Manny Duran and his crew were looking to expand. Duran - short, stocky, heavily tattooed - and his cohorts had been moving crack on corners around 20th and Susquehanna in North Philadelphia before a turf war hurt profits, police said.
One afternoon, in February 2010, Duran and two others sat in a gray Pontiac Grand Prix outside a mom-and-pop-style pharmacy near Temple University.
An ex-con who had served six years for sexual assault, Duran, according to police reports, bragged about a girlfriend in the health-care field who knew which city pharmacies stocked Percocet, codeine, and OxyContin. The crew had lined up a buyer: a North Philadelphia dealer who sold to college students, police said.
The crew members, Raheem Brown and John Bowie, were armed with stolen .40-caliber handguns. Duran carried a pillowcase to hold the drugs. The trio stormed the store. In a blur, they made off with a sack of pills and $3,000 cash. The clerk escaped, scared but uninjured.
In the crime spree that followed, others wouldn't be so lucky, according to investigators, police reports, and court records.
Over the next four months, Duran and his crew, emboldened and reckless, cut a violent swath across Philadelphia. Their spree included five more drugstore robberies, brutal home invasions, and shootings.
"These guys were running roughshod," said Southwest Detective Joseph Murray, the lead investigator in the case. He said Duran and his crew were the most brazen criminals he had seen in his 11 years on the force. "If anyone got in their way," Murray said, "they were willing to shoot."
Fleeing a pharmacy near the Art Museum, two crew members shot up a leafy street in broad daylight. At a Juniata Park pharmacy near Northeast Catholic High School, one crew member beat up a clerk who was six months pregnant. Duran shot a uniformed Water Department employee in a leg for his money, police said. And two weeks after robbing the pharmacy in North Philadelphia, crew members struck it again.
"You got to be kidding me," the 34-year-old clerk, who asked that his name be withheld out of fear the pharmacy would again be targeted, said he remembered thinking.
Some of the victims were in the drug game. During one kidnapping, Duran tortured a man with a hot clothes iron, police said. In March 2010, according to a confession he gave police, Bowie killed a small-time marijuana dealer by shooting him six times in the head and chest in a North Philadelphia vacant lot.
Duran and four crew members were arrested between May and August 2010. All told, authorities have charged them with almost two dozen violent crimes involving about 50 victims. Some of the cases have begun to wind their way through city courts since May. On Thursday, Duran faces attempted murder charges stemming from the shooting of a 49-year-old man during a daylight robbery in North Philadephia. Brown has also been charged in the case.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has charged the crew in connection with the pharmacy robberies, all detailed in a 27-count indictment handed down September 2010. Charged are Duran, 27; Bowie, 22; and Brown, 23, as well as Josh Hines, 25, and Kevin Staten, 29, all of North Philadelphia,
Michael Gottlieb, who is representing Duran, said his client and the others have pleaded not guilty.
The crew first came to the attention of investigators in March 2010, after the North Philadelphia pharmacy was twice robbed. At the time, Murray was busy investigating what he thought were unrelated home invasions. Then the Grand Prix's license-plate number came back as a match for the pharmacies and home invasions.
"That's when we realized how dangerous and organized these guys were," Murray said.
In the home invasions, the crew preyed on people connected to the streets, but the invasions were brutal even for the city's drug scene, Murray said. In one case, Duran's girlfriend said an ex-boyfriend kept large amounts of money in his house. Duran told her to invite him over to her apartment. When he arrived, Duran, Bowie, and others charged out of the bedroom, and bound and beat the man and his cousin, who had come along for the ride, according to police reports.
The man, 26, was thrown into the trunk while the cousin was forced at gunpoint to take the crew to where the cash was stored. Within the hour, 911 switchboards lit up with calls of three more home invasions. Storming into a second home, one crew member stuck a gun in the mouth of a 3-year-old in front of her hysterical mother, according to the reports. At yet another house, gunfire erupted.
Hours later, the man was still in the car trunk, hearing two of his kidnappers debate killing him, according to the reports. He was left naked and bleeding at a gas station at Broad and Lehigh.
"They were going wherever they had to, doing whatever they had to, to get their hands on money," said the case supervisor, Lt. John Walker of Southwest Detectives.
The crew's brazenness helped investigators, who collected dozens of witnesses and crucial ballistic evidence linking the crimes.
The robberies continued. The crew was making good profits selling stolen OxyContin tablets. According to court papers, the group stole more than $50,000 in drugs and cash. The pills were usually on the street in hours, police said.
In April, the crew, some members wearing burqas as disguises, strolled into the Juniata Park pharmacy, which is owned by a young Palestinian couple. The owner's wife, who was six months pregnant and speaks little English, pleaded to not be hurt. To quiet her, one of the crew members punched her stomach.
The owner, like all of the pharmacy owners interviewed, requested that his name not be used or the business named out of fear he would be targeted again.
"I never thought I'd have to buy a gun," he said on a recent afternoon as his wife worked beside him. "But we don't feel safe anymore."
Between pharmacies, there were other stickups. Jerome Adams, 58, a Water Department employee, stopped for a bathroom break at an auto shop at 19th and Diamond in March 2010. Duran was robbing the store, according to police, and shot Adams in a leg for his cash.
By May, investigators had compiled a mountain of evidence. Detectives flooded patrol officers with Duran's photo.
The end came quickly.
Police caught Duran hiding at the Lincoln Motel in Bensalem in May. He tried to run into nearby woods. He was carrying one of the .40-calibers used in the crimes, according to police reports.
A month later, Highway Patrol officers caught Bowie and Hines during an afternoon traffic stop in the 2800 block of North Fifth Street. Both were armed.
Bowie and Hines spilled out their crimes, police reports show. Bowie confessed to three murders, including the 2008 killing of Nestor Rodriguez-Rosa, 26, an immigrant who he said was shot for his pocket change. He also said he helped execute Alexander Evans, 23, the small-time marijuana dealer he and two others abducted from his home and shot six times in a vacant lot at 27th and Dauphin.
Despite his confession, Bowie subsequently pleaded not guilty to the murder charges.