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DALLAS -- A violent gang of thugs who operated a swanky North Dallas nightspot frequented by the likes of Britney Spears and the Black Eyed Peas used the club's guest list as a prime hunting ground for home invasion victims.
"The patrons that came in, they would start conversations with them, run their license plates, check them," Dallas police Detective Duane Boy said Monday at a news conference called after the group's criminal exploits were detailed in The Dallas Morning News.
Some moneyed guests ended up targets of the gang's at least 70 North Texas home invasions, police said. Some of those victims were beaten and tortured until they revealed the location of their valuables or cash.
Other victims came to the attention of the group in other ways.
"They had several sources that gave them information," Detective Boy said. "They got sources from the paper. They looked at businesses and picked anybody they thought had a lot of money."
Authorities believe one victim was Darren Reagan, defendant in the FBI Dallas City Hall public corruption investigation. His organization, the Black State Employees Association of Texas, was the subject of headlines and TV news stories in the period that the home invasions were taking place.
Authorities have not revealed the names of any other high-profile victims of the gang, nor are they ready to disclose details of most of the crimes.
The gang operated from 2005 until authorities shut it down last month.
Club X, an upscale nightspot near the Dallas North Tollway and Belt Line Road, was operated by alleged gang ringleader William Sedric Autrey, 39.
Before the club closed in 2006, Mr. Autrey's three accomplices all worked there, including a second ringleader, Earnest Lynn Ross, 43, and Devin Stephens, 42, and Courtney Farmer, 31.
Mr. Autrey is out on bail. The other men are all in the Denton County jail. Authorities say at least three other members of the group are at large.
Gang is brought down
Mr. Autrey brought the gang down after agreeing to wear a concealed microphone when, in January, he was indicted on mortgage fraud charges and arrested in a burglary case about the same time. Police closed in on the other group members last month in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Dallas as they prepared to hit a Denton County home while posing as police officers.
Police also link the group to 10 burglaries. At least nine of the robberies were in Dallas. In one case, robbers tortured an old man with pliers while trying to get him to reveal the location of his cash.
"I guess they thought I was a good target. They were mistaken," said lawyer William McGarvey, who was 81 when he was robbed in August 2006. Police say members of the gang wrongly believed he was holding $2 million cash for one of his clients.
The gang used needle-nosed pliers to pinch his right ear to force him to talk. In that case, they only got about $50 that was on his money clip. But the robbers walked away with about $38,000 from the home of one of Mr. McGarvey's friends.
Police say the robbers may have targeted Mr. Reagan's home in DeSoto the morning of June 26, 2005, because they read news reports about him being under investigation by the FBI in connection with a bribery scandal and thought he had money.
About 11 that morning, three men driving a white, late-model Crown Victoria walked into Mr. Reagan's home wearing shirts and hats that read "police" and told him they were deputies. They handcuffed him, his 14-year-old son and a brother while they made off with $3,000 worth of goods - including a 9 mm handgun and the contents of two safes.
Days earlier, local media reported that Mr. Reagan's Black State Employees Association of Texas had been raided by the FBI in connection with the City Hall corruption inquiry.
Mr. Reagan is now in federal prison awaiting sentencing on a theft conviction while he prepares for trial in a larger City Hall bribery case in January. He was ecstatic when he learned his robbery was solved, DeSoto Detective Joe Watson said. "There was a lot of legwork that went into this case."
After identifying their victims in various ways, the group would study their prey in great detail, using Internet mapping tools, police said.
"These suspects would generally find people with large amounts of cash by various means," Detective Boy said. "They would then Google the location, they would go to the location, take photos, check the streets, plan their approach, plan their escape, they would [conduct surveillance on] the location for a period of time."
'A general thug'
High-profile targets were nothing new for the group. Authorities say Mr. Ross was heard on a wiretap threatening the life of Denton County Sheriff Benny Parkey. The sheriff had arrested Mr. Ross several times while working as a Denton police detective before being elected in 2004.
"He's just a general thug," the sheriff said Monday about Mr. Ross. "He does have a reputation as being violent."
When asked what Mr. Ross was doing out on the streets, the sheriff smiled and said, "That's a good question. Call your congressman."
Mr. Ross has a lengthy criminal history. In the early 1980s, he went to prison after being accused of breaking into a home and raping a 14-year-old girl in Denton County.
In 1984, Mr. Ross attacked another inmate with a sharpened piece of metal that he had hidden in his boot while at the Eastham Unit in East Texas. The man died, but Mr. Ross was never convicted in that case.
After being paroled in 1991, he was linked to the murder of Bobby Turner, a 19-year-old gang member, at a Denton trailer park.
He got a life sentence, but an appeals court tossed out his capital murder conviction and he pleaded to a reduced charge of aggravated assault when he was about to be retried in 2001.
He was released the same year.
According to a taped statement Mr. Autrey gave police, Mr. Ross also admitted shooting at a Duncanville police officer in April 2006.
Staff writer Tanya Eiserer contributed to this report.