They did not look like your usual armed robbers. What appeared to be three Caucasian police officers, guns drawn, entered the Pay-O-Matic check-cashing store on South Conduit Avenue in Queens, New York on Valentine’s Day 2012. The men wore jackets embroidered with the insignia of the NYPD and had authentic-looking detective shields hanging around their necks. While two of the cops guarded the door, the third approached a clerk and showed her a photo of her home, saying, “We know where you live.” He then pointed his gun at the clerk and told her to clear out the cash drawer and also a safe.
Another person who was working at the check-cashing store that day remembers it well. “We were terrified,” says the employee, who prefers to remain nameless. “They looked and sounded like police officers. They had guns. We gave them what they wanted.”
The men backed out of the store and drove off in a dark-colored Ford Explorer, absconding with nearly $200,000 in cash.
When investigators arrived on the scene, they were stumped. Would three cops really have the cojones to rob a busy check-cashing store on a bustling New York street in broad daylight?
For weeks, the criminal investigation went nowhere. But after surveillance footage of the robbery was shown on the news, investigators received a tip: The criminals appeared to be wearing high-end specialty masks. It seemed like a long shot, but something about the men’s bald heads and generic features made the possibility that they were wearing disguises worth checking out.
Bingo. At CFX Composite Effects, a specialty store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, cops were given the name of a Queens man, Edward Byam, who had purchased three lifelike silicone masks. The kicker, authorities say, was that weeks after his purchase—and a few days after the robbery—Byam e-mailed the store: “I’m sending this message to say I’m extremely pleased by CFX work on the mask. The realism of the mask is unbelievable.” It was through this polite thank-you note that cops were able to track down and arrest Byam, as well as two alleged accomplices, Akeem Monsalvatge and Derrick Dunkley.
All three of the accused robbers are African American. They face charges of armed robbery and impersonating a police officer.
The use of a disguise or mask in the furtherance of a crime is not new. Since the dawn of armed robbery, bandits have used masks of every variety. What is new—and what has law enforcement agents and cops around the country concerned—is the quality of these new high-tech masks, the ease with which they can be purchased online and the ways they are being used.
The Queens bandits didn’t just disguise their identities, they transformed their ethnicities. This robbery, and a handful of others in the U.S. and elsewhere, suggests that criminals are on the verge of taking a technique near and dear to lawmen—racial profiling—and turning it on its head.
The art of deception and armed robbery have gone hand-in-hand for at least three centuries. The infamous Dick Turpin, a highwayman who robbed travelers in 18th century England, was known to wear a simple costume mask that covered his eyes. For years, Turpin and his Essex Gang blazed a trail across England, stealing horses, deer and valuables. The highwaymen became so well-known, they were romanticized in British ballads and numerous theatrical presentations and later became fixtures in popular culture through movies and television.
Over the years, the use of masks and disguises to commit armed robbery has evolved along with new trends and advancements in technology. In 1873, in their first known train robbery in Iowa, Jesse James and his gang wore Ku Klux Klan hoods, both to conceal their identities and to make a political statement. (James was an avowed Confederate sympathizer.) By the 20th century, balaclavas—knit ski masks that can be pulled over the entire head—became the disguise of choice for bank robbers and thieves.
The most notorious use of Halloween-style rubber masks was in the 1950 Brink’s robbery in Boston, known for decades as “the crime of the century.” A group of men managed to break into a Brink’s warehouse and steal nearly $3 million in cash, checks and securities. It would be years before authorities solved the crime, partly because the robbers were so well disguised: One of them wore a mask of Captain Marvel, a popular comic-book superhero of the day.
In more recent decades, with the invention of foam latex and later silicone technologies, armed robberies have been carried out by criminals wearing gorilla, clown and devil masks, as well as masks of famous people such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Sometimes criminals are inspired by popular culture. After the movie Point Break showed a gang of robbers conducting a bank heist disguised as U.S. presidents, it touched off a trend of crooks wearing Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan masks. Some authorities believe the current masked criminals are partly inspired by the Mission: Impossible TV series and movies, in which characters use masks as sheer as human skin to transpose their race and even their gender.
In real life, robbers wear masks to conceal their identities and, in some cases, to disorient clerks, customers and onlookers as a crime is under way. Altering their ethnicities with silicone masks that fit tightly over the entire head and extend to midchest is something new. The remarkable quality of these masks not only obscures a criminal’s identity but has the added benefit of sending investigators off on a wild-goose chase. Security cameras and eyewitnesses reveal the robbers to be white, or black, when in fact they are something else entirely.
“So much of what initiates an investigation is based on the racial description of the perpetrator: black, white, Asian or Hispanic,” says a veteran agent with the ATF, the federal agency that handles most armed robbery cases. “If an investigation heads off in the entirely wrong direction, it can make it difficult to get back on track.” The agent agreed to speak with Playboy only if his name was not used. Officially, spokespeople for both the ATF and the FBI declined to comment, saying they did not want to call attention to these new high-tech masks, out of concern that they might inspire copycats.
In fact, the alleged robbers in Queens may have gotten the idea from another case of a black criminal who committed crimes while disguised as a white person. In London, career armed robber Henley Stephenson went on a crime spree using a latex mask advertised as “Mac the Guy,” a bald-headed white male. Upon Stephenson’s arrest in a 2011 ambush, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Hennigan of the Finchley Flying Squad said, “Stephenson executed these crimes in a calculated and frightening manner with no regard for innocent members of the public. His measures were so extreme, he tried to deceive the police by concealing his identity by wearing a lifelike latex mask that completely altered his skin color and appearance. Stephenson also fired a gun in front of terrified members of the public, who scrambled for cover during a betting shop robbery.”
Stephenson’s exploits as Mac the Guy were lavishly covered in the U.K. media, and his methods could easily be researched on the internet. The crime for which he was eventually caught—the robbery of a security guard transporting a cash box carrying about $30,000—was believed to be only one of many he carried out while wearing a mask. In June 2012 Stephenson was sentenced to 14 years in prison for 19 counts of robbery and five counts of possessing a firearm. Most of his robberies, of betting shops and department stores, had until then gone unsolved, with eyewitnesses describing the robber as a white male and security footage seemingly backing up that description.