The smash-and-grab robbery crew knew who they were after: elderly Asian women who, they figured, didn’t use banks and were carrying large amounts of cash, police said.
They honed their methods, according to prosecutors: surveilling Asian grocery store parking lots, stalking women to make sure they were alone, using cars to pin victims’ vehicles, smashing car windows if necessary, and snatching purses, shopping bags or other valuables within reach. Then they bolted.
“These victims … were being essentially hunted,” prosecutor Marisa McKeown of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office in California told The Washington Post.
Attacking on a near-daily basis, they used their tactics to great effect over a yearlong period stretching from October 2020 to September, according to investigators. Police say a six-man crew committed more than 70 robberies, burglaries and thefts in San Jose alone and at least 177 in cities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The robberies not only affected the victims but also the Asian community writ large as the specter of violence scared people trying to run errands.
“It has been a terrifying experience,” McKeown said. “If you were an Asian female in certain parts of San Jose, it would feel — and it actually was — unsafe [at] certain times of the day to go to the bank, to go to the grocery store. And so it absolutely created an atmosphere where … on any given day, you could have been victimized.”
Police have arrested six men they say are responsible for the crimes: Anthony Robinson, 24, Cameron Moody, 27, Derje Blanks, 23, Hassani Ramsey, 24, and Clarence Jackson, 21, and Malik Short, 21.
Blanks’s attorney, Patrick Coughlin, told The Post in an email that his client “until proven otherwise, … is innocent.” Jackson’s attorney, Ralph Robles Jr., noted his client is only charged with one robbery and declined further comment. Lawyers representing Robinson and Moody did not return emails requesting comment from The Post. McKeown said Ramsey was recently arraigned, and Santa Clara County court records listed no criminal cases against either him or Short as of early Friday.
They generally scored between $500 and $2,000 in each of their robberies and, McKeown said, collectively stole cash and belongings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is pursuing hate crime enhancements, a legal mechanism in California that allows for harsher punishment. At a Wednesday news conference, Rosen said the alleged robbers shouted racial slurs at several of their victims — and the terror they caused didn’t stop with the people they attacked.
“It also affects people in the Asian American community who were not targeted, because it makes them fearful that they might be next,” Rosen said.
The robberies happened during the heart of the pandemic as the Bay Area saw a surge in crimes targeting Asian Americans. In one such attack, an 84-year-old Thai man was violently shoved to the ground in San Francisco. He died days later. In Oakland, a 52-year-old Asian American woman was shot in the head with a flare gun. In February, a White woman approached an Asian American man sitting outside a restaurant in a city near San Jose and spit on him before allegedly telling him to go back “where you came from” and calling him a racist slur.
Nationally, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years, fueled by a spike in assaults against Asian and Black people, the FBI reported in August. According to a study released in March, anti-Asian hate crimes spiked 150 percent both nationally and in San Jose specifically since the start of the pandemic a year earlier.
John Le volunteers with the community watch group Asians With Attitudes, patrolling Asian neighborhoods and businesses while also showing people how to protect themselves. He teaches them to use pepper spray and makes sure business owners in San Jose’s Little Saigon community have his phone number so they can request that he patrol the area.
Le told KPIX he was relieved by the arrests of the alleged robbery crew members.
“It was really scary because — I’m not worried about myself — but of course, my grandma, mom, dad,” Le told the TV station. “I still remind them, ‘Always have your pepper spray on you, have your Taser on you, always be aware of your surroundings.'”
San Jose City Councilwoman Maya Esparza acknowledged the Asian community in the city had been hard hit by crime and the seemingly endless string of robberies.
“This community has suffered. There was [a] tremendous amount of fear during COVID, during the hate crimes of people that were afraid to live their lives. And so the message is: Little Saigon is open [for business]. It’s safe,” she said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Le isn’t so sure and told KPIX he plans to keep working with Asians With Attitudes to help people protect themselves.
“I don’t think this was the only crime ring that was doing everything,” Le said. “I still want everyone to be aware of their surroundings, keep an eye out.”