Jay Powell was acting squirrelly.
He sat at Matt Shultz's Texas Hold 'em table, obsessing over his phone, sending text after text. The 6-foot-5 former basketball player folded yet another hand without waiting to see the cards on the flop. He walked into the tiny kitchen and got a Budweiser from the fridge.
Powell wandered Shultz's fifth-floor efficiency apartment on Cleveland's Lake Avenue, though there was really nowhere to go, just one room with a couch, chair, computer desk, a bed behind a curtain and a TV showing the Eagles-Redskins game on Monday Night Football.
He sat at the folding table covered in chips and cards and texted some more.
Shultz wondered what was throwing Powell off his game. They were friends from the Nautica Charity Poker Festivals, where they'd played together 10 to 15 times for hours at a time. They'd hung out afterward and discovered they had a lot in common. Shultz, a 27-year-old physical therapy grad student at Cleveland State, had wrestled as an undergrad; Powell, 32, had played college hoops.
Powell was a loose poker player, an action player. He wouldn't hold out for a hand with pocket face cards or a high pair before he'd bet. He played a lot of starting hands. He'd get a five and six of clubs, say, and still bet, hoping to pull a straight or a flush. He put a lot on the line.
Most nights, it worked for him. He had fun and went home with money.
Tonight, though, Powell had shown up late, around 9:15. He'd bought in with $200 — less than usual — and started losing. Down to $50 in chips, he didn't buy in again and folded off the deal nearly every hand.
A little after 11, as the Eagles were putting the finishing touches on a 27-17 victory, Powell looked around the table, got up, and said he was going out for another smoke break, his third. He walked out of the apartment, leaving his cell phone and Black and Mild cigar on the table, then came back a moment later and grabbed the phone.
That left six guys in Shultz's Lake Avenue apartment, at one of the countless home poker games going on throughout Northeast Ohio in October 2009. The game was no-limit Texas Hold 'em with unlimited buy-ins of up to $200 each.
A few Mondays earlier, Shultz's game had two tables going, with 17 guys playing. But tonight's gathering was small. Shultz kept the $4,000 bank in the front pocket of his khakis.
The guys at his poker nights were mostly professionals and family men in their 30s, regular guys except for their high-stakes hobby. Each kept a poker stash of $600, $1,200 or more.
Tom Gross brought the most, $2,000, so he could play comfortably and loan a bit to friends if they ran out. A driver for Pepsi, Gross was 6 feet tall, thick-chested, bald and goateed. He took Texas Hold 'em seriously, never drank while he played. He'd given up softball, basketball and football because of a bum foot, so poker had become his most intense hobby.
He'd played for 10 years, watched the game grow from tournaments in rented halls and small cash games in a buddy's basement. Now, with Texas Hold 'em's popularity booming, inspired by ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcasts, you could play poker in Cleveland almost every night of the week: downtown at Nautica, at a members-only club in Berea, at home games with thousands of dollars on the table.
Gross looked at his rising stacks of chips and calculated he was up $300.
Charlie Ha had his own business, a wife, two kids and one very bad poker night he was trying to forget. Six months earlier, masked gunmen had crashed a nighttime game at Allied Lighting Services in Solon. They'd ordered Ha and the other players to the ground and taken their cash, $75,000 in all. When Ha had opened his eyes, they'd kicked his side, shoved a gun in the back of his head.
The cops had made six arrests, but the stickup had shaken Ha. He'd shown up early at Shultz's first home game, a month earlier, to tell him to take his address off the Cleveland Poker Meetup Group website. Text your friends instead, Ha had said. When the phone rings, ask who it is, don't just buzz them in.
At first, Shultz thought Ha's security fears were silly. Robberies at games like this were rare. Besides, everyone at his game was a friend.
"Look, it can happen," Ha insisted. "It happened to me."
"You were in that robbery?" Shultz asked, surprised. He'd heard about the Solon heist. That sobered him. He took Ha's advice and pulled his games and address off the Web.
Ha's luck wasn't good tonight either. He'd lost almost $400. So he set $800 on the table, ready to buy in again.
Shultz trusted everyone at his table that night. He'd played poker with Gross for six or seven years, Ha for longer. Powell and Khai Nguyen were regulars at Nautica. He knew Chris Foertch from home games around town, and Foertch had vouched for the friend he brought, Simon Moussa.
Foertch was having one of his best nights in a long time. He had a huge stack of chips, was up between $400 and $600. He got up and went to the kitchen for some pizza. As he came back to the table, someone knocked.
"I'll get it," he said.
Without looking through the peephole, he opened the door.
Powell fell into the room.
A guy in a dark hoodie burst in behind him. He was fat, at least 200 pounds, maybe more. He was holding a large black gun with small circles all over it and a long silver barrel. Another guy, taller, thinner, hung in the doorway and flashed a handgun.
The fat guy went straight at Shultz.
"Where's the money?" he screamed.
Shultz fell to the floor. The thief pressed the gun hard against his head. Shultz looked up through the hood at the man's bearded face. He handed over the bank.
"Get on the ground!" the gunmen shouted. "Take your pants off!"
Gross, on the floor, reached in his pockets. He wanted to throw his wallet, keys and phone under a desk. But the thief turned, lowered the gun and held it two inches from his face. Gross knew guns. It was a semiautomatic, similar to a Mac-10.
Gross put his hands up.
"Take your pants off!" the thief screamed again. The guys wrestled out of their pants and threw them in the thief's garbage bag. He demanded their phones. They gave him those too.
Shultz glanced around the room. The moment seemed unreal, like he ought to panic, but instead he saw everything clearly. The fat thief was scattering the poker chips, grabbing the cash underneath. His friends were all quietly lying face down. Except for Powell.
Detective Tom Lynch came to work at noon the next day, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009, and learned he'd been assigned to the poker game robbery. Lynch was in his early 40s. He'd been a Cleveland cop for 15 years, a detective for 11. Prosecutors at the Justice Center thought of him as one of the department's best investigators: He'd put in any extra effort that might crack a case, track down every last lead.
In a city with as many crimes as Cleveland, a detective has to prioritize. Lynch read the report from the night before and put the poker game robbery at the top of his list. It was a serious crime: a lot of victims, a lot of violence, early reports of automatic weapons.
Lynch drove to Lake Avenue to see the building for himself. The supervisor let him in. A young woman stopped Lynch in the hallway and told him she'd seen something suspicious the previous night.
She'd been out walking her dog and noticed two men she didn't know near the front entrance. So she walked past, waited until they were gone and went in a back door. Later, she saw them again, carrying garbage bags and getting into a dark SUV with chrome rims.
Lynch went to see Matt Shultz, who let the detective into his apartment. He sat down on the couch and asked Shultz if he had any clue what might have happened.
Shultz told him about how Jay Powell had texted all night, hadn't buzzed in to come back upstairs and seemed overwrought in his reactions to the crime. The gunmen had demanded everyone's phones, Shultz added, but after the robbery, he thought he saw the outline of a phone in Powell's sweatshirt pocket.
Shultz was a small guy, 5-foot-4 1/2, but he still had a wrestler's urgent energy, especially when it came to helping Lynch solve the case.
A few days later, Lynch asked Shultz to come down to the First District station on West 130th Street. Shultz took out his laptop and logged onto his cell phone account. Powell had two cell phones, he told Lynch. He gave him the numbers for both.
Lynch and Shultz kept in close touch, talking a few times a week. Shultz was shocked that Powell, who he thought of as a friend, might have been responsible. "The word he kept on using was 'betrayed,' " Lynch recalls.
As Lynch called the other players, Powell began to sound like a guy with a terrible poker face. Most of them repeated the stories about the smoke breaks, the texting and how he'd barely played.
Lynch asked if they knew what kind of car Powell drove. Most didn't. They hardly knew him. They'd only played with him once before, at Shultz's place a week or two earlier, the night he had 17 people over. But Tom Gross knew Powell from Nautica Charity Poker and had seen him in a GMC Yukon Denali with large rims.
So Lynch stopped by Nautica on a poker night, spotted Powell's black Denali and photographed it.
Figuring Powell's text messages might crack the case, Lynch subpoenaed his call history and subscriber information. Once he got them, he subpoenaed the same records for the numbers Powell texted on the night of the robbery. One came back belonging to a Cleveland woman named Reba Smith who lived on Hough Avenue.
He played with hearts too. Handsome with chiseled cheeks and sharp black eyebrows that framed soulful eyes, he had a lot of girlfriends. He'd text two of them 15 minutes apart, tell them both he loved them.
He played basketball at Western Michigan University with Maverick Carter, now LeBron James' business manager. A forward who averaged 12 points per game, Powell was a good three-point shooter. But he had to finish his communications degree online — he left Michigan for his hometown, Dayton, when his parents both died of cancer. With them gone, he didn't have much family left, just a cousin and a few other relatives.
At first, he worked for the Dayton Convention Center as an event coordinator then became a computer programmer and got transferred to Cleveland. He worked for Huntington Bank for a while. Then he fell on hard times for a stretch until he landed a job at the East Cleveland Public Library children's department, working with kids from elementary school to toddlers. But that was just part time, and at the end of summer 2009, the library laid him off.
All he had was poker. But his loose play, his action game, started to fail him. He was pushing his luck, trying too hard. Bills were piling up. He couldn't get unemployment. He had kids from a former relationship, had to pay child support. He was still paying rent with a roommate in Akron. He started losing.
He went to Matt Shultz's game on a Monday in mid-October and couldn't believe how Shultz had crammed almost 20 people into his tiny apartment, or how much money was on the two tables — $25,000 to $35,000, he figured.
It gave him an idea.
He'd dated Reba Smith for two years. They'd broken up that summer, but he still saw her a bit. Now and then, when he was in Hough, he'd also see her cousins, Duane and Stanley. Reba said they were stickup kids. He knew they carried guns.
They weren't friends, but they were friendly. Sometimes they'd ride around a little together or talk in a parking lot. He'd tell them about playing poker and how there was a lot of money at the games. One Monday, talking to them again, he thought of Shultz's game that night.
"Could we come up in there?" one of the cousins asked.
"It's real easy," Powell said. "It's only us playing. There is no security guards. No police officers like it is downtown."
Powell still owed $1,000 a month on his truck note. Reba needed to fix her car's flat tire and busted rim. They all needed money. So they made a plan. He drove Reba's white Grand Prix; she drove her cousins in his Denali.
"I'll be out here and there to take some smoke, let you know what's going on," he told them.
But when he got to Shultz's place, the game was small. Only six guys and him. He texted Stanley, said they should hold off for a bit. He stalled for time. Even though he wasn't a smoker, he told the guys he was going out for a smoke.
"Let's wait," he told Duane and Stanley downstairs.
No one else came to the game. Reba's texts lit up his phone, telling him to hurry.
Powell looked around the table, counting every chip. He only saw a few thousand dollars worth. He knew it wasn't worth it. The money, split four ways, wouldn't even cover his truck payment.
Reba texted again: "Im bout to leave."
Powell looked over at his friend, Shultz, dressed in khakis and a red button-down with two breast pockets.
He texted Reba back. "Tell them to come on. Remember the nigga in the red shirt, he got the money."
He got up, went downstairs, and let Stanley and Duane in.
Reba Smith was 25. Her straight black hair fell to her shoulders, and her bangs almost reached her eyes. She worked at a child care center in Hough and was a single mom of a young son. Tonight, he was with Reba's sister on the East Side, and she was anxious to get back to him. Lake Avenue, with its long rows of apartments, was foreign territory to her. She almost never came this far west.
Her phone lit up with a message from Powell.
"Ask stew did he get my text," it read.
"Yeah," she typed back.
Reba Smith and Jay Powell didn't agree on much, even where they'd met. She remembered meeting him in a barbershop; he thought he'd met her at a club or a clothing store. She'd broken up with him that summer for cheating, but they still talked and texted. In fact, they'd fought again about the breakup just two nights earlier.
"You dont know how mad I am at u for leaving me by myself," she'd texted him.
"I didnt leave you," Powell shot back. "U dogged me."
But she still loved him. And that afternoon, he had texted her, asking if she wanted to make some money. All she had to do, he claimed, was drive him somewhere. She was up for making money, but wary. She asked him to explain. "Im not bout to get rapped up in some bullshit," she wrote. Powell wrote he'd tell her in person.
In Reba's version of the story, Powell met up with her, said his license was suspended and asked her to drive him to the West Side to sell someone a TV.
So she drove Powell to Lake Avenue in his Denali. He went into an apartment building for a while and came back out. Just then, to her surprise, her cousins Duane and Stanley pulled up in a white car she didn't recognize. They got into the Denali with Powell and started talking about planning a "lick" — a robbery.
She was mad. "You informed me that you wanted me to bring you down here to sell a television," she said to Powell.
"Please just be cool," Powell said. "You're not going to get into any trouble. I just need you to stay here."
Powell got out of the Denali and went back in the building. Still mad, she called him on his cell, caught him on his way back to the apartment and told him she was leaving.
"If you leave, bitch, I'll kill you," he answered.
So she stayed put. But she got more and more anxious. What was taking him so long? Her sister started calling, saying she had to be at work at 6:30 a.m., asking when Reba was going to pick up her son. So she started texting Powell, trying to hurry him along.
"Jay u gotta come on," read her 10:47 p.m. text. "She ready to go to bed."
"Damn Jay you really gotta come on," she texted at 10:59.
"Im bout to leave," she said at 11:10. "I just told u I gotta get me son."
A minute later, Powell's answer flashed back.
"Tell them to come on. Remember the nigga in the red shirt, he got the money."
When that text came in, Stanley Smith was holding Reba's phone. He and Duane rolled out of the Denali and met Powell at the front door.
Matt Shultz was scared too. He'd gotten a good look at the gunman, maybe too good. He wondered if this was it, if he was going to die.
Simon Moussa, Charlie Ha, Jay Powell and Tom Gross crammed in behind him, pressed tight against one another.
An arm reached around the corner. Something hissed. Orange spray filled the kitchen. It burned Shultz's arm and Gross' face. It got in Ha's eyes and mouth, and his throat swelled. Powell got hit, too, and was holding his face.
Footsteps sounded. The door slammed. Half a minute passed. Ha and Powell looked around the corner. The gunmen were gone.
Ha got up and locked the door. Pepper spray agony took over the room. Guys made for the bathroom in an attempt to wash the burning away. Shultz passed out towels, pants, shirts. Then he went in the hall and banged on doors, looking for a neighbor with a phone.
Ha saw his pants lying under a fallen folding chair. He picked them up, pulled his phone out, yelled at Shultz to come back and called 911.
Then Shultz took the phone and made more calls. Although it was near midnight, he tried to reach police sergeants he knew from their side jobs guarding the Nautica poker games.
Powell seemed shaken too. "This has never happened to me before," he said over and over. "I've never been involved in anything like this."
A dark suspicion was growing in Shultz's mind. He noticed a phone-shaped bulge in Powell's sweatshirt pocket. If it was a phone, why hadn't the robbers taken it? He thought about how long Powell had been downstairs and how he'd never called to be buzzed back into the building.
"How did you get in?" Shultz asked him.
"I was propping the door open the whole time," Powell answered.
Powell hadn't expected anyone to call the cops. He thought the games were illegal. So he figured the players would just take the loss and go play another game the next day.
Instead, when the cops showed up, the other players all listened as Powell gave his story. He'd gone for a smoke, he said. Two guys had walked up, asked him for a cigarette, and then pulled guns and told him to walk upstairs. "Take us to the game," they'd said.
The police left, and the poker players confronted the aftermath of borrowed pants, lost keys, calls for rides. They started to head home, leaving Powell and Shultz the last two guys in the apartment. Powell tried to read Shultz, feel him out. He didn't like what he saw. Shultz was still upset. In fact, he was furious.
A foreboding feeling descended on Powell. He knew this wasn't the last he'd hear about the robbery. He knew it was going to come back.
Powell met Duane and Stanley Smith in Hough that night. The cousins had already counted the money. "It was a sweet little lick," they were saying. "That shit was easy. Let's get another one."
"Man, it ain't go smooth," Powell said. He was angry that the cousins had pepper sprayed him. That had not been part of the plan. He was also still thinking of how many cops Shultz had called. He looked at the stolen phones.
"Give me the cell phones and let me get rid of them," Powell said, afraid they'd be traced.
"No, let's keep them," one of the cousins said. They were nice, new — an iPhone, a BlackBerry Storm. They gave him two of the stolen phones and split up the cash: $700 or $800 for each guy.
(Just how much cash was stolen from Shultz's apartment was never established. The victims' reported losses added up to more than $10,000, but some were reporting how much they'd brought to the game while others included their winnings. Shultz remembered holding a $4,000 bank, but Powell said the robbers got less than $3,000.)
That night, Powell gave $300 to Reba then changed his mind. He took $100 back, saying he owed someone money from a poker game. Powell smashed the two phones on the freeway.
Stories about the robbery made the newspaper and TV. Nervous, anticipating that the cops were on the case, Powell spent some time in Atlanta. He didn't answer his phone for a while.
Then, right around Christmas, Reba Smith started calling and calling. Finally, he picked up.
"Man, the detectives came to my job," she said. "I need to talk to you."
"I don't know what you [are] talking about," he answered, afraid of a trap.
"They got me," she told him. "I just got out of jail."
He hung up on her.
Soon after, he was on Facebook when a message hit: "You wanted by the feds." Terrified, he called a cop friend and asked him to run his social security number. His friend told him he was wanted for robbery, considered armed and dangerous. Powell turned himself in on Jan. 25. Detective Lynch came to interview him, but Powell turned him away, said he had a lawyer.
But armed robbery carries a long sentence: three to 10 years, plus three for a gun being involved. Multiple victims can mean consecutive sentences, dozens of years in prison, perhaps a lifetime. By May, Powell was ready to deal.
"He burned his friends," Smith told the prosecutor. "I didn't do nothing to my friends. ... He let you know he was a snake."
Smith had opted not to face a jury, so he had only one man to convince of his innocence: Judge Michael Donnelly.
Yes, Smith testified, he went to the apartment on Lake Avenue with Reba in Powell's Denali. But he thought he was just helping to pick up a TV. When Powell went into the building and didn't come out, he left. He claimed he had nothing to do with the robbery and that his younger cousin, Stanley, was never there.
But the defendant had four problems. His cousin, Reba, had testified against him, saying he and Stanley had talked with Powell about a robbery and come out of the apartment building with full garbage bags. Powell had testified that he, Duane and Stanley had planned the crime together. Lynch, the detective, said Duane had confessed to him four months earlier, right after his arrest. And Matt Shultz had taken a break from finishing his doctorate in physical therapy at Cleveland State to testify as well.
"Can you point out the person that held the gun to your head on Oct. 26 and robbed you?" assistant prosecutor Andrew Santoli asked.
"This gentleman right here," Shultz said, pointing to Duane Smith.
"How sure are you that this is the person that held the gun to your head?"
"Would you ever forget that face?"
It was enough for Judge Michael Donnelly, who found Duane Smith guilty of 14 charges, including kidnapping and aggravated burglary, robbery and theft. Based on his criminal record, the judge sentenced Duane to 18 years.
But the prosecutor challenged their testimony using Powell's phone records. Before Powell had started texting Reba Smith from the poker game, he'd sent a text to a minute phone, the kind you can buy without giving your name.
"Its only 8 people here now," he'd texted, so nervous, he counted wrong. "So we gonna wait lil bit."
At trial, Powell testified he'd sent that text to Stanley. The prosecutor said phone records showed that Stanley Smith's sister had called the same minute phone that night.
The jury found Stanley Smith guilty on 20 counts, from kidnapping to aggravated robbery.
With his hands cuffed behind his back, Stanley was led into his sentencing hearing last July. His round face and narrow eyes were frozen in a hard-luck frown. His lawyer, Russell Tye, made the case for leniency: This was Smith's first violent offense; he only had one prior conviction, for drug possession. He was 24 and living with the mother of his four small children; the oldest was 5 years old.
"I know Stanley personally," Tye said. "He grew up with very humble beginnings."
Then Smith got his chance to speak. Maybe he shouldn't have.
"I'm innocent," he said. "And I don't see that I had a fair trial here. And that's all I have to say."
"I'm sorry to hear you say that," the judge responded. "I mean, you know you were there."
Smith held firm. "No, I wasn't."
Donnelly compared Stanley's case to his cousin Duane's. "You were a total follower of Duane — that's who you had as a role model," he said. "Nevertheless, you were present."
The judge sentenced Stanley Smith to 10 years in prison. Smith's girlfriend ran out the courtroom door, which slammed behind her.
"You sound like you're a well-educated, smart guy," assistant prosecutor Andrew Santoli said to Powell during Duane's trial. "You have a good employment history. Why did you need money so bad?"
"I had ended up getting laid off from the library, so at that point I was just playing poker," Powell said, "having some good days, some bad days. And it was just a bad place for me right now in my life."
At Stanley Smith's trial, Russell Tye, the defense attorney, poked at Powell's credibility by asking him about texts he'd exchanged with Reba four days after the robbery.
"You say, 'I still love you.' She says, 'Don't lie to me.' ... What do you text back then?"
" 'Mrs. Powell.' I tell all my women that."
"That's part of the game."
"What kind of game?"
"I told you I had multiple friends, multiple lady friends."
"Part of playing with people's lives?"
"You asked me about women. You didn't say about lives."
The jury listened to a recording of the statement Powell gave Lynch the day he turned himself in. They heard Powell say he was very remorseful, that he'd spent sleepless nights and hours in the daytime thinking about what he'd done, that he'd thought about calling Shultz, saying he was sorry and turning himself in.
"Please!" Tye mocked in his closing argument. He suggested Powell, not the Smith cousins, had masterminded the crime.
In the end, no one deserved the title.
Reba Smith, who still maintained that Powell had deceived and threatened her into participating in the robbery, pleaded guilty to four aggravated burglary and robbery charges. Because she testified against her cousins and had no previous record, Donnelly sentenced her to probation.
Powell had pleaded guilty to five charges, including aggravated burglary and robbery, and witness intimidation for his threat to Reba Smith the night of the crime. Just before Donnelly sentenced him, the judge got a letter from a surprising character witness: the actual Mrs. Powell.
The day before he turned himself in to police, Powell married Myla Bennett of Dublin, Ohio. The guy who'd sold out his friend for $800 and then testified against his co-conspirators had found someone willing to stay loyal to him. She'd known him for four and a half years and reunited with him in December, the same month his arrest warrant was issued.
"I believe that he did a really foolish thing at a very low and desperate time in his life," she wrote. "He is remorseful and ashamed of his part in that crime." Bennett said she'd helped Powell get a lawyer, and that she and her family would help get his life back on track.
Donnelly gave Powell four years in prison, based on his cooperation with prosecutors and the judge'
12:00 AM EST
August 18, 2011