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The Time Bandits of Southern California

The true story of a ring of thieves who stole millions of dollars’ worth of luxury watches—and the special agent who brought them down.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

illustration of masked men with large mallets, luxury watches, a getaway car and stacks of cash

Illustrations by Johnny Dombrowski

On a quiet Monday around noon, two men dressed in black stepped onto an ascending escalator in the underground parking lot of an open-air mall in Century City in Los Angeles. By the time they had reached the top, they'd pulled on ski masks and they were sprinting.

“They're coming, they're coming!” yelled Damian Dupre, a security guard at a Gearys luxury-watch boutique, when he saw the men running toward the store. Dupre is a solid six feet three inches, but as he rushed to lock the front door, the men were already pushing their way in. The first intruder, a short, stocky man carrying a rifle, burst in and his gun went off, shattering a glass case. “Get on the ground!” he yelled, and the guard and three other Gearys employees dropped to the floor. “Hurry up!” the man shouted to his partner. “We got to go!”

Just four days earlier, a man built like one of the robbers had visited Gearys, posing as a customer. Employees noticed his outlandish outfit—a checked blazer and long denim shorts—and the way he used his phone to film the case that held the priciest watches. Now the store's assistant manager, Daniel Arce, was lying facedown next to that same case as the robbers attacked it with hammers. Arce said a prayer as splinters of glass flew everywhere. I'm going to die, he thought.

Less than two minutes had passed before the robbers fled with 36 watches, worth $1.6 million. They sped away in a stolen gray Toyota that police would soon discover outside the mall. Its doors were flung open. Its engine was still running. And the thieves were long gone.

About two months later, in October 2015, Ryan Stearman, a 34-year-old special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was leaving an undercover job in Orange County when his phone rang. A police officer he knew was alerting him to a 211—a robbery—under way in nearby Mission Viejo. For months Stearman had been trying to solve a series of gun-store heists, so he flipped on the Red Channel, local law enforcement's emergency-broadcast system. Quickly he learned that these robbers had burst into a jewelry store, not a gun store. Still, he was intrigued by the daytime smash-and-grab. Two men had used sledgehammers to break cases, a third helped them scoop out the contents, and a fourth threatened the terrified employees with a semiautomatic weapon. They all escaped in a Chevy Tahoe.

When Stearman heard that the getaway car was heading north on the 405 freeway toward Los Angeles, he hit his lights and siren and joined the chase. Thanks to tracking devices hidden in the watches' packaging, a Red Channel dispatcher was broadcasting their exact location as they passed each freeway exit: Culver Drive! Jamboree Road! MacArthur Boulevard! At Beach Boulevard, Stearman had nearly caught up when the dispatcher said the watches had come to an abrupt stop. What Stearman saw next was surreal: 26 Swiss watches scattered along the shoulder amid the usual glass from broken taillights. The robbers, possibly aware that the watches had trackers in them, had thrown some of their $600,000 worth of loot out the window. Just as in Century City, they were long gone.

Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.

Reports of smash-and-grab robberies of watch stores kept popping up around Southern California. On January 2, 2016, three men burst into Ben Bridge Jeweler in Santa Monica. They attacked the glass cases with sledgehammers but found them difficult to break. Flustered, they fled empty-handed, escaping in a burgundy Chevy Tahoe.

Two weeks later, five men in hooded sweatshirts and masks entered a watch boutique in South Coast Plaza, an Orange County mall. They smashed a glass case, grabbed 133 Rolex watches worth more than $2 million, and fled. About a mile from the mall, police found an abandoned black Chevy Impala containing evidence related to the crime.

Stearman had wrapped up his gun-store investigation and was ready for another major case. Most robberies are investigated by local law enforcement and prosecuted in state court, but these seemed organized, which could mean conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery—a federal crime. The heists also seemed meticulously planned, right down to repeated use of stolen Chevys as getaway cars. Stearman knew repeat offenders could be almost ritualistic, mimicking past offenses: passing the bank teller the same note, say, or always wearing the same shirt or hat. Were late-model Chevys a signature?

Curious, Stearman searched for similar robberies on Google. He saw a story about the watches strewn on the 405 freeway and another, about the Century City heist. He also read about a December 2015 robbery in which three masked men had used hammers and axes to smash cases in a Ben Bridge Jeweler in Riverside County. Their getaway car: a stolen Chevy Impala.

Stearman had been with the ATF for 10 years, ever since he graduated from college. He had taken to the bureau instantly. The special agents—the ATF has just over 2,600, one-fifth that of the FBI—weren't flashy or self-important. Above all else, they seemed to put a premium on competence. “There wasn't a lot of uptightness,” he said.

That was a plus for a guy who shuns neckties except for when he has to go to court. When I first sat down with him, he wore his preferred uniform: an untucked T-shirt, jeans, and Chuck Taylors. His casual look, however, belied a furious work ethic. Jeff Chemerinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the watch-heist case, described Stearman as relentless.

“I obsess over these cases,” Stearman told me. “I always feel like I'm right behind the criminals and if I stop, they get further ahead.”

What inspired Stearman to take on the case, more than the robbers' seeming fondness for Chevys, was imagining the suffering of those who witnessed the crimes. “I don't want my family at a mall where this stuff is going on,” he told me. These robberies were a form of street terror. It was time for them to stop.

Smash-and-grabs are designed for speed. It's rare for one to last longer than two minutes, and most are over in half that. Masks and gloves obscure the robbers' identities, so unless they leave DNA behind, there are often few leads to follow. This was just one of the challenges Stearman faced. Another: He didn't want to catch only the men who entered the stores. If these crimes were connected, as he suspected, there were ringleaders calling the shots. He wanted to find them, too.

Stearman was optimistic. “This isn't rocket science,” he said. “We're talking about guys who are greedy. They're gracious enough to keep giving me the clues I need.”

The robbers were hard at work. On January 22, 2016, they hit a family-owned jewelry store in an outdoor mall in Topanga Canyon, stealing three Rolexes, one Omega, one Tissot, and one Longines, worth more than $190,000. Two weeks later, on Super Bowl Sunday, an employee of a Ben Bridge Jeweler in Thousand Oaks was on the phone giving her daughter a recipe for chicken wings when two masked men burst in and stole 35 watches worth nearly $300,000. The suspects fled in a black Chevy Suburban.

On February 17, 2016, Stearman was home sick with a cold when he got a call from an L.A. County sheriff's deputy he knew. For weeks, Stearman had been spreading the word among local law enforcement: If anyone heard about a watch-store robbery, he wanted to know about it right away. His approach was respectful; he wanted to help local jurisdictions solve crimes, he said, not “bigfoot” them and hog credit. Now that investment was paying off. The deputy told him there'd just been a robbery at a Westime watch boutique in West Hollywood.

On this occasion, three men had entered the store dressed as construction workers. One had stolen a firearm from Westime's security guard. Another had threatened the store's manager, asking if he wanted to die that day. They had fled with 18 Audemars Piguets worth $576,200, and a vehicle pursuit was ongoing.

Stearman rushed to his car. It's always better to see a crime scene for yourself—not because local investigators will miss something but to hear witness accounts while they are fresh. “Even if I get to a dead scene,” Stearman said, “the little nuances in what each victim has to say can make a big difference.”

When he arrived in West Hollywood, he learned that sheriff's deputies had apprehended a suspect: a 22-year-old called Poncho, who had crashed his getaway car—a stolen Chevy Tahoe. Stearman sat down with him in a small, stuffy interview room at the sheriff's station. Poncho admitted he'd gone inside the store and “bagged” the stolen watches. When Stearman asked who put him up to it, he said he was no snitch. “I'm willing to sacrifice,” Poncho said.

But Stearman explained that Poncho wasn't facing just a couple of years of state time for robbery. The ATF was investigating a federal crime—conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery—and that, Stearman said, could require Poncho to make “a 15-year sacrifice.” Stearman told Poncho that when it came to loyalty, he shouldn't expect his fellow thieves to reciprocate. “These guys don't care about you,” Stearman said. “They've already forgotten about you.” That's when Poncho started to cry. “It was planned,” he said, “but it was not planned by me. I'm not the organizer of nothing.” He'd never met the ringleaders, he said; all he knew was he'd been recruited by a stranger who called himself J-Stone.

“This isn't rocket science. We're talking about guys who are greedy. They're gracious enough to keep giving me the clues I need.”

Stearman's colleagues ran a search for “J-Stone” in a database of known gang members. The name Justin Henning popped up, with an alleged connection to the Inglewood Family Bloods. (Henning's lawyer denies he was a member of the gang.) Stearman showed Henning's mug shot to Poncho. That was the guy, Poncho said.

In short order, Stearman assembled a full briefing on the Inglewood Family Bloods. Henning, prosecutors allege, was close to a member of one of the gang's cliques, the Crenshaw Manchester Terrorists, which was led by a guy named Keith Walton, or Green Eyes. And Green Eyes, it turned out, had a partner in crime, a man Stearman's informants had already put on his radar: a former professional baseball player named Darrell Dent Jr.

Illustration by Johnny Dombrowski

Darrell Dent had always been good at stealing. The proof was on the back of his baseball card for the Bowie Baysox, a minor league team in the Orioles organization. “One of the fastest players in the Baltimore system,” the card read, “Dent led Bowie with 24 stolen bases in 1999 and has had a 77% success stolen base percentage in his career.”

Dent had been obsessed with baseball since childhood. The moment he could walk, he began dragging a bat around the house. His mother, Renee, said you could take his bottle away from him but not that bat. His dad, Darrell senior, had been a standout high school player, and Darrell junior was on track to be just as good if not better. Dent's parents separated and, when he was 10, his mother moved him from South Central Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley. Still, his dad hardly ever missed one of his games.

Then, just a few months before Dent became a starting center fielder at his high school, Montclair Prep, his father committed suicide. Dent, then 14, was devastated. At the funeral, he stood over the casket and said, “I'm going to make you proud of me, Pop. I'm going to the pros.”

More than most kids, Darrell had the goods to deliver on that promise. At 17 he was among the top high school prospects in the nation. He was six feet two, 175 pounds, with what one sportswriter described as “the prototype athlete's body, long loose arms and quick legs. You watch him stand in the outfield and you can't stop thinking about Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds.” In 1995, when he was 18, he was a third-round pick in the amateur draft. In addition to his $150,000 signing bonus, the Baltimore Orioles promised him $40,000 to use for college.

Darrell Dent during a brief minor-league stint with the Anaheim Angels. (Tom Hauck)

“I am ready to get out there and start my major league career,” Dent told a newspaper reporter just hours before his flight to the Orioles' rookie-level club in Sarasota, Florida. “I know this is just a stepping stone to where I am going to be a few years from now.”

“He had a lot of confidence,” remembers Darnell McDonald, a former teammate and roommate of Dent's. “And he did have some tools. He was a fast center fielder—that was his best tool: speed.”

McDonald was younger than Dent and looked up to him. “He befriended the guys that came in my year,” he told me. “He had this California swagger to him. I'm telling you, he could play anything off.”

So early on, when McDonald's new Rolex went missing from their dorm and Dent said his watch had been stolen, too, McDonald believed that they were both robbery victims. “He was a really smooth talker,” McDonald told me. When he lent Dent his car and Dent told him the wheels had been stolen and the vehicle was up on blocks, the younger player still didn't connect the dots. “I came from nothing,” McDonald said. “And he was the one showing me all this stuff. He knew a lot about everything.”

It was only later, in the off-season, when McDonald's accountant sent him copies of his personal checks to review, that he wised up. This isn't my writing, McDonald remembers thinking when he discovered several forgeries totaling some $15,000. The checks were made out to Dent. McDonald contacted the Orioles organization, which confronted Dent. When he admitted to forging the checks, he was let go. “It's too bad,” said McDonald, “because he probably did have a chance to play in the big leagues. I know he thought he was going to make it.”

McDonald would eventually make it to The Show; he played for several major league teams before retiring from the Chicago Cubs. And Dent? The same year the Orioles canned him, he stole a Range Rover by tricking a parking attendant into thinking it was his. From that point on, baseball took a back seat to crime. In 2001, while playing for the Jacksonville Suns (a feeder team to the Los Angeles Dodgers), Dent was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle. He then briefly had a $5,000-a-month minor league deal with the Anaheim Angels, which gave him the number 82—“the number you give the scrubs,” he'd explain. “The guys who have a long shot of making it.” He played a little independent ball before going to Italy as a free agent. “After that,” he said, “I didn't get any more phone calls.”

Dent was introduced to Keith “Green Eyes” Walton in November 2011, at a wake. Walton was a felon—he had multiple state convictions, the earliest a robbery with a firearm that he'd committed at age 18. His life had been marked by violence; both his first wife and his stepbrother had been murdered in gang-related shootings. Compared with the gangly, fresh-faced Dent, who was seven years younger, the tattooed Walton—his chest featured an assault rifle, a revolver, and a huge tiger with emerald eyes—looked deadly serious.

“I come across as non-threatening,” Dent would explain. “I can get into places…or into a relationship with people that [Walton] might not be able to get into because of his reputation.”

By this point, Dent had moved on from simple theft to more serious crimes, including identity theft, forgery, and transporting marijuana across state lines. Along the way, he said, he'd met a fence nicknamed the Russian, who suggested he start robbing cell-phone stores. Dent tapped Green Eyes and they got to work.

Felon Keith “Green Eyes” Walton paired up with Dent to mastermind the watch heists. (Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.)

Darrell Dent Jr. (Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.)

Evan Scott, a.k.a. Macc, one of the robbers in Dent's crew. (Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.)

Between November 2012 and May 2013, the duo's crew broke into about 25 phone stores around the Los Angeles area. Their method was to enter at night, climbing through air vents or holes they made in the walls. (Many of the looted phones were sent out of the country, where they were sold and activated.) Eventually, Dent, Walton, and three other people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit burglary. Walton would serve jail time, and Dent was put on probation.

Prosecutors say high-end timepieces were already on Dent and Walton's radar around the time of the phone-store heists. There is some evidence that Walton may have attempted a few watch robberies on his own even before he and Dent teamed up. And when Dent was released from jail, in 2014, he organized a few “track-star demos” (so named because the robber typically asks to try on a watch, fastens it around his wrist, and runs out of the store). Dent got a gold Rolex Daytona from a Tourneau boutique in L.A. that earned him $2,000 from his fence. But stealing one watch at a time was high risk/low reward.

In August 2014, seeking a bigger payoff, Dent and some Inglewood Family Bloods pulled off a smash-and-grab in the coastal city of Manhattan Beach, but they didn't make as much as they'd hoped. Two gang members, including Jameson Laforest, known as Janky-Bone, got away with 20 watches and 12 diamond rings, fleeing in a stolen Chevy Express van. In exchange for the loot, Dent said, the Russian gave him only about $19,000.

It was only later, investigators think, that Dent reunited with the newly freed Green Eyes and they decided to up their game. Instead of bursting into a store and snatching everything in sight, they would target the most valuable watches ahead of time. And, most importantly, they wouldn't do any of the actual robbing themselves.

Dent and Walton established a strict division of labor. They were the masterminds who chose the stores that would be cased, approved the scheduling of the robberies, and dealt with the fence. Stanley Ford, or Bald Head, helped scout and case stores; he was often on site to make the “all clear” phone calls right before a robbery. Then came two lieutenants—Laforest and Robert “Tiny Bogart” Johnson—both from the Inglewood Family Bloods. Their job was to recruit a constantly revolving army of disposable “torpedoes”—typically cash-hungry young men—to be aimed at the targeted stores. As the interface between the ringleaders and the lowest-level grunts, the lieutenants gave Walton and Dent cover. For the most part, the torpedoes didn't even know their names.

Laforest and Johnson equipped the torpedoes with guns, backpacks, sledgehammers, and ski masks. Then, after the robberies, they paid the torpedoes relatively little—typically $500 to $1,000 each. The ringleaders paid themselves a lot more—generally somewhere between $10,000 and $60,000 apiece, depending on how much they got from the fence. But Dent often took the lion's share. He reasoned that because, as he'd later allege, he had the primary relationship with the Russian, he deserved it. After one 2015 robbery, for example, he took a whopping $130,000 for himself (more than a third of what he claimed the fence had paid). It wouldn't last him long. A few weeks later, Dent bought tickets to see a Floyd Mayweather fight in Vegas. He leased a $2,700-a-month condo in Anaheim. He put money down on a white Chevy Silverado. And he became a regular at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood. Later, Dent would estimate that he gambled away his proceeds from the robberies “85 to 95 percent of the time.”

By mid-January 2016, when Stearman began his investigation, thieves had struck at least eight times over 18 months, and their take was growing larger with almost every robbery. Going forward, they would pick up the pace, attempting a heist at least every few weeks. It was as if they knew time was running out.

As Stearman continued gathering information about the Inglewood Family Bloods, he got a surprising message: Walton and his attorney were requesting a meeting. The attorney said Walton, who was facing a federal gun-possession charge, hoped to reduce his sentence by providing helpful information about other crimes.

In the meeting with Stearman and the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Tenley, the two men were struck by Walton's arrogance. He was enjoying himself, Stearman sensed, so the agent leaned into that, encouraging Green Eyes to keep talking. Soon Walton launched into a story about a track-star robbery he knew about. “I used to do this stuff,” he admitted, laughing as he told Stearman about a hapless torpedo he'd deployed who'd almost gotten shot by an angry shop owner. Stearman would use that information to obtain a warrant to track Walton's phone. “He couldn't help himself,” Stearman told me.

Later he'd develop a theory as to why Walton seemed so smug. Further investigation would reveal that the smash-and-grab crew had planned a robbery in Torrance on the day Walton met with Stearman and Tenley. The heist was called off at the last minute. Still, Stearman believes, Walton had intended for the meeting to coincide with the crime, to give himself an alibi.

Three days later, on February 29, the robbery that had been called off was back on. Three torpedoes took 30 watches worth more than $430,000 from a Ben Bridge in Torrance. Things were escalating—not just the frequency of the crimes but also the threats of violence. This time, one of the robbers pressed the barrel of his gun to a security guard's forehead. It seemed only a matter of time before someone got seriously hurt. As Stearman rushed to the scene, he learned that a handwritten list of five people associated with the robbery—Bully Bad Ass, Nate, Macc, Lil K.O., and Hangout—had been found inside the getaway car, complete with each man's phone number. Three of the men had already been apprehended.

Stearman interviewed Bully Bad Ass, who started talking almost immediately. The 21-year-old homeless man said he'd planned to drive the getaway car but instead was pressured into wielding a hammer inside the store. He'd never been arrested before, but he'd taken the risk, he said, because he'd been promised “stacks” of cash. (He only found out later that his cut would have been $1,000.) Stearman shook his head and sized up the perp's situation: “You went from a little kid riding a bike to riding a Harley Davidson 101 miles an hour on the freeway.” Bully Bad Ass was looking at a minimum of seven years. Or he could cooperate with prosecutors. If he gave information that helped convict the robbery ring, a judge might agree to shorten his sentence.

Bully Bad Ass looked terrified. He wasn't sure he knew anything of value. Just as the masterminds had intended, he didn't know who was calling the shots. When Stearman pressed for details, Bully Bad Ass looked stricken. “Well,” he said, “I'm fucked.”

Hangout, however, knew a little more, and once he realized he was facing federal time—“You jumped in the way-deep end of this pool,” Stearman told him—he started to spill it. A guy named Robert, or Tiny Bogart, had recruited him, Hangout said. There was also a big bald-headed guy, he said, who scouted the robberies. And he'd heard another guy—maybe his name was Keith?—was involved. He went by Green Eyes.

“That was pure gold when he threw out ‘Green Eyes,’ ” said Stearman. The robbers were still ahead of him, but Stearman was beginning to close the gap.

Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.

Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.

Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.

By now, the thieves had a protocol. Before each heist, the torpedoes and the ringleaders would meet in Queen Park in Inglewood to assign roles. They'd send the cleanest-cut among them to visit the store a few days before, to case the place. They also set up a system for getting the loot from the torpedoes: A switch car would meet up with the getaway car, grab the watches, then head to meet the fence or one of his associates. They'd even developed their own shorthand, which they used to text one another instructions.

Usually they used pre-paid burner phones, which they called “bats,” to discuss important details of the crimes. (The name was seemingly a reference to the Batphone that the Gotham City police commissioner used to summon Batman.) If they wanted to communicate about a robbery, they'd often text one another's regular phones, suggesting they switch channels: “Bat? 15 minutes?”

Prosecutors never found what was sent on the bats, but there were several code words the ringleaders felt free to use on their regular phones. Dent referred to robbery participants as “players” and called each successful heist a “victory.” Other sports terms popped up. At one point, in January 2016, Tiny Bogart texted Dent: “Game canceled. Uber MIA.” Dent responded, “Damn.” (“Uber” and “G-ride” were code for stolen cars. Prosecutors surmised that a robbery had been canceled for lack of a getaway vehicle.) In February 2016, just minutes before the Westime West Hollywood robbery, Dent texted Tiny Bogart: “Play ball safely!”

The suspects' phones and social-media posts would prove a treasure trove for prosecutors. One of them had Googled “How can I invest 10,000 dollars” after the Malibu robbery.

Sometimes it seemed the ringleaders got careless about using the burners. At one point, in the days after one of the robberies, Tiny Bogart and Dent had an exchange on their regular phones about the need to buy more hoodies, backpacks, and “headbands” (code, prosecutors alleged, for ninja or ski masks).

On March 1, Stearman got a warrant to begin tracking the location of Walton's phone. He got the same for Dent's. When the tracking kicked in, Stearman started watching both men's whereabouts around the clock.

It wasn't long before Dent headed to the South Coast Plaza mall, and Stearman worried another robbery could be in the offing. Quickly he organized a team of more than 20 local and federal law-enforcement agents to stake out the mall. On the first day, an L.A. County sheriff's helicopter circled above the mall, in case the robbery occurred and they needed to chase the getaway car by air. During the stakeout, Stearman chose a prime lookout post: a Brookstone outlet, where he plunked down in a massage chair. (“I wasn't going to let that opportunity pass,” he told me.) Soon he spotted Dent and a girlfriend strolling along with a big bald guy.

In the parking lot, investigators identified the three cars the trio had arrived in. Dent's Chevy Silverado truck had dealer plates and expensive rims. His girlfriend drove a Subaru. The third car, a dark blue Hyundai with tinted windows, had a real license plate. It was registered to one Stanley Ford.

In the midst of this stakeout, Stearman got a call from the Torrance police department. A parole officer had just heard from the mother of one of his parolees, who said that her son had been involved in a robbery in Hollywood and was about to do another one. The young man's name was Evan Scott.

Scott was not an Inglewood Family Blood. He was identified by law enforcement as a Carver Park Crip. Historically, Bloods, who wear red, and Crips, who wear blue, wouldn't be caught dead working together, as they were notorious rivals. But Stearman had already figured out that, in this instance at least, those allegiances had been trumped by the almighty dollar. As one robber put it: “Blue and red make green.”

A note found in one of the thieves' getaway cars. (Admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al.)

An unmarked police car raced to Scott's home and parked outside. Minutes later, a dark blue Hyundai with tinted windows drove up and Scott jumped in. The officers followed them but soon lost the Hyundai in traffic. Stearman will never forget getting a call from a detective on the scene and being able to recite to him the license-plate number of the car in question. “How did you know that?” asked the astonished officer. “Because,” Stearman replied, “that car just left South Coast Plaza an hour ago!”

Stearman would soon discover that Scott went by another moniker, which he already had in his notebook: Macc, one of the handwritten names found in the getaway car from the Torrance robbery.

A few nights later, Stearman drove to Ford's apartment in Lancaster, about 45 miles north of L.A. To eliminate suspicion, he asked a colleague with a dog to come with him. When they located Ford's Hyundai, around 3 A.M., they pretended to take the dog for a walk. As they passed the vehicle, Stearman leaned down nonchalantly and put a GPS tracker on Ford's car. Now he'd know where Ford was, too.

In all, Stearman and his team would spend four straight days—from March 1 to 4—staking out South Coast Plaza. No robbery took place. But on March 9, nearly $663,000 worth of watches were stolen at another mall, about 70 miles away, in Canoga Park. There, one of the robbers told a security guard menacingly, “Don't do anything stupid or I'll kill you.” This time everyone got away.

Less than two weeks later, on March 22, four masked men stormed into the Westime watch store in Malibu, squirting pepper spray into the store manager's eyes. “I thought at that moment that I was going to be shot,” he'd recall, “and that I'd never see my kids again.” The foursome grabbed at least $1.4 million in Franck Mullers, Hublots, Omegas, Breitlings, and Audemars Piguets (one of which was worth $250,000) and fled.

By this point, data from the suspects' cell phones was beginning to yield results: Stanley Ford's phone had pinged off towers near three jewelry stores around the time each was being robbed. And Stearman could see that all of the suspects talked to one another a lot on the days a robbery went down. Meanwhile, he had gotten authorization to put “pole cams” on telephone poles outside of some suspects' residences, so he could watch them come and go.

Walton had finally been sentenced in his felony-gun-possession case, and he was due to go into custody in May. He told Dent he “needed a victory”—one more successful heist—before he surrendered. Thanks to Stearman, it would be the ring's last.

On Sunday, April 24, 2016, Stearman was attending a family barbecue when he glanced at his phone and saw that Dent had parked his Chevy Silverado in front of Tiny Bogart's home. They then traveled to Queen Park—the place Stearman knew was a pre-robbery gathering spot.

Sure enough, within hours another Ben Bridge, this one in Santa Monica, was robbed of 23 Tag Heuers valued at $67,000. But this time all the robbers were caught—two male torpedoes and a female getaway driver. The 23-year-old woman was a meth addict who was affiliated with the Inglewood Family Bloods. Stearman believes she was recruited because she had a getaway car: a white Chevy Tahoe.

At that point, Stearman remembers thinking, The case won't get any stronger than this. He hurried to put search warrants together for the robbers' many residences, and he and federal prosecutors sought a Facebook warrant to scrape the suspects' accounts. The suspects' phones and social-media posts would prove a treasure trove for prosecutors. Laforest, for example, whose Snapchat handle was @dacrownking, had Googled “How can I invest 10,000 dollars” after the Malibu robbery.

A grand jury was convened, and federal prosecutors meticulously described the case's multiple heists and about $6 million in stolen property—one of the most sophisticated and lucrative smash-and-grab sprees in U.S. history. After jurors handed down an indictment, it was finally time to move on the perpetrators.

On June 16, 2016, at precisely 6 A.M., the homes of Dent, Walton, Ford, Johnson, and several other suspects were raided simultaneously. Houses and vehicles were searched, and guns, phones, computers, and other evidence were seized. At long last, the smash-and-grab robbers were under arrest.

Of all the suspects arrested that day, Stearman was the most eager to interview Dent. When they finally sat down, he was struck by the ringleader's soft-spoken demeanor. Dent tends to address authority figures like an athlete would his coach—with a straightforward deference. So while, at first, Dent declined to talk about the crimes, Stearman sensed there was room to build more rapport. When the agent asked about Dent's time as a minor league outfielder, he perked up, talking for 20 minutes about “all the guys that I came up with”—major league talents he talked about as if they were friends. Carlos Beltran was a good buddy, he claimed, recalling when they overlapped at spring training in the late '90s. Jayson Werth was “my guy,” Dent said, and Jimmy Rollins was “my other guy.” (On cross-examination, he admitted that he didn't know them well.)

Later, when asked why he'd responded so positively to questions about his glory days, Dent would say, “I talk passionate about baseball to anyone.” Eventually, Stearman and the prosecutors would persuade him to talk about his crimes as well. Dent began cooperating with the government and agreed to testify against the rest of the watch-heist crew.

In an unusual move, the government tried six defendants at once—Walton, Laforest, Johnson, Scott, and two others. Dent was the star witness; he spent four days on the stand, more time than anyone else.

Repeatedly the defense counsel grilled Dent about why anyone should believe him, a career criminal who'd had, and blown, his chance at a better life. Dent was unflappable. He said he was facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 107 years without possibility of parole. He had three kids and an aging mother. He knew if the judge thought he was lying, he'd forfeit his one chance “to see my family on the outside again at some point in my life.” Dent admitted he had stolen, lied, and “knowingly misled.” “I'm not proud of being a thief,” he said. Later he reflected, “Looking back on it, I did have a nice starting point. I should have valued and appreciated it more.”

When she announced the indictment, U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker had said she'd hoped the case would “demonstrate that ringleaders cannot escape prosecution by sending lower-level participants in to commit the crimes on their behalf.” She mostly got her wish: Five of the six defendants were convicted, but one—Justin Henning, one of the first people arrested in this case—had that conviction overturned.

Walton, a.k.a. Green Eyes, got 55 years in prison. Laforest, a.k.a. Janky-Bone, got 22 years, eight months. And Johnson, a.k.a. Tiny Bogart, got 22 years. Smith, the getaway driver in the final robbery, faced a maximum sentence of 40 years. But after testifying for the prosecution, she got one year and one day. Ford, too, had his charges reduced because he'd agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Instead of a 75-year minimum sentence, he got 25 years. (Laforest, Johnson, and Ford have all appealed.) In all, 18 people have been convicted of federal crimes for their connection to the ring, and others have been found guilty in state court. Dent has yet to be sentenced.

And what of Stearman? Since foiling the watch-heist crew, he's kept plenty busy. This past February, he led a team that arrested members of a ring that allegedly robbed six Verizon stores in Arizona and California. In May, he charged an alleged gang member with committing 16 armed robberies of gas stations and 7-Eleven convenience stores. That guy, Stearman told me, almost always wore a Dodgers baseball hat while holding people at gunpoint. Another ritual. I thought of all those late-model Chevys. “Criminals have their habits,” Stearman said. “And that gets them caught.”

Amy Wallace is a GQ correspondent.

Images admitted into evidence in the case United States v. Walton et al. tried in United States District Court, Central District of California.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published October 31, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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