Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

iPhone robberies: Terrence McNatt and the Swisha Splash Boys

February 22, 2011 - 11:10 AM
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Terrence McNatt and his crew robbed Metro passengers of their iPhones by working in tandem. (Photo: Heather Farrell)

The three men walked through the Red Line train car as it rolled north toward Takoma Park, their eyes darting from one passenger to the next. The trio looked so shifty that one rider, later a crucial witness in a criminal case, made note of them. One of the three men, now seated, was staring at the iPod in the rider’s hand.

The would-be witness stared back at the man for a moment, trying to flesh out his intentions. Their eyes met. Apparently uncomfortable with the attention, the shady man got up and moved down the train car.

The witness watched the three men regroup together further down the car. A moment later, just as the train pulled into the Takoma Park station and the doors opened, he heard a woman scream. The three men barreled out of the train car door just as it closed.

The scream had come from a woman whose iPhone had been snatched from her hand -- a crime being reported with increasing frequency, according to Metro officials. Electronic gadgets like iPhones accounted for three-quarters of the robberies on Metro last year. In 60 percent of those incidents, the device was snatched from the victim's hand. Because these crimes play out quickly while in transit, and because the perps tend to vanish through closing doors, Metro police have a hard time making arrests in such incidents.

But in this case from last Jan. 21, police had a solid witness who’d had a prolonged, intimate staredown with one of the perps. What’s more, that perp bore a highly distinguishing feature.

He had, as the witness later told a detective, “freakishly large lips.”

The observant witness, the memorable lips -- they were the first breaks in a case that culminated this month with a stiff six-year sentence for two iPhone robberies committed in or around Metro stations. The case demonstrates just how much collaboration and plain luck it takes to bring down a single petty iPhone thief who’s been terrorizing commuters.

Those lips belonged to one Terrence McNatt, a 24-year-old D.C. resident with an apparent drug habit and healthy rap sheet. Among his convictions: attempted possession of cocaine, distribution of a controlled substance, destruction of property, and fleeing police. Two charges of second-degree theft against McNatt, both filed in 2009, were eventually thrown out. Already out on supervised release, McNatt had failed repeatedly to show for drug testing, had tested positive for marijuana and amphetamines when he did show, and was eventually listed as a “loss of contact” with his court-appointed supervisor, according to court documents.

Even so, his attorney, Russell Twist, describes McNatt as “very smart” and “very likeable.”

By last year, McNatt had fallen in with a small group of young men who, according to the government’s evidence against McNatt, operated under the improbably old-school name Swisha Splash Boys. The Swisha Splash Boys apparently made their living robbing commuters who were absentmindedly fiddling with their iPhones or other smartphones while on Metro trains. The prosecution came to believe that these men were essentially their own crime wave, snatching high-priced gadgets around Washington virtually all day every day. They usually preyed on women, because women tend to pursue less, according to Metro Transit Police Det. Donald Rebar, who eventually interviewed McNatt.

As for how often they performed these robberies, Rebar says, “He said he couldn’t remember, he’d done so many.”

By all accounts, it was a team effort. Most cell-phone robberies seem to be one-man snatch jobs, but it was usually two or more of the Swisha Splash Boys working in tandem, a couple of them scouting for unsuspecting victims while their friend ultimately made the grab. After a snatch on a Metro train, the team members who’d been scouting would often stumble into the way of any good Samaritans who tried to chase their friend the thief off the car. Naturally, this contretemps was made to look accidental.

When they weren’t working on trains, they often milled about high-foot-traffic areas around town, scoping for easy targets. According to prosecutors, a favorite stomping ground was Chinatown.

The very next day after the robbery on the train at Takoma Park, McNatt and an unknown accomplice were plying their trade near Metro Center, where they visited a coffee shop inside a hotel lobby near the Metro stop. McNatt’s friend walked through the shop as if he were heading to the bathroom, eventually spotting a woman sitting and reading the newspaper, her iPhone resting on the table. The man left and McNatt headed in. He knelt down beside the table as if he were tying his shoe, snatched the phone, and rolled out the door, according to police. Presumably, he headed into the bowels of Metro Center, leaving the stunned victim far behind.

Later that night McNatt turned up at the Pentagon City Metro stop, where he committed a criminally stupid blunder. He jumped the fare gate as he left the station.

A Metro Transit Police officer on the scene immediately stopped McNatt. A patdown revealed the iPhone. McNatt said it was his sister’s, he said it was his aunt’s. Finding it unlikely that this fare jumper would rightfully own a $500 gadget, the officer dialed 611 on the phone, which patched him through to the carrier. An agent on the other end of the line said the phone had been stolen. McNatt was arrested.

Det. Rebar interviewed McNatt on the scene. The iPhone in his possession immediately tied him to the coffee shop robbery, as did surveillance footage later provided by the hotel. Rebar also interviewed the witness from the Takoma Park incident the previous day. McNatt’s unforgettable lips tied him to that robbery as well, with the witness identifying McNatt in a 9-man photo array.

McNatt never admitted to performing any robberies himself. He maintained that he was merely a fence for the thieves. The prosecution disagreed and filed an unusually alliterative charge against McNatt, claiming he'd violently robbed two people "by means of sudden and stealthy seizure and snatching." The jury found him guilty on both counts. (McNatt is being held at the D.C. Jail and will soon be sent to a federal prison. Currently on “lockdown” status, he has temporarily lost his visitation rights and was unavailable for an interview.)

But investigators do believe the phones were indeed being fenced to someone, and that’s part of an ongoing investigation that Metro police would not comment on. “They weren't for personal use -- I can say that much,” says one cop. The prosecution believes that each phone was being wiped clean with a new subscriber identity model (SIM) card -- a unique identifier for a smartphone -- before finding a new owner.

According to Deputy Chief Jeff Delinski of the Metro Transit Police, there are 14 detectives in the department who each day are taking on new iPhone robbery cases, all of which hold varying degrees of promise. The McNatt case, he says, was the rare one where every element came together. “It doesn’t always happen that easily,” he says. “In all reality, you often don’t have a good description of the suspect, no serial numbers for the cell phones, and it’s hard to make headway on those cases.... We end up at a dead end.”

As for McNatt’s fare-jumping stumble, Delinski says he wasn’t all that surprised by it.

“It just shows his level of comfort with our system,” says Delinski. “You make very good cases by stopping people who are eating or drinking or fare-jumping. You get them for those small things, and then you find out they’re wanted for murder.”

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