July 18--The two men suspected in this week's Orange Line train-car robbery spent hours riding the rails before announcing their crime to passengers in a single car during one of the route's longest stretches between stops, police said Thursday.
One thing the pair either disregarded or didn't take into account: the cameras.
Some of the CTA's 23,000 surveillance cameras showed that the men had been riding the Southwest Side line most of the day Wednesday before launching their attack around 4:15 p.m. They announced a robbery as the doors of a Loop-bound train were closing at the Halsted stop, police said.
The robbers, neither of whom were in custody as of Thursday night, targeted a train heading downtown from Midway Airport, presumably filled with travelers carrying plenty of cash and unfamiliar with the CTA, authorities said. After robbing at least four people and pistol-whipping a woman who wouldn't part with her purse, they got away with a little more than $100, plus an assortment of electronic items, police said.
The robbers picked one rail car to raid instead of moving from car to car through the emergency doors, authorities said, minimizing the likelihood that panicked passengers would risk dialing 911 on their cellphones or attempt to push the call button that is inside each rail car to alert the train operator.
"There's really no telling right now why they did it on that train, or that time or that location," Chicago police Lt. Ozzie Valdez said Thursday.
"We're getting really good calls and leads, and we're pursuing all of them," he said.
He added that, based on surveillance footage, no one pressed the car's emergency button. One victim called 911 after the train stopped.
Valdez said the robbery was a rare, isolated incident and crime statistics show that CTA trains remain a safe way to travel.
The crime occurred in an isolated location, on one of the longest stretches of the roughly Orange Line, between Halsted and the Roosevelt station, where the running time is about seven or eight minutes between the two elevated stops.
The first man took out a gun, while the second man opened a backpack and ordered that the passengers place their belongings inside, Valdez said.
Moments later, the second man also revealed a gun from the backpack, which Valdez said a victim described as a "dark colored gun, possibly a revolver."
The thieves collected an iPad, two laptops, an iPhone, bank cards and cash totaling $105, Valdez said. Four victims have been identified, and a fifth is pending confirmation, he said.
Romelia Garcia found herself "at the point of a gun'' wielded by one of the two armed men. The robber went for the 64-year-old Garcia's purse, but she refused to give it up and the robber hit her on the side of the head with his gun.
"I was the only one they struck," she said.
"From Halsted, for some seven minutes," Garcia recounted. "Incredible. Incredible that this happens in plain day."
Garcia suffered a bruise on her head and was treated at the scene.
Upon fleeing the Roosevelt station, the robbers could have melted into the crowd, or jumped back on the CTA through the Red Line subway, authorities said.
Police said Thursday they have a good description of the criminals, based on witness accounts and high-definition camera images from aboard the Orange Line train and at the stations. Law-enforcement sources said police are also using facial-recognition technology to help identify the perpetrators.
While potential victims are abundant on a transit system, the CTA may be one of the worst places to attempt a crime, because the transit system is saturated with more than 23,000 cameras. More than 10,000 of those cameras are deployed at rail stations, platforms and rail cars
The CTA said Thursday that armed robberies are "extremely rare'' on the transit system and that the number of serious crimes declined 26 percent during the first three months of this year, compared to the same period in 2013.
Robberies were down 38 percent for bus and rail during the same period, from 143 reported robberies in the first quarter of 2013 to 88 robberies between January and March this year, according to Chicago police statistics released by the CTA in May. Six-month figures are not yet available, officials said.
A total of 483 crimes were reported on the transit system during the first quarter of this year, with an average of four crimes for every 1 million rides taken, officials said. The CTA provides about 1.7 million rides on an average weekday.
Meanwhile, thefts on CTA property, which had been increasing in recent years -- especially crimes involving electronic devices -- declined 23 percent between January and March, compared to a year ago, the CTA reported. Specifically, thefts were down 25 percent on buses, 16 percent on trains and 19 percent on rail platforms, officials said.
Aggravated battery decreased by 44 percent on average systemwide, the CTA said.
"What's been very helpful to fighting crime and making arrests is the thousands of cameras we have on our rail cars, platforms, station houses and buses,'' CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.
Yet if the cameras are helping to deter crime and catch criminals, the surveillance equipment isn't necessarily helping transit riders feel safer, according to research conducted by the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"The bottom line of our research is that cameras do not seem to improve people's perception of safety,'' said Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center. "As to whether or not there is deterrence, we have not done that research.''
The CTA has equipped all of its roughly 1,800 buses with multiple surveillance cameras and most of its approximately 1,300 rail cars, mostly through funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The oldest rail cars in the fleet, which are in the process of being retired as new rail cars arrive, do not have cameras, officials said.
The CTA has doubled the number of cameras at rail stations since 2011, to more than 3,600, the transit agency said.
Robert Kelly, head of the CTA rail workers union, countered that cameras are "obviously not a crime deterrent'' on the CTA.
"Someone who has their mind set on doing something wrong is going to do it,'' said Kelly, Local 308 president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
He said reinstating CTA train conductors, whose jobs were eliminated in 1997, could deter more crime.
"A conductor on the Orange Line this week would have been another set of eyes on the train and it probably would have been a deterrent,'' Kelly said. He called it a sensible move to reinstate conductors because, "We can't afford to put police on every train.''
In the wake of Wednesday's armed robbery, many Orange Line commuters said their strategy involves always being aware of their surroundings.
Columbia College student Kate Zosky said during her commute Thursday morning that she wasn't surprised that the robbery happened near the Roosevelt stop.
"Campus security always sends us alerts about robberies happening on Roosevelt,'' she said. "You just have to be cautious.''
Commuter Janette Melendez said she has adjusted her commuting routine in recent months by switching out her over-the-shoulder handbag to one with a cross-body strap, so that her belongings are more secure. She also has made a point to hide any electronic devices.
"I always used to openly carry my phone, but then I thought I should maybe use it less," she said.
Tribune reporters Meredith Rodriguez and Jeremy Gorner contributed to this report.
Copyright 2014 - Chicago Tribune