12/04/2002

Police After Ring of Armored-Car Thieves

One suspect held, but more than a dozen remain at large after Berkeley, San Leandro holdups

Henry K. Lee, The San Francisco Chronicle

Authorities are searching for as many as 15 members of a ring of armored-car thieves, including gunmen who shot and killed a Brinks guard in Berkeley and accosted the same two guards twice in San Leandro, an armored-car company official said Tuesday.

One alleged member of the ring, 32-year-old Roger Tabuuhki Johnson of Oakland, has been charged with murder and other counts in the Nov. 21 slaying of Brinks guard Dena Monique Daniels, 30, after a botched Berkeley holdup. But others remain at large.

"This group could be as many as 12 to 15 to 16 people," said Dan Connolly, president of Armed Courier Service in Santa Clara. "I've been told by law enforcement that we're really dealing with a very large, dangerous group. Unless we can pull the entire group down, other lives could be at risk."

Johnson had been arrested in the Aug. 30 holdup of two Armed Courier Service guards outside the Wells Fargo Bank on Marina Boulevard in San Leandro. His fingerprints were lifted from a getaway vehicle in that case, records show. A month earlier, two gunmen had tried to rob the same guards at the same bank.

But charges were never filed against Johnson in the August heist, in which masked men armed with assault rifles fled with $200,000, according to police. Alameda County prosecutors wouldn't say what went into that decision.

On Nov. 21, Johnson was behind the wheel of a getaway SUV that fled the scene of Daniels' slaying at the Wells Fargo Bank office at Ninth Street and Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, authorities say.

Connolly said he was unwilling to "sit here and second-guess law enforcement" as to why Johnson was never charged in the August holdup. Numerous police agencies are trying to identify other members of the ring, he said, and "that's really where the focus needs to be."

In interviews Tuesday as the pair made their rounds servicing bank vaults in San Francisco, the two Armed Courier Service guards who were twice accosted in the San Leandro incident said they were still being cautious while on the job.

Rogers' arrest in the Berkeley slaying "doesn't make us think it can't happen anymore," said Celso Sousa, 29, of San Jose. "We won't let our guard down."

His partner, 28-year-old Aurora Menendez of San Jose, was behind the wheel in both San Leandro incidents. In the first attempted robbery on July 19, she managed to push a button that allowed Sousa to jump into the armored car and escape the gunmen.

The second time, the assailants waited for the two to be separated before accosting Sousa at gunpoint outside the Wells Fargo on Marina Boulevard.

"I can't believe it's happening again," Sousa recalled thinking.

In that case, the gunmen fled in a Mercury Mountaineer and a Cadillac Escalade. A few days before the Berkeley holdup, witnesses saw an Escalade pull up to a Hertz rental car lot in San Leandro, shortly before two cars were stolen there. Those two cars were later used as getaway vehicles in the Berkeley robbery, records show.

Armed Courier guards carry Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistols, and their truck comes outfitted with a 12-gauge shotgun and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. But there's not much they can do when they are ambushed by men with assault weapons, Menendez and Sousa said.

The recent holdups "do make me think about what I do, but I can't live in fear," Menendez said. "You got to move on and do what you need to do."

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