Gang Members Imprisoned For L.A. Bank-Robbery Spree

LOS ANGELES - Casper and C-Dog, two reputed members of the Rollin' 60s Crips, were sent to prison yesterday for helping make Los Angeles the bank-robbery capital of the world - a feat the FBI says they accomplished by recruiting school children, arming them with high-powered assault rifles and aiding their getaways with brazen carjackings.

Casper is Robert Sheldon Brown, who, though just 23, has been implicated in 175 bank heists over the last four years - more than anyone else in U.S. history. Having pleaded guilty to his role in five of them, he received a 30-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson, who blamed him for "a bank-robbery spree of vast and perhaps unprecedented proportions."

His cohort, Donzell Lamar Thompson, 24, pleaded guilty to his role in two of the holdups and was handed a 25-year term. Thompson contended he was framed by other bank robbers who wrongly fingered him in exchange for lenient sentences. "I truly and honestly feel this is . . . the beginning of modern slavery," he told the judge.

Remarkably, evidence indicates neither of the defendants ever entered a bank.

In a detailed 29-page sentencing memorandum, federal agents describe how Brown and Thompson honed their technique with indiscriminate violence, a touch of ingenuity and "an unquenchable daily thirst for more" even when nothing seemed to be going their way.

Often offering money or drugs as bait, the pair allegedly used their status in the gang to recruit dozens of impressionable wannabes - some only 13 years old - to perform the riskiest tasks while they remained at a distance, far from surveillance cameras and security guards.

On one particularly prolific day - Aug. 21, 1991 - authorities say Brown masterminded a string of five bank robberies using a 16-year-old boy as the lone front man.

Last April, according to the memo, Brown organized a team of three high school students - one of whom had been lured away from campus during his nutrition class - to rob a First Interstate Bank.

The plan fizzled, however, when two of them approached the bank's front door but could not summon the courage to push it open. They were arrested after bank employees, amazed at the sight of the hesitant youths standing out front with a pillow case, alerted police.

In one robbery at a Wells Fargo Bank on Aug. 14, 1992, a 15-year-old recruit was shotgunned to death by police after he fled through a shattered window, firing all eight rounds from his Colt .45 pistol.

"Boys do not rob banks unless someone shows them how," two assistant U.S. attorneys, John Wiley Jr. and Michael Davis, wrote in the sentencing memo. "Brown and Thompson showed them. They took disadvantaged teenagers and turned them into felons of the most serious degree."

In a nod to Charles Dickens' classic, "Oliver Twist," the prosecutors compared the defendants to the character Mr. Fagin, who trained young pickpockets, then lived off their spoils.

It was this compulsion for using teenage henchmen, authorities allege, that ultimately led them to Brown and Thompson. The youngsters were so inexperienced and panicky, officials said, that they were frequently arrested and often willing to squeal on their mentors.

The alleged crime spree coincided with an alarming increase in bank robberies across Los Angeles. Between 1989, when FBI agents first began linking Brown to the holdups, and the record year of 1992, bank robberies in that city almost doubled - from 1,440 to 2,641.

The arrest of the pair May 28 also coincided with the first sharp decline in almost a decade. For the first 10 months of 1993, according to FBI figures, there were 1,447 bank robberies - a 35 percent dip from the same time last year.

During 1992, authorities grew particularly disturbed by the rapid increase in invasion-style robberies. After that number tripled last year, the FBI blamed the trend on gangs, which officials say are more inclined to use terror to get their money than traditional bank robbers, who usually try to slip a discreet note to a teller.

In their memo, authorities allege Brown's robbers fired bullets in 20 of the heists, assaulted 15 bank employees and five customers, and individually robbed seven customers and five employees.