There was a time when every post office in America had a wall plastered with the mugs of hard-boiled fugitives wanted by the law for robbing banks. Nearly all were “armed and dangerous.”
Today, as most post offices use their wall space to sell commemorative stamps, the task of alerting the public to be on the lookout for bank robbers has moved to the Web.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a local site called Bankbandits.org, which displays photos of people caught on surveillance cameras robbing banks in the District, Northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland. The site shows the date and location of the robbery and gives a description of the suspect along with phone numbers for local police departments and FBI offices. Dancing dollar signs call attention to reward money for tips.
There are entries on about 125 culprits who remain at large—as well as another 110 labeled captured.
It’s quite a cast of characters: Here’s a guy posing as a uniformed DC police officer robbing a BB&T bank in Damascus. Here’s a man in a NASCAR jacket robbing a Chevy Chase Bank in Fredericksburg. Here’s the bandit known as Dapper Dan, who robbed a Virginia Commerce Bank in Old Town Alexandria last year carrying a leather briefcase and dressed in a suit, tie, and fedora that made him resemble the old comic-strip detective Dick Tracy. And here’s a bald guy who held up a Provident Bank in Chevy Chase with a starter pistol, arriving and departing by Metro.
A couple of theatrical types robbed banks in Halloween masks. At a SunTrust Bank in Great Falls, a man robbed the place wearing a Donald Trump mask. Another photo from a Wachovia Bank in Lorton shows a bandit in a mask that resembles the iconic figure of existential angst in Munch’s “The Scream.”
Some robbers seem calm—quietly handing a teller a note—and others are terrifying. Here’s a masked man, dressed in black, leaping across a counter at a federal credit union in Fairfax City, and here’s another at an Alliance Bank in Annandale carrying a Tech 9 submachine gun. In another photo, you see a man in a school of hard knocks T-shirt screaming as he holds a pistol a couple of feet from the teller’s face. This happened at a Provident Bank in Kensington five years ago, and the FBI and local police have been looking for him ever since.
In a world of high-tech identity theft, the idea of stealing money by walking into a bank with a gun or a holdup note may seem old-fashioned. But nearly 200 times in a typical year—three times a week—someone does exactly that at an area bank.
These robberies frighten dozens of bank employees and customers. Random and unpredictable, a bank robbery is a crime that can thrust almost anyone into a violent drama.
The FBI says there were about 6,000 bank robberies in the United States last year. That represents a big increase from 1965, when there were fewer than 1,000, but it’s lower than in some extraordinary years. The high point was 1992, when the number reached just over 9,500.
While murders are concentrated in certain jurisdictions—the District had 169 last year, Prince George’s County 134—bank robberies are scattered. There have been bank jobs in the heart of DC’s business district as well as the area’s most affluent neighborhoods, including Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Spring Valley, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, McLean, Great Falls, and Old Town Alexandria. Robbery of a bank in Tysons Corner Center led to a chase and a gun battle in which a police officer killed the perpetrator in a parking garage. Some lower-income areas have fewer bank robberies because they have fewer banks. Bank robbers seem to have no strong brand preferences, hitting branches of all of the big banks as well as small local ones.
The scattered nature of bank robbery is mostly a function of the rise of branch banking. Since a change in federal law allowed banks to operate anywhere, the number of branches has grown to 70,000 nationwide. The Washington area has more than 1,500, including 223 in DC, 289 in Montgomery, 165 in Prince George’s, 333 in Fairfax, 72 in Arlington, and 56 in Alexandria as well as 400 in the exurbs.
This expansion has altered the notion of what a bank is. No longer an imposing downtown building with neoclassical columns, the typical bank now is smaller and much like other retail outlets. There are now mini-branches in supermarkets, so you see bank robbers caught on cameras with rows of soda and chips in the background.
All this provides convenience for customers—locations everywhere, longer hours, plenty of parking. It also means expanded opportunities for bank robbers.
Let’s Rob a Bank
The art of illegally extracting quick cash from a bank holds a special place in the American imagination. L.R. Kirchner’s Robbing Banks covers the colorful history of the crime, which was invented in the United States.
The first bank job—where the use of a duplicate key qualified it as a burglary rather than a robbery—occurred at a Wall Street bank in 1831, garnering $245,000 for a thief who was caught and sent to Sing Sing. The first armed bank robbery took place in 1863 in Malden, Massachusetts, when a robber shot the banker’s son in the head and stole $5,000.
The first great spree of bank robberies swept the American West in the years after the Civil War. Stagecoach and train robberies had occurred earlier, often targeting shipments of gold and silver, but settlers moving west after the war were accompanied by small-town banks that created new targets for thieves. And the Civil War had trained a cadre of soldiers who had acquired skills that bank robbery required—riding horses, handling weapons, and killing people.
Jesse and Frank James were accompanied by nine other men on horseback during their first bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, in 1866. They robbed banks and trains for nearly 15 years, though one of their best-known jobs—in Northfield, Minnesota—went awry when townspeople opened fire on them in the street and they barely escaped. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were leaders of one of the last Old West gangs, robbing banks and trains into the early 20th century before being killed in Bolivia.
During America’s next big spike in bank robberies, in the 1920s and 1930s, criminals were able to exploit inventions that went far beyond the horse and six-shooter. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who robbed their first bank in Texas in 1932 and were brought down in a hail of gunfire in Louisiana three years later, used a Ford V-8 for their getaways—so successfully that Clyde wrote Henry Ford a note praising the car’s speed and reliability. Other bank robbers, including John Dillinger, relied on the increased firepower that came from the Thompson submachine gun, popularly known as the Tommy gun. FBI agents killed Dillinger outside a Chicago movie theater in 1934.
Willie “The Actor” Sutton, who became famous for his use of disguises and his quip that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” robbed his first bank in 1925.
Bank robberies were fueled by the Great Depression, especially in the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. Small-town banks became objects of hatred as farmers who could not repay their loans lost their land. The banker became a symbol of heartlessness, captured in a joke of the time: “How can you tell which of a one-eyed banker’s eyes is made of glass? The one in which you detect the glint of human kindness.” Some bank robbers assumed the rob-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor mantle of Robin Hood, including “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who took time while collecting a bank’s cash to destroy the mortgage papers of distressed farmers.
Lots of bank-robbery movies have been made, some based on real characters who are often glamorized. More than a dozen films have focused on the James Gang, including last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse. Among the best—famous for their stylized death scenes—are Bonnie and Clyde, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.