Creating the Illusion of Impending Death: Armed Robbers in Action

Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker

This article appeared in Crimes of Violence, the Spring 1997 edition of TheHFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

Unlike most sorts of street crime, successful armed robberies are never secret or ambiguous. By definition, they require offenders to confront intended victims directly. As David Luckenbill (1981:25) has observed, there is a strong interactional component to armed robbery; offenders and victims must develop “a common definition of the situation” and co-orient their actions to meet the demands of the offense. This does not happen automatically. After all, why should stick-up victims willingly participate in their own fleecing?

It is important to develop a clear understanding of the strategies used by armed robbers to compel the cooperation of would-be victims. Such information could offer citizens some guidance about how best to act and react should they be confronted by a robber. It also could provide policymakers and criminal justice officials with a better appreciation of offenders’ aims and intentions during robberies, thereby enabling them to make more informed crime prevention and sentencing decisions.

In an attempt to learn more about the tactics employed by offenders to commit stick-ups, we located and interviewed 86 currently active armed robbers in St. Louis, Missouri. Armed robbery is a serious problem in St. Louis. In 1994, the year our research began, the city had 6,025 stick-ups reported to the police and ranked second in the nation in robberies per capita. The armed robbers for our study were recruited through the efforts of two field-based informants–an ex-offender, and a small-time heroin dealer and street criminal. Working through chains of street referrals, the field recruiters contacted active armed robbers, convinced them to take part in our project, and assisted us in conducting interviews that lasted up to two hours. In the pages that follow, we report just a small portion of what the offenders said during those interviews, focusing on how they actually commit their offenses.

Approaching the Victim

To be successful, armed robbers must take control of the offense from the start. They immediately have to impose on the interaction a definition favorable to their ends, allowing intended victims no room for negotiation. This typically is accomplished by creating an illusion of impending death.

Robbery itself is an illusion. That’s what it’s about…Here is a person that you stick a gun in his face, they’ve never died, they don’t know how it feels, but the illusion of death causes them to do what you want them to do. (aka Robert Jones)

A large part of creating such an illusion involves catching potential victims off guard; the element of surprise denies them the opportunity to adopt an oppositional stance.

Sometimes people be alert; they be watchin’ so you got to be careful of what you do. You got to be alert…Pretty soon [the intended victim] falls asleep, and then [h]e ain’t even trippin’. He over there lookin’ at some girl…[H]e probably just take his eyes off what he’s doin’, watchin’ out, [which is] what he’s supposed to be doin’, and just turn his head on some girls. And [the stick-up] be on. (aka Andrew)

The offenders in our sample employ two different methods to approach would-be victims without arousing their suspicion. The first method involves using stealth or speed to sneak up on unwitting prey.

[Whoever I am going to rob. I] just come up on you. You could be going to your car. If you are facing this way, I want to be on your blind side. If you are going this way, I want to be on that side where I can get up on you [without you noticing me] and grab you: “This is a robbery, motherfucker, don’t make it no murder!” I kind of like shake you. That’s my approach. (aka Richard L. Brown)

The second method involves “managing a normal appearance” (Luckenbill, 1981:29). The offenders’ aim is to fit into the social setting such that victims see their presence as normal and non-threatening, thereby allowing them to get close enough for a surprise attack.

Well, if I’m walking, say you got something that I want, I might come up there [and say], “Do you have the time?” or “Can I get a light from you?” something like that. “Yeah, it’s three o’clock.” By then I’m up on you, getting what I want. (aka Loco)

The method chosen to approach potential victims typically is dictated more by situational factors than by the idiosyncratic preferences of individual offenders. Depending on the situation, most of the armed robbers are prepared to use either speed and stealth or the presentation of a non-threatening self to move within striking range of their victims. The offender quoted below, for example, reported that he and his partners usually initiate their commercial stick-ups simply by charging through the front door of the establishment, ski masks pulled down and guns drawn.

When I approach the door [of a would-be commercial target] generally we got ski masks that rolls up into a skull cap; it’s a skull cap right now and as we get to the door, right prior to walking in the door, we pull our masks down. Once we come in, we got these masks down [so] we got to come in pulling our weapons, might even have them out prior to going in, just concealed. As soon as we pull those masks down, we are committed [because our intention is obvious]. (aka Robert Gibson)

He added, however, that circumstances occasionally require them to enter intended targets posing as customers. Doing so helps them to avoid tipping their hand too early, which is crucial in situations where the victim is likely to be armed.

Say for instance [the target is] a tavern and the guy behind the bar…might be the kind of guy that got a pistol. Most bartenders and most people that’s cashing checks, they got pistols on them. Believe me, they got pistols…So in that particular situation, you got to…get in the door before you go into motion because you got to know where they are at. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got a real chance to get up on them and make it not worth their risk to try to reach the pistol [before you betray your intentions]. (aka Robert Gibson)

Regardless of the manner in which the offenders make their approach, the aim almost invariably is the same: to “establish co-presence” with the victim without betraying their intentions (Luckenbill, 1981:29). This gives would-be victims little opportunity to recognize the danger and to take steps to repel the attack. Not only is this far safer for the offenders, it also puts them in a strong position when it comes to compelling the victim’s immediate cooperation.

Announcing the Crime

By announcing a stick-up, armed robbers commit themselves irrevocably to the offense. Any semblance of normality has been shattered; from this point onward, the victim will act and react in the knowledge that a robbery is being committed. The offenders we interviewed saw this as the “make or break” moment. The challenge for them was “to dramatize with unarguable clarity that the situation ha[d] suddenly and irreversibly been transformed into a crime” (Katz, 1988:176). In effecting this transformation, they seek to establish dominance over their intended prey, thereby placing themselves in a position to dictate the terms of the unfolding interaction.

When I first come up on [my victims], I might scare them, but then I calm them down. It’s a control thing. If you can get a person to listen to you, you can get them to do just about anything…That’s the way the world is made. (aka Tony Wright)

Most of the offenders said that they typically open their armed robberies with a demand that the would-be victim stop and listen to them.

I say [to the victim], “Look here, hey, just hold up right where you at! Don’t move! Don’t say nothing!” (aka James Minor)

They often couple this demand with an unambiguous declaration of their predatory intentions.

[I tell my victims], “It’s a robbery! Don’t nobody move!” (aka John Lee)

That declaration, in turn, usually is backed by a warning about the dire consequences of failing to do as they instruct.

[I say to the victim], “This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder! It’s a robbery, don’t make it a murder!” (aka Wallie Cleaver)

All of the above pronouncements are intended to “soften up” victims; to inform them that they are about to be robbed and to convince them that they are not in a position to resist.

Having seized initial control of the interaction, offenders then must let victims know what is expected of them. As one armed robber reminded us: “You have to talk to victims to get them to cooperate…They don’t know what to do, whether to lay down, jump over the counter, dance, or whatever.” This information typically is communicated to victims in the form of short, sharp orders laced with profanity and, often, racial epithets.

[I say to victims], “Hey motherfucker, give me your shit! Move slow and take everything out of your pockets!” (aka James Love)

[I grab my victims and say], “Take it off girl! Nigger, come up off of it!” (aka Libbie Jones)

The “expressive economy” with which the offenders issue instructions can in part be accounted for by a desire to keep victims off balance by demonstrating an ominous insensitivity to their precarious emotional state (see Katz, 1988:177). Clearly, the swearing and racial putdowns help to reinforce this impression.

Almost all of the offenders typically used a gun to announce their stick-ups. They recognized that displaying a firearm usually obviated the need to do much talking. One put it this way: “A gun kinda speaks for itself.” Most of them believed that “big, ugly guns” such as 9MMs or 45s were the best weapons for inducing cooperation.

[The 9MM] got that look about it like it gonna kill you. It talk for itself: “I’m gonna kill you.” Looking at a 9 pointed at you, that’s what goes through your head: “He gonna kill me if I don’t give him this money.” (aka Prauch)

In practice, however, many of the armed robbers actually carried somewhat smaller firearms because they were more easily concealed and simpler to handle.

I like the 32 because it’s like a 38, small, easy and accessible. And it will knock [the victim] down if you have to use it. (aka Bob Jones)

A few offenders maintained that very small calibre pistols (e.g., 22s, 25s) made poor robbery weapons because many potential victims were not afraid of them.

[With] 22s or 25s people gonna be like, “Man, he using this little gun. I ain’t worried.” A 22 is real little, they gonna be, “Man, that ain’t gonna do nothing but hurt me. Give me a little sting.” (aka Syco)

That said, the majority of respondents felt that even the smallest handguns were big enough to intimidate most people. As one observed: “A person’s gonna fear any kind of gun you put in their face. So it don’t matter [what you use]. If it’s a gun, it’s gonna put fear in you.”

The dilemma faced by offenders in relying on a gun to induce fear is that the strategy might work too well. Jack Katz (1988) has noted that the display of a firearm can easily be misinterpreted by victims as the precursor to an offense far more serious than robbery (e.g., rape, kidnapping, murder). Offenders are keen to avoid such misinterpretations because they can stun victims into a state of incomprehension or convince them that determined resistance represents their only chance of survival. When armed offenders warn victims–“This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder!”–they are doing more than issuing a credible death threat. Paradoxically, they also are seeking to reassure the victims that submission will not put their lives in jeopardy.

Transferring the Goods

No doubt the most difficult aspect of pulling off an armed robbery involves managing the transfer of goods. The difficulty inheres in the fact that offenders must keep victims under strict control while, at the same time, attempting to make sure that they have gotten everything worth taking. What is more, all of this must be accomplished as quickly as possible. The longer the stick-up lasts, the more risk offenders run of being discovered by police or passers-by.

The armed robbers we talked to used two different strategies to manage the transfer of goods. The first involved simply ordering victims to hand over their possessions.

I tell [my victims], “Man, if you don’t want to die, give me your money! If you want to survive, give me your money! I’m not bullshitting!” So he will either go in his back pocket and give me the wallet or the woman will give me her purse. (aka Tony Brown)

By making victims responsible for the transfer of goods, the offenders are able to devote their undivided attention to watching for signs of danger.

I rather for [victims] to give [their valuables] to me because I have to be alert. If they reach for something, I’ll have to shoot them. (aka K-Money)

There is, however, one serious drawback to giving victims responsibility for the transfer; it is difficult to know whether they really have turned over all of their valuables. Recognizing this, many of the offenders employed tough talk and a fierce demeanor to discourage victims from attempting to shortchange them.

You say, “Is that everything?” You can kinda tell if they lyin’ sometimes: “That’s all I got, man, that’s all!” You’ll say, “You’re lyin’, man, you lyin’!” and just make them think that you’re getting pissed because he’s lying to you. So basically you got this gun [pointed] at they head, so sometimes it be like, “Okay, I got some more.” (aka Damon Jones)

A few of them went so far as to rough up their victims, especially those who appeared confused or hesitant, to reinforce the message that holding something back would be a risky proposition.

Well, if [the victim] hesitates like that, undecided, you get a little aggressive and you push ’em. Let them know you mean business. I might take [the] pistol and crack their head with it. “Come on with that money and quit bullcrapping or else you gonna get into some real trouble!” Normally when they see you mean that kind of business they…come on out with it. (aka Burle)

But most of the offenders who allowed victims to hand over their own possessions simply accepted what was offered and made good their escape. As one explained: “You just got to be like, ‘Well, it’s cool right here what I got.’ [W]hen you get too greedy, that’s when [bad] stuff starts to happen.”

The second strategy used by the armed robbers to accomplish the transfer of goods involved taking the victims’ possessions from them without waiting for what was offered.

I get [the victim’s money] because everybody not gonna give you all they got. They gonna find some kind of way to keep from giving it all. (aka Richard L. Brown)

A number of the offenders who preferred this strategy were reluctant to let victims empty their own pockets for fear that they were carrying a concealed weapon.

I don’t let nobody give me nothing. Cause if you let somebody go in they pockets, they could pull out a gun, they could pull out anything. You make sure they are where you can see their hands at all times. (aka Cooper)

To outsiders, these offenders may appear to be greatly overestimating the risk of encountering an armed victim. Such a perspective, however, betrays a respectable, middle-class upbringing. In the desperate inner-city neighborhoods in which almost all of the armed robbers reside, and in which many of them ply their trade, weapons are a ubiquitous feature of everyday life.

As already noted, all of the crime commission strategies adopted by the offenders are intended, at least in part, to minimize the possibility of victim resistance. Generally speaking, these strategies work very well. Nevertheless, almost all of the armed robbers we talked to said that they occasionally encountered victims who steadfastly refused to comply with their demands.

[O]n the parking lot, if you grab somebody and say, “This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder!” I’ve had it happen that [the victim just says], “Well, you got to kill me then.” (aka Richard L. Brown)

Faced with a recalcitrant victim, most of the offenders responded with severe, but non-lethal, violence in the hope of convincing the person to cooperate. Often this violence involved smacking or beating the victim about the head with a pistol.

It’s happened [that some of my victims initially refuse to hand over their money, but] you would be surprised how cooperative a person will be once he been smashed across the face with a 357 Magnum. (aka Tony Wright)

Occasionally, however, a robbery involved shooting the victim in the leg or some other spot unlikely to prove fatal.

[If the person refuses to do what I say] most of the time I just grab my pistol, take the clip out and just slap ’em. If I see [the victim] trying to get tough, then sometimes I just straight out have to shoot somebody, just shoot ’em. I ain’t never shot nobody in the head or nothing, nowhere that I know would kill ’em, just shoot them in they leg. Just to let them know that I’m for real [and that they should] just come up off the stuff. (aka Cooper)

While a majority of the armed robbers preferred to use non-lethal violence to subdue resistant victims, several of them admitted to having been involved in fatal encounters in the past. One of the female offenders, for instance, described how she had watched from the car while one of her male companions shot and killed an uncooperative robbery victim.

We was in the car and, I didn’t get out this time, one of the dudes got out. The [victim], he wasn’t gonna let nobody rob him: “Nigger, you got to kill me! You got to kill me!” And that’s what happened to him. Just shot him in the head. It was like, God!, I had never seen that. When [my accomplice] shot him, it wasn’t like he was rushing to get away. He shot him, walked back to the car, put the gun back up under the seat and just, you know, we watched [the victim] when he fell, blood was coming out of his mouth, he was shaking or something. (aka Ne-Ne)

Such incidents are rare; few of the offenders entered into armed robberies intending to kill or seriously injure their prey. Indeed, some admitted that they probably would abandon an intended offense rather than use deadly force to subdue an uncooperative victim.

I really ain’t gonna shoot nobody. I think a lot of people are like that. I wouldn’t shoot nobody myself; if they gave me too much of a problem, I might just take off. (aka Mike J.)

That said, it must be noted that armed robbers typically are acting under intense emotional pressure to generate some fast cash by any means necessary in an interactional environment shot through with uncertainty and danger. Is it any wonder that the slightest hint of victim resistance may provoke some of them to respond with potentially deadly force? As one observed: “When you’re doing stuff like this, you just real edgy; you’ll pull the trigger at anything, at the first thing that go wrong.”

Making an Escape

Once offenders have accomplished the transfer of goods, it only remains for them to make their getaway. Doing that, however, is more difficult than it might appear. Up to this point, the offenders have managed to keep victims in check by creating a convincing illusion of impending death. But the maintenance of that illusion becomes increasingly more difficult as the time comes for offenders to make good their escape. How can they continue to control victims who are becoming physically more distant from them?

In broad terms, the offenders can effect a getaway in one of two ways; they can leave the scene themselves or they can stay put and force the victim to flee. Other things being equal, most of them preferred to be the ones to depart. Before doing so, however, they had to make sure that the victim would not attempt to follow them or to raise the alarm. A majority of the offenders responded to this need by using verbal threats designed to extend the illusion of impending death just long enough for them to escape unobserved.

I done left people in gangways and alleys and I’ve told them, “If you come out of this alley, I’m gonna hurt you. Just give me 5 or 10 minutes to get away. If you come out of this alley in 3 or 4 minutes, I’m gonna shoot the shit out of you!” (aka Bennie Simmons)

A few offenders, however, attempted to prolong this illusion indefinitely by threatening to kill their victims if they ever mentioned the stick-up to anyone.

I done actually took [the victim’s] ID and told them, “If you call the police, I got your address and everything. I know where you stay at and, if you call the police, I’m gonna come back and kill you!” (aka Melvin Walker)

Some of the armed robbers were uncomfortable relying on verbal threats to dissuade their prey from pursuing them. Instead, they took steps to make it difficult or impossible for victims to leave the crime scene by tying them up or incapacitating them through injury.

[I hit my victims before I escape so as to] give them less time to call for the police. Especially if it’s somebody else’s neighborhood [and] we don’t know how to get out. You hit them with a bat just to slow his pace. If you hit him in the leg with a bat, he can’t walk for a minute; he gonna be limping, gonna try to limp to a payphone. By then it be 15 or 20 minutes, we be hitting the highway and on our way back to the southside where our neighborhood is. (aka Antwon Wright)

While most of the offenders wanted to be the first to leave the crime scene, a number of them preferred to order the victim to flee instead. This allowed the offenders to depart in a calm, leisurely manner, thereby reducing the chances of drawing attention to themselves.

I try not to have to run away. A very important thing that I have learned is that when you run away, too many things can happen running away. Police could just be cruising by and see you running down the street. I just prefer to be able to walk away, which is one of the reasons why I tend, rather than to make an exit, I tell the victim to walk and don’t look back: “Walk away, and walk fast!” When they walk, I can make my exit walking. (aka Slick Going)

What is more, forcing the victim to leave first permitted the offenders to escape without worrying about being attacked from behind–a crucial consideration for those unwilling or unable to incapacitate their prey prior to departure.

[Afterward,] I will tell [the victim] to run. You wouldn’t just get the stuff and run because he may have a gun and shoot you while you are turning around running or something like that. (aka Damon Jones)

Beyond such instrumental concerns, several of the armed robbers indicated that they forced the victim to flee for expressive reasons as well; it demonstrated their continuing ability to dominate and control the situation. The clearest example of this involved an offender who routinely taunted his victims by ordering them to leave the scene in humiliating circumstances: “I like laughing at what I do, like, I told…one dude to take off his clothes. I just do a whole bunch of stuff. Sometimes I’ll make a dude crawl away. I’ll tell him to crawl all the way up the street. And I’ll sit there in the alley watching him crawl and crack up laughing.”


In short, the active armed robbers we interviewed typically compel the cooperation of intended victims through the creation of a convincing illusion of impending death. They create this illusion by catching would-be victims off guard, and then using tough talk, a fierce demeanor, and the display of a deadly weapon to scare them into a state of unquestioning compliance. The goal is to maintain the illusion for as long as possible without having to make good on the threat. This is easier said than done. Armed robbery is an interactive event and, for any number of reasons, victims may fail to behave in the expected fashion. When this happens, the offenders usually respond with severe, but non-lethal, violence, relying on brute force to bring victims’ behavior back into line with their expectations. Very few of them want to kill their victims, although some clearly are prepared to resort to deadly force if need be.

Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker are professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A book based upon research they conducted while HFG grantees, Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, has just been published (1997) by Northeastern University Press.


  1. Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Luckenbill, David. 1981. “Generating Compliance: The Case of Robbery.” Urban Life 10:25-46.

Welcome to the website of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

Sign up here for Foundation news and updates on our programs and research.