Katina McCullom and Sandra Justice are first. It isn't a matter of who they are or what they did. They're first because on a December night, they're working the front desk of the Red Roof Inn in Jessup. And as these things go, someone has to be first.
The gunmen -- one tall and thin, the other shorter and solid -- storm in, flash weapons, rip the phone from its socket and flee with $295. The men hide their faces with bandannas and their car around the rear of the Route 1 motel.
Kenneth McGlynn is the duty detective when the phone rings. He grabs a clipboard, note pad and radio and drives east from Howard County police headquarters, arriving at the motel about the time that a gas station manager -- in another corner of Howard -- looks up and sees trouble.
"Who's got the money," says the shorter one, waving a gun.
Francis Gregor is second.
So begins a hunter-and-hunted saga of suburban detectives tracking for more than three months an increasingly efficient but reckless pair of holdup artists as they feast at the cash drawers of several dozen gas stations, convenience marts and motels across six Maryland counties.
It's a tale of police work: sweating the details, sensing the logic of criminal impulses and using that logic to divine probabilities. And this time, the chase takes place not in a battered city, but in suburbia's manicured vale.
The tale begins at the crossroads of Central Maryland -- in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, then bounds north to Baltimore County and south into Charles and Montgomery, finally lurching to an end in Prince George's.
The geography is important because the game has changed: The new truth is that a driver with a heavy foot on new asphalt can get from Glen Burnie to Clarksville in 15 minutes, Suitland to Waldorf in 10, Jessup to Catonsville in five. From early December to late March, Maryland detectives will learn just how much havoc results when bad ambitions are hitched to a good road map.
But at the Red Roof on this winter night, Kenny McGlynn doesn't sense anything so epic. A plainclothesman for seven years, he's seen enough to be fairly unimpressed with a hit-and-run holdup. He's 44, with a wife and two kids, receding hairline, rounded face and a surprisingly corporate look -- tweed sports coat, power tie, tortoise-shell specs.
He knows the drill: Talk to the clerk, canvass for witnesses, walk the scene, try for prints. The car? No one got a make, color or part of the tag. The detective is just getting started when the radio call comes for the Johns Hopkins Texaco in Fulton, about six miles to the west. Now it's two robberies, one duty detective, and Kenny McGlynn thinking he's going to type all night.
At the gas station, the connections are immediate: Two players, black and male, with the same physical descriptions and clothing. Again, the phone ripped out and the car parked so no one identifies anything but primer spots.
Detective McGlynn maps the path between the motel and the gas station, then reasons that the pair might have hit the Texaco as an afterthought on their way home to Montgomery County. Then again, the station is secluded; only locals might know it.
With little to work on, he figures that it ends right here, that this crew probably won't come back, that tomorrow he won't be dealing with this. But it didn't, and they did, and he was. Lord, he was.
'What're you, crazy?'
The tall one knocks a coffee cup from the hands of one of the gas jockeys, punctuating the demand for cash. There's no register, so Francis Gregor gives up his pocket roll. "Where's the safe, m----, I'm going to kill you."
"Nobody wants trouble," says Mr. Gregor, the Texaco manager. "You got a pocket full of money, why don't you take that?"
"Get down on the damn floor."
Francis Gregor hears that and wonders if he'll die because he gave up his chance. Moments before, the shorter one had dropped his guard, turning toward two other employees. He let it pass, and now he's thinking life's last sensation will be a bullet smacking his head. Instead, he hears another station employee, Brandon Moxley, pull up, his car radio blaring like always.
"Gimme your keys," the shorter one says.
"What're you, crazy?" asks Brandon Moxley.
Shorty shows the gun. "OK," Mr. Moxley says, tossing his keys. The gunmen then run to another car that no one can identify.
Weeks later, Mr. Gregor still takes it personally, seeing the robbery as more brutal than needed: "Somebody says they're going to kill you after you give him what he wants. I'm kind of upset with the dude about that."
But to Detective McGlynn, the robberies at the Red Roof and Texaco include just enough menace to be effective. His initial take: The gunmen aren't particularly devoted to violence -- only to getting paid.
That changes two nights later, when two men in ski masks storm a McDonald's in Jessup. A customer bolting for the door is hit over the head with a gun. An employee unable to open a back-office safe is pistol-whipped.