Prince of the Forty Thieves
He was a Baptist who became a Muslim, a Marine who became a bank robber, a criminal who became an informant, and a student who became an imam. But was Marcus Robertson connected to the deadliest mass shooting in American history?
In the hours after the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this June, Steve Korinko followed the news at a friend’s home on the Jersey Shore. The TV was on when CBS News identified the gunman as Omar Mateen, a resident of Port St. Lucie, Florida, around 10 a.m. By lunchtime, networks reported that Mateen had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State when he called 911 from inside the club. At 2 p.m., President Obama addressed the nation and labeled the shooting an act of terror. By 3:30 p.m., the first victims had been publicly identified. At dusk, morgue workers began wheeling bodies out of the nightclub and loading them into white vans bound for the medical examiner’s office.
In the evening, Korinko drove home to Middlesex County, in northern New Jersey, where he lives alone in a large, sparsely furnished house. Before bed, he sat down at the computer in his office and pulled up Fox News. On the home page, he saw a triptych of photographs: the shooter, the ruined Orlando nightclub, and a middle-aged black man with a beard and skullcap. The images were arrayed beneath a banner headline reading: “ORLANDO MASSACRE GUNMAN CONNECTED TO RADICAL IMAM.”
“Holy shit,” he muttered, and picked up the phone.
In the nineties, Korinko had worked as an inspector with the United States Postal Service and had spent five months investigating a string of post office robberies in New York City. The culprits were members of a group known as the Forty Thieves gang, and their leader was Marcus Dwayne Robertson, a Brooklyn native and former Marine. Robertson armed his crew of Black Muslims with assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and C-4 plastic explosive, and together they stole more than $400,000 from post offices and banks in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Now, 25 years later, Robertson was staring back at him from the desktop monitor.
Korinko called me three times and then left a voice mail. “Check out Fox News,” he said.
During the past year, I had spent dozens of hours talking with Korinko and Robertson about their shared history—a cat and mouse chase across early-1990s New York City. I knew Robertson’s complicated story. After converting to Islam as a boy, he served four years in an elite Marine unit in the 1980s before embarking on an epic crime spree. Over the next two decades, Robertson often found himself pulled along as Brooklyn’s Muslim community brushed up against the war on terror. In 1993, he was tangentially connected to the World Trade Center bombing and was nearly called to testify at the masterminds’ trial. After living abroad, he returned to New York just a few days before 9/11; federal prosecutors sought him for questioning in the aftermath of the attacks. Several years later, Robertson says he was recruited to join the U.S. government’s growing army of informants in the Muslim world. After he quit and moved to Florida, the FBI apprehended him as part of an elaborate investigation into his finances.
Suddenly, the man whose bizarre and extraordinary history I’d been chasing for more than a year was at the center of America’s biggest story. In the 48 hours after the shooting, anonymous law-enforcement sources told the Daily Beast and CBS News that Mateen had enrolled in the Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary, an online academy that Robertson founded to teach Koranic memorization and Arabic language classes. According to those unnamed officials, FBI agents “took Robertson in for questioning” before releasing him.
Two days after the attack, Robertson appeared on On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, accompanied by a lawyer. Robertson denied being arrested, said he had never met Mateen, and insisted that he had double-checked and found no record of Mateen’s enrollment.
“We don’t teach paramilitary training,” he said. “We don’t preach violence at all.” It was an assertion that echoed strangely off of Robertson’s own past.
Eight months earlier, I had flown to Florida unannounced to meet Robertson at the same residence the FBI had now reportedly turned upside down searching for evidence. On a sunny morning, I drove out to southeastern Orlando and navigated through a neighborhood of modest homes. My GPS steered me to a coral and white house.
I rang the bell and Robertson opened the door, wearing a traditional robe called a thobe and a bemused squint on his face. “Can I help you?” he asked, and invited me in. Robertson is 48 years old and has two wives and 15 children, most of whom live in two houses a few minutes apart. The boys were dressed in thobes and the girls wore hijabs. Note cards with Swahili words dotted the walls and furniture to help his children learn the language. A handwritten notice outlined their routine: dinner, do chores, brush teeth, put on pajamas, watch movies. Off to the side was the makeshift studio from which Robertson streams online religion classes.
I spent the next three days shuttling between my Airbnb rental and his home, where we sat for hours on the couch talking about his youth. Robertson was a gracious host; his daughters served me mugs of coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches, buttery brown on the outside, gooey in the middle. He was soft-spoken and articulate, gently touching my knee when he wanted to make a point. He had that rare gift of easy familiarity with strangers: In another life, he could have been a congressman.
I had already spent months buried in his long paper trail—thousands of pages of documents and photographs, military records, police interviews with victims, months of unflinching trial testimony, clippings from local newspapers, and prison letters. Now, as we wound our way back through his history, I had trouble reconciling the warm, welcoming imam in front of me with the violent young man who once committed robberies and murders in the name of a muddled, militant Islam, punishing sinners and pursuing “economic jihad.”
The night after the Orlando shooting, I watched some of Robertson’s online lectures. In them he wears traditional Islamic garb, as do his audiences. To Americans learning about him after the attack, he must have seemed like a visitor from a faraway land. But I knew, from the hours I spent with Steve Korinko, the man who’d brought Robertson to justice, that he was a much more complicated figure than the recent headlines let on. Decades before Robertson found himself on Fox News, accused by anonymous, unconfirmed sources of conspiring in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, he and Korinko had been the main characters in a breathtaking and uniquely American criminal story.
Marcus Robertson missed his gun. It was his first shift as a security guard at a Brooklyn housing project, and as he walked up and down poorly lit stairwells teeming with drug dealers, he felt exposed. Just a month earlier, he had been a Marine in Okinawa, working on hostage-rescue missions around east Asia. Now, in March 1990, he was on patrol again, this time in a large apartment building where shattered crack vials crunched underfoot.
For his first assignment, SSI Patrol Services, the security firm that hired him, had paired Robertson with an acquaintance from his mosque who had experience in the projects. More Black Muslim guards patrolled other parts of the complex, dressed in black fatigues, military-style field jackets, and bulletproof vests. For Robertson, it seemed like the first step from the Marines to the right side of a fight.
That night, though, something changed. Robertson’s partner had a limp and carried a handgun, and he let Robertson walk ahead. On a landing, they bumped into a cluster of men. A scuffle ensued, and Robertson wrestled a cheap pistol away from one of them and shot him in the leg. Decades later the details of this interaction would remain hazy, but it was Robertson’s first glimpse of the lines he could cross to protect his community’s interests, and his own.
Robertson was born into a middle-class Brooklyn family, the third of four brothers. His mother was a school principal. His father worked in state government. But despite his advantages, Robertson was a troublemaker. He idolized Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and scorned any dogma that commanded him to turn the other cheek. His parents were Baptists, but one Sunday, as his father drove the boys to church, Robertson spotted a racially diverse group boarding a coach bus. He was 11 or 12 years old then.
“Who are those people?” Robertson asked his father.
“Those are Muslims,” his dad said.
Through the open car window, the smell of oils and incense filled Robertson’s nostrils.
“Well, I’m one of them,” he declared.
Soon after, Robertson started hanging around Masjid At-Taqwa, a storefront mosque in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Taqwa had been recently founded by a charismatic young imam named Siraj Wahhaj, another former Baptist, who preached hard work, personal responsibility, and muscular opposition to the violence and drug dealing overtaking the surrounding area. But Robertson remained restless as a high school student and repeatedly tangled with police. Soon after his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marines.
After training in counterterrorism and surveillance, Robertson was sent to Japan, where he met an Egyptian military contractor moonlighting as the Islamic chaplain for the base’s handful of Muslims. With his guidance, Robertson took the shahada—the act of formally converting to Islam. Around this time, he met and married Udella Ward, a fellow Marine and a Long Island native. She soon became pregnant, and the couple requested a discharge.
In March 1990, Marcus Robertson returned to Brooklyn. He found his home wracked by a crack epidemic that was spreading through poor, mostly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Brownsville. “New York City is staggering,” the New York Times editorial board wrote that year.
The streets around Masjid At-Taqwa, however, were vibrant in a way the grim headlines never seemed to capture. Halal restaurants and stores selling religious paraphernalia flourished. And Black Muslims were fighting back against drug crime. In 1988, while Robertson was still in the Marines, Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of Taqwa, worked with police to remove dealers from a dozen local crack dens. Congregants operated 24-hour drug patrols, armed with walkie-talkies, knives, and pistols. Masjid Muminin, a nearby mosque that was popular with ex-felons who had converted in prison, adopted these tactics, too. The mosques became a recruiting pipeline for New York’s booming private-security industry. Within a few days of returning home, Robertson visited Taqwa, where a member of the congregation recruited him to join SSI Patrol. The job was perfect for an ex-Marine pulsing with testosterone.
Robertson was soon assigned to the overnight shift at Noble Drew Ali Plaza, a 385-unit complex of redbrick buildings named for a founding father of Islam in black America. Noble Drew Ali was one of the most violent, drug-infested projects in the city. Some residents slept in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets. Robertson and other guards walked the stairwells of the high-rises, breaking up drug transactions and getting into gunfights with dealers. The work was so dangerous that a few days after the scuffle in the stairwell, Robertson traded the stolen pistol for an M-16, the standard U.S. military rifle.
Robertson earned around seven dollars an hour, but he quickly learned that his colleagues had figured out how to make the work more profitable. Sober and armed, the other SSI guards were robbing drug dealers. There was plenty of cash: The notorious Supreme Team gang earned $250,000 a week selling crack in and around one housing project. During his first few weeks on the job, Robertson met a 22-year-old Brooklyn College student named Anderson “Hassan” King. (Members of the Black Muslim community typically call each other by adopted Muslim names.) King not only robbed drug dealers, but he also headed a crew that targeted the trains that transported hundreds of millions of dollars in subway fares through the city’s transit system.
Robertson also met Idris Cox, 18, unique among the men in that he had been born Muslim to convert parents. For Cox and the others, crimes against nonbelievers were considered less immoral than those against fellow Muslims. The philosophy appealed to Robertson, particularly after the stairwell incident. Cox introduced Robertson to his brothers-in-law: Darryl “Muslim” Board, a 25-year-old electrician and SSI guard, and Craig “Hussein” Williams, a 22-year-old carpenter and handyman. The men worshiped together at both Taqwa and Muminin; Robertson admired the gutsy belligerence of the ex-felons who frequented the latter’s prayer services.
Robertson had no trouble transitioning from the Marines to targeting drug dealers; the crossover is so unremarkable in his memory that he says he cannot even recall his first robbery. The lawlessness in Brooklyn disillusioned him, and the stairwell shooting empowered him. He felt an impulse, he told me, to hold sinners to account—and take advantage of the bedlam to enrich himself. “There was very little difference,” Robertson told me, between robbing drug dealers and his time in the service.
Once Robertson crossed over, his moral compass quickly spun out of control. In various combinations, Robertson and his new friends committed crimes virtually every day. They were not a physically imposing cast—Cox was a five-foot-six teenager; Board was five-foot-five and weighed just 128 pounds; Williams was a spindly six-foot-two and 150 pounds—but they robbed dozens of dealers, both at work and during off-hours.
Caught up in his new life of violence, Robertson began drifting apart from his wife. He was impatient and overbearing, he told me, and she pushed back. They divorced, and Robertson put his mind to finding a wife who had been born Muslim. Through Bedford-Stuyvesant’s close-knit Muslim community, Robertson soon met Zulaika El-Hadi, a 17-year-old high school student from a prominent Muslim family. Her father, Sulaiman El-Hadi, was a member of the Last Poets, a group of musicians and spoken-word artists—many of them Black Muslims—credited with laying the groundwork for hip-hop. Robertson’s father conferred with hers, and they allowed Marcus and Zulaika to go on chaperoned dates, usually with her elder brother accompanying them as they took long walks. The parents stipulated that they could not marry until she graduated high school.
Robertson’s secret life, however, barreled forward. In November 1990, he and a friend drove to Long Island before sunrise to rob Curtis Grandberry, a 27-year-old Army veteran and small-time drug dealer who lived with his mother. Above the back door was a light, and Robertson unscrewed the bulb to conceal himself and rang the bell. When Grandberry opened the door, Robertson shot him in the face, killing him. A month later, Robertson and Idris Cox visited the Queens stash house of another dealer, whose street name was Panama. They demanded that he stop selling drugs near the projects. When Panama laughed, Robertson shot him in the head. Panama somehow lived. Grandberry’s murder stumped local police, and they quickly gave up: A dead drug dealer was nothing new.
Shaking down dealers was a springboard to more lucrative criminal endeavors. In March 1991, Robertson hatched a plan to rob an institution on the other side of the law: the Newkirk post office, just a few blocks from his parents’ home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. In many neighborhoods, the post office was a surrogate bank. Mail carriers delivered disability on the first of the month, social security on the third. Once the checks arrived, post offices sold thousands of money orders. On those days, stations regularly held as much as $100,000 in cash.
Robertson put his Marine reconnaissance training to use. His assessment: Post offices were soft targets. Postal police responded to burglaries, but they did not make patrols. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation required banks to install security cameras to qualify for coverage, but post offices had no such mandate. If post offices had cameras at all, they were usually in the lobby; the loading dock was a blind spot. Clerks had neither silent distress buttons to alert the police nor bandit barriers, the bullet-resistant partitions that protected tellers at banks.
Switching targets was risky. Drug dealers rarely called the police, while robbing a post office was a federal offense with a potential 25-year sentence. When we first spoke last year, Robertson still had trouble explaining why he decided to target post offices. He told me that as he deepened his faith and learned about militant, antigovernment strains of Islam, he came to believe that robbing post offices constituted “economic jihad.” He was 22 years old, and his reasoning, he admitted, was a mess. Over the years, his professed rationale had changed many times: The robberies were an “appropriation of funds” from “nonbelievers.” He wanted “federal money.” And anyway, it was “nobody’s money.”
He enlisted Hassan Ali, a colleague from SSI, but at the appointed hour, his co-conspirator failed to show up. So Robertson entered the Newkirk station alone, through the front door, carrying a handgun. The post office was a small facility with just a few clerks. He emerged several minutes later with more than $20,000 in cash.
A few weeks later, Robertson was riding in a car with a friend when they got pulled over. During the stop, Robertson scuffled with an officer and was arrested for criminal possession of a firearm and assaulting a police officer, photographed, and fingerprinted before making bail.
Soon after Robertson was released, Anderson “Hassan” King, the money-train robber, proposed that they forge a criminal partnership. King would be the leader, and Robertson would be in charge of “wet work”—military slang for violence—and head up the robberies of post offices. Robertson agreed. The group included Darryl “Muslim” Board and Idris Cox. Jerome “Wadoud” Tolden would be the getaway driver; Robertson decided that Tolden’s dreadlocks and large frame would make him too easy for witnesses to identify.
Together they negotiated a code of ethics. First, if a member was arrested, the gang would take care of his family and set aside money for bail. Second, they would pay zakat, or charitable donations to a mosque, one of the five pillars of Islam. Finally, they would never surrender to police; instead, they would go out in a blaze of bullets.
They needed training. Robertson took the gang to a park in Brooklyn and ran them through drills he had learned in the Marines. They practiced “dynamic assaults,” lingo for entering rooms quickly and taking control with force. At a playground, they sat side by side on a swing set to mimic sitting in a car. Robertson began compiling a wardrobe of disguises—wigs, jackets, baseball hats, bandanas, and ski masks. Robertson and King bought a police scanner and two assault rifles.
Meanwhile, Robertson chose an initial target: the Brevoort post office on Atlantic Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, around the corner from Taqwa. To prepare, King went inside to buy a stamp and learn the layout, and Robertson conducted surveillance at various times of day.
On the morning of May 1, around 5:30 a.m., Tolden parked a stolen car around the corner from the post office. It was still dark when Robertson and Board pulled up in a taxicab, paid the fare, and climbed inside Tolden’s car. The three men waited for King. After 20 minutes, the sun started coming up. Just as they decided to go without him, King jumped into the car.
The men pulled on ski masks and stepped into the morning mist. Board entered through the lobby door. Robertson and King went down a back alley to the loading dock, where the swinging doors were open for trucks delivering mail. Robertson was the first one in. He held a finger to his lips and guided a clerk over to the table where employees were sorting letters and packages for the day’s deliveries. King brandished his assault rifle to keep clerks down while Robertson forced Walter Hupp, the station manager, over to the safe. While on his knees, Hupp removed a large manila envelope. Robertson demanded he rip it open. It was full of cash. He then took Hupp’s wallet and looked at the ID.
“You might know who we are,” Robertson said, “but we definitely know who you are.”
The gunmen dragged Hupp to the rear door and told him to lie down. Then they slipped out the door with $25,000 in cash.
The four men drove to a nearby mosque, parked the stolen car, and wiped it down for prints. Then they drove King’s car to Brooklyn College, split up the cash, and parted ways. Robertson and Board ate breakfast together. Tolden hurried to pay back rent with his proceeds. King went to class.
Beeeeeeeeeep. Armed robbery. Brevoort post office on Atlantic Avenue.
The ominous beeeeeeeeeep had become routine. The tone signaled an all-points bulletin on the radio network used by the U.S. Postal Service. “We have an armed robbery at…” a nasal, outer-borough drawl would announce. The beeeeeeeeeep triggered a Pavlovian response of dread in postal inspectors. Steve Korinko, 37, folded his six-foot-three frame into a government cruiser and sped to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The nineties were frantic years for Korinko. His team was based in Manhattan, but most of the work was in Brooklyn, where they raced from one robbery to another. In 1990, postal crime had begun spiking nationally, with robberies and burglaries jumping from 317 in the first half of that year to 658 in the second half. The NYPD was struggling with the city’s crime wave, too. When overworked police officers saw Korinko at the scene of a robbery, they were happy to file the crime “FOA”—for other agency—and walk away.
At Brevoort, Korinko put up a sign that the post office was closed. Postal police officers cordoned off the scene while Korinko interviewed rattled mail clerks. The robbery was depressingly familiar. Three black men in masks. And yet what witnesses told Korinko stood apart from typical robberies: The assailants carried assault rifles and were in and out of the facility quickly. They wore identical black jackets, which made them difficult to tell apart.
Post offices, unlike banks, did not have security-camera photos, dye packs, or sequential bills. “We were asked to solve these robberies without any fucking evidence,” Korinko told me one summer evening last year as we sat in the backyard of his friend’s house drinking Coors Light.
Korinko had grown up in New Jersey dreaming of playing baseball or joining law enforcement. But soon after he graduated from college, his father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and died. Korinko signed an 89-day contract as a letter carrier, lived at home, and supported his mother and three younger siblings. When the 89 days were up, he renewed the contract again, and then again. He played semipro ball in the sandlot Metropolitan Baseball League and began working full-time as a mailman. He got married.
In the early 1980s, Korinko was getting ready to apply to the FBI when a colleague told him that there was a law-enforcement agency inside the post office: the United States Postal Inspection Service. The agency kept a low profile. As a mail carrier, Korinko thought they were glorified snitches: At the time, a team called internal crimes handled corruption cases among the Postal Service’s 600,000 career and contract employees. Clerk steals Timmy’s birthday money from Grandma; carrier claims disability, then goes waterskiing. But there was another side to the Inspection Service. In its 200-plus-year history, postal inspectors had pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, transported gold to Fort Knox, and disrupted the original Ponzi scheme. In the early 1980s, the Inspection Service investigated mail bombs, identity theft, money laundering, and child pornography. Korinko applied in 1984 and was accepted. His first assignment was Providence, Rhode Island, but in 1989, the Inspection Service was desperate to recruit inspectors to New York City. The pay was too low and living expenses were too high, but Korinko was happy to get back to New Jersey.
What he found was a service overwhelmed and outgunned. His arrival coincided with a spike in armed robberies fueled in part by the crack epidemic. The streets were flooded with illegal guns: Armed robbers increasingly carried semiautomatic pistols and assault rifles, while the most powerful weapon in the Inspection Service arsenal was a shotgun. Mail trucks that moved thousands of dollars in postal cash had no protection. Sometimes Korinko’s team got lucky: At one robbery, a panicky gunman accidentally ejected the magazine from his machine pistol, and Korinko was able to lift prints off the unspent rounds inside. But mostly the unit used unreliable eyewitness identifications further compromised by the fact that most postal robbers in New York were young black men wearing masks.
The inspectors’ best tools were bait money orders marked with prerecorded serial numbers. During a robbery, clerks were instructed to include the bait among the money and legitimate money orders. If a customer later showed up to cash a bait order, the clerk discreetly called headquarters and stalled until the postal police or a postal inspector could arrive. Still, money orders were only a lead, since they usually changed hands several times before being cashed.
At Brevoort post office, $25,000 in cash was missing. As Korinko inspected the tills, he saw that his odds of cracking the case had dipped further: The robbers had not taken the bait.
A few hours after the gang’s debut heist, Robertson and King began prepping for their next one. Later that morning, they met at a mosque just 50 yards from the post office where Korinko was still processing the crime scene. King proposed a post office in Mount Vernon, just north of the Bronx; it sat across the street from the home of their friend Evette “Anisah” Shade. The group drove up to survey the target later that morning. The post office had a grand stone facade with ionic columns, a parking lot, and several docking bays that backed onto a residential block.
This time, King enlisted Roland “Ramadan” Campbell, who had been a member of his train-robbery crew. His rap sheet was longer than the rest of the gang’s. At 15, he was arrested for illegal entry and criminal use of a firearm. Seven years later, he shot and killed a cab driver. Campbell confessed and was sentenced to 30 years. His sentence was overturned on a technicality, and he walked out of prison in 1989 after serving less than four years.
On the night of May 2, the five men drove up to Mount Vernon and parked two getaway cars several blocks from the post office. In Shade’s living room, they organized their gear: black jackets, ski masks, gloves, bulletproof vests, walkie-talkies, three assault rifles, a shotgun, two handguns, a mountain of ammunition, and two pipe bombs rigged with C-4. Campbell suggested that the men take an oath: Be loyal to one other, and take out any cops who come for us. The five men put their fists together in unity.
The fajr, or morning prayer, is typically performed just before sunrise, but the gang wanted to take their positions while it was still dark. Surrounded by firearms and tactical gear, they stood facing Mecca and bowed, touching their foreheads to the carpet. Then they checked each other’s bulletproof vests and walked out the front door.
Tolden was the lookout. The rest of the gang stormed the rear entrance of the post office, pushed a clerk inside at gunpoint, and fanned out over the two-story facility. Upstairs, they forced supervisor Connie Fuller into the registry cage, where the safe was kept. Fuller’s hands shook so badly that she couldn’t work the lock. Downstairs, Ronald Hagar, a 63-year-old truck driver, arrived with the day’s mail. As Hagar entered, Campbell pistol-whipped him, fracturing the back of his skull. Blood poured from his head and pooled on the floor.
After five minutes, Campbell radioed Robertson on the walkie-talkie. “What is taking so long?” he asked. “We’re outta time.”
Robertson and King locked two of the clerks in the cage and marched a third downstairs. By now more employees were arriving for work. As they entered, Campbell and Board shepherded them at gunpoint past the pool of Hagar’s blood and into a closet. The sun was out as the four gunmen exited the post office empty-handed, got into Tolden’s car, and drove to the stashed getaway vehicles. As they prepared to make the switch, they heard tires on pavement and turned around to see a police cruiser rolling toward them. Campbell walked into the nearest driveway and pretended to urinate while removing a handgun from his waistband. Board dropped to a knee behind a tree, shouldered his assault rifle, and took aim. The cruiser slowed down, then accelerated and sped off.
On the way home, Robertson was already troubleshooting the heist. He peppered Campbell and Board with questions. What happened on the first floor? Tolden parked in the wrong spot, Board explained, and he had left the post office to retrieve him, leaving Campbell alone to guard the rear entrance; shorthanded, Campbell pistol-whipped Hagar, the mail driver. The gang needed to tighten up, Robertson knew. Violence was to be a last resort.
Back in Brooklyn, Robertson brought his men to an informal gun range in the basement of Noble Drew Ali Plaza, the public-housing project he had previously patrolled. He distributed official guidebooks on FBI and SWAT tactics and taught dynamic room assaults, takedown moves, and how to field-strip an assault rifle. If anyone strayed more than an arm’s length from his weapon, Robertson doled out push-ups as punishment.
Despite his insistence on military precision, Robertson’s appetite sometimes outpaced the gang’s abilities. A few days after the Mount Vernon debacle, Robertson heard a rumor in the neighborhood that Thomas Baby, a 53-year-old ownerof a check-cashing store on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, had made comments celebrating violence against Muslims in India. Robertson decided that he needed to be punished.
On May 8, Robertson, Campbell, and King followed Baby from the store to his home in Queens. King parked across the street from Baby’s small, two-story brick house, and then Robertson and Campbell walked to the front door.
“Detectives, open up,” Robertson shouted as he pounded, holding up a fake police shield and a walkie-talkie. Baby opened the door, and Campbell and Robertson entered.
“We got a call of a disturbance,” Robertson said. “Did you call the police?”
Baby replied that he had not.
“Nobody scream,” Campbell said as he pulled out several sets of handcuffs. Robertson pressed the barrel of his gun to Baby’s forehead, and Campbell handcuffed his wife, their 13- and 21-year-old sons, and finally Baby himself. Then King walked in wearing a ski mask and carrying a black bag with an assault rifle and pipe bombs.
Robertson explained the plan to his captives: In the morning, members of the gang would take Thomas Baby to his check-cashing store. When they had emptied his vault, they would radio the remaining gang members at Baby’s house to release the children. In the meantime, they taped a pipe bomb to the hands of Baby’s younger son, Varughese.
As the gang settled in to wait, Baby’s elder son, Thomas Jr., told Robertson that they had relatives living in the basement. The gang went downstairs and handcuffed them, too, but it was too late. One of the relatives had called 911. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Robertson saw an officer on the porch.
“Our parents aren’t home,” he called through the door, imitating the voice of a young boy. The officer continued knocking. Robertson grabbed Baby’s elder son and stuck him out the front door. “Don’t shoot!” he cried. “We’re hostages.”
Robertson pulled him back inside. Then he picked up a pipe bomb and lit the fuse, Campbell opened the door, and Robertson tossed out the bomb. As the C-4 detonated, sending metal shrapnel into a rookie officer’s left thigh, right arm, and right elbow, Robertson, King, and Campbell ran out the back door. Robertson carried Varughese over his shoulder, and King strong-armed Thomas Jr. along while the police began shooting. The gang returned fire.
Robertson let go of Baby’s younger son so they could scramble over a neighbor’s fence, the sound of gunfire echoing behind them. Bedroom windows lit up as neighbors awoke to the commotion. Robertson, Campbell, and King, still dragging Thomas Jr., bounded through backyards. Campbell saw a house that had its lights on, trampolined off the hood of a parked car, and crashed through the kitchen window. The couple who lived there tried to fight him off, but Robertson jumped through the broken window frame and helped subdue them. Campbell battered the man and then forced him to start the family’s Mercury Marquis. The gang piled in, King released the final hostage, and they peeled out, sirens flashing in the rearview mirror as they turned onto the Cross Island Parkway.
Speeding down the highway, Robertson fired at a young woman driving a station wagon in an adjacent lane, hitting her wrist. Her car, with an infant child in the backseat, spun out, bottling up traffic so the gang could speed away.
The next day, the headline in Newsday read, “Cop Hurt in City Attack Is Stable.” That morning, King went back to retrieve his car, which was still parked near Baby’s house. As he pulled out, police sirens sounded. The NYPD followed him east. When he entered Nassau County, more officers were waiting. After a ten-mile pursuit, police arrested King in Roslyn, Long Island. Their prisoner had wounded an officer the night before with a pipe bomb, and they roughed him up; King’s booking photo showed his face bloodied and bruised.
After the arrest, Robertson and Campbell went to see King’s wife and gave her money. Then they searched his house, divvied up his firearms, and destroyed incriminating evidence, including a list of employee names from SSI Patrol.
With King in jail, Robertson took charge of the gang. Two weeks later, Robertson and Campbell robbed a post office in Mariners Harbor, a remote area in northwest Staten Island. They got a few hundred dollars in cash and three money orders worth the same. The pair split the cash and money orders. Robertson gave one of the money orders to a girl he knew in Crown Heights.
In the next two weeks, the gang robbed two more post offices and a bank, netting more than $39,000 in cash and multiple reams of stamps. They joked that they had “all the stamps.” The money allowed Robertson to pay bail for Craig Williams, a colleague from his SSI days who was in jail on a stolen-vehicle charge.
Robertson was eager to donate some of his earnings to the Taqwa mosque, but Siraj Wahhaj, knowing its provenance, refused to accept it. The imam told him to return the money. Robertson refused and went instead to Muminin. Robertson told me that mosque officials there not only accepted the gang’s zakat but asked for more: “They said, ‘We got plumbing problems. How come we got plumbing problems if you guys have so much money?’” He estimated that over the next few months, the gang gave roughly $30,000 to the mosque. (Muminin has since closed, and I was never able to reach former officials to confirm the story.)
Flush with cash, Robertson wanted more guns. At a Brooklyn barbershop, he met an arms dealer named Morris “Leader Zero” Beverly. The two men squeezed into a small bathroom in back and completed the sale: two Glock pistols, still in their original packaging, for $850 apiece. Beverly tossed in some Hydra-Shok hollow-point bullets for free.
In early June, Korinko was sitting in his office in midtown Manhattan when the long, familiar beeeeeeeeeep sounded on his portable radio. A dispatcher reported that a clerk at a post office in nearby Chelsea had just caught a woman trying to cash a stolen money order. The serial number was linked to a postal robbery in Mariners Harbor, Staten Island. Even with the deluge of robberies, Korinko remembered that crime scene. The post office sat in a desolate industrial area near the Bayonne Bridge. When Korinko had visited two weeks earlier, he thought the robbers had chosen a risky target. They’d gotten away, even though there was only one main road in and out. Still, for once Korinko had caught a break: The robbers had taken the bait money orders.
Korinko raced to Chelsea. By the time he arrived, postal police had already detained a well-dressed, middle-aged woman. Her daughter, she said, had asked her to cash the money order. The check was signed “Bill Greene.” Korinko drove the woman to her home in Crown Heights. The apartment building sat on a leafy stretch of Eastern Parkway, a once grand boulevard that had slumped into disrepair. When they arrived, her daughter, Stephanie Shamblee, 22, told Korinko that the money order came from a friend who wanted to help her out. He called himself Taalib, but she thought his legal name might be Marcus Robertson.
Korinko proposed a trap: The next morning, Shamblee would call Robertson and tell him there was a problem with the money order. Could he swing by and swap it for cash? Korinko would wait outside the building, and Shamblee would call him on his car phone when Robertson was leaving so postal inspectors could intercept him. Shamblee, facing the wrath of her mother, eagerly agreed.
The next morning, Korinko and his partner, Bob Harnois, parked outside Shamblee’s apartment. After a few hours, she called: Robertson was leaving. Korinko looked up and saw a young black man already walking briskly down the block. Korinko and Harnois caught up with him. But just as Korinko extended his arm to grab Robertson’s shoulder, Harnois tripped over a sidewalk planter, startling Robertson, who took off sprinting and turned left on the next street. Korinko ran after him, rounding the corner just in time to see his man make another left.
“Marcus!” Korinko shouted as he gave chase. “We just wanna talk!”
The street passed over a set of subway tracks. Korinko watched Robertson scale a chain-link fence at the overpass. He was climbing down the other side when Korinko caught up.
“What the fuck are you making me run for?” Korinko shouted through the fence. “I just wanna talk to you about a stupid money order.”
“This is not the way people talk,” Robertson replied, still hanging onto the fence.
“We can handle this in five minutes,” Korinko promised.
Robertson began climbing back over, but when he got to the top of the fence, he heard sirens. Police cruisers raced toward them from both directions. An NYPD officer had seen a white guy chasing a black guy and called in a code 10-13: assist police officer. Every available unit in the area came charging to help. Robertson let go and sprinted down onto the tracks, disappearing into the tunnel.
After the chase along Eastern Parkway, Craig “Hussein” Williams came home to find Korinko’s business card waiting for him; postal inspectors had found him in Shamblee’s address book. Robertson kicked himself for giving her the money order. He decided to let things in New York cool down. In mid-June, he and Williams took the train to Philadelphia, where they robbed a branch of Provident Bank and made off with $50,554. Williams took the train back to New York, but Robertson remained in Pennsylvania, crashing with a friend in Chester, a town outside Philadelphia. He liked the area and decided to buy a house, putting down $50,000 in cash for a two-story home. It made sense, he thought, to establish a safe house and not “shit where you eat.”
A week later, he returned to New York with presents. He had purchased T-shirts and denim jackets and had them painted with a garish desert motif of camels, palm trees, pyramids, and the name he had chosen for the gang: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
With Korinko sniffing around, Robertson decided that post offices had become too dangerous. Campbell scouted a European American Bank branch in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Robertson dipped into his collection of disguises to dress the men like, in his words, “Hawaiian fags.” On June 27, he entered the bank wearing a beige suit, sunglasses, and a green baseball cap with an attached wig. Campbell and Williams wore a baby blue denim outfit and a beige suit, respectively, plus bandanas.
Banks, of course, carried their own risks. The FDIC mandated cameras, but the devices varied in quality. Continuous-feed cameras that recorded to VHS tapes were becoming more popular, but they often produced grainy images. Older 35mm models yielded crisper photographs, but a teller needed to activate them by pressing a button; if he or she waited too long, the images would show the back of a suspect’s head leaving the bank.
Robertson told the men to assume that cameras were rolling at the Cypress Hills bank and that alarms would be quickly activated, giving them a three-minute window. Robertson had planned to vault over the bulletproof partition—the so-called bandit barrier—but he couldn’t: A few weeks earlier, Williams had accidentally shot him in the thigh while inspecting a handgun. Instead, Robertson hauled himself up on the counter and held the partition for balance. Williams emptied the registers, but the safe wouldn’t open. After three minutes, they climbed into Campbell’s Jeep with $28,677 in cash. An off-duty cop who happened to be in the bank gave chase on foot and drew his handgun. The gang waved goodbye and sped away.
Within the hour, a young FBI agent named Mike Dressler arrived on the scene. Dressler was a Boston-bred attorney who had quit his father’s law practice to join law enforcement and was now assigned to the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, a collaboration between the FBI and NYPD with roughly 15 agents and five detectives.
The European American Bank had a 35mm still camera and a quick-thinking teller who’d hit the switch as soon as the robbery was apparent, capturing a clean shot of a robber’s face—albeit obscured by sunglasses and a hat. Additional photographs showed the same man standing on the counter, smiling at the camera. Charlie Jardines, a 30-year-old NYPD detective assigned to the bank-robbery squad, found prints on the bandit barrier, lifted the markings with a piece of tape, and affixed it to a note card.
A few weeks later, Korinko’s major crimes team got a phone call from an agent at the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Agents looking for a Marcus Robertson in the FBI’s criminal database had found Korinko’s name on an arrest warrant issued after the chase on Eastern Parkway. As Korinko and his boss, Ed Cuebas, drove to JTTF headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, in lower Manhattan, they tried to guess why the anti-terror unit would bother with a stolen money order.
The JTTF had been formed back in 1980, in response to a wave of deadly bombings in New York City in the 1970s. Like the bank-robbery squad, it paired federal agents with police detectives to limit interagency turf wars. But in its early years, the JTTF had little to do. Aside from the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the FBI’s interest in counterterrorism waned. Instead, the JTTF started working to anticipate potential threats. By the late 1980s, the unit had become increasingly curious about Brooklyn mosques. In November 1990, El Sayyid Nosair, a 34-year-old Egyptian-American, assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, at a midtown hotel. The JTTF suspected that Nosair, a city maintenance worker, was part of a larger criminal underground connected to the city’s mosques.
During the U.S.-backed war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, a mosque in Brooklyn called Masjid al-Farooq had become a center for fundraising and recruiting fighters to join the anti-Soviet mujahideen forces in Afghanistan. As recounted in the 2002 book The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, And Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It, by John C. Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell, a blind Egyptian sheikh named Omar Abdel-Rahman arrived in Brooklyn from Sudan around the same time that Robertson returned from the Marines. Abdel-Rahman had been on a State Department watch list for his connection to the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. But in Islamic circles, Abdel-Rahman became a celebrity, preaching violent struggle against the West at Brooklyn mosques, including Robertson’s mosque, Taqwa.
The JTTF knew that Nosair was connected to Abdel-Rahman and that he spent time at Masjid al-Farooq. They also knew that Nosair trained at a shooting range in Long Island with a man named Richard Smith, who also worshipped at Taqwa. The JTTF surveilled the gun range and photographed the men coming and going. A confidential informant told the JTTF of a connection between Smith and Robertson, whose gang frequented the same gun ranges.
At the JTTF’s offices, Korinko and Cuebas sat down with Neil Herman, a veteran FBI agent who had taken command of the unit the previous year. Herman explained that the JTTF was investigating Brooklyn’s Black Muslim community. For a year, two young JTTF agents, Tommy Corrigan and Tom McNally, had been working to understand how guns were being trafficked. Herman produced a poster board with 15 to 20 mug shots, his unit’s best attempt at an organizational chart of Masjid Muminin, many of whose members they suspected of weapons dealing. As Korinko studied the photographs, he was shocked to see Robertson’s mug shot from his April arrest. As the meeting wound down, Herman asked for a favor: If postal inspectors arrested Robertson, could JTTF agents interview him? Cuebas and Korinko agreed.
After the meeting, Cuebas suggested they visit the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force, two floors down. Postal inspectors often pursued suspects who also hit banks. Downstairs, an agent suggested Korinko introduce himself to Mike Dressler, a relatively new member of the team. Korinko walked over to Dressler’s cubicle, which was littered with piles of eight-by-ten-inch, black-and-white glossies from bank security cameras.
“You’ve got a few surveillance photos,” Korinko said to Dressler. He was jealous—post office cameras were so outdated that Korinko rarely had photographs to work with. He flipped absentmindedly through the stacks and stopped at a photo of an armed man walking among roped-off bank-teller lines. Even with sunglasses and a hat, the face was unmistakable.
“Oh, I see you know Marcus Robertson,” Korinko said.
“You know this guy?” Dressler exclaimed.
“I just chased after him on Eastern Parkway,” Korinko replied.
“I’ve been trying to ID this guy for days!”
The lack of communication—born of professional rivalry—between the bank-robbery and anti-terror squads astonished Korinko. Robertson was on an org chart on the 28th floor and a face without a name on the 26th. The chase on Eastern Parkway suddenly made sense. Korinko realized that Robertson wasn’t just a jittery money-order middleman. The inspectors now believed that he was the prime suspect in the Mariners Harbor robbery, and perhaps others. Dressler sent the bandit-barrier prints to the FBI for analysis. They matched a set taken at a precinct booking in April for 22-year-old Marcus Dwayne Robertson.
Amid new robberies and high-speed chases, Robertson continued courting Zulaika El-Hadi. They took long walks and went window-shopping, with her elder brother acting as chaperone. In May 1991, she turned 18, and she graduated high school a few weeks later. The couple were now free to marry. Female relatives organized a bridal shower at the Picnic House in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Siraj Wahhaj, the imam of Taqwa, told me recently that he warned her father, Sulaiman El-Hadi, not to let his daughter marry Robertson. Everyone at Taqwa knew that Robertson was an armed robber who tried to make zakat with stolen funds. But El-Hadi gave his blessing anyway and hosted the walima, or Islamic marriage banquet, at his home.
Campbell got married, too—to Tyesha “Taha” Evans, a 17-year-old runaway whom Robertson and Campbell had met when they raided a crack house. Evans lived with Robertson, and the two men had helped her convert to Islam. Evans was beautiful—she later appeared as a backup dancer in hip-hop videos—and married Campbell in an Islamic ceremony about a month after Robertson’s wedding. The two couples decided to honeymoon together in Stamford, Connecticut.
Campbell drove his young wife up first, checked in to a hotel, and did some sightseeing around town. When Robertson arrived with El-Hadi, Campbell told him about three banks that could be ripe for a job. Robertson settled on a Gateway Bank, because its setup made it difficult for passersby to see inside the lobby from the street.
Early the next morning, King and Board arrived in Stamford in a stolen Lincoln Town Car. The gang robbed the Gateway Bank and made off with $22,424 in cash. Afterward, Robertson and Campbell returned to the hotel, where their brides were still asleep. The honeymoon was over. The gang drove back to New York. A week later, they hit a Bowery Savings Bank branch in Queens, netting $45,552.
Gang members had rolled their eyes at Robertson’s obsessive planning and called him Mother Goose. But as the months went on and successful robberies mounted, they saw that his methods worked. “They were getting better and better,” Korinko told me, noting Robertson’s expanding wardrobe of disguises and the gang’s discipline in keeping their time inside a bank down to three minutes.
In late July, Robertson and the gang checked in to a Holiday Inn near John F. Kennedy Airport for a planning session. The next day they robbed a National Westminster Bank branch in Queens, wearing disguises they bought at a costume store: Hassan Ali wore a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and Robertson a Richard Nixon mask. After the chase down Eastern Parkway, Robertson was trying to be more serious, but as they retreated with $41,665 in cash, he stopped at the door and shouted “I am not a crook!” while flashing a victory sign. A bank robber wearing a Nixon mask in Point Break, an action movie released two weeks earlier, had pulled the same stunt.
The Forty Thieves gang had now hit six post offices and seven banks in less than three months. Robertson drove to his new house in Pennsylvania to lie low. A few days later, on July 27, he wanted to get an oil change for his car. It was dawn when he stopped at a gas station. A city kid, used to 24-hour service, he looked around for an attendant, cupping his hands to peer through the shop window.
Robertson got back in his car and drove off. But someone had seen a young black man lurking around a closed business and called 911. In his rearview mirror, he noticed a red cruiser with its lights on. It looked like a fire marshal, but when the cruiser continued trailing him, Robertson realized it was the police. He slowed down, opened the door, and rolled out of the moving car. He ran through backyards, a handgun tucked into his pants, as neighbors shouted directions to pursuing officers. One local resident took aim at him with a firearm. The police released a dog, which caught up to Robertson and bit his arm. Officers found him punching the dog and arrested him.
At the Delaware County Jail, Robertson identified himself as Joseph Hashim. He called the gang in New York and asked them to remove anything suspicious from his house in Chester. The next day, El-Hadi, Williams, and Hassan Ali drove down with the bail money, but by the time they arrived local police had determined that he was not Joseph Hashim but Marcus Dwayne Robertson, with an arrest warrant logged in the FBI’s database. Jail officials turned away his friends.
Meanwhile, Korinko got a call from the Delaware County sheriff, who told him that Robertson was in custody. A short while later, the JTTF called. They had heard that Robertson was locked up. Would postal inspectors mind if the JTTF paid him a visit, too? A month earlier, Korinko and his boss had said yes. But after meeting with Mike Dressler, Korinko realized that his suspect was likely responsible for robbing a bank and a post office, at the very least. Letting FBI agents working an unrelated investigation interview Robertson might hamstring his prosecution down the line. He asked the JTTF to hold off.
On the morning of August 1, Korinko and Barney Morrison, a colleague in the postal inspectors’ major crimes unit, drove to Pennsylvania. Corrections officers led Robertson into a small interrogation room. Robertson immediately recognized Korinko from the chase down Eastern Parkway.
“What the hell happened?” Korinko asked. “You were coming over the fence to talk.” Robertson said the sirens had spooked him.
Robertson had a black eye, payback for punching Kennedy, the unit’s prized canine. Korinko told him that he faced state charges in Pennsylvania—illegal possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. Korinko had the power to transfer him to the federal system. If Robertson cooperated, federal prosecutors could be generous. Korinko pressed him to start talking.
“I’ll give you one,” Robertson said after a long pause. The Brevoort post office robbery, he said, had been his crew’s work. Four guys. Assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and ninja masks. They had gone in and out the back. The haul was around $25,000.
Korinko and Morrison exchanged looks. Robertson was part of a crew, perhaps a prolific one, and his confederates were still at large. Korinko could tell Robertson realized he was in a bad spot and was looking to cooperate. He promised to get Robertson back to New York as soon as possible. After the interview ended, Korinko went to a pay phone and called Chuck Gerber, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Robertson was a talker; if they wanted him to cooperate, they should put together a formal deal.
While Korinko drove back to the city, Robertson was taken from his cell and brought again into an interrogation room. His new visitors were Tommy Corrigan and Tom McNally, the two JTTF agents leading the gun-running investigation. Sitting with two more federal agents, Robertson took Korinko’s advice about cooperation to heart. This was an opportunity to increase his value and shop for a better deal. The robberies of post offices and banks were part of a larger conspiracy, he told them, a response to the Persian Gulf War. He told them he was personally responsible for giving approximately $300,000 in cash to mosques; his “appropriation of funds” from infidels. If he was released, he could be in Saudi Arabia the next day. Most of the claims were embellishments or outright lies. But according to Corrigan’s retelling of the interview in The Cell, the 2002 book that analyzed the intelligence failures leading to the 9/11 attacks, the two agents believed him. They saw Robertson as an intelligence gold mine and potential informant. (McNally, through an FBI spokeswoman, declined to speak with me. Corrigan died in 2011.)
Back home that evening, Korinko learned that JTTF agents had met with Robertson in Pennsylvania. He was furious that the agents had, in his mind, betrayed their deal. Chuck Gerber ordered Delaware County to release Robertson into federal custody, and Robertson was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. There, Korinko and Dressler could work him together and, because they each had real robbery cases and the JTTF had only a theory, keep terrorism agents from further meddling. Now the question was, what would Robertson give up?
Robertson tried to keep tabs on the gang from jail. Over the phone, he warned Williams that the feds might be watching them. Campbell dropped coded clues about upcoming robberies, but there was a limit to what they could discuss on the monitored calls.
On August 19, two of the remaining Forty Thieves robbed a Manufacturers Hanover Trust branch in Brooklyn. Campbell fired several rounds into the bank ceiling before he and Williams fled with the gang’s largest haul to date: $60,347. New York’s major newspapers did not report the robbery; there was bigger news in the city. That same night, the motorcade of a prominent Hasidic rabbi had struck and killed a seven-year-old black boy in Crown Heights. The neighborhood erupted in riots.
A few weeks later, Williams, Board, and Idris Cox entered the Anchor Savings Bank on Liberty Avenue. They ordered the tellers to empty their drawers into a bag and then fled through the back door and a hole they’d cut in a fence. Campbell was waiting in Board’s minivan. The three men hustled into the vehicle and sped away with approximately $28,000 in cash, including 21 two-dollar bills, which one bank teller collected as a hobby.
As they drove off, the manager of a nearby pharmacy called the police. He had noticed the minivan in a parking lot and thought the men inside were acting suspiciously. On guard for shoplifters, he took down the license-plate number. Motor-vehicle records linked the car to two addresses in Brooklyn, including a Fort Greene apartment leased to Darryl Board. A dispatcher radioed the members of the bank-robbery task force. Ed McCabe and Charlie Jardines responded to the call and headed toward Board’s apartment.
McCabe, Jardines, and three other agents were staking out the apartment when, around 1 p.m., a stocky man with a droopy eye—Campbell—emerged from the four-story building and deposited a bag in the trunk of a green Peugeot. A few minutes later, Williams and Cox walked out with another bag, got into a Chevy Blazer, and drove away. Three carloads of agents set off in pursuit.
In one car, McCabe and Jardines followed the Blazer toward the Brooklyn Bridge. At an empty intersection, Jardines overtook the Blazer and stopped in the middle of the street. The Blazer was still moving when Williams opened the driver-side door and jumped out. The truck crashed into the cruiser. Cox surrendered, but Williams took off running. He sprinted through an office park and into a housing project. Jardines followed and soon found himself alone in the projects, running about 20 yards behind the suspect. A group of small schoolchildren crossed his path. Their teacher shouted “White motherfucker!” after him. As Jardines ran across the plaza, bystanders cheered; soon he realized they were shouting encouragements at his fleeing suspect.
Williams ran under a highway overpass and hopped a fence into a large industrial lot. McCabe, a former Marine, caught up and clambered over. Jardines was too winded. He flagged down a passing motorist, tapped on the window with his badge, got into the passenger seat, and shouted at him to drive. They caught up to Williams and pulled over. Jardines hopped out of the car and pointed his gun at Williams. The driver sped away, the passenger door flapping wildly. Jardines was now alone, exposed.
“Get on the ground!” he shouted at Williams. “Get down!”
Williams was doubled over, panting. As Jardines approached from behind, Williams wheeled around, knocked the gun from his hands, and pulled his own Glock .45. The two men grappled for the gun. The barrel quivered toward Jardines’s face.
“Don’t you fucking do it,” he pleaded.
The gun tumbled to the ground, and Williams took off running, pulled another gun from his waistband, and fired over his shoulder. Jardines felt dust kick up into his face. Nine-millimeter bullets entered his abdomen, thigh, and calf. He fell to the ground and clutched his stomach.
Jardines grabbed for Williams’s discarded Glock and took aim. Nothing happened; it was jammed. He dropped the pistol and grabbed his own gun from the pavement. Williams was now 20 yards away. Jardines rolled onto his stomach for balance and fired. Williams stumbled and fell. McCabe came running and arrested Williams with the help of a passing bus driver. The bank teller’s two-dollar-bill collection was stuffed in his pocket.
Back in Fort Greene, Dressler spotted an unidentified man and woman—Darryl Board and Najimah Cox—get into a Dodge minivan with their infant son and pull out. Dressler trailed them as they drove south, and he called for backup. Outside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Dressler and government cruisers boxed in the minivan and arrested the couple.
That night a local correspondent for CBS News reported from outside Bellevue Hospital, where a priest had administered the last rites to Charlie Jardines as he went into emergency surgery before finally stabilizing. “They say to be a good cop, you have to be dedicated and lucky,” she said. “Detective Jardines appears to be both.”
Meanwhile, Korinko helped the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force comb through Board’s apartment. They discovered assault rifles, handguns, vests, cash, and C-4. Much of the contraband was hidden under a baby crib. In the Chevy Blazer, agents found $7,750 in cash, a handgun, a bulletproof vest, a police scanner, bolt cutters, and a city map with X’s over banks that had been recently robbed. At the apartment that night, Dressler and Korinko rehashed the day. They had collared every suspect but one: Campbell had slipped away.
The arrests tried the Forty Thieves’ loyalty. Each man could turn on the others and buy his freedom. But the neighborhood, where snitching was the ultimate sin, was the only world they knew. For Darryl Board and Idris Cox, cooperating would have meant testifying against their brothers-in-law. Anderson King, imprisoned since the failed Thomas Baby home invasion, felt indebted to the gang for supporting his wife. Craig Williams had nearly killed a cop; he was not getting a deal. Unlike the others, Robertson had a middle-class family and a father who was now working in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office as the director of alternative sentencing. His dad warned him that he faced a long prison sentence.
A few weeks later, on December 3, Campbell was arrested in Maryland when he sold a kilo of cocaine to undercover FBI agents. A judge set his bail at $750,000. But on Christmas Day, Campbell convinced an inmate scheduled for release to switch identities with him—corrections officers facilitated the escape, he told me in a jailhouse letter last year—and walked out of the Baltimore City Detention Center.
On January 23, 1992, Robertson signed a formal cooperation agreement with the government. He would help them build their case and then testify against the gang. Prosecutors, in turn, promised to lobby the judge for a reduced sentence. Over the course of the next year, Dressler and Korinko prepared for the upcoming trial by debriefing Robertson at a series of government facilities around New York City. As part of his deal, Robertson pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering, under which the government lumped every crime he had committed since returning home from the Marines nearly two years earlier.
Korinko and Dressler spent months visiting far-flung precincts and interviewing witnesses to fact-check his confession. After Robertson detailed his rainy-morning execution of small-time drug dealer Curtis Grandberry, Korinko drove out to Long Island to talk to local police. The details all checked out, down to the unscrewed light bulb on the porch. Korinko also visited Mount Vernon and asked local police about Robertson’s story—that as the gang switched cars after the robbery, they leveled their weapons at an approaching squad car, scaring it off. He never found an officer willing to admit fleeing the scene.
When I first visited Robertson’s home in Orlando, I noticed a tattered sheet of paper taped up in his living room. It was a laundry list of life lessons for his kids. Number 14 stuck out: an admonishment not to snitch on their siblings when they misbehaved. I asked Robertson about betraying his friends, and he replied that they had their chance to cut a deal in the three months between their arrests and his formal agreement to cooperate. And anyway, he added, the gang’s code was more of a suggestion than a commandment.
“The hardcore stance is what you train for,” Robertson told me. “But when it comes down to it, you compromise.”
I pressed him: Bedford-Stuyvesant was the only community the other gang members knew. Robertson was the only one who had the family resources to walk away. He nodded quickly. “Yes, that bothers me,” he admitted. “I liked these guys.”
Over months of debriefings with Korinko, Robertson realized that in many ways he had more in common with the postal inspector than with his criminal colleagues. They were both adrenaline hounds who liked to tell stories. They were both fish out of water, too: Robertson, the middle-class kid who started a gang, and Korinko, the former ballplayer from an obscure agency wrapped up in a wild investigation. And Robertson appreciated Korinko’s candor. “He was always a straight-up, honest cat,” he told me.
On Robertson’s information, Korinko arrested Jerome “Wadoud” Tolden at his Harlem apartment in June 1992. Tolden later bumped into Craig Williams in a prison recreation yard, where his former confederate warned him, “You won’t be a Muslim if you cooperate on the brothers.” But after eight months of soul searching, Tolden signed a deal, too, and began confirming Robertson’s remarkable stories.
As Korinko and Dressler debriefed Robertson, they got request after request from the JTTF to talk to their star witness. The task force had placed an informant named Emad Salem in Brooklyn’s mosques, and he had infiltrated the inner circle of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheikh who preached violence against the West. According to the informant’s intelligence, an attack on American soil was imminent: One plot, Salem reported, involved bombing 12 “Jewish locations” around New York City, including temples and banks.
The JTTF was particularly interested in a man who called himself Abdul Rashid, nicknamed Dr. Rashid for his day job as a medical technician at a Brooklyn hospital. Dr. Rashid served as a bodyguard for Abdel-Rahman after he returned from fighting alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. In June 1992, Rashid met with Salem and offered to purchase guns and pipe bombs for a potential attack. Agents wanted Dr. Rashid, but they couldn’t track down an address or phone number for him, because Dr. Rashid’s legal name was Clement Rodney Hampton-El.
Robertson told me that he knew Hampton-El well from Bedford-Stuyvesant mosques. Soon after he returned from the Marines, Robertson said he befriended Hampton-El, who was in his early fifties at the time and a sort of elder statesman in the Black Muslim community. Hampton-El taught Robertson about the black struggle—Black Liberation Army, Black Mafia, and Al-Fuqra, a radical group of Black Muslims linked to robberies and more than a dozen bombings and assassinations across the country from the late 1970s to the early 1990s—and regaled him with stories of jihad in Afghanistan. Robertson, in turn, occasionally sold Hampton-El remote detonators for bombs.
Tommy Corrigan, the JTTF agent, later told the authors of The Cell that he believed that Robertson could have unlocked the identity of Dr. Rashid, but the anti-terror unit couldn’t get access to him. The JTTF appealed to Chuck Gerber, the assistant U.S. attorney, but Gerber refused.
At the time, Korinko believed that the JTTF’s interest in Robertson was no more than a conspiracy theory: The idea of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was unfathomable. All the same, he attended an FBI counterterrorism meeting in Atlanta, briefing agents on the Forty Thieves case.
In December 1992, the JTTF finally learned that Dr. Rashid was in fact Hampton-El: That month, Rashid contacted a JTTF informant about obtaining firearms training, and agents used the phone number Rashid left on the informant’s beeper to uncover his true identity.
But it was too late. A plot was already in motion, moving faster than the JTTF could keep up.
Mike Dressler and Chuck Gerber spent the morning of February 26, 1993 showing photo lineups to a witness in the upcoming Forty Thieves trial. They finished around midday and drove back to the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Brooklyn. A snowstorm was moving in. Through the flurries, they could see smoke rising from Lower Manhattan. A rented Ford Econoline carrying a 1,200-pound bomb had exploded in the parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 12:18 p.m. The blast killed six people, including a pregnant woman, and carved a 100-foot-deep crater in the garage.
In the ensuing investigation, JTTF agents determined that Emad Salem, their informant, had been right. Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheikh, had organized the attack along with several members of his circle. What’s more, Salem learned that the same terror cell was planning a new wave of bombings at the United Nations, the George Washington Bridge, and other New York City landmarks. A few months later, Salem met with Rodney Hampton-El, who was looking to buy explosives for the attack. In the recorded conversation, Hampton-El explained that Robertson’s arrest two years earlier had made it tougher for him to acquire detonators.
The Forty Thieves gang had “C-4’s, M-16’s, AK’s—everything,” he said. “Detonators, bulletproof vests. They had everything.” Hampton-El also complained that he had given money to Sulaiman El-Hadi, Robertson’s father-in-law, after Robertson’s arrest in Pennsylvania, only to see his young protégé cooperate with the government.
Neil Herman, retired from the FBI, told me that the agency strongly believed that Robertson, with his clear connection to Hampton-El, could have been helpful. “Marcus was a very interesting player,” he told me.
Tommy Corrigan, the JTTF agent on the gun investigation, argued to the authors of The Cell that Robertson represented a missed opportunity, whether working as an informant and infiltrating terror cells via Brooklyn’s Black Muslim community or merely filling in knowledge gaps, like the true identity of Dr. Rashid.
I asked Korinko if he regretted not giving the JTTF access to Robertson. If he had, might Robertson have helped stop the World Trade Center bombing? “I think it’s ridiculous,” Korinko told me. He was adamant that JTTF agents overestimated their ability to deploy Robertson as an informant. News of his arrest spread fast in Bedford-Stuyvesant. If he had returned and started asking questions, fellow Muslims would have been skeptical. He also believes that Robertson overstated the strength of his connections in the community.
“Marcus is very good at describing stuff he’s involved in,” Korinko told me, “but I’m not sure if his relationship with other prominent Muslim radicals is as close as he describes it.”
I wasn’t convinced. Given his sharp memory and the diligence with which he detailed his crimes for Korinko and Dressler, it seems likely that JTTF agents would have gained useful insights about the Black Muslim community had the feuding agencies cooperated.
The World Trade Center bombing cast a long shadow over the trial of the Forty Thieves. Soon after Hampton-El was taken into custody, The New York Times reported that he was connected to Al-Fuqra, the radical group of Black Muslims whose members had also committed robberies. Darryl “Muslim” Board’s attorney complained to Dennis Hurley, the presiding judge, that stories about “a group of American black Muslims who have utilized violence in the killing of drug dealers and robbing banks” might prejudice the jury. Other attorneys implored Hurley to delay the trial, arguing that the attack would bias jurors against Muslim defendants.
Hurley declined the request to wait. “Obviously, no one religion has any monopoly on violent acts,” he said. “There’s 1.2 billion Muslims.… [The defendants] obviously bear no linkage to these particular episodes.”
The proceedings began on April 27, 1993 at the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. Hurley was new to the bench—he had been confirmed just 18 months before—and his lack of seniority meant he had one of the least desirable courtrooms: ground-level and cramped. The government presented its two cooperators, Robertson and Tolden, dozens of eyewitnesses, bank security footage, fingerprints, and seized weapons and stolen cash. Their main challenge was packaging a complicated string of 16 robberies into a digestible narrative for the jury. The defense’s strategy was simpler: destroy the credibility of Robertson and Tolden.
After a sprawling 13-week trial, the jury delivered guilty verdicts for every member of the gang. The sentences ranged from 17 years and seven months for Idris Cox to 160 years and eight months for Craig Hussein Williams, who had shot Charlie Jardines. After the verdict, one of the Cox sisters ran outside and threw stones at the courtroom windows. That night, Korinko, Dressler, and the prosecutors got hammered at a bar.
In exchange for his son’s cooperation, Clarence Robertson expected Marcus to receive a sentence of 20 to 25 years, as did his lawyer. In the government’s summation, the prosecution had reassured the jury that Robertson and Tolden would be punished. “This isn’t a trial of Marcus Robertson or Jerome Tolden,” a government lawyer said. “They are sitting in [a cell] facing a long period of time in jail.”
Except they weren’t. The year before, another prolific cooperator, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, had confessed to 19 murders while testifying against Mafia boss John Gotti and the Gambino crime family. A federal judge sentenced Gravano—who happened to cross paths with Robertson while they were housed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center—to five years. Courts liked to follow precedent. Tolden was released into the witness protection program. And Robertson had killed just one person, a drug dealer. On December 2, 1994, Hurley sentenced Robertson to four years in prison, including time served.
While Robertson finished his prison term and prepared to enter witness protection, federal prosecutors were building cases against the planners of the World Trade Center bombing and thwarted attacks on New York City landmarks. According to Korinko, the government considered putting Robertson on the stand to testify that he had sold detonators to Hampton-El. But given Robertson’s confessions—robberies, home invasion, murder—they decided against it.
During the trial, Hampton-El testified that he had invented Robertson and the gang in his conversation with the informant. The prosecution called Mike Dressler to establish the very real relationship between the two men. In October 1995, a jury convicted the ten defendants, including the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, for the attempted bombings.
Around the same time, Robertson was released from prison and entered the federal witness protection program. He moved to Missouri, where he and Zulaika taught at the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City. Mudir Jitmoud, the former principal of the school, told me that the couple worked there as physical-education teachers in the mid-1990s. Jitmoud told me that Robertson adopted the first name Mukhlis at the school. His new name came from the Arabic root word for “sincere.”
With most of the Forty Thieves behind bars, Steve Korinko was determined to track down Roland “Ramadan” Campbell, who had walked out of a Maryland jail after his drug arrest. In 1995, a memo from America’s Most Wanted circulated around the Inspection Service offices; the television show was looking for interesting fugitives. Korinko submitted a case summary about Campbell, and a producer called him right away.
Producers were eager to interview Robertson on camera. Korinko called Robertson and asked him to participate. “Look at all the things I’ve done for you,” he said. Cooperation agreement. Witness protection. “You gotta do this for me.” Robertson agreed, on the condition that he appear in silhouette and be identified as “Taalib Abdul-Salaam.”
The America’s Most Wanted episode aired in July 1995 and again in December, generating lots of tips but no solid leads. Each time, Korinko answered calls from viewers at the TV studio. On June 15, 1996, Fox broadcast the episode a third time. Korinko was pacing the studio when an operator waved him over. A woman from Queens called to say that she thought her boyfriend matched the description.
Korinko went to the woman’s apartment and showed her a picture of Campbell. After she confirmed that it was the right man, Korinko used the woman’s phone records to track Campbell to a home in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. On July 30, 1996, local police stormed the house. Video footage of the arrest shows Campbell handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser and, later that day, appearing before a local judge. Since his escape from the Baltimore County Jail, Campbell had been splitting his time between New York and Central America, where he dealt drugs. Extradition proceedings took seven months, and in March 1997, Korinko and three U.S. marshals flew down to Costa Rica.
In San José, Korinko and the marshals were about to load Campbell onto a commercial flight to the U.S. when he began wheezing violently, as though he was having an asthma attack. Costa Rican officials wanted to transport him to a hospital. The marshals patted down Campbell and found that under his sweatpants he was wearing jeans, the pockets stuffed with American and Costa Rican currency: He was dressed like a prisoner preparing an escape. A trip to the hospital, the extraction team feared, might be a trap. Campbell went limp, and Korinko and the marshals carried him onto the plane, shouting at the pilots to take off as startled vacationers returning home watched in horror.
A few months later, the American embassy in San José mailed a VHS recording of local television coverage of the extradition to one of the U.S. marshals on the trip. In one segment, a group of agitated young men outside the airport—Campbell’s associates, it seemed—shouted at the news correspondent. Campbell, the men said, never would have made it to the hospital.
With Campbell in custody, prosecutors needed Robertson to testify, and Korinko and a team of government attorneys prepared him for trial. U.S. marshals repeatedly extracted Robertson from witness protection and flew him to meet Korinko and prosecutors at neutral sites around the country.
During almost a year of trial preparation, Korinko and Robertson became close, practically friends. They played games, competing to see who had visited more states, marking the weather map in USA Today to keep score. They bickered over the America’s Most Wanted episode: Korinko insisted that he was a faster runner than the actor who portrayed him. Robertson liked to make Korinko sweat. When they ate at a roadside diner in Montgomery, Alabama, Robertson wore an oversize T-shirt that read I Love Islam in block letters, drawing menacing stares.
“Do you realize I know you better now than anyone else I still know?” Robertson asked him one day.
During a tumultuous decade, Korinko was a constant presence. When I first contacted Robertson for this story, the two had not seen each other in 14 years, but he told me through his lawyer that he would only cooperate if he could speak to Korinko first. When I showed up unannounced on his doorstep in Orlando, he dropped that demand, but he continued to praise Korinko, calling him “my main man.” (Korinko, however, declined to call Robertson: He says he did not want their conversation recorded by law enforcement, which he suspects is tapping Robertson’s phone.)
In early 1999, on the eve of Campbell’s trial, the prosecutor called Korinko with bad news: Robertson had been kicked out of witness protection for traveling to an Islamic conference in Texas, in violation of the program’s guidelines. Korinko was beside himself. Robertson was still required to testify at the trial, but he had lost all of the program’s benefits, including housing and his stipend. Now Korinko had little leverage to keep Robertson from simply vanishing. The government bought Robertson a ticket to Newark. At the airport, Korinko waited at the gate for him as the deplaning crowd thinned and dispersed. Korinko thought that his star witness had reneged, and he was about to leave when, suddenly, Robertson poked his head out of the jetway.
“I told you I’d come!” he said and made a ta-da motion with his hands.
Postal inspectors guarded Robertson around the clock at a midtown hotel for the duration of the trial. On March 5, 1999, Campbell was convicted and sentenced to 50 years, the maximum allowed under the terms of his extradition.
For the next two years, Korinko didn’t hear from Robertson. After the trial, Robertson bought a one-way ticket to Senegal and then moved to Mauritania to learn Arabic and study the Koran. He loved it. In a lecture he later posted on YouTube, Robertson recalled studying with a local sheikh, feeding camels, and daily naps in the oppressive midday heat. His family soon joined him.
Then, on September 4, 2001, Korinko got a phone call from Chuck Gerber, the U.S. attorney in the first trial: Robertson had been detained at Kennedy Airport the week before. He had failed to complete his five years of supervised release, and the move abroad had violated those terms. A warrant was waiting for him when he landed, and he had spent a night back in the Metropolitan Correctional Center before being released on bail. On September 5, Gerber and Korinko drove out to Long Island for Robertson’s court appearance before Judge Hurley, who had overseen the gang’s first trial. Robertson explained that he had mistakenly believed his supervisory release was finished. He had returned to the U.S. to take his daughter, who had severe flu-like symptoms, to a hospital.
Judge Hurley extended Robertson’s supervised release by two years, with the provision that he could return to Africa. The next Tuesday, September 11, Korinko’s pager beeped. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York were frantically searching for Robertson. “I hope it’s a goddamn coincidence that this guy comes back into the country and then the World Trade Center blows up,” Gerber told Korinko.
It was. He spent the day of the attacks at the hospital with his daughter, he told me, and was never contacted by law enforcement. After she recovered, he sent her home with a friend and stayed in the United States for a few months, mostly in Florida, where he worked at a mall kiosk and “hustled” for money. He told his wife, Zulaika, to move with the children to Egypt, and he followed in January 2002.
Later that year, the Forty Thieves case came to an official end when Roland Campbell lost an appeal. On September 26, 2002, Korinko wrote “Case Closed” in his logbook. But he had a suspicion that Robertson’s story was not finished. To anyone who would listen, Korinko remarked again and again, “That guy is gonna be on CNN one day.”
For a while, though, Robertson’s new life seemed unremarkable. In Egypt, he found a job at a publishing imprint that specialized in religious texts. Sometime in the mid-2000s, he married a second woman, Itisha Wills. In 2006, after the better part of a decade abroad, Robertson and his family returned to the United States. Robertson lived in Los Angeles and worked for a gang-intervention program, then moved back to New York and was homeless for several months before finding clerical work at a financial-services firm. In New York, he started the Fundamental Islamic Knowledge Seminary, teaching Arabic and religion classes in person and online. It seemed he’d finally found his calling.
Just when his life appeared to have slowed, Robertson became embroiled in another bizarre plot. In 2009, Robertson says he received a call from Tony Osias, a Haitian convert to Islam living in Florida. Osias had seen one of his video lectures, and he invited Robertson to move down to Orlando. Robertson was eager to leave New York for a cheaper area, and he and his family moved to Florida in April 2010. Osias arranged for two houses for Robertson’s wives.
In Orlando, Robertson ramped up his online seminary. He uploaded dozens of religious lectures and Arabic lessons to YouTube under his preferred moniker, Abu Taubah, a Koranic reference to the repentance of sins. In the mornings, he trained with a local martial-arts instructor and taught online classes the rest of the day. His wife Itisha handled the books. A friend arranged for him to speak at mosques in Britain and Canada, where he sometimes received honorariums.
Before Robertson left New York, he had met Jonathan Paul Jimenez, a young man who struggled with drug abuse and mental-health issues. Robertson became Jimenez’s mentor and invited him to join the family in Orlando. According to court documents, by the time Jimenez arrived the FBI was investigating Robertson, though when and why that surveillance began is unclear.
Shortly after arriving in Orlando, Jimenez was befriended by an undercover FBI informant. Jimenez suggested to the informant that Robertson was preparing him to travel abroad to wage violent jihad. Around this time, Osias helped Robertson and Jimenez prepare their taxes and filed paperwork that falsely claimed three of Robertson’s daughters as Jimenez’s dependents. In August 2011, the FBI raided Robertson’s home and found a handgun—owned by the security director of the Orlando mosque he attended, but still illegal for him to possess as a felon—and later charged him with tax fraud.
After his arrest, Robertson went public with a startling allegation: From 2004 to 2007, he had worked as a JTTF operative. In a 2012 civil suit he filed from prison, Robertson claimed that when he was living in Egypt, he met an unnamed CIA agent stationed in Jordan, an NYPD detective assigned to the JTTF, and Anthony “Tony” Bivona, an FBI special agent who recruited him to be an informant. Robertson claimed that he had subsequently worked as a covert operative, both abroad for the CIA and domestically for the JTTF, in Virginia, Georgia, and California. In 2007, Robertson said, his handlers approached him about a mission in West Africa that would require “intentionally shooting on American Citizens,” according to his civil suit. Robertson refused to participate and got in a shoving match with his handler. After the fight, he stopped his intelligence work. His present charges, he alleged, were legal retribution for refusing to continue.
I was never able to definitively verify the claim, but Daniel Brodersen, his attorney, conducted his own due diligence. “I’ve come to the conclusion in my own mind that much of what he says is absolutely true,” he told me. An FBI spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment about Bivona. I asked Robertson to show me contracts, receipts, or any other documentation substantiating his claims, but he refused. He told me that he believes law enforcement won’t go after him again if he stays quiet about his covert work. “They’ll leave me alone as long as I don’t talk too much,” he said.
Robertson pleaded guilty to the firearms charge, but the legal wrangling continued for four years before he was finally convicted of tax fraud in December 2013. Prosecutors sought to apply a terrorism enhancement, which would have added up to 20 years to his sentence, and introduced as evidence his computer, which held roughly 20 works by militant Islamic extremists. But in June 2015, Judge Gregory Presnell rejected the government’s argument.
“It is not at all remarkable for an Islamic scholar to study, among many, many others, the writings of Islamic extremists,” he wrote. Presnell sentenced Robertson to time served and ordered him freed by the end of the day. Dozens of Robertson’s supporters jeered and whistled at the FBI agents and prosecutors as they exited the courthouse.
After four years in prison, Robertson returned home. During his time in custody, he was kept in solitary confinement for long stretches and manacled so often that the skin around his ankles peeled off. Back in Orlando, Robertson restarted his online school teaching Arabic and religion classes over Skype. That fall, he hosted a two-day webinar on “improving your spiritual-being.” Life seemed to have calmed down again, until the day Robertson’s face suddenly appeared on Fox News, alleging a connection to the Pulse nightclub attack.
A few weeks after the shooting at Pulse, I flew down to Orlando again. The city was still dense with pride flags. At the memorial outside the club, flowers wilted, ink ran, and a tray of rainbow-colored cupcakes were turning to mush.
It had been more than a year since Robertson’s release from prison and almost nine months since our last meeting. When Robertson answered the door, he told me that there were too many children at home. We got in my rental car and made our way to a nearby Starbucks. I asked him about the events of the past month. He told me that he was shocked when he heard media reports about a connection between Omar Mateen, the shooter at the club, and his online seminary. His inbox had filled with email from reporters and death threats. The alleged link was “a bunch of bullshit,” Robertson told me over coffee. He insisted that Fox News had invented the source entirely and that other outlets had recycled the false reporting.
This summer I reached out to Malia Zimmerman, the author of the Fox News story. She told me she stood by the article and implied that Robertson was lying. “Mr. Robertson has an extremely colorful history,” she wrote, “and open source reporting would lead most reasonable people to question his veracity.”
I knew that open-source material as well as anyone. I had watched hours of his sermons, and I never heard him promote violence. But YouTube did offer disturbing evidence of the kind of homophobia that might drive such a shooting. “Who knows SpongeBob?” he asked a roomful of listeners, including some children, in a video uploaded in 2008. “SpongeBob is gay,” he declared. “Are you growing Muslims or are you raising faggots?” Applying Occam’s razor to Robertson’s story might, at a cursory glance, lead a reasonable person to assume that Robertson must somehow be connected to Mateen. Orlando, the lectures, Robertson’s violent past—what were the chances?
But finally, in October, yet another wrinkle seemed to put that assumption to rest. A spokeswoman in the FBI’s Tampa division told me that investigators had seen the Fox News story but were “unaware of any substantive connection” between Robertson and Mateen. The simplest explanation, it seemed, didn’t hold.
After the news reports linking him to Mateen, Robertson lost his job teaching at a nearby mosque. The death threats rattled him, he told me during my July visit to Orlando; one was signed “see you real soon.” He had said on TV a few weeks earlier—and repeated to me—that he is a Marine and people need to remember that fact if they “step” to his house, even though he can’t own a gun. “If they’re gonna come, they better come correct,” he said.
I saw Robertson one last time in September. We met at the same Starbucks, and Robertson ordered the same drink—a white chocolate mocha. Life was still a bit tense. His name had recently come up during a congressional hearing entitled Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror. The United Kingdom had just blocked him from entering the country because of his “controversial views on women and homosexuals,” according to the letter informing him of the ban. Robertson planned to ask a judge to shorten his probation so that he could move back overseas. Africa was the most likely destination. “I’m a Bedouin, man,” he said. “I can go anywhere.” After three hours, we shook hands and promised to keep in touch. Robertson got into a white Suburban, pulled out of the parking lot, and was gone.
I drove back to the airport in my rental car. Throughout the city, the pride flags raised in solidarity were disappearing. This chapter of Robertson’s life was finished, but there were still more pages to be written. As a young armed robber, he had cast himself in a drama from which there was no escaping. He could change his name. He could denounce violence. He could move abroad. But he was not getting out.
Archival footage courtesy of the Department of Records Municipal Archives.
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