Image: Men guilty of armored car heist
Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Five of the six men involved in one of the biggest armored car heists in U.S. history attend a sentencing hearing on Aug. 10. From left are Kelby Blakney, talking with Dominic Lyde, Dominque Blakney and Darryl Frierson. In the back, blocked by Lyde, is Jeremy Mc Phail.
updated 8/24/2009 6:51:22 PM ET 2009-08-24T22:51:22

Five young men who staged one of the largest armored car heists in U.S. history, then spent their loot on strippers, Mother's Day gifts and other luxuries were denied pleas for mercy Monday and ordered to spend at least 25 years in prison.

Calling the $9.8 million robbery an unjustifiable crime, South Carolina judge Michelle Childs sentenced three of the men to at least 25 years each in prison for armed robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and conspiracy. A fourth man was sentenced to three years for conspiracy, and the judge refused to reduce 25-year sentences for two others convicted.

'Serious matter here'
"We've got a serious matter here," Childs said, pointing to a South Carolina law she says declares that "the hands of one are the hands of all."

Jeremy McPhail, 21, of Society Hill, was sentenced to 25 years and Dominic Lyde, 24, of Darlington, was sentenced to 28 years. Darryl Frierson, 23, was sentenced to 30 years, plus a consecutive five years.

The judge also denied a request to reduce 25-year sentences for Domonique Blakney, 21, and Kelby Blakney, 22, both of Darlington. Another man, 23-year-old Paul Whitaker, of Sumter, who initially cooperated with investigators, was sentenced to three years for conspiracy. All had pleaded guilty in the heist.

One of the men bowed his head for most of the hearing, while the others showed little emotion as each stepped forward to be given his sentence. Many family members wept as the sentences were given to the men, four of whom were college students at the time of the holdup.

Prosecutors called the heist a well-thought out plan that led to the beating of a guard left bloody and bound on a secluded road beside a strawberry patch in Columbia in 2007. Defense attorneys and relatives insisted that the men are misguided youth, not scheming criminals.

"He's a person that — once he recognizes he's made a mistake — he makes a change in his life," Gail McPhail, the mother of one of the men, said during a hearing earlier this month. "I believe he has greatness in him."

Sloppy crime
The crime was sloppy and the cover-up quickly discovered. The men didn't even bring enough garbage bags to haul away all the $18 million in the armored car, defense attorneys said. More than half of the money they stole remains missing.

Prosecutors had a different view. They said the Express Teller Services car was stopped at a gas station to refuel when two men wielding weapons overpowered a guard. The armored car was driven to a dirt road where two other men waited in a second vehicle to unload the money.

"This isn't two guys that knocked over granddad's liquor store — there's a lot more to it than that," prosecutor Dan Goldberg said. "It was a well-thought out, calculated plan. Each person involved had their own role."

Underestimating the amount of their score, the men only made off with a little more than half of the money. They left one guard badly beaten, duct taped with broken bones and knocked out teeth, while the other guard — whom authorities have called the mastermind of the heist — appeared unharmed.

Money blown on strippers, tattoos
For a week, the men spent money on strippers, tennis shoes, tattoos, electronics, used cars — even Mother's Day gifts.

Investigators said they were immediately suspicious of the overly descriptive account of the robbery given by Frierson, who was initially considered a victim. He failed a polygraph test and deputies began to question his friend, Whitaker, and the other men.

All but one of the six men were arrested about a week after the heist. Nine months later, Lyde was arrested in North Carolina.

Family members say many of the men once volunteered in their communities, helped raise their siblings and aspired to be college graduates despite growing up in rough neighborhoods. One was a college athlete, another a sensitive father who turned to cocaine and alcohol after ending his relationship with the mother of his young daughter.

"He made a mistake," Darryl Frierson's father said. "They all made mistakes. ... But take me, please don't take my son. Don't take him away from his daughter."

While those who defend them try to downplay the amount of money stolen in the robbery, the FBI has said the Columbia armored car heist is now the third-largest in U.S. history.

"Thankfully, these cases are few and far between," said Stephen Emmett, an FBI spokesman. "Law enforcement has shown time and again its commitment with going after these. They're not easy to get away with."

Goldberg said after the hearing that the sentences were fair.

"It's hard to ignore the gravity to what took place," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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