Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Sunday, January 17, 2016
Lured by easy money, trio ran afoul of the law – and are paying the price
Youth, looks, money: They say you need at least two of those qualities to live life in the fast lane.
Billy Brymer had all three.
Also, he was smart, and the boy knew how to talk.
"I just like money and research everything I can do to make it without working," he once texted a friend. "I'm a mastermind at making money without doing s--t. Write an e-mail, make a phone call and come up with 10k."
Never mind that none of it was legal.
He was big and buff, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 240 pounds, a weightlifter who used and sold steroids. And though he was only in his early 20s, he had a luxury apartment in Tempe and a fast car.
The women noticed, and the men were filled with envy.
Jillian Bagley was just 19, an artist studying design at Arizona State University and waiting tables to make ends meet. She liked glamour. She needed a place to live.
Joel Thomas was 21, finishing up a dual-degree program at ASU, working 30 hours a week at a bank and caring for his 12-year-old sister.
They both fell under Brymer's sway.
"Whatever he told her to do, she would do it," Thomas said of Bagley in an interview with The Arizona Republic.
She became a Millennial Bonnie to Brymer's 21st-century Clyde.
In Thomas, they found a sidekick.
Bagley said Thomas was wowed by Brymer when they met at a party.
"You've got money, you've got women," Bagley describes Thomas as saying.
And she said Brymer responded, "Well then, you're ready to get started."
They started in August 2011 and by the end of February 2012, Brymer and Thomas, working with a host of stooges and flunkies, including Bagley, stole or scammed nearly $380,000 from banks where Thomas worked, according to court records.
That was their undoing.
"It's a tough crime to get away with," an FBI agent told The Republic.
And they all were sentenced to prison.
Brymer never spoke to The Republic. His lawyer said he shouldn't. He doesn't show up in the prisoner locator systems; the FBI agent said that he is in federal protective custody.
Thomas still denies conspiring with Brymer.
"It's all on him," Thomas said. He says Brymer was just a big flamboyant guy he knew from parties.
"Billy Brymer didn't even know where I lived," Thomas told The Republic in an interview in jail.
Bagley was labeled a getaway driver in one bank job. She claimed she was just along for the ride.
"I didn't think I was in trouble," she said, "even up to the point where I was arrested and indicted."
But she did 31/2 years in jail and federal prison and still has to serve stints in a halfway house.
Brymer had the good luck — and the good lawyering — to get a plea deal with only a 12-year sentence.
But Thomas, the alleged inside man, went to trial and was sentenced to 49½ years in federal prison, which he is appealing. He still has to stand trial in state court for bank fraud.
Sometimes, the fast lane ends in unexpected exit ramps.
Billy Wayne Brymer:
A smooth talker
Billy Wayne Brymer III told different stories to different people. He would say he was a student, or an e-trader, that he sold real estate or played for the Arizona Cardinals.
This portrait is drawn from court and FBI records and interviews with people who knew him well.
He was a smooth talker. He saw vulnerabilities, and he capitalized on them.
One scam was to get strippers to harvest credit-card numbers and security codes from unsuspecting clients.
According to court records, he gave his pitch in 2012 to a person he was trying to pull into the scheme, saying that each girl who stole credit-card numbers would make $1,000 in her first week and the go-between would make $200 to $500 for each girl recruited.
"I've been doing for 3 years (sic) and I've made a little over 800k just so you have an idea of the money that's made doing this," he wrote in a text message captured by FBI agents.
Like a modern-day Fagin from "Oliver Twist," Brymer enlisted homeless teens in Tempe and had them open bank accounts. Then, using a Square reader, of the sort plugged into a phone or tablet to make charges on credit cards, he would drain money from the bank accounts and let the "bums," as he called them, keep a pittance.
The bums had to call Brymer "boss," according to Bagley and to court records, and Bagley said they were told not to talk to her.
One of the homeless teens, who was sentenced to prison for his participation, said that "someone" driving a BMW gave him $500 so he would have a place to stay.
"The defendant was told that someone from Mexico wanted to use his account to wire money from Mexico," one investigative report said. "This person could not do it himself because he did not have a green card."
Met Brymer at Hooter's
Jillian Bagley grew up in the West Valley. She met Brymer the day before her 19th birthday in July 2011, while she was working at a Hooter's restaurant.
She waited on his table, and he left her a $50 tip.
A few minutes later, he came back into the restaurant and told her he needed his $50 back. When she gave it to him, he handed her a $100 bill instead.
Two weeks later, she said, she was living in his 900-square-foot, 18th-floor apartment in the Tempe Towers complex.
Brymer would wake every morning before she did, buy her breakfast from a takeout stand and then drive her to class in his Beemer or new Camaro.
"He treated me like a princess," she said in an interview with The Republic.
Bagley thought Brymer went to college, but she didn't know where. She said she assumed he had family money, and lots of it. In fact, he was the son of a small-time shyster with felony convictions for assault and drug offenses who was mysteriously shot to death in front of his Laveen home in 2013, shortly after Brymer, his son, entered into his plea agreement.
Bagley began to wonder who she was living with. She wondered what Brymer did to have so much money.
Then one day she asked.
"I know it's none of my business, but what is it?"
He told her that he would call people on the phone, claim he was raising money for breast-cancer research and then take their credit-card numbers, she said.
"I just wanted to ignore it because I needed a place to live," she said.
After about a month, Bagley said, she tried to leave. Brymer took her cellphone and hid it; it was later found on top of a tall refrigerator where she couldn't see it. He convinced her to stay.
"It didn't feel stable, like maybe the cops would bust in the door any day," she said.
But she gave in.
"I just turned a blind eye," she said.
Then Brymer ran into Thomas.
Caring for 12-year-old sister
Joel Thomas was 21, living in El Mirage and caring for his 12-year-old sister because their mother was on active duty in the U.S. Navy.
He was also attending ASU, working on dual bachelor's degrees in justice studies and criminal justice, and working 30 hours a week at a Wells Fargo bank in Surprise, he said. He wanted to go to law school and was preparing to take the LSAT exam, a law-school prerequisite.
Thomas claims he knew Brymer from high school and saw him at a party he only attended because he had just split with his girlfriend.
"He was a big dude, hard to miss," Thomas said in an interview with The Republic.
Thomas, by contrast, is short but muscular, a round-faced young Black man. (Brymer is White; Bagley, of mixed race.)
Thomas denies associating with Brymer outside of the party scene, but the record suggests otherwise. (And his appellate lawyer says Brymer extracted information from him.) They went shopping for guns together, according to court records, for example.
According to police and prosecutors, Thomas helped Brymer by singling out vulnerable Wells Fargo accounts and then feeding the information needed to pillage them.
"Hey and try to get as many card numbers with security codes that you can because I can set up a square account for the bums and get 4k a week," Brymer wrote in a text to Thomas in September 2011. "Even if a person only has a thousand or two still try and get the info."
Thomas texted back: "Okay I'll work on that I have to be careful if all the fraud is coming from ppl coming in here."
And people did notice.
A presentence report for one of the "bums" described how Brymer and Thomas exploited a 97-year-old woman. She thought it strange that Thomas, a teller at her bank branch, was overly friendly to her when she came to his window.
"Shortly thereafter, she stopped receiving bank statements," the report said. The woman, "who still balances her checkbook, called the bank. Once she received the statements she noticed someone had made several withdrawals from her account without her permission, totaling $55,000."
In a text exchange with Brymer, Thomas wrote, "And that lady with 100k we are going to do everything!!! Lol."
Brymer replied, "Yea...I'm even gonna go to her house and rape her."
Between Aug. 23 and Dec. 30, 2011, Brymer and Thomas' bank scheme took in $124,405, according to court records.
But Thomas had come under suspicion and was fired. He was hired as a teller at a Chase bank in Peoria.
On Dec. 26, 2011, Thomas and Brymer exchanged texts about ways to keep the money flowing in without including so many other people, according to Brymer's sentencing memorandum in federal court.
"Within a few weeks, they committed their first bank robbery," the memorandum says.
Jan. 21, 2012:
'Let's do it!'
Bagley told The Republic she thought she was going out to lunch with Brymer, her cousin and her cousin's friend, when one of them said, "Let's do it!"
It was Jan. 21, 2012, and "it" on that day was robbing a Wells Fargo bank in Surprise.
Jillian's cousin, Daniel Bagley, had become friends with Brymer; he and Jeffrey Edwards, his sister's boyfriend, had just shown up at Brymer's Tempe apartment, where Jillian Bagley lived. Then they set out for lunch, she said.
Jillian Bagley said she was told to wait in her cousin's car in front of a pharmacy a few blocks from the bank.
Edwards went in first and pulled out his gun. Daniel Bagley was supposed to follow him in and back him up, but he panicked and turned and ran, nearly running into Brymer, who assumed the robbery was done.
So instead, according to Jillian Bagley, Brymer pulled his gun on a customer at the ATM and took his money.
Edwards, meanwhile, could not get anyone to open the bank vault, so he turned to the tellers and took nearly $7,200 in cash.
The three rejoined Jillian Bagley. And then they all went to lunch, she said.
The second bank job went even worse.
On Feb. 25, 2012, Brymer recruited two of his Tempe "bums," and drove them to a Safeway supermarket in Surprise that had a Wells Fargo branch inside. The robbers did not even know Brymer's name, referring to him only as "boss."
One of the two was afraid to go through with the robbery. The other marched in and handed a note to a teller, who handed him $1,687 and then hit the panic button. Both men ran to Brymer's car and took off. Brymer gave one of the men $60 for his efforts.
Girl Scouts selling cookies outside the store gave descriptions to the police.
It was not a successful heist. When none of the bums was available for the next job, court records say, Brymer and Thomas apparently decided to take matters into their own hands.
Feb. 29, 2012:
Things begin to go wrong
Thomas had been working at the Chase bank in Peoria for about two months. On Feb. 29, 2012, he was scheduled to help open the bank, which is a two-person job.
According to an FBI deposition in the court records, here is how the final bank caper played out:
Thomas met the bank manager there at 7:30 in the morning. His task was to stand outside while the manager went in and swept the bank to make sure no one was inside. Thomas was supposed to watch for suspicious activity at the ATM and signal the manager if there was a problem.
Brymer was at the ATM, wearing a gray hoodie sweatshirt. Thomas said nothing. When the manager signaled for Thomas to come inside, Brymer made his move.
Thomas did not even pretend to stop him.
Brymer pushed through the door and the manager was not strong enough to keep him out. For some reason, Brymer waited until he was already inside before pulling a ski mask over his face. The manager got a good look at him. Brymer drew a 9mm hand gun, pointed it and said, "Don't do anything stupid because I'm willing to kill both of you and kill myself."
He demanded to be taken to the vault; it took two keys to open it, and the manager and Thomas then shoveled cash into the black duffel bag that Brymer had brought with him.
Then Brymer asked to get to the tellers' money; Thomas opened his "cubbie," and gave him a bag with the cash that would have filled his till at his window. Brymer demanded money from the ATM and the manager said he couldn't get into it.
But Brymer already had stuffed $246,000 into the bag.
He carried a walkie-talkie and asked into it if any police were in the neighborhood. The voice on the other end belonged to one of Brymer's weight-lifter buddies, Ernie Lerma, who answered, "No." Lerma would be the getaway driver.
Brymer then told Thomas and the manager to go into the bathroom, lie down on the floor and wait five minutes until he was gone.
A minute later, the manager called police.
Thomas claimed to be a victim of the robbery, but authorities found his story to be fishy. And when Peoria police showed up, one of the officers took the others aside and told them he had an open investigation implicating Thomas in fraud at the Wells Fargo bank. Furthermore, Thomas had an associate named Billy Brymer, who fit the description of the armed robber.
The FBI was called in, and when the agent looked at surveillance video of the robbery, he immediately picked out fatal errors.
When Brymer was pushing his way through the front door, "Joel just stands there with his hands at his sides and doesn't even try to help his managers," FBI Special Agent Lance Leising told The Republic. That, Leising said, could be a shock reaction.
But then, Leising noticed that Brymer had let Thomas walk behind him while he pointed the gun at the manager, instead of making them both stay in front of the gun. The robber, in other words, was only concerned about the actions of one of the men he was supposedly robbing.
Thomas told The Republic that the manager sprinted to the vault under Brymer's command and that Brymer followed, leaving him standing behind.
"This dude just pulled a gun on me," he said.
He still maintains that he was Brymer's victim.
But his story about the robbery unraveled quickly, and the hunt was on for Brymer.
Police stop the getaway car,
and let it go
On the way back from the Peoria bank robbery, Lerma and Brymer were pulled over by police on a traffic violation. Brymer did not let on that he was the owner of the car. Lerma was issued a citation for driving without a license or registration. They went back to Brymer's apartment and played video games.
Then Brymer had Lerma drive him and Bagley to a shopping mall to buy a backpack to hold the money. They were recorded on surveillance cameras. Then, as he and Bagley checked into a Scottsdale hotel, Brymer sent Lerma in his BMW to go back to his apartment to dispose of evidence: the gray sweatshirt Brymer wore during the holdup, as well as illegal steroids and syringes.
But police spotted the car and pulled it over. In addition to the illegal drugs, police found the walkie-talkies from the robbery, a stack of crisp bank notes and Brymer's iPhone, according to court records.
Lerma was not arrested. Brymer got his car back. And by the time police came looking for him, he was gone.
That afternoon, Brymer and Bagley went to a dealership in Scottsdale to buy a Porsche. Brymer told the salesperson he played for the Arizona Cardinals and had a trunk-load of money. He wanted to put the car in Bagley's name, but she refused.
Brymer was supposed to throw half of the money into Thomas' backyard, Leising said, but since Thomas was already under suspicion, he told Brymer not to.
Instead, Brymer and Bagley and a friend drove the BMW to Las Vegas, checked into the Luxor Hotel, and went on a shopping spree. Brymer bought Louis Vuitton shoes and a handbag for Bagley, records show. He also bought her a dress and a Fossil watch. They went to see "Peepshow," a striptease revue at Planet Hollywood.
"The money just didn't feel like mine," Bagley said.
She returned to Tempe, and Brymer stayed behind.
But the FBI was on to him. They had a woman call him to lure him out of the hotel, and they arrested him. He had more than $100,000 in his possession, according to court records.
Bagley was arrested in Tempe.
Joking about Bonnie
and Clyde on Facebook
Bagley was released on her own recognizance, charged with armed bank robbery and aiding and abetting. But she didn't think she was really in trouble.
"I would just come in looking cute, and they wouldn't convict me," she thought.
Neither she nor Brymer could follow the rules set out for them. Her judgment failed her.
Her friends at work made jokes about her and Brymer being Bonnie and Clyde, the legendary 1930s bank robbers, and so she posted that to Facebook.
"Me and my man are on some 2012 Bonnie & Clyde s--t," she wrote. That would be used against her in court.
"I guess everyone else didn't think it was so funny," she said.
Even though the two were forbidden from talking as terms of her release and Brymer's case, Brymer kept trying to call her from jail. She refused to answer at first.
Then Brymer's parents came into the restaurant where Bagley worked and handed her a cellphone.
"Just pick up when he calls," the father said.
Eventually, she did — more than a hundred times. The calls were recorded at the jail, and Bagley was arrested for not complying with the terms of her release.
"I just wanted to know he was OK," she said.
She wanted to go to trial, but her lawyer talked her out of it and negotiated a 42-month sentence. She spent a year and a half in jail and two years in prison.
Ernie Lerma entered a plea deal and served his time. He is out of prison and living in the Phoenix area. Daniel Bagley and Jeffrey Edwards also pleaded out and were sentenced to prison for the first bank robbery. Many of the "bums" have already been adjudicated and were sentenced to prison for bank fraud.
Brymer, the smooth talker, talked first and talked plenty. The FBI investigation and state-court records paint him as the leader of the conspiracy, saying he took most of the money and was referred to as "boss." But by the time it went to court, he was just another one of the bums.
Thomas was treated as if he were the mastermind of the conspiracy.
In a response to Thomas' pending appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the government argued that he was the "brains."
"How could I be the mastermind when I never got a dime?" Thomas asked The Republic. "If I am the mastermind, I may not be the worst mastermind in history, but I'm definitely on the list."
Has anybody learned
Bagley was surprised to hear that Thomas was supposedly in charge of the conspiracy.
"That's messed up," she said.
Thomas decided to go to trial in federal court on the bank robberies. It was a bad idea, because most cases are settled by plea agreements, and most of those that go to trial result in convictions anyway, except with harsher sentences. Thomas' case was no exception.
Brymer's lawyer, Clark Derrick, said Thomas"lied through his teeth and got hit with every possible aggravator," referring to mandatory sentence enhancements in federal court.
Thomas, on the other hand, says Brymer was the untruthful one.
"Their star witness was Billy Brymer," Thomas told The Republic, and Thomas said Brymer claimed the others set him up.
Thomas still denies he helped plan the robberies or the fraud. Brymer just happened to show up at the banks he worked at, he says. Again, the court record suggests otherwise.
The prosecutor argued Thomas was present at planning meetings, lurked nearby during the robberies, met with the others afterward, and participated in dress rehearsals.
"The defendant, as a bank insider, provided security information about banks," reads one brief filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Thomas' appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "He was the only member of the conspiracy who had experience working in a bank and was considered the most knowledgeable member."
With aggravating factors and mandatory sentencing, the judge had no choice but to sentence Thomas to 49½ years in federal prison, just for the bank robberies. Thomas still faces trial in Maricopa County Superior Court on 42 counts of fraud, one count of participating in a criminal syndicate and one count of aggravated identity theft.
In his court appearances, he is defiant and blames his lawyer for not doing his job. He believes his conviction will be overturned any day in the 9th Circuit.
Brymer's name was blacked out of the state bank-fraud indictment. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office can't comment on whether the case will go forward against him, but even if it does, Brymer has reached an agreement that he won't do more than the 12 years he faces in federal prison.
"I have rarely seen anyone make the huge transformation from the time he was arrested to now," Derrick, his lawyer, said. "I doubt you'll see him in a criminal case again."
Said Bagley: "I think he's a very good liar."
She said she is the one who's not going back.
Bagley is now 23, a muscular woman with a face fixed in a half-smile. She speaks in a low voice and exudes serenity as if four years of incarceration brought her peace of mind. Her Facebook page is full of glamour shots of herself posing in bikinis, showing off a weightlifter's body.
She would like to continue her education in design, and she is a muralist and illustrator. She spent much of her time in prison creating murals for prison walls. Photos of her paintings show a sophisticated and complex style.
She is working again as a server in a restaurant but has to spend her nights and days off at a halfway house. Soon she will be placed on home detention. She has a new boyfriend.
She still says she doesn't think she did anything wrong but says she has learned a few life lessons.
First among them: "To be humble."
"I thought I deserved everything and didn't have a strong work ethic," she said. "Then when you go to prison and earn $12 a month, you learn a lot."