BONUS: Tales of the Take

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Host Jake Brennan catches up with FBI agents who worked some of the most notorious cases featured in the series. Plus, learn the inside details about an armored truck robbery that didn’t make it into the season’s 10 episodes.

Episode Transcript

Over the past ten episodes I’ve told you some pretty wild stories about individuals or groups of people who were hell bent on getting rich quick.

These robbers broke so many laws and often left innocent victims as collateral damage in their wake.

While compiling the research and information for this series it was important to our whole team that we find the right balance between understanding the details of these crimes without glorifying the people responsible.

So, for today’s special bonus episode we decided to interview a few of the FBI special agents who worked some of the cases featured in this series.

This is Armored, the untold stories of murder, mayhem and million-dollar-heists.

Let’s kick things off by going back to the case from Episode 1 that detailed the violent armored truck robbery gang who plagued Houston, Texas in 2015 and 2016.

This story involved Red Batiste and his friends who for months murdered armored truck guards from a distance via a mobile sniper platform then rushed in and stole money bags in a matter of seconds.

FBI Special Agent Jeff Coughlin was one of the lead investigators on that case and remembers well the fall of 2016 when things hit a fever pitch.

Jeff Coughlin: “I distinctly remember getting called into my bosses office and him saying ‘Hey yeah this has got to stop’.

You’re talking about a group that had just killed two innocent people without any bit of remorse. I mean, again, these were murderers who robbed after.”

Coughlin says what stood out to him most about Red Batiste and his crew was the fact that they were so well organized and, in his opinion, their M-O didn’t fit the behavioral pattern of what the FBI in Houston commonly saw in armored truck robberies.

Jeff Coughlin: “I don’t think the intent usually is to kill somebody. I think the intent is surprise the person and scare them so much that the guard basically just hands over the money. Right. I think that’s kind of the intent, but with this group, they didn’t even give the guard that option. Because they were shooting the guard from a distance before anybody even came up on them. So, truly a sniper-initiated attack where the robbery was preceded by a murder and that’s just not something we see in the armored car robbery world but even in general.

That was what was so alarming about this group, not only looking back on it, but during the investigation I mean we knew that we couldn’t let this happen again, because every time they did this, they were going to kill somebody.”

He says one of the biggest contributing factors as to how Red and his accomplices kept evading law enforcement was the fact that they used Houston’s landscape to their advantage.

A landscape that Coughlin says makes the city a prime target for armored truck robberies.

Jeff Coughlin: “Houston is large not only in population but also in land size. Right, like I think it’s like over 600 square miles. Multiple major thoroughfares going in and out. Right. We have major highways that run east, west, north, south, northeast, southeast and then we have at this point we have three different loops that go around Houston it just keeps on growing.

In Houston they don’t build up, they build out. Right and so when you build out, you also need more businesses. So that’s grocery stores, super markets, gas stations, convenience stores and then banks, right. Because most cities, these businesses even though we’re moving to a card society where its cashless, we’ll never be completely cashless.

Like, cash is still king and so these armored car companies service all these businesses all these banks and I just think it becomes, that creates a target-rich environment for suspects that are going to do something like this and then with all the different thoroughfares it does provide relatively access to go from one side of the city to the other.”

By November 2016, when Coughlin and the Houston Police Department finally had a grip on who their suspects were and how they were going to form a plan to take them down, it became glaringly obvious that they were dealing with extremely intelligent and violent individuals who were never going to stop.

Coughlin says the information investigators learned about the prime suspects and their ringleader, Red Batiste, prepared everyone on the task force for confrontation.

Jeff Coughlin: “Once we were able to actually get up on his phone and Title 3 the intercepts that he was in charge. Because he was giving out the orders and so not only were we able to see who was in the network but we were able to better understanding of his mind frame and his thoughts.

Not only the orders he was giving but the way he was giving them he was very, very confident and very excited about doing this again.

I went through all of his media devices, his computers, his phone and you really start to really understand or get a firm idea of who this person is.

On the morning of December 7th, 2016 all the individuals that were involved I think that they knew that there’s a higher than there’s a high probability that Redrick Batiste is not going to go into custody.”

Now, looking back five years later, Coughlin says he feels justice was served. All of the participants in these crimes faced punishment in one form or the other and for Red Batiste, Coughlin says he made the decision to fight authorities and that failed, fatally.

That’s a choice to-this-day that Coughlin believes Red made in his mind well before he ever planned his first robbery in Houston.

The next case that stood out of as pretty memorable from this season was the story of Philip Johnson, the Loomis armored truck guard who in 1997 single-handedly stole almost $19 million from his employer in Jacksonville, Florida.

Philip should not be considered any kind of folk hero for what he did, even though it was dubbed as one of the boldest and most expensive labor protests…

Philip is a convicted felon, no doubt. He’s also someone who crosses the mind of retired FBI special agent Jim Dougal on a regular basis.

Dougal was a rookie with the FBI in 1997 when he was assigned to be lead investigator on the Loomis armored truck depot robbery involving Philip Johnson.

Jim Dougal: “I was new in the FBI and I didn’t have a lot of pre-conceived notions of what an armored car robbery would be. I think a lot of the senior agents thought that it had to be a conspiracy, other people would be involved and I looked at this I think somewhat differently.”

The more Dougal learned about his prime suspect back in 1997, the more he began to understand the frumpy, frustrated man behind such a brazen crime.

Jim Dougal: “Philip Johnson was a unique individual. I believe he did this more out of frustration of his poor-paying job and as a payback to the company he’d spent years working for he didn’t think he was getting satisfaction from.

He was angry, clearly he was angry.

He wasn’t loved. I mean, that may sound weird but he was not a warm child. I talked to his dad a whole bunch through this whole process and kind of became friends with his dad and he was always trying to look for affection and some kind of acknowledgement or respect and he wasn’t getting it.

He spent years and years developing his other identities and personas and collecting passports and identifications without any other criminal history or activity being noted.

I’ve never seen like that. This extensive long-term planning and he never told anybody.”

Even though Dougal believed Philip’s motivation was frustration with his career, he still knew deep down that Philip was likely unhinged to a degree and was a threat to society the longer he stayed at large.

Dougal made that assessment after interviewing Dan Smith, one of the Loomis guards who Philip kidnapped and tied to a tree in North Carolina.

Jim Dougal: “It took a lot of guts for him to point a gun at his coworkers that he worked with for years and I think he had a lot of frustration with Dan Smith. I think when he had him handcuffed to a tree in the woods in North Carolina from what Dan Smith explained to me, I thought Philip was considering killing him in the woods that day.

He was dangerous and he had a lot of money and he was in an environment where he could pay people who were probably willing to be even more dangerous to do bidding. We weren’t sure because the things he did leading up to this weren’t typical. It wasn’t easy, you could read his profile and say he wouldn’t do that kind of violent stuff.”

When it came to the manhunt to find Philip, Dougal remembers the fact that Philip was an average looking guy didn’t help the investigation.

In fact, it sort of hindered it.

Jim Dougal: “We spent many months looking for him and we tracked him using numerous different ways but we never got an indication that somebody identified him through a picture or what he looked like.

There was nothing interesting or stood out about him.”

Dougal was elated when he learned a few months into the investigation that his prime suspect had slipped up at the US border and gotten himself arrested.

He says before the FBI recovered most of the stolen cash that Philip had stashed in the storage shed in North Carolina…there was a period of time where Philip never stopped trying to weasel out of what he’d done, even going as far as bribery to evade punishment.

Jim Dougal: “While he was in jail, he approached a corrections officer and told him that he would give him millions of dollars if he helped him escape from jail and the corrections officer said how would we do that and Philip was willing to do anything. So, he attempted to bribe this guy and says you’ll drive me to the place where I have the money and then I’ll give you 5 million dollars or some outrageous amount.”

That ploy didn’t work and as you know Philip Johnson ended up going to prison for 22 years.

Dougal says when the FBI cracked open the storage shed and found Philip’s money, they learned he’d only taken $200,000 with him while on the lam in Mexico, the rest of the tens of millions of dollars he left behind in North Carolina.

Jim Dougal: “That was a large amount of money. It’s like filled up the back of a pickup truck amount of money.”

There was also something else in the shed that made the case a slam dunk…

Jim Dougal: “When they opened it up, everything was there to include the video tape of him holding his co-workers hostage and taking the money. That was all videotaped by security cameras. He took that VCR tape out of the machine and kept it with the money. So, we had, when we got the money, we’re like ‘Oh my God, here’s the video tape. You have the evidence we need. There’s no doubt’” (laughs)

Of the handful of armored truck robberies Dougal worked during his 21 years with the FBI, he’s certain that Philip’s case was one of a kind.

Mostly because of the suspect himself.

As far as an inside man M-O…Dougal says those should never come as a surprise.

Jim Dougal: “Armored car robberies are few and far between. Mostly, a lot of them involve the employees of the armored car company. Sometimes they’re just sticking money in their pants.” (laughs)

One theme that was definitely apparent in several episodes this season was that armored truck robbers can and DO commit senseless murder during these heists.

I don’t think it can be overstated how terribly tragic this reality is.

One case that struck a nerve for our whole team as we were putting together this show was the 2012 murder of Michael Haines…the Garda courier who was gunned down by his coworker Ken Konias Jr.

Ken was convicted for stealing roughly $2.3 million in cash from Garda and for his partner’s brutal murder.

Just a few weeks after the crime, the FBI caught up to him living in a rundown house surrounded by stolen cash and drugs in Pompano Beach, Florida.

The lead investigator who worked the case is Pittsburgh’s FBI assistant special agent in charge, Scott Argiro.

He remembers the case for a lot of reasons, but one in particular.

Scott Argiro: “It got a lot of media attention here because there’s not a lot of armored car robberies that have happened in the Pittsburgh area and in fact in the 10 years I’ve been working here in the Pittsburgh FBI office it’s the only armored car robbery that I can recall.”

Argiro says from the very beginning of the investigation agents were analyzing every facet of the suspect and victim’s lives.

Knowing their backstories and the events that led up to them working together on that fateful day in February 2012 was critical to understanding the case.

Scott Argiro: “It’s a tale of two individuals. Mr. Haines was a recent college graduate.

He had a hard time finding a job in the communications field and worked a couple brief stints and then started working with Garda kind of just as stable employment. Whereas Ken Konias himself was somewhat unsuccessful in his career paths. He was a volunteer fireman. Was let go from the volunteer fire department. They didn’t trust him. Took the police test, failed the police test. Wasn’t able to become a police officer. So, he was kind of scrounging at a career from a different perspective of being unsuccessful in his other careers and got on with Garda…was on for a short time and then they were paired up. They had only worked a couple of times together and based on our research and our investigation we believe that Mr. Konias did so some very specific planning. Whether he knew Mr. Haines was going to be his victim or whoever he had that day it was uncertain but it was a very unnecessary killing. He could have pushed Mr. Haines out of the car, been gone and disappeared the same way he did even after killing Mr. Haines. It was a very unnecessary and brutal killing.”

At the time, the biggest challenge Argiro remembers the FBI faced was the fact that Ken had such a huge head start on them.

If you remember, close to three hours passed between when Ken murdered his partner, stole the cash, ditched the armored truck and when Michael Haines’ body was ultimately found.

Initially the FBI and Pittsburgh Police task force hunting Ken down inaccurately assumed where their prime suspect would flee to and what types of people he’d surround himself with.

Scott Argiro: “He seemed to be very obsessive compulsive. Always had his uniforms pressed real nicely, separated equidistant in his closet. Very kind of impeccable dress, so we were assuming that he was in some higher-end locations and maybe driving a really fancy car. We couldn’t have been more off.”

Ken’s eventual arrest in a drug house in South Florida was a far cry from where investigators thought he’d be hiding out.

When the moment finally came though, Argiro coordinated Ken’s take down remotely from his kitchen in Pittsburgh.

Scott Argiro: “The night when the call came in when I was sitting at my kitchen island and I was elated like we finally have a break. We’ve been pushing so hard. We had so many media publications out there. We have so many sources that we were operating in different you know technical and human sources collecting information and then it was just too good to be true.”

The fact that Argiro and his team were able to put a killer behind bars and recover nearly all of the stolen money was something he says he has never and will never forget.

Scott Argiro: “We determined that Ken had a storage unit down there in Florida and in conducting a search of that storage unit it was amazing to find that there was a million dollars, roughly a million dollars in a suitcase in the center of the storage unit with one shining light shining down on the suitcase and it was the only thing in the storage unit. So, that was like straight out of a movie itself.”

Hearing these investigators recall so many details about their cases from years ago is impressive.

I guess if I was responsible for catching bad guys like this for a living, I’d have a pretty good memory bank too.

To cap off this bonus episode, we wanted to leave you with one more case that wasn’t covered in the previous ten episodes.

It’s the story of Mark Espinosa, a Garda armored truck driver who I think probably fits the profile for who retired FBI agent Jim Dougal was referring to when he said some armored truck company employees just stick money down their pants…

Mark’s case didn’t involve murder or violence of any kind, but it was brazen, and overall well- executed, except for one small hiccup…

He forgot that fingerprints are the tried-and-true clue that get any criminal caught.

Andrew Phillips, FBI supervisory special agent of Louisville, Kentucky’s violent crimes squad spoke with our team to fill us in on the specifics of the case.

On December 5th, 2018 Phillips along with the Louisville Metro Police Department were called to the scene of an idling Garda armored truck parked near Jefferson Mall near the outer loop of city.

Andrew Phillips: “The driver had gone missing…

The truck had been found in a parking lot engine running but no signs of the driver and that was sort of and the cash was gone as well.

It was carrying well over $900,000 that was missing.

At the time we did not know whether or not the driver had been the individual that stole the money or whether he had been kidnapped.”

For Phillips, the worst-case scenario was that Mark had been kidnapped and whoever robbed the truck would eventually kill him.

But within a matter of days that scenario started to seem less and less likely.

Andrew Phillips: “For me, life is the most important thing. Money can be replaced but someone’s life can’t. So, you know you take a look and see had this driver been kidnapped? Is he in danger? Is someone holding him for some unknown reason. So, that’s sort of the priority and then the priority changes after we start to determine that it was in fact Mr. Espinosa.

Within I’d say in about 2 weeks it was determined that most likely Mr. Espinosa and we were looking for him and wanting to find him…and sort of common sense would say, what would be the point of someone taking Mr. Espinosa? They only introduce additional risk to themselves. This person would not be cooperative with them if he was in fact kidnapped and he would have every reason to tell the authorities what happened to him and who had been involved in the theft and who the number of perpetrators were. So, fairly quickly it was determined that the kidnapping portion of the investigation was probably not a line that we wanted to pursue.”

The clues that helped Phillips and his team determine that it was Mark who was actually responsible for robbery were subtle small pieces of evidence that just didn’t sit right with FBI investigators.

Andrew Phillips: “It was odd that the vehicle, the doors were locked and the vehicle was left running. Mr. Espinosa left his service weapon inside the compartment and there was also a notepad that was left. It was kind of between the seats, it had some suspicious writing such as it looked like trying to describe people and a plate and we determined later on that that was actually deliberate attempt to you know obstruct the investigation.”

The story behind the notepad, is that Mark had written down descriptions of people and license plates and indicated in those notes that he was being followed or watched.

Phillips believes that Mark intended for the FBI to pursue the information written on the notepad as a lead.

But the feds saw right through that ploy.

The evidence that Mark had planned this heist all by himself was just too overwhelming.

Andrew Phillips: “In this case Mr. Espinosa did do some pre-planning. He had picked his location for various reasons. He had done some planning for acquiring some false identification and a what you’d call a getaway vehicle which is just basically a vehicle that we didn’t know that he had owned.”

A few months after the crime, Mark made the FBI’s task to catch him a lot easier.

Andrew Phillips: “He attempted to acquire a government issued driver’s license in Connecticut in a different name and when he presented documentation…you know that process you’ve got to present documents that will allow a government agency to verify who you really are and as he presented those documents, they were from what I understand quite obviously fraudulent so he was detained at the DMV and then from there once he was fingerprinted it becomes a matter of getting to him then because we had a warrant out and you figure out who he is from his fingerprints.”

That’s right, Mark Espinosa put his real fingerprints on fake ID documents and tried to convince the Department of Motor Vehicles in Connecticut that he was someone else.

What he didn’t account for was the fact that he’d also legitimately given his fingerprints to the Garda Armored truck company when he started working for them. So, investigators pretty much had their case made for them.

After Mark’s arrest in early 2019, Phillips and his team were able to find most of the $900,000 he’d stolen.

Andrew Phillips: “They recovered most of the money. Most of it in cash in suitcases. He did go through the criminal justice sentence system and he was, he ended up pleading guilty to five counts and he was sentenced to 37 months of imprisonment and two years of supervised release thereafter.”

So, Mark will definitely get out of prison.

Let’s just hope he doesn’t get sticky fingers again.

Andrew Phillips’ memory of the case is certainly positive, considering he got his man, but more than anything, there’s two specific details about the robbery and the suspect that he says speak directly to how amateur and immature Mark Espinosa was.

Andrew Phillips: “He got a pretty far distance from the Louisville area. He got away with a significant amount of money and he didn’t…he actually had that money on him at his apartment and he didn’t try to hide it. I think a lot of the concerns sometimes with these sorts of robberies are that somehow the money will be put somewhere that no one knows about and you’ll never recover any of the funds and then the funny thing as I was remembering this case was one of the first things he did with the money was buy a puppy. So, I thought that was maybe not surprising but just kind of something that stuck out.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to Armored.

If you like the show please give it a five-star rating and leave a review.

Your feedback helps other people find the series.

Armored is an audiochuck original.

Hosted by Jake Brennan.

Research and writing by Micheal Whelan with writing assistance from executive producer Delia D’Ambra.

Editing by Eric Aaron.

So, what do you think Chuck, do you approve? *howl*