Lamar Alexander went to prison for nearly a decade for robbing a jewelry store in Lee County. Ronnie Hill spent most of his adult life locked up for a string of burglaries and holding a postal clerk hostage during a robbery in Miami.
Both walked out of state prison in 2017, only to engineer one final heist that left two innocent people dead and cost them their own lives.
Authorities on Friday announced Alexander and Hill were the two gunmen who robbed a Coral Gables jewelry store, hijacked a UPS truck and led a squadron of police cars on a high-speed chase before a climactic gun battle in the middle of choked rush-hour traffic in Miramar.
When the bullets stopped flying, Alexander and Hill were dead from police bullets. Their hostage, UPS driver Frank Ordonez, and a motorist in a nearby car, Rick Cutshaw, a union representative, were also killed in the crossfire. TV news helicopters hovered overhead, broadcasting the Thursday shootout live.
“I didn’t know he was living like that,” said Alexander’s brother, Corey Smith, a well-known football coach at Miami Senior High School. “In life, you gotta make better decisions. We weren’t raised like that. I love my brother, but he’s been making bad decisions his whole life.”
The FBI, which is leading the investigation, is examining whether the two men were connected to prior robberies in South Florida, according to one law-enforcement source. But it’s unclear whether the FBI’s violent crimes squad was specifically aware of Alexander and Hill before Thursday’s robbery at Regent Jewelers in Coral Gables.
The FBI also asked prosecutors to obtain search warrants to examine cellphones recovered from the two men.
FBI spokesman Mike Leverock declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation.
Long criminal records
Alexander and Hill had long histories of arrests, smaller crimes that foreshadowed Thursday’s jewelry heist and hostage-taking.
Records show that Alexander’s first arrests for burglary and robbery in Miami-Dade happened in 1996, when he was in his early 20s. He was entered into a boot camp program. But he eventually flunked out of his probation when he was arrested again for a burglary — a judge sentenced him to 364 days in the county jail.
Alexander, who sports tattoos of clowns on both forearms and has three children, racked up another minor conviction for trespassing in 2000. Eight years later, he was arrested on an allegation he punched his pregnant wife in Overtown. She filed for a restraining order, which was eventually dismissed. The criminal charge was later dropped.
That was the same year that Alexander was one of four men arrested in Lee County for robbing a Mayors Jewelers in Fort Myers. He admitted he’d rented a car in Miami to serve as a getaway driver.
Alexander was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. He walked out of prison in September 2017. A Lee County judge lifted his probation a few months later after Alexander, in a court motion, wrote he was “ready to move forward with my life as a citizen.”
Hill had a similar history of arrests.
He picked up his first adult arrest, for burglary with a battery, in Miami-Dade in December 1993. He was only 15 years old. Court records don’t show if he served any prison time, but he was convicted and sentenced as a “youthful offender.”
When he was 20 years old, authorities said, Hill was arrested after he and another man robbed a female postal clerk in Liberty City. Inspectors said the men handcuffed the woman as she arrived to work, forcing her to open safes and cash drawers.
Federal authorities indicted Hill in 1998. He went to trial, lost and was sentenced to 151 months in prison. He walked free from prison in 2010. He could not stay out of trouble.
Over the next couple of years, he was arrested on a slew of minor charges, including loitering and dealing in stolen property. He was finally sent to Florida prison for a series of car burglaries in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, between 2014 and 2016.
He got out in February 2017 — and within months was arrested again.
Police said he and another man broke into a car outside the Robert is Here fruit stand in South Miami-Dade. The State Attorney’s Office, however, did not press charges because the victims failed to cooperate, according to state records.
Law-enforcement authorities say the duo’s plan to rob Regent Jewelers was not a spur-of-the-moment heist.
From Homestead to Miracle Mile
The men drove a U-Haul truck rented in Homestead north to Coral Gables. About 4 p.m. on Thursday, the truck was spotted near the store, possibly casing the business located on the corner of Gables’ ritzy Miracle Mile shopping district.
One of the robbers stayed in the U-Haul truck parked in the alley. The other used a ruse to get buzzed into the store — he wore a light flesh-colored mask and a blue sweatshirt and hat labeled “U.S. Postal Service,” sources said.
The gunman fired a shot into the floor. A bullet ricocheted off the ground, hitting a female employee in the forehead. She survived with just a minor wound.
As he fled with tens of thousands in jewelry, watches and cash, the store’s owner and manager rushed outside, themselves armed, and began firing at the U-Haul as it drove away. The windows were shot out. One slug traveled across the street and pierced a window at Coral Gables City Hall.
Investigators say they believe the fact the witnesses saw the U-Haul van, and shot out the windows, forced the robbers to want to ditch the vehicle. A few blocks south of Southwest Eighth Street, in a residential neighborhood, they kidnapped Ordonez on the street — an eyewitness saw him being forced into the UPS truck.
It was not long before police officers — and news helicopters — caught up with the UPS van as it drove north on Interstate 75, the back doors open.
At some point, as the chase escalated, Alexander called his wife. She notified authorities, and also his mother.
Alexander’s brother, Corey Smith, said he was headed home from football practice Thursday night when he got a “hysterical” call from his mom. When he got home, they watched the conclusion of the shootout on the news.
Smith said his condolences go out to Ordonez’s family, the loved ones of the innocent bystander and all the police who responded.
“It was a situation that shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
The FBI identifies the two deceased individuals responsible for yesterday's jewelry store robbery, carjacking/kidnapping and shootings as Lamar Alexander, 41, and Ronnie Jerome Hill, 41, both of Miami-Dade County. If anyone has information about these crimes, call 1-855-352-7233
— FBI Miami (@FBIMiamiFL) December 6, 2019
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Lamar Alexander as an innocent bystander in the shooting.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Jordan McPherson, David Goodhue, David Smiley, Ben Conarck and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.