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