COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Six young men who staged one of the largest armored car heists in U.S. history, then spent a week splurging on strippers, high-living and even Mother's Day gifts, are asking a South Carolina judge for mercy.
On Monday, the men - four of whom were college students at the time of the holdup - will learn their punishment for the $9.8 million robbery and the beating of a guard left bloodied and bound on a secluded road beside a strawberry patch in Columbia in 2007.
While prosecutors have asked a judge to sentence all but one of the men to at least 25 years, relatives and defense attorneys insist they 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."
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.
"This type of crime doesn't belong in any pantheon of crime," defense attorney Joe McCulloch said during the Aug. 10 hearing. "There wasn't a whole lot of sophistication here."
Prosecutors have 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. They had their own job and they executed them. ... And there was a far reaching impact as a result of their actions."
Jeremy McPhail, 21, of Society Hill; Dominic Lyde, 24, of Darlington; Domonique Blakney, 21, of Darlington; Paul Whitaker, 23, of Sumter; Kelby Blakney, 22, of Darlington; and Darryl Frierson, 23, of Columbia, have all pleaded guilty in the case.
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.
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.
Five of the six have pleaded guilty to armed robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and conspiracy. Whitaker, who also worked for the armored car company, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Brothers Domonique and Kelby Blakney have already been sentenced, but are asking a judge to reduce their 25-year prison terms. Prosecutors have asked that their request be denied and that McPhail, Lyde and Frierson each be given at least 25 years in prison.
Whitaker will likely get a lesser sentence, prosecutors said.
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."