Creating the Illusion of Impending Death: Armed Robbers in Action
Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker
Wright and Decker are professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A book based upon research they conducted while HFG grantees, Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, has just been published (1997) by Northeastern University Press.
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Transferring the Goods | No doubt the most difficult aspect of pulling off an armed robbery involves managing the transfer of goods. The difficulty inheres in the fact that offenders must keep victims under strict control while, at the same time, attempting to make sure that they have gotten everything worth taking. What is more, all of this must be accomplished as quickly as possible. The longer the stick-up lasts, the more risk offenders run of being discovered by police or passers-by.

The armed robbers we talked to used two different strategies to manage the transfer of goods. The first involved simply ordering victims to hand over their possessions.

I tell [my victims], "Man, if you don't want to die, give me your money! If you want to survive, give me your money! I'm not bullshitting!" So he will either go in his back pocket and give me the wallet or the woman will give me her purse. (aka Tony Brown)

By making victims responsible for the transfer of goods, the offenders are able to devote their undivided attention to watching for signs of danger.

I rather for [victims] to give [their valuables] to me because I have to be alert. If they reach for something, I'll have to shoot them. (aka K-Money)

There is, however, one serious drawback to giving victims responsibility for the transfer; it is difficult to know whether they really have turned over all of their valuables. Recognizing this, many of the offenders employed tough talk and a fierce demeanor to discourage victims from attempting to shortchange them.

You say, "Is that everything?" You can kinda tell if they lyin' sometimes: "That's all I got, man, that's all!" You'll say, "You're lyin', man, you lyin'!" and just make them think that you're getting pissed because he's lying to you. So basically you got this gun [pointed] at they head, so sometimes it be like, "Okay, I got some more." (aka Damon Jones)

A few of them went so far as to rough up their victims, especially those who appeared confused or hesitant, to reinforce the message that holding something back would be a risky proposition.

Well, if [the victim] hesitates like that, undecided, you get a little aggressive and you push 'em. Let them know you mean business. I might take [the] pistol and crack their head with it. "Come on with that money and quit bullcrapping or else you gonna get into some real trouble!" Normally when they see you mean that kind of business they...come on out with it. (aka Burle)

But most of the offenders who allowed victims to hand over their own possessions simply accepted what was offered and made good their escape. As one explained: "You just got to be like, 'Well, it's cool right here what I got.' [W]hen you get too greedy, that's when [bad] stuff starts to happen."

The second strategy used by the armed robbers to accomplish the transfer of goods involved taking the victims' possessions from them without waiting for what was offered.

I get [the victim's money] because everybody not gonna give you all they got. They gonna find some kind of way to keep from giving it all. (aka Richard L. Brown)

A number of the offenders who preferred this strategy were reluctant to let victims empty their own pockets for fear that they were carrying a concealed weapon.

I don't let nobody give me nothing. Cause if you let somebody go in they pockets, they could pull out a gun, they could pull out anything. You make sure they are where you can see their hands at all times. (aka Cooper)

To outsiders, these offenders may appear to be greatly overestimating the risk of encountering an armed victim. Such a perspective, however, betrays a respectable, middle-class upbringing. In the desperate inner-city neighborhoods in which almost all of the armed robbers reside, and in which many of them ply their trade, weapons are a ubiquitous feature of everyday life.

As already noted, all of the crime commission strategies adopted by the offenders are intended, at least in part, to minimize the possibility of victim resistance. Generally speaking, these strategies work very well. Nevertheless, almost all of the armed robbers we talked to said that they occasionally encountered victims who steadfastly refused to comply with their demands.

[O]n the parking lot, if you grab somebody and say, "This is a robbery, don't make it a murder!" I've had it happen that [the victim just says], "Well, you got to kill me then." (aka Richard L. Brown)

Faced with a recalcitrant victim, most of the offenders responded with severe, but non-lethal, violence in the hope of convincing the person to cooperate. Often this violence involved smacking or beating the victim about the head with a pistol.

It's happened [that some of my victims initially refuse to hand over their money, but] you would be surprised how cooperative a person will be once he been smashed across the face with a 357 Magnum. (aka Tony Wright)

Occasionally, however, a robbery involved shooting the victim in the leg or some other spot unlikely to prove fatal.

[If the person refuses to do what I say] most of the time I just grab my pistol, take the clip out and just slap 'em. If I see [the victim] trying to get tough, then sometimes I just straight out have to shoot somebody, just shoot 'em. I ain't never shot nobody in the head or nothing, nowhere that I know would kill 'em, just shoot them in they leg. Just to let them know that I'm for real [and that they should] just come up off the stuff. (aka Cooper)

While a majority of the armed robbers preferred to use non-lethal violence to subdue resistant victims, several of them admitted to having been involved in fatal encounters in the past. One of the female offenders, for instance, described how she had watched from the car while one of her male companions shot and killed an uncooperative robbery victim.

We was in the car and, I didn't get out this time, one of the dudes got out. The [victim], he wasn't gonna let nobody rob him: "Nigger, you got to kill me! You got to kill me!" And that's what happened to him. Just shot him in the head. It was like, God!, I had never seen that. When [my accomplice] shot him, it wasn't like he was rushing to get away. He shot him, walked back to the car, put the gun back up under the seat and just, you know, we watched [the victim] when he fell, blood was coming out of his mouth, he was shaking or something. (aka Ne-Ne)

Such incidents are rare; few of the offenders entered into armed robberies intending to kill or seriously injure their prey. Indeed, some admitted that they probably would abandon an intended offense rather than use deadly force to subdue an uncooperative victim.

I really ain't gonna shoot nobody. I think a lot of people are like that. I wouldn't shoot nobody myself; if they gave me too much of a problem, I might just take off. (aka Mike J.)

That said, it must be noted that armed robbers typically are acting under intense emotional pressure to generate some fast cash by any means necessary in an interactional environment shot through with uncertainty and danger. Is it any wonder that the slightest hint of victim resistance may provoke some of them to respond with potentially deadly force? As one observed: "When you're doing stuff like this, you just real edgy; you'll pull the trigger at anything, at the first thing that go wrong."

Making an Escape | Once offenders have accomplished the transfer of goods, it only remains for them to make their getaway. Doing that, however, is more difficult than it might appear. Up to this point, the offenders have managed to keep victims in check by creating a convincing illusion of impending death. But the maintenance of that illusion becomes increasingly more difficult as the time comes for offenders to make good their escape. How can they continue to control victims who are becoming physically more distant from them?

In broad terms, the offenders can effect a getaway in one of two ways; they can leave the scene themselves or they can stay put and force the victim to flee. Other things being equal, most of them preferred to be the ones to depart. Before doing so, however, they had to make sure that the victim would not attempt to follow them or to raise the alarm. A majority of the offenders responded to this need by using verbal threats designed to extend the illusion of impending death just long enough for them to escape unobserved.

I done left people in gangways and alleys and I've told them, "If you come out of this alley, I'm gonna hurt you. Just give me 5 or 10 minutes to get away. If you come out of this alley in 3 or 4 minutes, I'm gonna shoot the shit out of you!" (aka Bennie Simmons)

A few offenders, however, attempted to prolong this illusion indefinitely by threatening to kill their victims if they ever mentioned the stick-up to anyone.

I done actually took [the victim's] ID and told them, "If you call the police, I got your address and everything. I know where you stay at and, if you call the police, I'm gonna come back and kill you!" (aka Melvin Walker)

Some of the armed robbers were uncomfortable relying on verbal threats to dissuade their prey from pursuing them. Instead, they took steps to make it difficult or impossible for victims to leave the crime scene by tying them up or incapacitating them through injury.

[I hit my victims before I escape so as to] give them less time to call for the police. Especially if it's somebody else's neighborhood [and] we don't know how to get out. You hit them with a bat just to slow his pace. If you hit him in the leg with a bat, he can't walk for a minute; he gonna be limping, gonna try to limp to a payphone. By then it be 15 or 20 minutes, we be hitting the highway and on our way back to the southside where our neighborhood is. (aka Antwon Wright)

While most of the offenders wanted to be the first to leave the crime scene, a number of them preferred to order the victim to flee instead. This allowed the offenders to depart in a calm, leisurely manner, thereby reducing the chances of drawing attention to themselves.

I try not to have to run away. A very important thing that I have learned is that when you run away, too many things can happen running away. Police could just be cruising by and see you running down the street. I just prefer to be able to walk away, which is one of the reasons why I tend, rather than to make an exit, I tell the victim to walk and don't look back: "Walk away, and walk fast!" When they walk, I can make my exit walking. (aka Slick Going)

What is more, forcing the victim to leave first permitted the offenders to escape without worrying about being attacked from behind--a crucial consideration for those unwilling or unable to incapacitate their prey prior to departure.

[Afterward,] I will tell [the victim] to run. You wouldn't just get the stuff and run because he may have a gun and shoot you while you are turning around running or something like that. (aka Damon Jones)

Beyond such instrumental concerns, several of the armed robbers indicated that they forced the victim to flee for expressive reasons as well; it demonstrated their continuing ability to dominate and control the situation. The clearest example of this involved an offender who routinely taunted his victims by ordering them to leave the scene in humiliating circumstances: "I like laughing at what I do, like, I told...one dude to take off his clothes. I just do a whole bunch of stuff. Sometimes I'll make a dude crawl away. I'll tell him to crawl all the way up the street. And I'll sit there in the alley watching him crawl and crack up laughing."

Conclusion

In short, the active armed robbers we interviewed typically compel the cooperation of intended victims through the creation of a convincing illusion of impending death. They create this illusion by catching would-be victims off guard, and then using tough talk, a fierce demeanor, and the display of a deadly weapon to scare them into a state of unquestioning compliance. The goal is to maintain the illusion for as long as possible without having to make good on the threat. This is easier said than done. Armed robbery is an interactive event and, for any number of reasons, victims may fail to behave in the expected fashion. When this happens, the offenders usually respond with severe, but non-lethal, violence, relying on brute force to bring victims' behavior back into line with their expectations. Very few of them want to kill their victims, although some clearly are prepared to resort to deadly force if need be.

References

Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime. New York: Basic Books.
Luckenbill, David. 1981. "Generating Compliance: The Case of Robbery." Urban Life 10:25-46.

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