Suspected members of robbery crew accused of striking across Orange, Los Angeles counties face trial

LOS ANGELES – Trial began Thursday for six suspected members of a crew accused of carrying out a string of mid-day smash-and-grab robberies in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Tenley told jurors during opening statements at a federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles that Keith Walton, Darrell Dent and several other members of an Inglewood-based street gang carefully planned out a series of robberies that netted more than $5 million in high-end watches and jewelry.

The crew leaders sold off the property, the prosecutor said.

Walton is among the six facing trial, while Dent has agreed to a plea deal and is expected to testify against the others.

The crew’s leaders didn’t take part in the robberies themselves, the prosecutor said, instead recruiting financially strapped “foot soldiers” to carry out the jobs.

The crew leaders would case the jewelry stores ahead of time, Tenley said, provide the robbers with masks, hammers, weapons and stolen cars for getaway vehicles.

In all, the crew is accused of committing 10 robberies over two years beginning in August 2014, as well as two attempted robberies and a pair of would-be robberies called off at the last minute.

“Make no mistake, these robberies were frightening, and they were violent,” Tenley told jurors.

Along with Walton, the defendants include Robert Johnson and Justin Henning, alleged crew leaders; Jeremy Tillet, accused of serving as a getaway driver; and Evan Scott and Jameson LaForest, accused of carrying out some of the robberies.

The men face felony conspiracy, robbery and weapons charges.

The robberies began on Aug 3, 2014 at a Manhattan Beach jewelry store. A Canoga Park robbery followed.

Several were arrested after an October 2015 robbery at Frederic H. Jewelers in The Shops at Mission Viejo, where four masked men, at least one armed, burst into the store, broke open display cases as patrons fled, authorities said, then threw out a bag of stolen items as they drove off after realizing there was a GPS unit with the merchandise.

Walton was eventually taken into federal custody. Prosecutors allege the crew kicked off a flurry of new robberies after he was released pending trial. There were robberies and attempted robberies in Santa Monica, Woodland Hills, Thousand Oaks, West Hollywood, Glendale, Torrance and Malibu.

Attorneys for several defendants attacked the government’s case, saying it was based entirely on the word of untrustworthy snitches.

Matthew Fletcher, Johnson’s attorney, told jurors that Dent was the actual crew leader. The defense attorney described Dent as a con man and a life-long criminal, saying he was only testifying against the other men to get years trimmed off of his prison sentence.

“That gentleman is one of the biggest scourges of society that you can find,” Fletcher said. “Mr. Dent’s career includes nothing but prison, thefts and robberies.”

A now-retired saleswoman testified Thursday afternoon about an August 2014 robbery at the Prestige Jewelry Store in Manhattan Beach. She recalled two masked men with hoodies running into the store shortly before 11:30 a.m.

One ran toward her with a hammer before smashing a display case with diamond jewelry a few feet away, she said.

“When he came in, I thought that hammer was coming straight for my head,” the former saleswoman said.

As she dropped to the ground and curled up in a ball, she recalled, one of the men went straight for a display case with diamond jewelry while the other went for a case containing Rolex watches. Video shows the entire robbery lasted less than 45 seconds.

Testimony in the trial is expected to last several weeks.

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