Katina McCullom and Sandra Justice are first. It isn't a matter of who they are or what they did. They're first because on a December night, they're working the front desk of the Red Roof Inn in Jessup. And as these things go, someone has to be first.
The gunmen -- one tall and thin, the other shorter and solid -- storm in, flash weapons, rip the phone from its socket and flee with $295. The men hide their faces with bandannas and their car around the rear of the Route 1 motel.
Kenneth McGlynn is the duty detective when the phone rings. He grabs a clipboard, note pad and radio and drives east from Howard County police headquarters, arriving at the motel about the time that a gas station manager -- in another corner of Howard -- looks up and sees trouble.
"Who's got the money," says the shorter one, waving a gun.
Francis Gregor is second.
So begins a hunter-and-hunted saga of suburban detectives tracking for more than three months an increasingly efficient but reckless pair of holdup artists as they feast at the cash drawers of several dozen gas stations, convenience marts and motels across six Maryland counties.
It's a tale of police work: sweating the details, sensing the logic of criminal impulses and using that logic to divine probabilities. And this time, the chase takes place not in a battered city, but in suburbia's manicured vale.
The tale begins at the crossroads of Central Maryland -- in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, then bounds north to Baltimore County and south into Charles and Montgomery, finally lurching to an end in Prince George's.
The geography is important because the game has changed: The new truth is that a driver with a heavy foot on new asphalt can get from Glen Burnie to Clarksville in 15 minutes, Suitland to Waldorf in 10, Jessup to Catonsville in five. From early December to late March, Maryland detectives will learn just how much havoc results when bad ambitions are hitched to a good road map.
But at the Red Roof on this winter night, Kenny McGlynn doesn't sense anything so epic. A plainclothesman for seven years, he's seen enough to be fairly unimpressed with a hit-and-run holdup. He's 44, with a wife and two kids, receding hairline, rounded face and a surprisingly corporate look -- tweed sports coat, power tie, tortoise-shell specs.
He knows the drill: Talk to the clerk, canvass for witnesses, walk the scene, try for prints. The car? No one got a make, color or part of the tag. The detective is just getting started when the radio call comes for the Johns Hopkins Texaco in Fulton, about six miles to the west. Now it's two robberies, one duty detective, and Kenny McGlynn thinking he's going to type all night.
At the gas station, the connections are immediate: Two players, black and male, with the same physical descriptions and clothing. Again, the phone ripped out and the car parked so no one identifies anything but primer spots.
Detective McGlynn maps the path between the motel and the gas station, then reasons that the pair might have hit the Texaco as an afterthought on their way home to Montgomery County. Then again, the station is secluded; only locals might know it.
With little to work on, he figures that it ends right here, that this crew probably won't come back, that tomorrow he won't be dealing with this. But it didn't, and they did, and he was. Lord, he was.
'What're you, crazy?'
The tall one knocks a coffee cup from the hands of one of the gas jockeys, punctuating the demand for cash. There's no register, so Francis Gregor gives up his pocket roll. "Where's the safe, m----, I'm going to kill you."
"Nobody wants trouble," says Mr. Gregor, the Texaco manager. "You got a pocket full of money, why don't you take that?"
"Get down on the damn floor."
Francis Gregor hears that and wonders if he'll die because he gave up his chance. Moments before, the shorter one had dropped his guard, turning toward two other employees. He let it pass, and now he's thinking life's last sensation will be a bullet smacking his head. Instead, he hears another station employee, Brandon Moxley, pull up, his car radio blaring like always.
"Gimme your keys," the shorter one says.
"What're you, crazy?" asks Brandon Moxley.
Shorty shows the gun. "OK," Mr. Moxley says, tossing his keys. The gunmen then run to another car that no one can identify.
Weeks later, Mr. Gregor still takes it personally, seeing the robbery as more brutal than needed: "Somebody says they're going to kill you after you give him what he wants. I'm kind of upset with the dude about that."
But to Detective McGlynn, the robberies at the Red Roof and Texaco include just enough menace to be effective. His initial take: The gunmen aren't particularly devoted to violence -- only to getting paid.
That changes two nights later, when two men in ski masks storm a McDonald's in Jessup. A customer bolting for the door is hit over the head with a gun. An employee unable to open a back-office safe is pistol-whipped.
Once more, the phones are pulled out. But this time, with as many as 15 customers and employees watching, the gunmen are agitated. When one begins cursing at the employee unable to work the safe, the manager intervenes. "I know how to open it," says Loretta Thomas, getting up from the floor.
The gunmen flee instead, running to a silver compact. But two nights later, the tall one returns, sliding quietly behind the counter and forcing the manager to open the safe. This time, with a smaller audience, there's less belligerence. "Have a nice day," he says on the way out.
For Kenny McGlynn, still working the night shift and still handling the crime scenes, the McDonald's robberies conflict. Some things -- the Route 175 connection, the late hour, the phones -- are similar to the earlier holdups. The violence and the ski masks are not.
The day after McDonald's redux, Detective McGlynn and his lieutenant, Terry Schlossnagle, talk it out with other detectives. An every-other-night pattern has emerged, with all the incidents falling between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. And with three of the four holdups linked to Route 175, the detectives begin to discard the idea of locals or a Montgomery connection. Jessup is near Interstate 95 and several Anne Arundel County conduits. Detective McGlynn calls Ron Sappington, an Arundel detective and friend, but Arundel has nothing similar.
Like clockwork, a Mobil station at Route 32 and Shaker Drive in Columbia is hit two nights later. Same method, another compact car, same descriptions -- with one witness adding a detail about one gunman wearing new Timberland boots.
A half-hour later, in a drug-battered section of Northeast Washington, a district correctional officer stumbles across some credit cards tossed in a gutter. He calls the owners, who turn out to have been robbed while gassing up at the Mobil. One, in turn, calls Detective McGlynn.
Washington fits, the detective thinks. All but one of the robberies have occurred along Routes 175 or 32, off I-95. The bad guys could be tourists from the nation's capital, venturing north with little knowledge of the ground.
Kenny McGlynn goes alone to Northeast Washington to see where the credit cards were found. Looking around, he reasons his suspects to be young and unconnected to the drug-and-barter economy of the area. Every drug market has its card man, a specialist who fences plastic; the gunmen could be from here or could have come here to buy drugs, he figures, but they aren't in the mix enough to know the card man.
The detective finishes the night riding Washington streets, hunting a silver compact. It's upending haystacks for the proverbial needle, but at this point it's all he has.
'Your guys hit us'
They're still guessing, but the Howard detectives now know enough -- times, locations, probable direction of flight -- for tactical units to set up stakeouts along U.S. 1 and Route 175. Howard detectives, too, begin spending evenings in Jessup parking lots, sipping coffee, waiting.
But the holdups cease.
For more than a week, nothing is heard with any connection to the suspects, and Kenny McGlynn is frustrated. Detectives need bad guys to keep at it -- or their work is lost. Now, the pair might be hitting somewhere else, the detective worries. Or they got locked up for something unrelated. Or they're Christmas shopping. Whatever, there's one detective in Howard feeling, well, jilted.
So when they return after a nine-day vacation, hitting twice on the same night -- first in Anne Arundel, two hours later in Howard -- Detective McGlynn is comforted. Arundel police, put on notice by his earlier calls, quickly jump aboard.
"Your guys hit us," Ron Sappington tells him by phone that night.
"They got us too," replies Detective McGlynn.
Both robberies -- the Jessup Shell and the Courtyard Marriott in ++ Columbia -- are by Route 175. A witness at the Shell saw a red compact.
Now two counties are in the pursuit, though -- with all but one of the robberies -- Howard and Kenny McGlynn still carry the burden. Colleagues gently rib him, suggesting he might want to catch these guys before they dance with every cash register in the county. It's just squad-room banter, but he's beginning to feel real pressure.
Worse -- just four days later, the day after Christmas -- Howard detectives are drawn into a high-profile murder case. An Ellicott City woman is murdered, and police are hunting for her estranged husband, who has disappeared with their children. Detective McGlynn now works a share of the homicide while trying to keep an eye on area robbery reports.
Mercifully, the two gunmen pick this moment to drift into Arundel.
'Told you so'
"Get down, white boy," shouts the shorter one. "Get down on the m---- floor."
Dexter Lane looks over his shoulder to see John, his office cashier, going down. The gunman is a little too frantic. He asked for a bag, and John only rose to oblige him.
"Look," Mr. Lane, 34, manager trainee of the Fort Meade ValuFood grocery, says to the gunman, "he's got nothing to do with this. . . . I'll give you what you want to get you out of here. But you have to work with me."
The gunman says nothing, but the speech seems to calm him. He waits while the manager bags the cash, then asks for the rolled coins.
"You don't want the quarters," Mr. Lane tells him. "Too heavy." The gunman ignores him. The paper bag rips. "Told you so," says Mr. Lane, offering another sack.
Coming five days after the two-holdup night, ValuFood represents a shift. At the scene later, Anne Arundel Detective Todd Young concludes there's too much racial invective for the suspects to be local. To the black detective, the white-boy rant sounds like an outsider talking -- likely from the city. Our guys, he tells himself, aren't that rough.
One other conclusion: "It was too much for them," Detective Young tells colleagues.
At the start, there was competence as the two pretended to shop until closing. But once they put on ski masks, they went to the edge. Too many people, too much area to cover, the detective reasons. As at McDonald's, where a crowd unnerved them, the gunmen fought panic.
Only Mr. Lane, who spent six years as a New York police officer, managed to placate them, keeping someone from catching a bullet. At one point, the shorter suspect, struggling with the cash, actually went so far as to put his gun on a counter. Mr. Lane could have taken him, but then there still was the tall one.
The manager bluffed the short one out of the safe -- "It's on time-lock," he lied -- and the two fled to a red compact. Less than an hour later, they hit a secluded Jessup motel. This time, without a crowd, there was no stress or bluster.
But with each robbery comes a little more detail: At ValuFood, a cashier followed the gunmen far enough to see them driving a Honda, possibly an Accord. That went out to tactical and patrol units in both counties. Now, with Route 175 as the battleground, stakeouts are nightly.
'Less than a minute'
With the arrest of the fugitive husband from Ellicott City a week after New Year, Kenny McGlynn returns. But for the second time in a month, the robbers take a break. Frustrated, the detective finds himself driving home by way of U.S. 1, then stopping on a lot to listen to radio traffic. In Anne Arundel, Detectives Young and Sappington, too, roam the Jessup area, waiting, figuring it's only a matter of time.
Meanwhile, the two departments share reports, witness statements, surveillance. At one point, Kenny McGlynn looks at Ron Sappington, a short and generally rumpled archetype of a detective, and admits to seeing more of him than his wife. "And you know, Ron," he deadpans, "you're starting to look good to me."
But Detective Sappington has his eye on the gas station at Ridge Road and Route 175 in Jessup. It's all alone, open late, and these two must have driven by it a half-dozen times already. For several nights, he takes up residence there in an unmarked car. Instead in mid-January, the holdup team surfaces a few miles further west, back on U.S. 1 -- at an Exxon station in Jessup.
Rosalind McKennie, 50, is looking down, writing a sales record, ready to give a can-I-help-you greeting when the gun catches her eye. The two have returned to their niche: Gas stations and night clerks. Timed by the station's security camera, the holdup takes 42 seconds.
Twenty minutes later, the robbery of a gas station at Frederick Road and Interstate 695 in Catonsville fails when the cashier balks. A red vehicle is seen speeding off.
In Howard, Detective McGlynn learns of the Catonsville incident and goes home to a sleepless night. All this time he's been looking south, but I-95 runs both ways: Could these be Baltimore guys, creeping south?
A week later, the two gunmen hit an Exxon near Routes 175 and 108 in Howard.
The next night, it's the Dorsey Hall Mobil in Columbia, with Terry Schlossnagle hearing the call come over the police radio as he's driving home with his wife and kid in the car. He's a short distance away but, by the time of the call, the suspects are gone.
"They've got it down to less than a minute," he tells Detective McGlynn that evening.
But at least they don't quit.
'A really nice guy'
Linda Farwell looks through the showroom windows with a saleswoman's optimism, her eyes settling on two young men arriving in a reddish Honda. She watches them walk the lot, then warm to a dark green Lexus coupe -- loaded with compact disc player, phone, heated seats, gold rims. With 10,000 miles on its odometer, it still runs $40,000.
She's been at Lexus of Rockville for eight months; before that, she sold real estate. She thinks she knows people, and while these guys are young and the price high, they have a story: "I've been in an accident, and I have a settlement coming," says the tall one.
Linda Farwell launches her pitch, and he wants a test drive. When she returns with the keys, he's on a cellular phone, blowing a kiss and telling someone goodbye. Nice guy, she thinks. "Anyone special?"
Twenty minutes later, Linda Farwell is still thinking sales commission, when Mr. Wonderful pulls out a gun and asks her to get out of the car. He dumps her on a Rockville parking lot, laughing, as if he nailed the lottery. She's fired the next day.
The distinctive coupe comes in handy. By February's end, it will be noted in robbery reports in Anne Arundel, Charles and Prince George's counties.
Meanwhile, Howard and Arundel detectives cover familiar terrain. Two days after the Rockville carjacking, Howard has more than 20 officers in unmarked units stretched along U.S. 1 and Route 175 in midafternoon. Instead, a Crown station in Odenton is hit at half past three.
Sitting on a Jessup lot, Kenny McGlynn hears the Odenton call and gets wired. These guys will hit twice in a day, he thinks; if they come west now, they're ours. So everyone stays put, their minds collectively trying to will a robbery. But nothing happens, and at midnight the stakeout teams depart.
By mid-February, it's clear the robbers are pushing away from the I-95 corridor, breaking their late-evening pattern, making stakeouts problematic. The short one now wears a puffy black jacket, and -- when he jumps on the counter of the Odenton Roy Rogers -- his Timberland boots are confirmed. The two are risking afternoon jobs, spending less time at the register, hiding from security cameras.
At one point, they venture as far north as Glen Burnie, hitting the Greentree Exxon just off Route 3. A cashier there tries to chase the gunman back to his car. It's enough of a show that a customer gassing his pickup gets a good look at a green Lexus coupe.
"Beautiful car," says Ronald Johnson, the cashier. "See it once, you know it."
'He's a driver'
Steven E. Miller III is in the back of his Crown gas station at Route 216 and All Saints Road in Laurel, doing paperwork and oblivious to the brief drama taking place on the video screen above his desk. His clerk rushes back. "I got robbed."
The station owner runs out and sees a short, stocky suspect running to a Nissan 300ZX on an adjacent supermarket lot. Steve Miller is furious, taking the robbery as a personal affront -- not so much because of the money, but because his clerk has just had a gun pointed at her. He won't abide that.
He runs to his car, a Corvette, knowing the gunman has to drive past the station to get back to I-95. He momentarily considers ramming the Nissan, but the Corvette is not expendable. Instead, the gunman races past and shoots for the southbound 95 ramp, pursued by the station owner.
The two are on the interstate, dodging early afternoon traffic at speeds as high as 150 mph, sharing the adrenalin rush. South of Route 198, Steve Miller closes the gap, gets the tag and pulls even to see the suspect -- a lone gunman in this incident -- waving the gun. The station owner brakes and then returns to the Crown lot where Kenny McGlynn is waiting.
"He's a driver," Steve Miller assures him.
A U.S. Park Police helicopter gets up too late, and the tag -- stolen in College Park -- is a dead end. Detective McGlynn goes into the station with Mr. Miller to replay the security camera's videotape. "Sixteen seconds," the detective says, shaking his head. "These guys get better and better."
Better, faster, crazier.
Three hours after the chase, a white Nissan is seen at the robbery of a Waldorf area gas-and-go. A Charles County detective punches the tag into the statewide computer, and a Howard bulletin jumps back. The second robbery -- immediately after the wild chase -- confirms an elemental truth about the spree. It's no longer about money, Detective McGlynn tells himself, it's the game of the thing. In Anne Arundel, Todd Young is thinking much the same way: "It's a drug," he tells colleagues, "the best drug these guys ever had."
'They hit us'
The high-speed chase and the Waldorf hit leave Kenny McGlynn certain of something else: Draw a line between those two points, and the essential terrain is Prince George's County. That's home to these two.
Detectives McGlynn and Sappington had been in touch with Prince George's detectives repeatedly, but nothing matched. Then again, Prince George's copes with so many robberies that patterns get lost.
Three days later, the Lexus shows up again, spotted -- miraculously -- by the same pickup truck driver who saw it at the Greentree Exxon more than a week before. He spies it near Routes 32 and 198, gets the tag and watches the Lexus turn into an office park before he goes to a pay phone.
As Detective Sappington takes that call, police are at the scene of an attempted robbery. This time, it's the Laurel Exxon on U.S. 1, from which the gunmen fled when they apparently believed the cashier hit a silent alarm. The pickup driver likely saw them trying to hide afterward. The tag checks as stolen from a car in Suitland -- one more Prince George's link.
The high-performance cars -- the Lexus and the Nissan -- are now part of the pattern, a change from the spree's early days when low-profile cars were readily discarded. It's a weakness: The two are keeping quality rides long after they've been spotted.
Ron Sappington gets an auto theft detective to hunt via computer for a missing Lexus coupe, and they end up with Linda Farwell's bad day at work. That -- plus a sighting of the Nissan in a Silver Spring robbery -- brings Montgomery police into the hunt.
Arundel detectives also keep prodding Prince George's. On March 7, Ron Sappington presses an old friend in that county's robbery unit, who rechecks the report log and -- bingo -- three cases match. Later that afternoon, another Prince George's detective calls back. "They hit us half an hour ago."
Minutes later, one more call from Prince George's: "They just hit a second gas station in Fort Washington. We're now in a chase."
The high-speed pursuit ends on Route 295 near Anacostia, where police break off because of the risk to others. The Lexus disappears into Washington. But now all the holes have been patched. Now more than a dozen robbery detectives in five counties are looking for the same two men. Kenny McGlynn, who began it all, calls a meeting for March 13, inviting every jurisdiction between Richmond and Wilmington.
The meeting brings the spree into sharp focus. Kenny McGlynn coordinates communications. A Montgomery detective sets up a data base to highlight patterns. The cars, the suspects' descriptions, their methods -- it's now communal intelligence.
The following day, an Annapolis gas station is robbed in daylight. This time, an office worker with binoculars gets a tag from the rear of a dark blue Acura. The cars are still key: The Lexus, the Nissan and now an Acura that registers as stolen from a Bethesda dealer by a man who took a test drive, palmed a key, then returned that night to get the car. As long as the two gunmen ride in style, there's hope.
But right away, the gunmen begin shedding this connection. The Lexus turns up in flames behind a Northeast Washington high school, torched to destroy evidence. Though the detectives had sent Teletypes to area agencies to hold the car for examination, D.C. police simply tow it to Lexus of Rockville. A day later, the abandoned Nissan, determined to be stolen from a Virginia dealership, is found parked on the street a short distance away. Detective Sappington notes the location on the D.C. police report: 1225 50th St.
The Maryland detectives try to interest Washington police without much success, and eventually they're left alone to pick their way around 50th Street. They're down there March 20, checking parked cars before sunrise when their pagers go off. Prince George's caught the break.
Overnight, a patrolman found a dark blue Acura parked outside a Lanham hotel. But he was spotted by two men walking from the hotel office. Another wild chase followed with one suspect in the Acura and the second in a teal-colored Lexus -- driving without lights, passing traffic on the shoulder, escaping into Washington.
But they left the girls. At the motel, Prince George's detectives discovered two stranded women who had only just met their dates. One young woman was given a pager number. When detectives checked the motel register, they discovered the name and signature of Terrance Andre Maith. A quick subpoena to the pager company added the name of Kenneth Milton Hiligh Jr. Both names produce histories in the county police computer.
Maith, 20, of Suitland in Prince George's, had been arrested just two weeks earlier for driving his own car, an old Cadillac, with stolen tags. There were some petty theft charges and a 1993 incident in which Maith allegedly tried to run over a Prince George's officer with a stolen car.
In a separate incident, 22-year-old Hiligh, of Capitol Heights in Prince George's, had pleaded no contest to similarly attempting to run down police officers with a stolen car. In that incident, he was shot in the neck by an officer. Hiligh also had been convicted in the 1992 wounding of a sister's boyfriend. He served about nine months of a five-year sentence when an appeals court overturned the verdict. He had only come home from prison Jan. 9.
Later, Kenny McGlynn and Ron Sappington will note the date and wonder: The robbery spree began a month earlier, when Hiligh was still in prison. Even if he was involved in the later robberies, there had to be a third, unknown suspect in the earlier cases.
But eventually they'll conclude that Hiligh's late arrival makes sense. The earlier robberies included some -- the McDonald's and ValuFood hits -- that were more violent than the rest. Similarly, it was only in February that sports cars became an essential thread, and Hiligh's record was riddled with theft arrests from auto dealerships.
But all that's in the future. On this Monday morning, watches are set up at the suspects' Prince George's addresses, with Howard and Anne Arundel officers lending a hand. The next day, Detectives McGlynn and Sappington -- the former suffering a bad flu -- are on their way to join a stakeout when they hear that both suspects unexpectedly came toward Maith's apartment from an adjacent woods, surprising a dog-tired surveillance team. Hiligh was caught, but Maith escaped.
Prince George's police recheck their old arrest records for Terrance Maith. Detective Sappington, looking over their shoulders, sees a girlfriend listed at 1225 50th Place -- 50th Place, not 50th Street: The addresses are blocks apart -- the D.C. police report on the stolen Nissan was inaccurate. Instantly, Detective Sappington is both enraged and elated. "That's him," he says, pointing to the address.
Maith is captured within hours. A search warrant at his Suitland address produces a loaded .357-caliber Magnum, bandannas, Timberland boots and a puffy black jacket.
'Ron just stepped in'
Quite naturally, there's an opposite view of all this: The police are intent on wrongfully charging two young men in order to purge their logs of unsolved armed robberies. As Freda Maith, the suspect's mother, puts it: "You know that when they lock someone up, they try and put all the unsolved cases they can on him."
She says that she saw no guns or money, that Terrance is employed as a gas company driver, that he's a Largo High graduate who wants to go to college. Likewise, Janice Hiligh talks of the son she put through Christian schools in his early years, the one-time A student who likes basketball, video games and tinkering with his computer. "They're trying to fry my son," she adds.
And though the suspects declined to be interviewed for this article, their lawyers say they were beaten by officers, both on the street and during interviews. Records show Hiligh was taken the day of his arrest by police to a local hospital but discharged 20 minutes later.
"The strongest evidence they have is the [confession]," contends Antoini Jones, a Washington attorney representing Hiligh: "If the statement is brought about because of physical beating by police, then it will be suppressed."
Adds Hyattsville attorney Victor Houlon, representing Maith: "He may be guilty of some of them but not all of them. There are many sets of armed robbers going around."
Detectives, however, say their case is solid -- testament to an unusual degree of cooperation: It progressed only when police agencies began talking to each other. "When they were locked up," says Lieutenant Schlossnagle of Howard, "these guys actually said what they were counting on was a lack of communication between different counties."
This was true to the last. Stricken by flu, Kenny McGlynn was interrogating one suspect when his voice gave out. With only half the Howard robberies spoken for, he couldn't ask another question. "Ron just stepped in," says Detective McGlynn, smiling at the idea of Arundel Detective Sappington working Howard cases. "He knew the Howard stuff as well as I did myself."
Based on these interviews, charging documents quote both suspects revealing direct knowledge of the holdups. In Howard, the suspects acknowledge eight of 10 robberies, insisting they didn't hit the McDonald's. "Maybe because there were a couple victims assaulted," Detective McGlynn says, "they didn't want to cop to that."
For his part, Maith acknowledges teaming with Hiligh back to January, identifying his earlier companion only as "Derrick," detectives say.
Howard and Anne Arundel counties have each indicted Maith, Hiligh or both in eight cases; Prince George's in another seven. Charles and Montgomery have each filed detainers in two incidents. The Baltimore County case is under investigation.
If duress provoked the confessions, then the brutality involved a host of agencies. On that long afternoon in the Lanham offices of the Prince George's robbery unit, detectives from five Maryland counties, Northern Virginia and even Washington were stacked up outside the interview room, each waiting for a chance to talk with the pair. More to the point perhaps is that in such interrogations, small lies beget larger truths, and old tricks -- psych games every detective treasures -- work better than brutality.
To that end, Kenny McGlynn can pretend to Terrance Maith that he's already been identified by witnesses. Just as Todd Young offers Kenneth Hiligh what seems a genuine compliment on his 0driving ability. Just as Ron Sappington plays one against the other, telling each their partner in the next room is giving it up.
But all this follows a singular moment of honesty when Kenny McGlynn first walks in the room, shakes Hiligh's hand and smiles.
"Glad to finally meet you."