Armed Robber Caught in the Act
Law Enforcement Collaboration Led to Arrest, 260-Year Prison Term
A 27-year-old Arizona man who went on a seven-week crime spree—sometimes violently robbing up to four gas station convenience stores in a single night—will be spending the rest of his life behind bars thanks to local and federal law enforcement collaboration, a stolen lottery ticket, and a sharp-eyed off-duty police officer.
From late December 2015 through early February 2016, Anthony Hamilton robbed 36 gas station convenience stores at gunpoint, according to the indictments against him. Brandishing a handgun and threatening to use it, Hamilton—often with an accomplice—stole money from the stores and the employees. The robberies occurred late at night in nearly every city in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
“They would enter wearing generic robbery clothing—hoodie, gloves, dark pants, and bandanas covering their faces,” said Special Agent Chris Maffei, who investigated the case from the FBI’s Phoenix Division. “Handguns drawn, they would demand money.” On two occasions, they made frightened employees withdraw money from their own accounts using ATMs inside the stores.
Because the robberies were occurring so quickly in so many different jurisdictions, multiple police departments were trying to track down the robbers. That’s where the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force came in. The multi-agency task force, established nearly a decade ago, investigates bank robberies and other violent crimes.
Initially, Maffei said, the task force played a coordinating role among the various police departments, sharing information about the robberies, which now numbered nearly two dozen. Eventually, it was determined that the criminals could be charged under the Hobbs Act, a federal statute that, among other things, prohibits robbery affecting interstate commerce. Hobbs Act charges carry stiff prison sentences and also eliminate the need to prosecute multiple state cases in several jurisdictions.
But first, investigators had to catch the criminals.
After more than 30 robberies in little more than a month, the FBI was asked to become the lead agency on the case. By now, as many as 40 detectives from nearly a dozen local law enforcement agencies had been involved in the investigation. From some of the previous crimes, surveillance footage had captured images of the hooded robbers, along with a vehicle that seemed to be involved. But the footage did not capture the vehicle’s license plates.
There was also another key piece of evidence: In one of the early robberies, scratch-off lottery tickets were taken. The following day, an individual tried to cash a winning ticket, but because the ticket had been electronically recorded as stolen, the clerk refused the payout and called the police to report the incident. Surveillance footage of that transaction clearly revealed an individual’s face—and the clothes he was wearing were the same clothes as the robber’s from the previous night’s theft.
“The investigation will not be over until the other subject has been captured and brought to justice.”
Chris Maffei, special agent, FBI Phoenix
“So we knew what the robber looked like,” Maffei said, “but we didn’t know who he was.”
Every time a new robbery occurred, a bulletin was issued to all the local police departments and sheriff’s offices with details about the crime. The bulletins included surveillance images of the hooded robbers, the face of the individual who tried to cash the lottery ticket, and the mystery vehicle thought to be involved in the robberies.
The break in the case occurred at an unlikely place—a fast-food restaurant. One Saturday, an off-duty officer with the Peoria Police Department near Phoenix was waiting to order food in a drive-thru lane in his personal vehicle. “He looks over in the other lane and sees a vehicle similar to the one pictured in the robbery bulletins, and a driver who resembled the individual who tried to cash the stolen lottery ticket,” Maffei said. “The officer writes down the out-of-state license plate and contacts his supervisors.”
The vehicle was registered to an Ohio woman, and subsequent investigation revealed that her one-time boyfriend was Anthony Hamilton, whose face matched the surveillance images from the lottery transaction. Tempe Police Department officers later spotted the vehicle, and a judge issued a court order allowing a tracking device to be used. “From that moment on,” Maffei said, “we had 24-hour surveillance on the vehicle.”
A day later, Hamilton carried out his 36th robbery, and was promptly arrested. “He was basically caught in the act,” Maffei said. “We had his clothes, the money, and his gun.”
Although he was indicted federally on 36 counts, prosecutors chose 11 counts with the strongest witnesses and best evidence to take to trial. In June 2017, a jury found Hamilton guilty of all 11 counts of Hobbs Act robbery and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
The majority of the 260-year federal prison term Hamilton received in November 2017 was the result of mandatory minimum sentences required by the law when a weapon is used in the commission of a robbery. The law also requires that the sentences be carried out consecutively. “This is a life sentence without saying life,” Maffei said.
In all, Hamilton made off with less than $10,000. “The average take per robbery was $200 to $300,” Maffei said, noting that the FBI is still searching for Hamilton’s accomplice, believed to have taken part in 22 of the crimes.
“The investigation will not be over until the other subject has been captured and brought to justice,” he said. “We are fortunate that no one was injured or killed as a result of this reckless crime spree.”
The Benefits of Partnership
The FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force in Phoenix was established in 2008 primarily to address bank robberies, a then-serious crime problem in the metropolitan area. With the number of bank robberies steadily declining since that time, the task force has focused on other forms of violent crime.
Comprised of FBI agents and detectives from several local police departments, the task force proved to be the ideal entity to investigate the rash of gas station robberies that began occurring in late 2015.
Besides coordinating and deconflicting information about the robberies between nearly a dozen police agencies and acting as a single point of contact, the FBI-led task force was able to provide critical resources to move the investigation forward, according to Special Agent Chris Maffei.
Those resources included funding for investigative techniques such as cell phone analysis, as well as round-the-clock surveillance of the subject after he was identified. In addition, the FBI’s ability to bring federal charges streamlined the process of prosecuting the robber and guaranteed a lengthy prison term based on federal sentencing guidelines.
“Through the task force, we already had a strong relationship with our local police partners,” Maffei said, “and that made this case so much easier to bring to a successful resolution.”