At 8:09 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 2012, Liloutie Ramnanan pulled her sedan into the parking lot of the Pay-O-Matic Check Cashing on South Conduit Avenue in South Jamaica, Queens. She’d worked as a teller there for 16 years. It was a steady job. It paid better than minimum wage and business was good. The economy had been improving but there remained enough distrust in traditional banks to keep a steady stream of customers at her window.
There was one other car, a black Ford Explorer, in the square, fenced-in lot. The Explorer was not in any of the lot’s dozen spaces, but sitting in a “No Parking” zone along the one-story building’s side wall. Ramnanan had seen the vehicle in the lot many times before, two or three times a week for the past month. It had been there when she arrived for work yesterday, too. There were always three men in the SUV, three white men, each with a police badge hanging from a chain around his neck. All those mornings, she’d never noticed any of them get out of the vehicle. There was probably some big investigation going on. A coworker had recently been fired for cashing forged checks.
As she walked toward the building’s entrance, the man in the driver’s seat of the SUV stepped out and cut her off in the middle of the lot. He was bald with a brown goatee, a large, hulking man who towered over her five-foot-five frame. He wore sunglasses and a navy blue jacket with “NYPD” in yellow letters on the front.
He asked her if she worked at the Pay-O-Matic and she said she did. He pulled a photo from his pocket and showed it to her. It was a picture of a house. He asked her if it looked familiar, and she said no. He pulled out a second photo of an unfamiliar house. Then he showed her a third.
“That house is my house,” Ramnanan said. She became worried. Had something terrible happened at home? Had something happened to her husband or their son?
Then the man gestured toward the Pay-O-Matic and asked, “Who is inside?”
She told him that Sean Anderson, the teller who worked the overnight shift, was.
Something about the question seemed off to her. Something about this man and his photos didn’t seem right, either. It suddenly dawned on her what was going on: This was a robbery.
He told her to enter the building. He walked behind her with a hand on her back. She could hear the two other men from the car following behind them. “Ask Sean to open the door,” the bald man said.
Anderson was just finishing up with the only customer in the building. Ramnanan and the bald man approached the bulletproof glass window separating the customer area from locked teller area, which employees call “the cage.”
“Sean, can you open the door?” Ramnanan said. “Sean, open the door, please.”
“Sean, don’t touch anything,” the bald man said. “Open the door.”
Anderson buzzed open the first door, which led into a vestibule, then swung open another door, which led into the cage. A second man in an NYPD jacket followed them into the cage, while a third, dressed in the same outfit, stood by the front door with the customer. The second man was much shorter and thinner than the one who first approached Ramnanan, and he wore a hat. Ramnanan was quiet, and Anderson didn’t seem to know what was happening until the smaller man raised his arm and pointed a pistol at him, and ordered the two employees to drop to the ground.
The bald man went straight to the safe, which was already open, and piled the cash into a black garbage bag. The smaller man opened a drawer below the counter and dumped the cash from the till into his own bag. He then pulled out a juice bottle, uncapped it, and splashed a clear liquid all over the place — the counter, the safe, the door. Then the men left. It was 8:13 a.m. and they had just stolen $200,755.89.
“we pirates.” Text message from Monsalvatge to Byam and Dunkley, August 2012
Anybody can rob a bank. The trick is getting away with it.
That part has gotten harder over the years. These days a third of bank robbers are caught within 24 hours, according to Department of Justice statistics. Security cameras are ever-present and a robber’s face is guaranteed to be plastered on every newscast in the city. Most banks hide GPS trackers in cash bundles, or radio-controlled dye packs that explode red powder seconds after the money crosses the front door. DNA technology adds yet another hurdle. All a detective needs is a trace of skin oil or saliva or a strand of hair. John Dillinger and Willie Sutton never had to worry about flesh particles.
Consequently, the number of bank robberies has dwindled over the decades. Throughout the ’90s, there were about 9,000 bank robberies a year in the U.S. In 2011, there were around 5,000. The drop was even steeper in New York City: 319 in 1979; 44 in 2011. Yet the percentage of solved cases across the country has also dropped with time, from 80 percent in the 1970s to less than 60 percent in the 2000s. Modern police work has scared off many ill-prepared amateurs. As the Department of Justice notes in its bank robbery guide for local police departments, “discouraging an amateur robber is much easier and the approach different than thwarting a committed team of professionals.”
Still, there is an illusion of ease to the idea of robbing a bank. Building layouts are predictable, there is always cash inside, and tellers are trained to hand over the money without fuss. Three-quarters of bank robbers don’t even bother to flash a gun. And while police catch a majority of suspects, they rarely find the loot: In 2011, $38 million was stolen from banks across the U.S., but just $8 million was recovered.
Success is a simple matter of execution. But execution is a sophisticated matter of preparation, patience, discipline, and cold focus under hot pressure — uncommon traits in any person, including those who decide to rob banks. The average bank robbery take is around $4,000 — usually just the money that tellers grab from the drawers beneath the counter. The real haul is in the safe, and bank robbers, intent on escaping before police arrive, crack the safe less than 5 percent of the time.
Modern American lore remembers the few who evaded capture long enough to master the criminal art. The Polo Shirt Bandit was suspected of robbing 38 banks across Texas before he killed himself during a police chase in 1996. The Trenchcoat Robbers hit 27 banks over two decades before getting caught in 1997. The Friday Night Bank Robber notched 50 heists before his 2002 arrest. Forrest Tucker, who robbed his first bank in his late twenties, told the New Yorker that he did not become a true expert until he was 60. “No one can teach you the craft,” he told reporter David Grann. “You can only learn by doing.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation uses the term “bank robbery” loosely. By its definition, a “bank robbery” can involve any federally insured financial institution, including credit unions, savings and loans, and check-cashing businesses. But despite the shared terminology, robbing a check-cashing outlet is a different challenge than robbing a retail bank.
Check-cashing services first emerged during the Great Depression, when Americans preferred keeping their money to depositing it into the banks that had lost their savings. The industry exploded in the ’80s and ’90s, as deregulation upped the cost of traditional banking and many banks shuttered branches in impoverished areas. In 1987, there were around 2,500 check-cashing outlets listed in Yellow Pages across the across the country. By 2005, there were more than 13,000. They primarily sprouted in low-income communities. In New York, customers pay service fees around 2 percent. It’s a profitable business dominated by a handful of industry giants. Pay-O-Matic, for instance, has more than 100 locations across the city, about 40 of which are in Queens.
The convenience and low overhead costs of check-cashing outlets make them prime targets for a big score. Dye-packs and GPS tracking are rare, as are security guards. Few employees are onsite at any given time, and many stay open 24 hours. The industry compensates for this tactical deficiency with brute strength: Thick bulletproof windows and two locked doors protect the tellers and the cash. At Pay-O-Matic, employees are not allowed to leave the cage during their shift. The room is designed to be a fortress.
On the afternoon of the Valentine’s Day heist, Ramnanan and Anderson gave descriptions of the robbers to police: three white males in their thirties or forties; one about six-foot-two with a big bald head and a brown goatee; another maybe five-foot-six and skinny; a third of medium height and build. Not much to go on.
Detective Michael Visconti met with Anderson at the 105th Precinct to look through a photo spread of possible suspects. Visconti showed Anderson several pages of white males in their thirties and forties, but no faces stood out. Police put the case on the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers website and TV news stations broadcast surveillance footage stills showing the robbers’ faces. “The suspects are all described as white males,” a CBS anchor told viewers.
The calls and emails poured in. Two tips mentioned police officers who fit the physical descriptions. Another mentioned a crew of “older fellas” from Long Island. Another mentioned three actors who worked as extras on a Law & Order episode. The tip that intrigued Visconti, though, did not mention any person. An anonymous tipster made an observation that caused the detective to watch the surveillance footage with fresh eyes: The robbers were wearing masks.
A 22-year veteran of the force, Visconti worked on the internal affairs bureau’s police impersonation investigation unit. He specialized in revealing identities beneath costumes. He watched the surveillance tape again, and the more he watched, the clearer the truth became. How could he have missed it? The hats, too small for the heads and unstrapped in the back; the ear holes, bigger than normal; the bulging rolls on the neck. Their most basic lead, that the suspects were three white men, was dead.
Now two weeks into the investigation, the pool of possible suspects was wider than when the investigation began. An anonymous “police source” told the Daily News at the time: “We don’t know if they are white, black, or Hispanic. People in the neighborhood saw them in the [Ford Explorer] for two or three days before the robbery. They saw three white guys.”
When Visconti watched the security footage, he saw a team of professionals. The masks were Hollywood-quality, realistic enough to fool people standing inches away. In an era when images spread around the world with the click of a finger, these robbers had managed to throw their pursuers far off the scent. They had turned the law’s most powerful tool to their advantage. Then there was the speed: in and out in three minutes. And the spoils: They had scored more than $200,000 cash. These guys were pros.
But it was the craftsmanship that was most impressive. The crew had cased the establishment for weeks. They wore masks and police badges each time they sat in the parking lot. They arrived for the heist at 7:56 a.m., four minutes before the shift change and 56 minutes after a security guard dropped by to open the safe for the morning. They brought photos of the employees’ homes and used them as tickets into a room protected by two locked doors and bulletproof glass. The bleach they poured on the way out erased any possible DNA trace. They had accounted for every obstacle and every trail and executed to perfection.
Or near perfection. Because as Visconti continued to review the footage, he saw these meticulous thieves make their mistake. He watched Ramnanan and the larger man enter the building. The man held white papers in his right hand, which was on Ramnanan’s back. When he shifted his hand to her shoulder, one of the papers fluttered to the ground. The robbers stepped right past it on their way out and police found it at the scene.
It was the photograph of Ramnanan’s house. On the back were two rows of numbers and the word “Walgreens.” One was the store code for the Walgreens on Farmers Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. Visconti went there and the store manager gave him the receipt that matched the other number set. The receipt showed a phone number and a name: “Byam, E.”
“You passed the steal [sic] balls tst. You have the smarts and you are open to advice. If you stay disciplined, dedicated, desire, and respect what you do, I guarantee you will be a multimillionaire by the time you are 25, fact.” Text message from Monsalvatge to Byam, May 2012
Edward Byam had a problem.
It was June 2012 and his ex-girlfriend, Jodi Ann Ferguson, was on the phone, telling him to get her black 2002 Ford Explorer out of the driveway of the home where she was staying in Jamaica, Queens.
Ferguson was keeping the Explorer parked at the house, which was owned by a friend’s grandmother. She had been living there temporarily since moving out of Byam’s place. The two had broken up on Valentine’s Day, reconciled, and broken up again, but they remained close. To help Byam while he looked for a job, Ferguson let him use the Explorer. She gave Byam a set of keys, and the arrangement hadn’t posed any problems until that day in June.
As Ferguson explained to Byam, the grandmother had called her at work and said there were some police officers in her yard looking at the Explorer. She wanted the SUV off her property before it caused any trouble. So Ferguson told Byam to get rid of it. He picked up the vehicle that day and took it to a Brooklyn junkyard.
The incident shook Byam. For more than four months, he was convinced his tracks were covered, all evidence erased. That sense of security had vanished with a single phone call. If police knew about the Explorer what else might they know? But the 24-year-old Byam was a cool-headed man who’d gotten through worse.
When he was in grade school, Byam’s mother would abandon him for days at a time, so he’d learned to take care of himself. When he was 10, the son of a family friend sexually abused him. He never told his mother. He didn’t trust her, he later explained to people.
Despite the circumstances of his upbringing, Byam, by most accounts, grew up to become a decent young man. The kind of person who “would give away his kidney to any of his friends who needed one,” says Marc Johnson, a longtime friend. He graduated from Jamaica High School in 2006 and went on to attend Metropolitan College before dropping out after three years because he needed a full-time job to support his four-year-old son.
He worked a few retail and sales positions before landing a job enrolling low-income mothers for childcare services at the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco). Between shifts, he showered his son with the affection he never received. He took him to football practice and played catch in the park. “They have an unbreakable bond,” says the child’s mother, Fatima McNeil. The boy “idolizes his father.”
Byam left WHEDco after three years, in January 2012. He explained to his superiors there that the work schedule was conflicting with time he needed to take care of his son. It was while he searched for a more accommodating job that Ferguson gave him keys to her SUV.
But the Explorer was gone now. He’d handled the situation, tied the loose end, erased the tracks, dodged the bullet. There was nothing more he could do but trust in the plan. He again turned his attention forward. He had a string of trips planned to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Cancun, Mexico. He was eager to let loose with two of his closest friends, Derrick Dunkley and Akeem Monsalvatge.
Dunkley and Byam were cousins, born within three days of each other. But while Byam was lanky, with sleepy eyes and high cheekbones, Dunkley was short, with soft features and doe eyes. He’d emigrated from Jamaica when he was six and grew up in a working-class household. He graduated high school in the same class as Byam and, like Byam, dropped out of college after three years so he could work more to help support his mother and younger brother. When he did have some money left over, he liked to spend it on basketball cards. His collection was perhaps his most prized possession.
Monsalvatge was 13 years older than the cousins, but he knew them from around the neighborhood. He appreciated Byam’s easygoing humor. A married man, Monsalvatge was charming and never seemed to take himself too seriously. He embraced his role as an older brother figure to Byam and Dunkley with the earnest optimism of a man who had turned his life around. At age 16 he had pleaded guilty to armed robbery. He expressed remorse and the judge went easy on him, sentencing him to just five years’ probation. During those five years, he earned a commercial driver’s license and graduated with an associate’s degree from the New York Restaurant School. He’d worked a chef ever since, mainly doing prep cooking for catering companies. He went to the gym daily and, because of his NFL–caliber physique, people often asked him for fitness tips. Eventually he made some money on the side by conducting informal training sessions. The extra cash helped pad a college fund he was building for his 10-year-old daughter.
By early 2010, the three friends had begun spending more time together. They held barbecues, split the cost for pay-per-view boxing matches, hosted Super Bowl parties. Now they were taking trips, too. Ferguson told Byam she thought he was spending too much time with Monsalvatge, but while she and Byam were broken up, Byam saw Monsalvatge even more.
Two weeks after scrapping the Explorer, Byam got pulled over in a ’93 Lincoln Town Car with fake temporary license plates. Worried, he texted Monsalvatge. Byam had a title but no registration for the car. Monsalvatge calmed him down. “You should be good,” he texted back. “If they was going to F you more cops would have came.”
He was right. Byam was arrested for the forged plates, but his name wasn’t on file anywhere, so he walked free soon after. Byam clearly wasn’t on their radar, Monsalvatge concluded. He knew how police operated when they’re on the hunt. They wouldn’t hesitate to jump on someone that they suspected of a crime: Two years earlier, he had been one of those suspects, and the cops had jumped all over him. They told him they had identified his DNA on a pair of handcuffs found at the scene of a robbery in South Jamaica. It was a check-cashing outlet. He was still awaiting trial.
“Start getting y’alls mind back on work and excellent execution so we can be rich forever, rich forever.” — Text message from Monsalvatge to Byam and Dunkley, March 12, 2012
At 3:18 a.m. on February 24, 2010, a small man in a black hoodie slid down an air duct on the roof and into the cage of a Pay-O-Matic on Rockaway Boulevard in South Jamaica, Queens.
He pointed a gun at the teller. “Don’t act smart,” the robber said. “Put your hands out.” With his free hand, he pulled out a pair of handcuffs and locked them onto the teller’s wrists, then ordered him to lay face down. The robber wore blue gloves and a dark cloth mask. His partner, a bigger man wearing a similar mask and an orange construction vest over a blue hoodie, walked through the front door seconds later and waited on the other side of the bullet-proof window. He also held a gun.
Now the man in the black hoodie had to let his partner into the cage. He opened the door and stepped into the vestibule, propping the door open with his foot. But the second door was too far away. When he reached for it, the first door shut and locked behind him. He demanded that the teller let him in, but the teller didn’t move. From inside the vestibule, the man in black banged the door and tried to break it open. No luck. Another try. It wasn’t going to open. He rushed out the second door, through the lobby, and outside.
The man in the orange vest stood watch over the teller. He pointed the gun at him, but they both knew there was bulletproof glass between them, and all the robber could do was shout threats. “Don’t make any move! I’ll kill you!” He paced the lobby. Two minutes passed. Then three.
Then the man in black crashed through the roof once more, this time less gracefully. He tore through the ceiling panels and nearly fell right on top of the teller. The job was already taking too long. He ordered the teller to open the safe.
The teller replied that he didn’t have the key and didn’t know the combination. The man in black didn’t believe him and demanded a second time that the teller open the safe. Again the teller said that he couldn’t, trying to explain that it was locked before his shift and wouldn’t be reopened until the next morning.
The man in black didn’t bring a gun this time. So the man in the orange vest placed his into the sliding steel tray below the window. It was too big and didn’t fit through the slot. So the man in black picked up a steel folding chair and began beating the teller with it. The teller continued to plead ignorance.
Meanwhile, a third accomplice entered the building and traded guns with the man in orange. This gun was small enough to fit through the slot. The man in black grabbed the gun and held it to the teller’s head. He asked him who knew how to open the safe. The manager, he replied. The man in black held the teller’s phone to his ear while they called the manager. This was a desperate and risky move that veered far from the plan. But the whole operation had flown off the rails long ago. The teller explained to the manager that a customer was cashing a very large check and there wasn’t enough money in the drawers to cover it. The manager told him to tell the customer to come back in the morning because the safe stays closed overnight.
By now the robbers had been inside for more than 30 minutes. And now the manager was involved and possibly suspicious. It was time to go. The man in black gathered the cash from the drawer into a bag and the robbers left. They had been ill-prepared but were $44,039.73 richer.
Two months later, at around 3 a.m., a man with a crowbar climbed a ladder to the roof of a Whitestone Check Cashing outlet on Queens Boulevard in Jamaica. With the crowbar, he worked to pop open the siding of the metal box covering the building’s air conditioning unit. The process was slow and the crowbar made loud, rhythmic banging noises. Half an hour in and the job still wasn’t done. Then came the sound of footsteps below. The man looked into the lot behind the building. Two uniformed police officers were staring right at him. He dropped the crowbar, ran to the edge of the roof, then leaped off, onto the dirt at the base of an embankment. He scurried up the slope and onto the Long Island Railroad tracks, sprinting through the darkness until he was sure no one was chasing him.
“this shit is highly sophisticated but we make it look easy.” Text message from Monsalvatge to Byam and Dunkley, August 2012
In September 2010, police showed up at Akeem Monsalvatge’s home and arrested him on charges of armed robbery. It turned out he was suspected of the nearly botched February robbery at the Rockaway Boulevard Pay-O-Matic. The police informed him of the DNA match. He denied any knowledge of the crime, pleaded innocent, and made bail. The case inched forward, and two years later it was still a long way from going to trial.
But in August 2012, Monsalvatge had little reason to think anybody suspected him for the Valentine’s Day heist. “Start getting y’alls mind back on work and excellent execution so we can be rich forever, rich forever,” he’d texted Byam and Dunkley on March 12. He was confident. The police had tracked down the Explorer, but there were many possible reasons that officers might be looking at a beat-up vehicle in somebody’s driveway. The Explorer was now long gone, anyway. If the police had suspected that Byam and his friends were connected to the robbery, they could have questioned him after the forged license plate arrest. They didn’t. There was no need to worry. On August 3, he texted the cousins, “we pirates.” Then five days later he bragged, “this shit is highly sophisticated but we make it look easy.”
On August 18, 2012, a team of police officers and federal agents arrested Monsalvatge for the Valentine’s Day heist. They nabbed him at 7 a.m. as he was leaving for work. About a dozen lawmen in bulletproof vests, guns out, surrounded his car. An hour later, federal agents arrested Byam at his apartment. Under his bed, they found a duffel bag containing three masks and a bottle of bleach. They also found a photograph of a house which, they later discovered, belonged to a woman named Rosalyn who worked as a teller at Har-Joe Check Cashing on Parsons Boulevard in Jamaica.
Federal agents arrested Dunkley a few weeks later at his aunt’s house in Connecticut. They took a DNA sample from him that matched previously unidentified DNA found on a crowbar at the scene of the April 2010 attempted break-in on the roof of the Whitestone outlet. The DNA had gone unidentified because Dunkley had no criminal record and was not in the database.
After initially searching for three white men, the police had arrested three black men. Monsalvatge, Byam, and Dunkley were all charged for the 2012 and 2010 Pay-O-Matic heists.
The press made a mockery of them. “A three-man stickup crew,” the Daily News wrote, “proved themselves to be dumb, dumber, and dumbest in the end.” The Post quipped, “This year’s Dumb & Dumber award goes to — these guys.” “You’d think that criminals smart enough to allegedly use Mission: Impossible–style masks while robbing a Pay-O-Matic would be smart,” a Gothamist article began. “But . . . you’d apparently be wrong! Because two Queens men who allegedly pulled just such a heist this past Valentine’s Day certainly made at least one serious mistake: writing a glowing letter of appreciation to the people who made their lifelike mask!”
Nearly every news story about the case mentioned this letter, a November 2011 email that Byam sent to a mask-making company called Composite Effects: “I’m extremely pleased by [the] work on the mask and will definitely be doing business with you in the future. The realism of the mask is unbelievable,” the letter read. He then asked for clarification on the instructions for putting on the masks.
The media narrative was easy: This was a crew of bumbling, careless crooks who were busted because they were too boneheaded to cover their tracks. But the jurors at the eight-day trial in July and August 2013 saw a different story. There is a very thin line between getting caught and getting away, and these men had walked right along the edge of it.
“focus on that paper.” Text message from Monsalvatge to Byam and Dunkley, August 2012
On September 17, 2010, a Ben Affleck film called The Town opened in theaters. Affleck directed and starred as a man who leads a robbery crew of four lifelong friends. In the opening scene, the thieves don ghoulish masks while they rob a bank. They are well-prepared and know what time the safe is scheduled to open. Before leaving, they pour bleach over every surface they touched. In another scene, the crew pilfers the cash inside Fenway Park’s safe. They dress as police officers and flash their badges, allowing them access into the stadium’s bowels. When they encounter the employees inside the cash room, Affleck recites personal details about them, including home addresses and names of loved ones. The employees, afraid of putting their families in danger, do not make a distress call.
Federal prosecutors showed the jury clips of these scenes. They also displayed a photo of Monsalvatge, pulled from his iPhone, that showed him in a long-sleeve shirt with an image from the movie printed across the front. Monsalvatge, Byam, and Dunkley, prosecutors alleged, had studied The Town between their clumsy initial robbery attempts in 2010 and their big score on Valentine’s Day 2012.
The defense attorneys argued that this was a ridiculous attempt to connect the 2010 and the 2012 robberies. “When you look at the February 24, 2010 robbery, it’s like the Three Stooges,” Monsalvatge’s lawyer said in his closing arguments. “But fast forward to February 14, 2012. They saw the movie The Town. Now they become this well-oiled machine. In three minutes they clean out $200,000.”
Dunkley’s attorney furthered the point: “If that’s the case, you can just watch a video about brain surgery tomorrow and, you know, perform a flawless brain surgery on Saturday.”
Prosecutors pieced together for the jury the crimes and the months that followed, detailing how detectives tracked down the suspects. The dropped Walgreens photo had knocked over the first domino and once they all fell, the case against Monsalvatge and his crew was strong.
The photo placed someone named Byam at the crime scene. The Walgreens receipt listed a phone number tied to a cellular service contract he shared with Jodi Ann Ferguson. She lived at a property where an Explorer similar to the crime’s getaway vehicle was parked. Police subpoenaed the records of two high-quality mask companies, one of which had a customer named Byam. That customer had the masks (three “Mac the Guy” faces for $1,794.05) shipped to an apartment leased to the wife of a man accused of robbing a Pay-O-Matic in February 2010.
A look into Byam’s and Monsalvatge’s cell phone records showed an increased number of calls between the two, as well as a third number, registered to Derrick Dunkley, in the days following the 2012 heist. From February 11 through 13, the three exchanged a total of eight calls. On February 14, they made 40 calls to each other, and then 145 more over the next four days. On the day of the February 2010 robbery, the men traded 46 calls. Cell tower data showed that Byam, Dunkley, and Monsalvatge were in the area of each Pay-O-Matic around the time of the robberies. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed a company that sold NYPD–logo jackets on eBay; its records showed that three jackets had been purchased through Derrick Dunkley’s PayPal account in November 2011.
The defense team did not call any witnesses and the defendants did not testify.
The jury deliberated for less than a day, finding the three defendants guilty on all counts for both robberies.
On a wet and gray Friday morning in early April, Monsalvatge, Byam, and Dunkley stood before Judge Raymond Drearie for sentencing in Brooklyn federal court. Two dozen family members and friends filled the benches in the back of the courtroom. There were tissues passed and heads shaking, solemn nods and blown kisses.
“It’s a tragedy because each of you showed in your personal history tremendous potential,” Drearie told them before handing down their punishments. He called them intelligent individuals with supportive families. “It’s just a damn shame,” the judge went on. “Some of these folks are going to suffer more than you.” They were each given 32 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence.
“Honestly we were not given a fair trial, we were not given a fair shot at justice,” Akeem Monsalvatge tells the Voice from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. “People are not supposed to be convicted based upon bedtime stories, based upon fictional movies.”
His wife is a nurse practitioner with a master’s degree, earning a six-figure salary, he notes. And he had his own steady job. “I was making a comfortable living.” He and his friends had too much to lose to pull a robbery.
Byam has a son who badly needs him, he adds. The eight-year-old suffers from a mood disorder and separation anxiety and sees a therapist twice a week. Byam was the one who took him to doctor visits and checked in on him at school.
Monsalvatge’s older daughter, now 12, is old enough to understand what’s going on. She and her mom visit him once a week. They bring along the family’s newest member, a girl born in May 2012. Both Monsalvatge and Byam may be grandfathers by the time they return home to their families.
Drearie said during sentencing that the crimes were very serious and the evidence was convincing, but 32 years in prison was an unfair punishment. “Severe . . . well-beyond what is needed . . . a very significant sentence,” he called it. “I’m uncomfortable with it, frankly.” But mandatory minimums are the law, he added, and there was nothing he could do.
Each man waved to his loved ones as the bailiffs marched them out of the courtroom. When Dunkley waved, a middle-age woman in the back row held her hand up, wiping tears from her face with the other hand. Then she shuffled out the door. She sat alone on a bench in the hallway, beside a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. She buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed.
All three men plan to appeal.
“I have nothing to hide,” says Monsalvatge. “The evidence should speak for itself.” How could the feds pin it on them when “not one dollar was recovered? Not one dollar.”