The thousands of dollars they stole was only a secondary consideration. Avenging centuries of oppression against blacks and inspiring others to join their "cause" against whites was their mission, two of the men charged in the shotgun robberies said yesterday.
In back-to-back, hourlong interviews at the Baltimore County Detention Center, Sadiyq Abdullah Muhammed and Eric C. Wheeler, two of the 13 men so far arrested in the crime spree that unnerved residents and store owners, said they targeted white-owned businesses and intended to use the loot to finance black-owned operations.
"Every little bit of money we take from you comes to us," Mr. Muhammed said to two white reporters. "The point is I was taking your money."
Despite their incarceration, both men, who police say were the central figures in the "shotgun gang," proclaimed that the lightning-quick robberies will not end.
"Whether you sever the head, the body still functions," Mr. Muhammed said. "By cutting me off, it still goes on, and if there are copycats they are copying my style.
"And as I said before, practice makes perfect, and they keep perfecting and keep perfecting. And each one that comes along is worse than the last one."
Both men, the slightly built, 19-year-old Mr. Muhammed and Mr. Wheeler, a stocky, 6-foot-2-inch man with a gold-capped front tooth, seemed unconcerned about the potential for convictions and lengthy prison sentences.
"I got a lot of charges that are coming to me, and I don't even really give a ----," said Mr. Wheeler, 29. "I'm incarcerated whether I'm in jail or whether I'm out on the street because there is no opportunity for me to be anything. . . .
"The only thing I'm losing in this situation is that I ain't going to have my children and I'm not going to be with my woman."
Mr. Muhammed asserted he was even more dangerous to authorities in jail than he would be outside.
"With me being inside this jail today, I inspire people," he said. "I'm more of a threat inside the jail than I am on the outside . . . all these people about to get out, all these people waiting for bail . . . they tell other people about our mission and it spreads. That's how the story of Jesus spread by people telling."
In addition to Jesus Christ, Mr. Muhammed likened himself to Robin Hood and Billy the Kid.
In the first months, the precision, rapidity and geographic breadth of the robberies seemed to overwhelm the police. On one day alone, Baltimore County police found themselves racing to five holdups characteristic of the shotgun gang.
Police believe the same gang is responsible for similar robberies in Delaware.
But a break came March 7 when five men held up the State Employees Credit Union in Towson. All but one of the men managed to escape. The lone gunman left behind, identified as Mr. Wheeler, took 13 hostages before surrendering to police.
Two days later, Mr. Muhammed was arrested in Newport News, Va., while trying to board a plane to Philadelphia with a briefcase of cash.
Mr. Muhammed has been charged under his given name of Tony Maurice Bedford in 13 robberies in the city and Baltimore County.
As of yesterday, 11 other men have been charged in the robbery spree. Another was killed in a botched holdup of a bank in Wilmington, Del.
In the course of the holdups, one clerk was shot and wounded and several others were hit over the head or pushed to the floor.
In several of the holdups in the city, police say the robbers threatened employees. "I'll blow your head off if you don't do what I say," one of the men warned an employee at a Baltimore shoe store, according to a police report.
"We have a community that has been terrorized," said E. Jay Miller, a spokesman for the Baltimore County police. "We have people who changed their lifestyles, black and white."
Neither the city nor Baltimore County police would comment on the remarks the men made in yesterday's interview. But both departments said the arrests have dented the gang's activities in the Baltimore area.
Authorities said they are unsure what effect the arrests will have in other states where there have been similar robberies.
Yesterday, Mr. Muhammed and Mr. Wheeler said they didn't view themselves as violent men, but both said violence was not always unwarranted in their cause.
"I don't think generally we went in with a violent attitude that violence was the captain of our thing," said Mr. Wheeler, who at the time of his arrest was on probation for assaulting a police officer. "The thing was just disorientation."
Mr. Wheeler said the gang was trained to move in swiftly and make a lot of noise to unnerve store clerks and patrons.
"You have that on your side if you know how to cause panic," he said. "And a lot of time that's what was caused. Panic."
Later, he added, "I'm not a violent person, my man. You should be able to tell that by the hostages I let go."
Mr. Muhammed, who said he was a devout Muslim and frequently quoted "scriptures," suggested that violence could have divine ends.
"They say one of the greatest joys for a Muslim is to kill or be killed for the name of Allah. It guarantees us instant heaven. That's why I don't mourn the death of that brother in Delaware," Mr. Muhammed said.
In their interviews, both men spoke with self-assurance and evident pride over the way the shotgun gang operated. Although seemingly candid, they were not entirely forthcoming. They refused to identify gang members who haven't been caught or detail the amount of money they stole and what became of it.
While Mr. Wheeler seemed somber and intense, Mr. Muhammed was jovial. When he first entered the interview room, he spotted the diamond ring worn by one of his visitors. "That's a nice ring on your finger," he said pleasantly. "How much did you pay for it? I could have gotten it for you for under five hundred."
Although Mr. Muhammed denied that he was at the scene of any of the crimes for which he is charged, he said he and Mr. Wheeler were the gang's "generals."
"I'll say this, I am the inspiration, and you can write that in bold print," he said.
Mr. Wheeler said the idea behind the robberies sprouted about 10 months ago as he and two friends stood on a street corner in West Baltimore.
They watched another young man complete a drug deal and saw him pull out a large wad of money. Mr. Wheeler said he considered robbing the man and other drug dealers, but then changed his mind.
"If I take their money, we ain't really going to gain a lot," he said. "And that's when the idea came, the idea came of taking people's money, basically white people's money. We don't want no black people's money."
Their aim may have been to leave blacks untouched, but police say some of their victims were black. If the gang stole from blacks, Mr. Wheeler contended, they were "Toms. Uncle Toms."
The two men gave few details about how the organization came together other than saying that it was full of like-minded people who had been recruited off the street and trained in hotels in Washington, Newport News and Baltimore.
Mr. Muhammed said the money -- which he said amounted to hundreds of thousands -- was used to purchase weapons and provide training. Ultimately, he said, the money was intended to go to start black-owned businesses.
He also said the gang's membership was 85-strong and worldwide in scope.
Both men blamed whites for the ills that have filled prisons with black men, kept them in low-paying, minimum wage jobs, and prompted young blacks to turn to prostitution and drugs. They insisted the robberies were intended to unsettle whites and inspire blacks.
"You know what we gave blacks?" asked Mr. Wheeler. "The motivation and initiative to think if you have to get by like this, then take from them because they taking from you every day. Every day you take from us. Every day you take from a black man. . . . I have a lot of anger, a lot of anger, you know what i mean, because you all ain't giving us a fair shake on things.
"We hate your regime, just like most blacks hate your regime. They just don't have enough gall to get up and do something about it."