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Criminals see runners with iPods and iPhones as “easy money,” police say: Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In spite of the Wednesday morning arrest of two suspected smart-phone bandits, armed robberies of pedestrians and cyclists are continuing in the Lake Highlands area with disturbing frequency and flagrancy.

Lake Highlands resident Ken Coutant was biking Wednesday morning when he was robbed of his iPhone 6 at gunpoint. He made it home quickly and used his iPad to track his phone. Police made a quick arrest. Considering this was one of several similar robberies, neighborhood residents breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But the respite was short lived.

A little after 6:30 p.m. the same day, Liz Jager Surles departed her Old Lake Highlands home for a walk.

She left her children with her husband, Craig, who was watering the front lawn.

She waved at the few neighbors along her route. In one hand she carried her iPhone 5.

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Passing Hexter Elementary School, she heard the man’s breath in her ear and, a split second later, felt the gun pressing into her shoulder.

“He said, ‘Get the [expletive] on the ground’.”

Shocked, she started to turn, but he said, “Don’t [expletive] look at me. Give me the [expletive] phone.”

From a prostrate position, Surles handed over her phone. She lay on the sidewalk for several minutes, as the man had instructed.

She says he crossed the street and got into a 80s or 90s model Cutlass with flashy rims. A 90s model GMC truck followed the getaway car, she recalls. There were at least three black males in the two cars, she says.

Criminals using the same modus operandi have struck at least five times in our area. Four arrests (related to two separate cases including Courant’s and one in the Lochwood neighborhood) have been made, and all four suspects are still behind bars.

Detective Matt Bryant of the Dallas Police Department Robbery Unit says he has no evidence to suggest the crimes are connected.

“I don’t know that it’s a ring or related in any way. I don’t have reason to believe there’s a mastermind or criminal organization behind this. More likely it’s just some lowlifes supporting a habit,” he says.

Crooks simply see this as a profitable, low-risk crime.

“I hate saying this, but iPhones are easy money — they can sell an iPhone 6 on the street for $200 and a fencer can sell it overseas for $600.”

They know to turn them off right away so they can’t be tracked. In most cases, they’ve taken a person’s phone, and that person has to get home, find another device with which to activate the tracking app — it buys them plenty of time in most cases. And they usually have a fencer already lined up.

And iPhones and iPods are a product for which people are unlikely to put up a fight.

“These folks are scared, and they are easily going to give it up just so the guy will go away and leave them alone,” Bryant says.

Though this is a fairly common crime, Bryant says Lake Highlands and the White Rock area has been hit hard of late.

“The Lake Highlands area is heavily targeted because they assume these folks, this demographic, will have an iPod or iPhone while they are out walking or running.”

Bryant says he is amazed at the brazenness of these crimes. “Even after announcing arrests on the news, they still have the nerve to come back to the same neighborhood. I do find that surprising.”

Liz Surles replays the incident in her head and says, “I guess I did the right things. I know it could have been worse. I could have had my child with me.”

While she was lying there, she recalls, an SUV passed, slowed, but then drove off. After that, she stood up and sprinted home. “I got there in three minutes, ran in just screaming that I’ve been robbed and my husband immediately got out his phone and called 9-1-1.”

Several minutes before the robbery, her husband Craig had watched the two involved vehicles drive slowly down his alley, she says. “He saw them, the Cutlass and the truck, and knew they weren’t our neighbors, and he suspected they were casing the area.”

He’s right. The crooks choose victims entirely at random, Bryant says.

“They roll up and down a street and look for a target — someone alone, whose phone or item of value is visible.”

He adds that often they don’t even use a real gun, but an air gun, though he strongly advises against calling their bluff.

The detective suggests enabling an application such as Find My Phone; if your phone is stolen, get to another device as quickly as possible and begin tracking. “If you are tracking your phone, tell the 911 operator, and they can get a patrol to the location and you can tell them in real time where the phone is headed,” Bryant suggests. “You can do the police report later. It’s important to do this before they turn off the phone.”

As police took Liz Surles’ incident report, Craig combed the neighborhood. He was not satisfied with the police response and felt there should have been more of a search effort. “He was really mad,” she says. “He went out looking for the guys himself and ran into a patrol officer right here in the neighborhood who didn’t even know what was going on.”

In a social media post to his neighbors, Craig Surles promised to remain on diligent patrol. He also expressed dismay at the SUV that passed his wife without stopping to help. Why would anyone not stop to help someone who is on the ground in obvious distress, he wonders.

Detective Bryant adds that based on his experience the robbers typically don’t intend to injure their victims.

“They are entirely focused on what they want, that phone, they don’t want you to look at them, they want to get out of there.”

He says police have stepped up patrol in our area. He also thinks police will catch Liz Surles’ attacker. “That type of car is unusual,” he says. “Not something you see in Lake Highlands, Old Lake Highlands. I feel confident we will find this guy.”

Do your best to avoid becoming a target, he reminds, and spread the word.

“Tell your friends to be alert, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. It’s better to have someone with you when you go out — every recent case has been people alone. Don’t carry iPods and iPhones in plain view.”