Call 'Em the Keystone Robbers 

Bumbling rappers just wanted five minutes with Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight. Now they're looking at five years.

Dequan Patterson could use some work on his stage presence. In an Oakland federal courtroom last month, U.S. Magistrate Wayne Brazil asked the amateur rapper-slash-confessed getaway driver to raise his right hand for a small audience that included ten lawyers, two mustached U.S. marshals, and a handful of perturbed-looking family members. Patterson, a rotund figure at five-foot-seven and two hundred pounds, appeared meek underneath his pistachio-colored jumpsuit: He barely managed to wiggle a handcuffed palm above the hip when a charitable Brazil offered, "That'll do just fine."

Patterson, 23, was chained to his four long-faced co-defendants, all of whom got busted outside a Pinole Bank of America on January 17. According to FBI agents, the height-challenged quintet -- all stand less than five-nine, bottoming out at five-five -- performed a string of guns-blazing takeover heists in the past year. An attorney on the case adds that Patterson and his colleagues were lifelong friends who grew up together near the intersection of 71st and Hamilton streets in the flats of East Oakland. And one of their motives for the robberies, according to a statement by co-defendant and alleged mastermind Clyde Jamerson, was to "obtain funds to travel to L.A. to meet with music producer Suge Knight."

Knight, the gangsta-rap mogul who owns Death Row Records, has rotated in and out of prison himself over the past few years for a series of parole violations. The person who answered the phone at his Southern California office two weeks ago said he was unavailable for comment. In Jamerson's statement to the feds, the young defendant didn't make it clear whether the crew had an appointment to perform for Knight, or if their arrival would be unannounced. He did tell the authorities that his friend, co-defendant, and budding rhymer James Branch, 30, had hatched the idea to head south with mic in hand after the January robbery.

"My guy told me some of them were rapping together as a group," says attorney James Phillip Vaughn, who is representing 27-year-old defendant Ocie Howard, "but whether they were any good remains unknown."

What is known is that, at the time of their arrest, the five members were under surveillance by both the FBI and the Oakland Police Department. Jamerson, according to police reports, was wanted in connection with a December bank robbery on Hegenberger Road, and was being tailed around the clock. Over the course of the past year, the feds believe Jamerson planned at least two robberies in the East Bay and one in San Jose. The agency won't estimate the total take.

"We'd been watching them for some time," says special agent LaRae Quy, spokeswoman for the FBI's San Francisco branch. "This was an ongoing investigation."

On the Saturday morning of the Pinole job, Oakland-based special agent Nancy Duncan watched Jamerson and Howard leave Jamerson's apartment just after 9 a.m. The two piled into Jamerson's white Acura Legend and drove toward the Bank of America on Tara Hills Drive, located in a strip mall between a Kragen's Auto Parts and a Pizza Hut. The plan, spelled out later in court documents, called for Jamerson and Howard to case the mall's parking lot, then phone Patterson, who was driving around in a blue van loaded with rhymer Branch, fellow co-defendant Shylow Therman, 24, and one revolver.

Jamerson and Howard were supposed to clear out of the area before Patterson and the van even arrived in the lot. Instead, Jamerson made his phone call and then, figuring he had a ten-minute head start, drove up the street for a quick fill-up at a gas station overlooking the strip mall. But from Jamerson's hilltop view, he saw Patterson's blue van pull into the parking lot ahead of schedule.

The alleged ringleader then watched from afar as the ski-masked duo, Branch and Therman, ran into the bank and came back out just 45 seconds later holding bags of cash. The van driver picked up the robbers and promptly steered out of the parking lot and up the steep incline toward the gas station.

Then, suddenly, the red dye packs hidden in the money bags began exploding. Officers at the scene reported watching red clouds billowing out of the van's windows as it sped up Tara Hills Drive toward Appian Way, which leads to Interstate 80.

As the van neared the hilltop, Jamerson and his passenger Howard peeled out of the gas station in the Acura, trying to beat the van to the intersection. In his panic, Jamerson unintentionally cut off his colleagues. And before the two cars could reach the freeway entrance just fifty yards away, FBI agents and Oakland officers swooped in, making a two-for-one pullover. An Oakland officer fired one shot at the getaway van before the masked criminals, now covered in dye, climbed out. The cops confiscated the crooks' revolver in addition to the now-useless cash.

According to police reports, Howard asked an Oakland officer in the patrol car how much time he'd do for bank robbery, then told the cop, "I'll take the first deal they offer me." He wasn't talking about a record deal, of course. Before long, Jamerson, getaway driver Patterson, and lead-rapper Branch all confessed to the robbery, according to the FBI affidavit, as did Shylow Therman.

The FBI agents who watched the Oakland Five drive around that Saturday morning say they were unaware the group intended to pull off a heist. "If we knew for certain they were going to rob a bank that day, we would have intercepted them," says special agent Quy, "but when you're watching five guys drive around on a Saturday morning, you can't just pull them over and arrest them because you don't like the way they look."

Quy says the investigation is ongoing and that any possible connection to Suge Knight will be explored. If any exists, she says, "that kind of thing will come out in court."

Until then, the defendants remain locked away in Santa Rita Jail, where they'll have ample time to contemplate how meeting Suge Knight might have launched their careers. They needn't give up all hope of gaining an audience: The producer himself is stuck in Los Angeles County Jail on a parole violation, and isn't due out until fall. With inter-jail transfers, who knows? This could be just the break they needed.

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