On a recent weekday morning, detectives and co-workers on the Anaheim PD’s Robbery & Assault Detail were standing at their workstations, their attention intensely focused on a…
Forty-foot golf putt.
The shot was too hard, and the ball pinged off a cubicle.
No, the members of the Robbery & Assault Detail don’t make a habit of goofing off on the job.
Rather, the quick session of office golf was a way for them to blow off steam and build camaraderie in a unit known throughout the station for being particularly tight. For example, every workday at 6 a.m., members of the Robbery & Assault Detail work out together in the station gym.
That morning sweat fest became formalized when APD Det. Phil Vargas joined the unit over three years ago.
“As a supervisor, my goal has always been to create an environment that allows for people to thrive and be successful,” says Det. Sgt. Mike McAlpine, who has run the Robbery & Assault Detail for five years.
“Basically every case we read is negative, and our job is to solve problems. As a result, this can be mentally draining,” McAlpine adds. “Relaxing and decompressing is important for us to be productive.”
Last year, the detectives and investigator were assigned 1,348 cases — cases consisting of robberies, carjackings, assaults, extortions, and weapons violations. Out of the 1,348 cases, 407 were robberies and carjackings. The detail is on pace to investigate a similar amount of crimes this year.
In the unofficial pecking order of law enforcement units to which detectives are assigned, Robbery & Assault typically is viewed as one notch below homicide — the glamour unit. Most detectives cut their teeth investigating gang crimes, family crimes, and burglaries before moving onto Robbery & Assault.
“Robbery investigations are very fulfilling, meaning detectives receive professional satisfaction as a result of the hard work and effort they put into a case,” says McAlpine, 45, adding that it’s his dream assignment to run a unit in which he previously served as a detective for five years.
“Taking criminals off the streets and putting them behind bars is what I signed up for when I started my career,” McAlpine says.
Robbery and assault cases are extremely traumatic to victims, McAlpine and members of his unit say.
“When somebody is victimized and their property is taken from them, it’s very intrusive, and something they’ll never forget,” McAlpine says.
He says this is especially true when it comes to commercial robberies whose victims are simply trying to make a living.
“Sometimes,” McAlpine notes, “ the same business owners are victimized more than once.”
Sometimes the public gets confused between the definition of a burglary and a robbery. The legal definition of a robbery is Penal Code 211: using force or fear to take personal property in the possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence, and against his or her will.
All robberies are felonies, although they vary in degree.
Just before the recent golf-putting break, Vargas and the newest member on the unit, Det. William Martinez, who started Aug. 23, 2019, interviewed a suspect in the APD jail for a robbery and assault that happened the night before.
The suspect, who is homeless, is accused of stabbing a fellow homeless man for his bicycle. The victim, who suffered moderate injuries, positively identified the suspect. Vargas and Martinez got a statement from the alleged stabber.
It’s the type of crime that happens a lot, but that rarely makes the news.
Occasionally, crimes solved by the Robbery & Assault Detail do make the news – typically, serial robbery cases, when a suspect or suspects hit a rash of businesses. Commonly targeted are cell phone stores.
“We have investigated several serial robbery cases,” McAlpine says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than putting a serious and violent offender behind bars for a long time.”
Often, such robberies cross city, county, and sometimes even state lines, and involve multiple local, state, and federal agencies working together to accomplish one goal:
Catch the bad guys.
“Robbery cases require advanced investigative skills,” McAlpine says.
“If you have a red Ford F150 leaving the crime scene of an armed robbery and there’s a sticker in the back window and a partial license plate, well, OK. Find the car. That’s what you’re tasked with. Find the car, and hopefully you’ll find the suspect involved in the robbery.”
Vargas, an APD veteran of 25 years, is a workout nut and runner. A fixture on the APD’s Baker to Vegas relay running team, he once ran a half marathon dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
Interestingly, workout fiend Vargas has an assortment of candy in his workstation that would make 7-Eleven proud.
Asked about this apparent disconnect, he said the goodies are for personnel throughout the APD, who snack on them daily.
“The fatter everybody else looks,” Vargas, 50, jokes, “the better we look.”
Officers who earn a detective position in the Robbery & Assault Detail have to be passionate about their work if they expect to succeed, McAlpine says.
Martinez certainly is passionate. He was the victim of a robbery.
Back in 2008, when he was a cadet at the APD, Martinez and a friend had just picked up pizza and had pulled up to his house.
“We saw a guy walking by kind of slowly,” he says of the 9 p.m. incident in Garden Grove. “I came out of the car holding pizza, and he stopped. His back was to us and he was about 15 feet away.
“All of the sudden, he turns around and pulls out a handgun and points it at my face and says, ‘Give me all your money!’”
Martinez complied, and the perp ran off.
“I wanted to kick his butt,” Martinez recalls. “I felt a lot of anger. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”
Martinez, whose other APD stints have included patrol, school investigator, and a member of the Community Policing Team, now channels his energy into catching robbers.
“I knew I would really enjoy this detail,” Martinez says.
The Robbery & Assault Detail has one of the APD’s longest-tenured detectives, Rod Celello. A 24-year law enforcement veteran who spent six years at the Glendora PD before coming to the APD in 2001, Celello has spent 15 years on the unit.
Celello is currently working approximately 30 cases.
“I’ve had as high as 60 to 65,” he says.
A DNA hit recently came in on a previously unknown suspect in a robbery case in September 2018. A man leaving his home for work found the suspect inside his car. The suspect assaulted him and stole the gym bag he was carrying. It contained numerous personal belongings.
“All of these cases are satisfying to solve and give closure to victims,” says Celello, another workout fiend. He is a five-time Police Olympics gold medalist in the bench press. Celello’s personal record is 424 pounds.
Det. John Carey, along with the assistance of APD’s Crime Task Force, recently solved a commercial robbery with not much more to go on other than a tattoo on a hand. The bad guy wore a hat and covered his face with a bandana when carrying out the crimes, but his hand was exposed.
The APD detectives and investigators were able to identify the suspect searching databases of people who had been arrested and whose tattoos had been documented.
The suspect’s tattoo read:
“Anaheim is one of the premier agencies in all of California,” McAlpine says. “It’s clearly evident by the quality of work, talent, and experience that this agency has always possessed. Career development and mentorship is key. Early in my career, I was taught by some amazing and skilled individuals.”
Here are the members of the APD’s Robbery & Assault Detail:
Det. Sgt. Mike McAlpine
Years on unit: 10 (combined)
Quote: “The amount of talent and expertise in this detail is unbelievable. Each and every one of them brings a unique skill set and personality to the detail. It is truly an honor to work with these men and women who I call family.”
Det. Phil Vargas
Years on unit: Three
“As far back as I can remember, I always remember how much fun my dad had being a police officer. When I first started this job, my fun was going out on the street and catching the bad guy and taking him to jail. Twenty-five years later, my fun is coming into the office and working with my partners in this detail.”
Det. John Carey
Years on unit: One
Quote: “Working this detail is a challenge. Fortunately, I work with experienced investigators who I can depend on.”
Det. Rod Celello
Years on unit: 15
Quote: “This detail really speaks to me. I like the challenge of the casework and identifying suspects.”
Det. William Martinez
Years on unit: A little more than two weeks
Quote: “I am deeply humbled to have joined the Robbery & Assault Detail. The amount of experience from the robbery detectives is second to none, and I am looking forward to learning from them and becoming a better police officer.”
Years on unit: Five
Quote: “I love my job because I like to help people. Coming to work every day is a learning experience, and in reality while it’s considered ‘work,’ it doesn’t feel like work because we are not only co-workers but friends who have grown to be like family.”
Senior Office Specialist
Years on unit: Four
Quote: “Working with the Robbery Detail is like working with my family. Not only can I count on them, but they take care of me.”
Years on unit: Two months
Quote: “The family up here in Robbery works hard at their job. I say family because we all treat each other like one big family. We always have one another’s back. When it comes to work, we all put our dedication and energy toward the task at hand. As a police cadet who is still learning, I couldn’t ask for better coworkers to show me what working together in law enforcement is about.”