Two years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives formally teamed up with the New York City Police Department to pursue high-profile armed robbery cases. Since then, the 17-member team has used surveillance video and other evidence to track down thieves who had been assaulting overnight security guards and stealing cash, electronics, and tools; solved a jewelry store heist after finding fingerprints on an envelop left behind by a thief; and tracked one of the three men accused of stealing 20 Rolex watches at gunpoint in midtown Manhattan all the way to California, according documents in the case.
The formal name for the team is SPARTA, which stands for Strategic Pattern Armed Robbery Technical Apprehension. The group operates out of a Bronx office building. On a recent tour, agents showed off firearms seized during investigations.
Andrew Boss, a special agent with the ATF, leads the group. He spoke to The Trace about his team, the advantages of having federal agents assist on gun cases, and about new technologies the task force is deploying to hunt down armed criminals.
How did the Joint Robbery Task Force get started?
Before the task force, we had an informal relationship — a really good one — with the NYPD’s Bronx robbery squad. The NYPD is massive and well-funded, and they have a lot of good intel. We at ATF are so small, but we can bring in a lot of valuable investigative techniques to a case and leverage federal laws. So at first we just started forming informal, agent-to-detective relationships, and pairing up to do cases.
Eventually they decided it was a good idea to formalize the relationship and form an actual task force. The way it works now, the NYPD detectives are in my office every day. They don’t report anywhere else. These guys are experts at solving robberies, and now they understand the federal system and how to mold everything together. In every case we have, an ATF agent and a detective work it together.
What kinds of cases do you handle?
We are charged with working pattern armed robberies. That could be a crew going around robbing commercial establishments, from bodegas to cell phone stores. Or it could be anything drug related, like a crew knocking off stash houses where people are keeping large amounts of narcotics or cash. So we’re not talking about a case where someone just robs you on the street to get your wallet.
You bring most of your cases in federal court. What are some of the advantages for law enforcement in trying a case there?
When we have criminal use of a firearm, the penalties tend to be more severe. In federal court, someone who brandishes a firearm during an armed robbery is looking at a seven-year minimum mandatory sentence, in addition to the penalty for robbery. If they fire that gun, it’s a 10-year minimum mandatory sentence. If they kill someone it can be a life sentence, or the death penalty. The death penalty is not available in state court in New York. Offenders are not necessarily afraid to go through the state system and do state time, but they’re terrified to go into federal court.
How have robbery trends changed in the last few years?
We used to get a lot of home invasion cases targeting drug dealers. But dealers are sneaky, so if you hit an apartment where you think someone is keeping drugs or cash, you may miss. Or you could get caught.
Lately we’ve had a rash of cellphone store robberies. These are gunpoint robberies where people go into an AT&T store, or a Verizon store, and they are literally going for the phones, like iPhone 7s. There’s a market for those now, and it’s a profitable one. Plus, the criminal knows where the store is, he can take his time, watch it, get a sense of what the patterns are and then hit it. They may get some cash too, but the main goal is to get those phones when they’re still in the box.
Are there any common traits among people who commit the pattern armed robbery cases you investigate?
In general, these are among the most violent offenders. These are the guys who are not going to hesitate to, at a minimum, brandish a firearm in a clerk’s face. We’re really going after the worst of the worst.
If they’re doing a lot of robberies, and they’re getting a lot of jail time, it’s not their first show, generally. So maybe they’ll cooperate and tell us about other violent acts — murders, other robberies, just shootings on the street, gang connections interstate and Down South. These are people who are surrounded by violence a lot of the time, so we will ask them about that.
Maybe they will tell us about a shooting, and then the police will say, ‘Yeah, there was a shooting over there,’ or ‘Yeah, there was an unsolved murder a year ago.’ And if we have a federal venue, we will charge it. At times, within weeks of someone giving us the information, and corroborating it with police reports and victims, we’ve charged the shooter. You never know what you’re going to get into when you start locking these guys up and they start talking.
There’s a lot of new technology available in crime solving these days. What tools make your job easier, and is there any technology that makes your job harder?
We use a system called NIBIN (The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network), which allows shell casings used in one gun to be matched with casings used in a different gun.
If a pistol gets fired right now in this room, and the shell casing comes out, you can collect that. Now, if a week ago there was another casing that was found at a shooting in downtown Brooklyn, they can put that in the system and read it like a fingerprint, and show that the two shots were fired from the same gun. You don’t have to have the gun, but you know that the same gun was used.
That’s a small piece of evidence, but it’s an amazing one since it’s more than likely going to be the same person or the same crew that shares a gun.
And there’s lots of other stuff too, like video evidence and DNA. But then juries expect it. Sometimes, in trials, someone comes in from the lab to explain why why you might not find DNA on a gun — even though you’d expect it from watching every TV show. The jury thinks, ‘the guy touched it, why isn’t there DNA or a print on it?’
Is there one case you remember most vividly from the early part of your career?
When I was an agent we did a case in Newburgh, New York. It was a classic Latin Kings case, and we were having a shooting almost every day. We had a cooperator who told us about a weekly meeting where all the gang leaders would get together in the basement of an apartment building. They actually did a roll call and called out everyone’s street names. We recorded it.
The room was silent. Only one person could speak at a time; it was the clearest recording you are ever going to get.
The treasurer would collect the money and he would explain how if you’re selling drugs, you owe us more to pay for our brothers in jail, for their commissary. And they would get up and say who was beefing with who. They would name names. They’d say, if you see him, he’s a green light. You can beat him. You can shoot him on site.
Those were my fun Saturdays covering those meetings. We took down the two heads of the Latin Kings and they’re both doing life.