The bank-robbery genre has included lots of clever plots and memorable characters. Some real robbers have been known to takes their cues from movies. In Bandits, starring Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, the culprits take a bank manager and his family hostage at their home in the evening and force him to open his bank’s vault the next morning—gaining a reputation as the Sleepover Bandits. Dog Day Afternoon, based on a real robbery in Brooklyn, stars Al Pacino in a hostage standoff after he robs a bank to get money for his lover’s sex-change operation. Others worth seeing: Inside Man, with Denzel Washington; Heat, with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino; Sexy Beast, with Ben Kingsley; and Where the Money Is, with Paul Newman.
If you like bank robberies with over-the-top brutality, try Killing Zoe or The Dark Knight. If you prefer bank robberies with a little comedy, see Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Raising Arizona, Fun With Dick and Jane, or Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks.
Many bank robberies get only a few lines in the Washington Post, but some command longer stories, some of which are a source for cases mentioned here. Nicknames make for a good story—from the Cell Phone Bandit, who hit four Northern Virginia banks while chatting on her phone, to the Barbie Bandits, a pair of teenage girls in oversize sunglasses who giggled their way through robberies in Atlanta. A bandit’s prominence counts, too. Lots of stories were written in the 1970s about 20-year-old Heidi Fletcher, who drove the getaway van in a MacArthur Boulevard robbery in which a police officer was killed, because her father was DC’s deputy mayor.
Robberies with lots of gunfire and a high toll of death and injury get attention, including a 1997 holdup in Los Angeles, captured live on television, that led to a shootout between police and two bandits carrying automatic rifles with ammunition capable of penetrating police body armor. Ten officers and seven civilians were injured before the two perpetrators were killed.
Then there are the stories that make a person wonder what the culprit was thinking. An Illinois man in his early sixties—a former Marine and chair of a village zoning board—robbed seven banks until he was turned in by his sons, one of whom recognized his father from a surveillance video. The loot went to support a crack-cocaine habit and a longtime girlfriend; he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Bank robbery attracts criminals with a wide range of competence. The smart ones do detailed planning and operate with discipline—picking target banks with good escape routes, coming in with disguises that limit the usefulness of surveillance cameras, wearing gloves to leave no fingerprints, getting away quickly in stolen cars. But there also are plenty of amateurs whose ineptitude is best appreciated as comedy.
Thieves in general are often incompetent. There was a guy who robbed a convenience store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wearing a basketball jersey with his name on the back. A man in Manassas held up what he thought was an armored car only to discover that it was a laundry truck.
But bank robbers manage every year to create wacky fodder for late-night comedians and Chuck Shepherd, who collects their stories for his News of the Weird column.
The too-casual getaway is one theme. Bank robbers have been caught because they stopped to count their money, gas up their car, get a haircut, or go shopping.
Some bank robbers cannot master the art of anonymity. They leave behind their checkbook, a plane ticket, or a wallet. They come in and do paperwork for a credit card using their real name, then rob the place. One guy robbed a bank where he used to work and was identified when a teller recognized his blue suede shoes. In Waldorf, a bank robber was tracked down when he left behind a fake bomb packed with paper scraps that included a relative’s address.
Others lock themselves out of their getaway cars or come out of the bank to discover their getaway driver got scared and drove off without them. In Loudoun County, a man robbed a bank in Purcellville but could not find his car keys when he got to his car. The cops, arriving a few minutes later, found the keys on the floor of the bank, and their bloodhounds found the culprit hiding behind a bush.
Who Robs Banks?
A few bank robbers are driven by political ideology. In Europe, bank robbery was a source of support for the Irish Republican Army. In the United States, members of the leftist Weather Underground were imprisoned for robbery and murder in the holdup of an armored car in New York, and no bank-robbery photo is more famous than the one showing a rifle-toting Patty Hearst hitting a bank in San Francisco with the Symbionese Liberation Army. On the right, white supremacists have used bank robbery as a source of funds.
Some bank robbers just want to upgrade their style of life quickly. A couple who helped rob an armored-car company in Charlotte of $17 million moved out of their mobile home into a mansion and spent thousands of dollars on a BMW convertible, a Rolex watch, and a diamond ring. Jake Jacoby, a detective who has investigated bank robberies in Fairfax, say the Cell Phone Bandit and her boyfriend used some of their haul to splurge on designer clothes and electronics. Nationally, only about 15 percent of stolen loot is recovered.
The largest number of bank robbers are people who are desperate. Some are gamblers who have fallen behind—a classic case being a Baltimore police lieutenant who pleaded guilty to robbing banks there in the 1990s. Some have hit bottom in other ways—unemployed, too much debt, behind in child support. Some experts believe it is no coincidence that the number of bank robberies often goes up during recessions, though they’ve declined in the midst of this year’s economic downturn.
The most common form of desperation is a need for money to support a drug habit. Last year, the FBI says, 44 percent of those arrested for bank robbery tested positive for drug use. In 2004, a 23-year-old man who was convicted of robbing 19 banks in Maryland, DC, and Virginia explained himself to the judge: “I know that if my drug addiction wasn’t so intense, none of this would have never happened. But I’m strung out on crack, PCP, dope, weed, and liquor combined.”
The robberies he pulled off over a seven-week period represent an extreme example of the serial bandit. Nobody here has approached the 72 robberies by a man in Los Angeles who always wore a Yankee baseball cap and shades, but bank robbers tend to do it again and again until they are caught. This repetition, which establishes a modus operandi that detectives begin to recognize, contributes to their downfall.
There also are plenty of recidivists; one-fifth of bank robbers have been convicted for the same crime before. One man held up a bank in Silver Spring in 2006, went to jail, was released, then robbed the same bank, plus another in Wheaton, this past July.
The FBI’s nationwide numbers from last year provide some answers to the question of who robs banks. Forty-seven percent were black, 42 percent white, and 7 percent Hispanic. Ninety-three percent were men. A big majority were in their twenties and thirties.
A few bank robbers are very young. A 17-year-old and a 20-year-old were charged with abducting a 14-year-old boy at the New Carrollton Metro station, taking him on the train to Bethesda, then giving him a holdup note and forcing him to rob a branch of Chevy Chase Bank. A 14-year-old Hyattsville girl who had run away from home after being suspended from the ninth grade was involved with three adults in robbing two banks in Silver Spring.
If it’s never too early to begin robbing banks, it’s also never too late. A 70-year-old Taiwanese man robbed a bank in Arlington as well as a Bank of America branch in Fairfax three times. The nation’s oldest bank robber seems to be a 91-year-old man in Texas who robbed three banks over a five-year period, getting caught each time. The last one, in 2004, got him sent to federal prison, where he died at age 92.
The Cop in the Ski Mask
Some bank robbers turn out to be ordinary middle-class Americans who’ve gone astray. Bank robbers in this area have included a former television news writer, a former Capitol Hill press secretary, a former armored-car guard, and a former Army officer who served in Vietnam. A 23-year veteran of the Fairfax County police force admitted putting on a black ski mask, arming himself with a shotgun, and robbing two banks in the county. He was arrested in a tire store after trying to pay with a $50 bill whose serial number matched money taken in one of the heists.