Six months before prosecutors charged Tyshon Brownlee with robbing, shooting, and trying to kill Dakotah Earley on a Lincoln Park street in May, Chicago police already had evidence that someone named Tyshon Brownlee was linked to a crew of robbers that was carrying out nighttime armed robbery sprees on the North Side.
At least five times during those six months, Chicago police called off pursuits of cars linked to the growing robbery pattern, which eventually claimed well over 50 victims. CPD terminated one pursuit about an hour before Brownlee allegedly robbed and shot Earley while demanding his phone PIN.
And the road to justice for a Lakeview woman who was robbed by the crew last November has been littered with obstacles erected by the very people who are supposed to be fighting for Chicago’s crime victims.
The woman and her attorney spoke with CWBChicago at length about the night she was robbed, how Chicago police work, the state’s attorney’s office, Cook County’s juvenile court system, and an impressive amount of information they discovered about the robbery crew through their own investigation.
‘Looked like kids’
A little after 9 o’clock on November 17, Casey and her friend finished dinner at Andy’s Thai Kitchen and started walking home.
When the women, both in their late twenties, arrived at the 800 block of West Wolfram, Casey looked back and noticed four people wearing ski masks approaching.
“They just looked like kids trying to get past,” she said.
They were not trying to get past.
All four of them had guns that they pointed at the women’s heads, “which was traumatic,” Casey recalled.
The crew cornered the women and went through their pockets, taking their phones and purses. Then, the group headed toward two cars that were waiting.
But one of them ran back to the women and demanded their phone PINs, Casey said.
They complied. And Casey memorized one of the vehicles’ plate numbers.
A nearby resident took the women into their home and called the police. Casey also called her attorney friend, who would later help her investigate the robbery crew and serve as her lawyer. Cops and the lawyer arrived within minutes.
‘They’re gonna let them go’
“I was hopeful because I remembered the plate,” Casey said of the time she spent talking with officers that night.
As cops spoke with the women, a nearly-identical robbery involving a similar car unfolded in the 500 block of West Stratford Place in Boystown. The crew pistol-whipped that victim.
But, in a stroke of luck, cops spotted a red Mazda bearing the license plate Casey gave them fleeing the second robbery scene.
The lawyer could hear what was going on through an officer’s radio while the police were questioning Casey and her friend.
“Everyone was excited about the pursuit except the officers, who all put their heads down,” he remembered. An officer standing near him lowered their radio volume.
“They’re gonna let ’em go,” the officer predicted. He was right.
CPD radio transmissions, archived by CrimeIsDown.com, captured the brief pursuit and quick termination:
“They found the robbers 10 minutes later and they let ’em go,” remembered the attorney.
The red Mazda, according to CPD records, was stolen earlier that morning in the 1900 block of North Mendell in Bucktown. It’s an address that will come up again.
In the hours and days following the robbery, Casey and her lawyer carried out their own investigation. He works on fraud cases in his daily practice, so he felt up to the challenge. Their work began paying dividends quickly.
One of the first clues was a Venmo transfer. Using Casey’s phone, the robbers transferred cash from her account to an adult woman, the lawyer said. According to records he provided, the woman turned around and transferred some of that cash to an account with a now-familiar name: Tyshon Brownlee.
The woman’s son started using Casey’s stolen phone as his personal device on the day after the robbery, the lawyer said. The boy uploaded a video to her Snapchat account from the phone and commandeered her other social media accounts, making them his own.
Casey and the lawyer identified other people who received transfers from the same woman. They dug into their social media accounts and realized they were all friends. And they all post about their crimes online.
“They’re in high school,” the lawyer said of the suspected robbery crew members. “They have an adult leader. They steal a car, and they come up here to do robberies.”
He believes the crew followed a careful playbook after each robbery: They turned off the trackers on stolen phones, and someone in one of the getaway cars was an expert at “working” the phone within minutes, making electronic transfers, and stealing social media accounts.
A name to know
In a partially-redacted Chicago police report documenting one of the robberies, Casey and the lawyer made a surprising discovery. CPD investigators had identified two email addresses associated with the robbery crew. Both of the email addresses included the words Tyshon and Brownlee.
After identifying one robber by name and several likely suspects, Casey and her attorney went to CPD.
“Please move on this,” the lawyer recalled telling a detective. “Here’s everything on a silver platter. It’s a slam dunk.”
But the detectives seemed overworked and gave the impression that they would get around to it when they could, according to the attorney.
“It’s an attitude that does not lend itself to catching people doing very dangerous crimes,” he said.
In fact, while exploring the social media accounts of people associated with the robbery suspects, Casey and the lawyer found videos that suggest that running from the police may be part of the thrill. Here is one such video he shared:
On December 3, a robbery suspect that Casey identified posted a picture of himself holding a gun on Instagram. The lawyer quickly went back to CPD.
“We’re jumping up and screaming,” he recalled. “‘We think he’s gonna kill someone.'”
Police took the 17-year-old into custody. He was already on electronic monitoring, the lawyer said, and he had Casey’s phone with his picture as the screensaver. Prosecutors charged him with several robberies.
A night out
On December 10, perhaps somewhat relieved that at least one of her robbers had been caught, Casey and the lawyer decided to step out for the first time since she was targeted.
“We were walking on Sheffield between Wellington and Belmont,” he recalled. “A blue sedan turned down the street with four young men inside wearing ski masks. The driver was laughing. He drove as if he was coming toward us on the sidewalk, then turned into an alley.”
The lawyer immediately called 911.
“The operator sounded excited and asked a lot of questions, said they would send an officer to talk.”
An officer never showed up.
But within minutes of his call, a carload of men wearing ski masks robbed a group of eight victims at gunpoint in the 800 block of West Barry. Then, they robbed another victim in the 600 block of West Melrose.
Police quickly obtained the getaway car’s license plate number. CPD records showed it had been stolen two nights earlier from—you guessed it—the 1900 block of North Mendell in Bucktown.
Patrol officers spotted the car heading west on Diversey, then getting onto the expressway. Then, the cops stopped following it, according to police radio transmissions.
In all, the crew robbed 13 people that night.
The robbery team would continue to commit dozens of robberies across the North Side, usually striking several times a night, often pistol-whipping victims. In the spring, the city would become familiar with a name Chicago police already knew: Tyshon Brownlee.
Meanwhile, the robbery case against the teenager charged with robbing Casey made its way through the secretive juvenile court system. It was an eye-opening experience for Casey and her lawyer. And a former assistant state’s attorney told us that what they went through is very much the norm in Cook County’s juvenile system, where identities are protected, and media coverage is allowed only by permission of high-ranking judges.
You can read about her experiences in juvenile court here.