EVERETT — A phone left at the scene of a robbery became a key piece of evidence in an investigation that would implicate three suspects in a series of pot shop heists throughout the region.
The phone, an Applie iPhone 11, was locked. But a message popped up.
“Lost iPhone,” it said. The viewer was directed to call a number.
With the phone in hand, Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Tedd Betts applied for 29 search warrants in about a year, uncovering the identities of the phone’s owner, Jaymari Williams, two other suspects and potentially others.
Two of the suspects were arrested and charged in the fall for two counts of first-degree robbery: Williams of Seattle and Tyree Lee of Des Moines, both 19. A judge set Williams’ bail at $250,000 and Lee’s to $1 million. Lee has a history of convictions, including for burglaries, unlawful possession of a firearm and eluding the police.
The third suspect, a 20-year-old Auburn man, was arrested on Wednesday for investigation of three counts of first-degree robbery. His bail was set to $250,000. The Daily Herald typically does not name suspects until they are charged.
Detectives expect additional arrests, as well as additional charges for the suspects who have been arrested so far.
The trio grew up together, having all gone to Garfield High School, and they associate themselves with the same gang, court papers said. They are suspected of playing roles in about a dozen burglaries and robberies at businesses in Snohomish, King and Kitsap counties, mostly pot shops. In each case, there were usually at least three men involved, often armed with guns.
Among the targets were Budeez and Pacific Cannabis in Bremerton, Marijuana Club 99 and High Society in Everett, Kush Kirkland, Chronic Solutions near Bothell and Green Theory in Bellevue. Some shops were hit two or three times.
During the investigation, detectives recovered five stolen guns and $31,000 in cash.
The crimes escalated over time. In November 2019, a group of men broke into marijuana stores in Bremerton in the middle of the night, using a sledgehammer, while there were no employees.
After Pacific Cannabis was burglarized on Nov. 23, four men tried escaping Washington State Patrol troopers in a car. A Kitsap County sheriff’s deputy joined the chase and ran their vehicle off the road using a PIT maneuver, a technique in which an officer bumps a corner of a patrol car into the corner of a fleeing vehicle to cause its driver to lose control and stop.
The suspects ran. Three were arrested, including Lee and the Auburn man, who were eventually charged with second-degree burglary. Police believe Williams also was there, but got away. Records reportedly showed that he had used Google maps to search for Pacific Cannabis, and afterward had mapped a way home.
Later, Williams reportedly wrote “Free my dawgs” on Facebook, naming Lee and the Auburn man.
In February of 2020, the suspects began bursting into marijuana businesses while they were still open, brandishing guns, according to court papers. They ransacked the shops, filling plastic trash bags and backpacks with marijuana and marijuana products, and taking hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash, according to police reports.
During the second robbery of Marijuana Club 99 on Feb. 15, an employee thwarted the suspects.
In an interview with Q13’s David Rose, the employee recalled how the men held him at gunpoint. They ordered him to open the cash register, but he said he couldn’t. “I noticed the guy was a little bit away from me so I grabbed the bear spray, I came after the second guy,” he told Q13. “They were so confused they couldn’t even get the doors open.”
During the confusion, Williams had apparently dropped his phone, Betts wrote. Cellular company records reportedly showed that someone tried calling the phone from a number belonging to Lee. Then it was remotely locked, Betts wrote.
“I know whenever I or anyone else I know has ever misplaced one of our phones, we’ve called it to see if we can hear the ring and find the phone,” Betts wrote. “My belief was the suspect did the same thing during the frantic flight from the robbery, just after having been (bear) sprayed.”
The phone could be traced back to Williams’ home. On Feb. 17, Williams reportedly posted on Facebook, asking if anyone had a phone he could borrow. He also sent Facebook messages asking for a phone, according to police reports.
He apparently didn’t get a new one until Feb. 28, when records showed the number being used for the first time after the robbery, but with a different SIM card.
Eventually, DNA on the phone was matched to Williams, according to court papers.
Betts, who has been in law enforcement 28 years, has gone through advanced training on how to use cellular technology in investigations, including through classes with the FBI. He’s often called by prosecutors to testify in court as an expert on the subject.
Over the years, he said, he’s seen an exponential leap in how people use cell phones, and how police can use that to their advantage. Phones have become a part of everyday life, and a range of apps can be used to track people’s comings and goings, he said.
Finding out where a person is at a given time is just one piece of the puzzle, Betts said. A person being in the area of a crime by itself may not mean a lot. So he looks for patterns and anything out of the ordinary. It might be strange, for example, for someone who lives in Seattle to go to a marijuana store in Bremerton in the middle of the night, around the time a burglary is committed.
Betts’ biggest challenge was not to jump to conclusions. He applied for search warrant after search warrant to get a judge’s permission to gather information from the various technology companies. With each affidavit, Betts included all of the evidence he had to date. The most recent was the size of a short novel — more than 200 pages.
“If we’re going to go into someone’s private affairs, we have to be able to justify it, that’s why the search warrants are so important,” he said. “… That’s why I’m so verbose in these documents, I’m not going to leave anything to chance.”
The COVID-19 pandemic posed another hurdle. With more people working from home, it became more difficult to get global technology companies — already swamped with requests from law enforcement agencies — to fulfill search warrants. Sometimes Betts waited months to receive the next critical piece of information.
Betts learned the three suspects often used Facebook and Snapchat to communicate. They would post pictures of marijuana, guns and of themselves, fanning handfuls of cash. Their messages were often cryptic, using just a few words at a time, and maybe some emojis.
The Auburn man wasn’t as secretive, though. According to Betts, he told others his plans to “hit licks” and “juggs,” slang for robberies. After the arrests of Williams and Lee, he wondered in messages whether someone was snitching, or if their phones were tapped.
It revealed the dual life the suspect had been living. While at home in Auburn with his mother, grandmother and siblings, he was low key and seemed unlikely to be caught up in trouble. Outside, Betts said, he was out causing mayhem with his friends.
Records from cell phone companies showed calls from the suspects’ phone numbers ping off of cellular towers near the businesses around the time they were robbed. And Google records showed the suspects looking up the locations of the marijuana stores and plotting an apparent escape route.
The timing of messages also provided clues.
Less than four hours after the Marijuana Club 99 employee doused suspects with bear spray, Lee reportedly sent a message to someone. Attached was a picture of himself, his face and lips swollen. His eyes were watery, bloodshot and nearly closed.
It was the face of someone who looked like they had just taken bear spray to the face, Betts wrote.
“… do I look good???” Lee wrote, along with emojis of a red scowling face.
In July, Lee reportedly talked with a man on Facebook to buy a 1999 Toyota Corolla. Five days later, a Toyota Corolla was seen during a robbery at Kush Klub in Shoreline, then again on Aug. 12 during a robbery at Chronic Solutions near Bothell.
Lee was later seen in another car, a black BMW 535i. He was stopped by an Algona police officer for driving with a suspended license. Lee sped off, but was already identified, and later received traffic infraction and criminal citations in the mail.
A similar black vehicle was seen at three robberies in September, at Marijuana Club 99 and High Society in Everett, and Green Theory in Bellevue.
Other clues were found in the suspects’ homes. Seattle police arrested Lee on April 16, 2020 for investigation of unlawful possession of a firearm. During the arrest, detectives witnessed a flurry of activity at Lee’s home, with people taking a suitcase and bags to a car parked in the driveway. The vehicle was later seized by police. Inside, detectives reportedly found a pistol, 42 pounds of packaged marijuana and more than $250,000 in cash.
Seattle police also served a search warrant on Lee’s home, and invited Betts to join. There, Betts saw a pair of shoes that matched those worn by a suspect in surveillance video at one of the robberies. The same suspect in the video also wore a North Carolina sweatshirt, even though Everett is more than 2,100 miles from North Carolina. Phone records showed Lee has a connection to the state, and that he traveled there.
There also was a marijuana grow operation inside Lee’s home, with about 100 mature plants.
When Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives served a search warrant on Lee’s home in September, after his arrest in connection to the robberies, they found two pistols, several pistol magazines and more than $31,000 in cash, according to court papers. A large amount of marijuana was also found. Three more stolen guns were reportedly found in his car.
DNA evidence from sunglasses left behind at Marijuana Club 99 and a mask left in a car seized by police, and believed to be used at the Aug. 12 robbery of Chronic Solutions near Bothell, was eventually matched to Lee.
The Auburn man’s home was searched after his arrest last Wednesday. Under his bed was a large plastic garbage bag with 51 empty jars with marijuana retail labels, including from Piece of Mind in Fremont, which was robbed in January. Detectives also found more than a hundred packages that used to hold marijuana, as well as a blue Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt that matched one worn by a suspect in the Sept. 18 robbery of Green Theory in Bellevue.
For Betts, it felt like only a matter of time before someone would get killed as a result of the escalating crimes.
“I don’t want to see anybody die,” he said, “but how do you get them to stop, unless you do this kind of work and place them in custody and make them see how dangerous they’ve been?”
Betts, who also works homicide cases, said he’s personally seen the fallout of unexpected deaths and how they shatter lives.
He said he told the Auburn man the story of a convenience store clerk who was shot and killed during a robbery. The robber was undisciplined and dangerous, Betts said. It was similar to the kind of robberies the three young men are accused of: rushing in with guns, vaulting counters, putting people down on the ground at gunpoint, causing chaos and confusion. Likely, none have formal training in handling firearms.
“These kids are doing this like they’re playing Fortnite or something,” he said. “It’s all a game to them, and this is no game.”