The zip tie robbers left behind no clues, only terrorized witnesses and convenience stores looted of cash from their check-cashing operations. They hit stores in Mesa, Phoenix and Buckeye.
Police asked their street informants what they knew, went public with information about the suspects and posted a $10,000 reward.
The bandits were brazen, smart and growing more violent. They had to be stopped, but when there are no investigative leads to follow where do the investigators start?
“It’s called ‘basic police work,’” said the Mesa police sergeant who led the team that cracked the case. “But it’s a lot — a lot — of man hours.”
It was midday on May 25, a Friday, and Primo Food and Deli was flush with currency.
Earlier, an armored car had dropped off stacks of bills. But the store at 1931 West University Drive in Mesa, had yet to see customers turning their payroll checks into hard cash before the Memorial Day weekend.
Shortly after noon, four men burst into the store. They forced employees and patrons to the floor, and then used plastic zip ties to restrain the witnesses, including a 6-year-old girl.
They demanded the cashier hand over the money. He hesitated, only to have a pistol pressed to his neck.
The robbers made off with $102,000 — a loss it turned out as the store’s insurance company wouldn’t cover it.
Owner Mohammed “Mario” Ashraf had stepped out to take care of other business, hurriedly returning when his frightened employees contacted him after they called 911.
Once inside, after a four-hour wait behind yellow crime scene tape, his clerk was apologetic about handing over the money.
“You did the right thing,” Ashraf told him.
Still, it took more than a week before the clerk was comfortable enough to work alone again. And five months later, Ashraf doesn’t have enough money to consistently cash checks.
“I’m still sick. I’m still struggling,” Ashraf admitted Tuesday. “Because of this bad economy and that hit, I don’t know if I’m going to survive.”
The robbery at Primo is believed to be the gang’s first heist.
Seven weeks passed before the robbers struck M & M Market, 810 S. Stapley Drive in Mesa.
A month later, on Aug. 11, the bandits hit again — and raised the ante even higher.
At the Number One Mini-Mart, 735 E. McKellips Road in Mesa, they left behind a badly beaten clerk and bullet holes.
Police Chief George Gascón immediately decided it was necessary to stop the crime spree, and gave that assignment to a team composed of a sergeant, seven detectives and an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The sergeant came from the Street Crimes division; because he frequently works undercover, he remains anonymous.
The team scheduled its first meeting Aug. 18 — and the bandits hit a Buckeye store the day before.
The police team had identified connections between the crimes — four or five Hispanic men, hitting at midday on Friday — but almost no leads.
Without those, the investigation focused on the information at hand. Poring over available evidence, a detective noticed an overlooked detail from the first robbery.
That led to a name, which eventually led to a positive identification.
“It was a good moment, but it wasn’t a satisfying moment,” the sergeant recalled.
There were still more men to identify.
In the middle of their long days, a Phoenix store was robbed. Also during that time, the officers caught a break, which led to two more identifications. Still, the team needed more.
When the team started its investigation, not only were the answers out of their grasp, they didn’t know what questions to ask.
By Oct. 13 — when the bandits knocked off the 99 Cent Plus Wine & Beer, 730 E. Brown Road in Mesa — the investigators were ready.
“That crime scene was worked by the task force that knew the case,” the sergeant said.
Here, they tied in a vehicle, identified two more suspects and got surveillance photos from neighboring businesses.
A week later, the team moved in for the kill. They arrested one suspect, Kalib Andrade-Mondragon, 21, of Gilbert.
Realizing the others would bolt if they learned their comrade was in custody, scores of officers worked to serve search warrants across Mesa.
Also arrested were: Juan José Mendez, 32, of Mesa; Humberto Ochoa-Alvarado, 30, of Gilbert; Juan Felipe Torres-Torres, 25, of Gilbert; and Javier Robledo-Rodriguez, 26, of Mesa.