Detective’s Death Shows How Cellphone Stores Are Now ‘Easy Target’ for Robberies
Reporter at The Times since 2011
The T-Mobile store in Queens where the police thwarted a robbery on
Tuesday and a detective was killed by friendly fire
The detectives and police officers who rushed to a T-Mobile store in Queens on Tuesday night were responding to one of the most fraught scenarios in policing: A robbery inside had turned into a hostage situation.
Shortly after the officers arrived, the robber is said to have raised his gun — which turned out to be a fake — and made motions as if he were shooting. Seven officers opened fire. A detective was killed and a sergeant wounded in the crossfire.
The tragic event was in every respect unpredictable, except for one: the location. Over the last decade, cellphone stores have joined banks, bodegas, liquor stores and jewelry shops as common robbery targets.
The high price that top-of-the-line cellphones fetch on the black market, both abroad and in the United States, makes the stores attractive to thieves.
“You do the math,” the chief of detectives of the New York Police Department, Dermot Shea, said. “You hit a store and steal 75 of those.” Even if robbery crews were able to unload them for only 25 percent of their store price, he said, “It’s a good hit.”
Banks use dye packs to deter robbers. Jewelers and shop owners have on occasion been known to shoot first. But cellphone stores tend to have little security and lots of valuable inventory.
“These businesses are easy targets,” John B. Devito, the special agent in charge of the New York field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said in a statement.
The bureau operates a robbery task force with New York City detectives that has seen its case load shift in recent years toward cellphone store robberies.
Last year, there were 71 robberies of cellphone stores in New York City, Chief Shea said. It was not immediately clear how that compared to past years.
The robbers often, though not always, belong to organized crews that in some cases have been known to hit a different location every week or so. Last year investigators determined that there were 19 separate patterns, each one typically involving a different crew.
“When we see one you can almost set the clock because we’re going to start getting others till we catch them,” Chief Shea said.
Christopher Ransom, the 27-year-old accused robber shot inside the T-Mobile store on Tuesday, was also being sought for a series of phone store robberies going back to October, the police said. The most recent happened on Jan. 19 when, the police said, Mr. Ransom brandished what appeared to be a gun and stole several cellphones and about $850 from a RSK3 Wireless shop in South Jamaica, Queens.
The police said Mr. Ransom had an accomplice in the T-Mobile store robbery who arrived with him in a cab and waited outside the store while he went inside. That person was being sought for questioning on Friday, the police said.
Mr. Ransom, who was still recovering in a hospital, was arraigned on murder, assault and robbery charges on Friday afternoon via a closed-circuit video link to state Supreme Court in Queens, the district attorney’s office said. A judge ordered him held without bail. A criminal complaint said he had demanded employees open a safe full of iPhones just before the police arrived.
Mr. Ransom is not alone in being suspected of hitting several stores. Late last year prosecutors accused one man, Khalif Watson, of a particularly prolific robbery spree. He was accused of robbing phone stores in Brooklyn and Queens on five days in late March and early April.
In most of those robberies, investigators said, Mr. Watson brought along a laundry bag to use to carry off his haul. Mr. Watson has since pleaded guilty to racketeering charges that include not only robbery charges, but accusations of murder.
But the majority of the phones stay in New York City, according to a Police Department analysis.
Chief Shea characterized the robbers in a typical crew as “stickup guys who know each other, either they served time together or know each other from the neighborhood.”
Court records offer a glimpse of some of the men arrested in recent years for the crime.
One, Ronald Mack, was an emergency medical technician for the city Fire Department who had once stolen credit card information from a patient in his ambulance before he was charged with robbing a cellphone store.
Another, Ayoub Mankouche, who told the police that he used to smoke nine marijuana cigarettes a day, used a black pellet gun to rob a Brooklyn T-Mobile store in September 2016, according to court records. Mr. Mankouche forced employees and customers into a back room, but a customer managed to disarm him during a struggle.
“The defendant gambled that the store was a soft target,” prosecutors wrote in a brief in Mr. Mankouche’s case. “He was wrong.”
There are signs that cellphone companies or retailers are beginning to do more to stop robberies. For example, a box containing a cellphone taken from a Verizon store in Queens during a robbery last April also held a tracking device.
Detective William J. Puskas, who is on the federal robbery task force, said in an affidavit that officers were able to track the stolen phone to a car, which eventually led to an arrest.
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