The robbers knew what they were doing. They’d done it many times before. "It’s safe to say that like any career criminal, these individuals over time learned how to become efficient with their robberies," an FBI spokesperson in Dallas said in an email to the Observer.
The feds say two to five people carried out the string of robberies, which started in May 2019 and eventually targeted 15 phone stores in North Texas and Southern California. By the time authorities tracked down the culprits, more than $600,000 worth of inventory had been lifted: phones, tablets and watches, among other items.
Earlier this month, the authorities scored a victory in the case when a court sentenced Edward Eugene Robinson to 45 years in federal prison. The 50-year-old had been charged with one count of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, two counts of interfering with commerce by robbery and two counts of brandishing a firearm.
Two additional defendants had already been sentenced in connection with the robbery spree. Robinson's guilty verdict ended the three-year investigation into the North Texas phone store robberies, but the FBI spokesperson said the Dallas office didn't know whether the California investigations would continue.
Usually, they would enter the cell phone store in disguises like construction vests, hard hats, suits, wigs, ball caps, gloves, hoodies and coveralls. The robbers would take over the store, holding the employees and customers at gunpoint. They’d force one of the employees to open the store safe. Then, they restrained everyone with zip-ties or phone chargers. The robbers would be in the store for mere minutes or up to an hour — however long they needed to wait for time-lock safes to open so they could steal the loot inside.
They’d keep an open cell phone line with someone outside the store looking out for law enforcement. Then, all the robbers would pile into a vehicle for a smooth getaway.
At first, North Texas law enforcement officers had no idea who they were dealing with. Investigators obtained several search warrants for cell tower data around the places and times of the robberies. But they had no luck. They also unsuccessfully searched for the Nissan.
A similar string of robberies had taken place in California a few months earlier. In late August, the FBI field office in Los Angeles contacted Chris Doering, a special agent in Dallas. They told Doering of a suspect named Aaron Tremmell Hardrick, whom authorities had linked to similar California robberies.
"It’s safe to say that like any career criminal, these individuals over time learned how to become efficient with their robberies." - FBI spokesperson
Earlier that month, two masked men entered a Sprint store in California around 8:13 p.m. Only one employee was working that day, and the robbers swiftly ordered him into the back room. With what felt like a gun placed to the back of his head, the employee was ordered by one of the masked men to identify the bait phone — one that was rigged with a tracking device in the case of a robbery. The robbers then tied up the employee, went into the storage cage, stuffed a duffle bag with over $30,000 of merchandise and walked out of the store. All told, some two minutes had passed.
Eventually, through reverse geo-location search warrants, investigators found records related to devices present near the area of the North Texas robberies around that time. With help from Google, they were able to identify Hardrick as a suspect.
The FBI found that Hardrick had family in Everman, Texas. When Fort Worth police officers tried to locate him at the Everman address, they found a grey Nissan Altima with no license plates. The car also had faded paint on the roof, a fact consistent with what witnesses saw at the robberies.
Sifting through social media content related to Hardrick, investigators found a photo of his mother with the Nissan Altima, as well as photos of Hardrick wearing a construction vest similar to ones worn during the robberies.
A few days later, law enforcement found a red Dodge Charger with California plates at a residence on Shiny Oak Trail in Fort Worth. They identified someone they pegged as Robinson at the property, which they learned was linked to Hollie.
The Dodge Charger was later found to be registered to Vana Fowler, a suspected associate of Robinson in California.
The details of this crime spree began to unravel after California cops pulled over a man named Gilbert Green. Chino Police Department officers saw Green leaving his home in a suspected getaway vehicle used in a cell phone store robbery days prior.
The officers stopped Green and eventually executed search warrants on his car and home. Green was arrested and charged for grand theft auto, possession of fictitious identification and identity theft. During interrogation, he gave police permission to search his cell phone. Later, investigators obtained a warrant to search the phone as well.
They found text messages with addresses of several California cell phone stores, and a list of electronics that matched a missing inventory list from a recent robbery. “I believe that this text message refers to the stolen items from the robbery,” Doering said in court documents.
"I believe that this text message refers to the stolen items from the robbery." - Chris Doering, FBI agent
Digging through Hardrick’s cell phone data, investigators discovered that he and Green had a phone call spanning the duration of one of the robberies. Additional cell phone data linked suspects, some still unknown, to the Texas and California robberies. For example, investigators found through cell phone data that Hollie and Robinson had called one another several times in the hour leading up to them carrying out another heist.
Altogether, the group of robbers, whom investigators now say was led by Robinson, pulled off at least 15 armed heists of cell phone stores across North Texas and Southern California in the spring and summer of 2019.
Hardrick pleaded guilty in 2019 to multiple federal robbery and firearms charges in North Texas and Southern California. He’s serving a 45-year sentence in federal prison. Hollie pleaded guilty last year to one federal robbery charge in Texas and is now serving a nine-year sentence in federal prison.