The presence of so many cameras suggests that a bandit would be wise to cover his face. A surprising number don’t bother. Occasionally a robber appears with a Halloween mask or a triangular cloth tied around his face in the style favored by stagecoach bandits in the movies.
The start of the bank-robbery drama usually involves the bandit going up to a teller and demanding cash. This is often done orally, but about half of bank robberies are “note jobs,” where the demand is in writing. Some bandits wait politely in line with customers, even playing peekaboo with children. It is not unheard of for a robbery to take place so quickly and quietly that only a single teller is aware it has happened.
Robbery notes are a utilitarian literary form that may include several common elements: “This is a robbery. Give me the money. Big bills. Don’t touch the alarm. No dye packs. I have a gun. Somebody might get killed. Be quick.”
The FBI Laboratory in Quantico has a collection of more than 9,000 notes, which enables it to search for words and phrases—and do handwriting analysis—that may link a robber to multiple holdups.
Some notes are filled with spelling errors: “this is a sick up,” “gift the money or you died,” “put all the money in the brown pepa bag.” Others are polite: “please” . . .“thank you” . . . “have a nice day” . . . “God bless you.” Some are desperate: “My daughter is dying and needs an operation.” . . . “I have nothing to lose since I’m dying anyway.” . . . “I’m sorry but I have kids to feed.” A few feature drawings of a smiley face or a stick figure shooting bullets.
Is That a Real Gun?
Bandits display a weapon in about a quarter of all robberies, though they claim to be carrying them in many others, often using the old finger-under-the-coat trick. Handguns are used most often, but robbers have been known to use about anything, including shotguns, assault rifles, machine guns, knives, BB guns, toy pistols, crossbows, baseball bats, hypodermic needles, road flares, fake hand grenades, and fake bombs fashioned from a toilet-tissue roller.
“Takeover” robberies, while rare, are the most dangerous—more likely to involve planning, two or more bandits, heavier firepower, and violence. Bandits assume quick control of an entire bank with a range of frightening tactics—shouting orders laced with profanity, brandishing weapons, forcing everyone to lie face-down, herding people into the vault, tying people up, shooting into the ceiling, leaping over counters to collect cash themselves, roughing up tellers who are moving too slowly.
Washington’s most feared takeover gang operated in 2004, striking six banks in DC and Maryland. There were six robbers armed with pistols and assault rifles and wearing ski masks and body armor. They were not afraid to shoot, firing into the ceiling of a SunTrust bank on upper Connecticut Avenue and in one escape unleashing 30 rounds at police. They usually escaped in stolen vehicles, and their getaway cars were sometimes found torched. All were eventually caught—one in Texas—and given lengthy prison sentences. Their AK-47s, investigators discovered, had been smuggled in from Iraq.These commandos took more than $360,000 in their six robberies, and a single robbery in College Park in the late 1990s netted more than $400,000, none of which was recovered. But nothing here compares with the nation’s biggest take—$4.5 million in a 1997 robbery in Tacoma, Washington, by a two-man team known as the Trenchcoat Robbers.
The average haul in American bank robberies is far less—just a few thousand dollars. Losses in armored-car robberies are usually much greater, averaging $112,000 for the 37 incidents in 2006.
Bank robbers rarely get caught at the scene, though some are chased down the same day. Unlike in the movies, where a brassy blonde drives the getaway car, real robbers escape with far less drama. Many walk away and blend into the neighborhood, some escape on motorcycles or bicycles, others hail taxis or hop on buses or the subway. A man once robbed a bank in Oakton, got into a taxi, and was arrested on the platform at the Vienna Metro station.
Many bandits escape in cars and vans. Easy egress is a top priority in selecting a bank to rob. Sometimes they use stolen cars, which are abandoned nearby as they switch to a second vehicle. In one Montgomery County case, a man tried to rob three banks with no success until finally getting some cash at a fourth—all by convincing unwitting acquaintances, with a promise to buy them beer, to drive him around to find a bank where he could make a withdrawal. The drivers were not charged.
Bank robberies can be traumatic for employees and customers, but acts of violence occur rarely. In the Washington area, there have been a few deaths: The man shot in the parking lot of Tysons Corner Center, a young man who was cornered in a crawlspace in a Hybla Valley apartment, and a man suspected of robbing a bank in Severna Park who was chased through the yards of a residential neighborhood. In Arlington, two police officers were killed in the 1970s when they happened on bank robberies in progress and were shot.
Earlier this year a 54-year-old building engineer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who lived in a $725,000 house in Bowie and was chair of the neighborhood watch, robbed a bank near his home, fled in the bank manager’s SUV, and led police on a 20-minute chase. It ended when he raised his pistol at police and was killed in a hail of bullets.
Bank robbery figured in the last chapter of the saga of Terrence Johnson. Johnson was a black teenager sent to prison for killing two white Prince George’s County police officers he said were beating him; the 1978 case exacerbated racial tension in the county. Released in 1995 at age 34, Johnson entered law school and seemed to be turning his life around. But two years later he robbed a bank in Aberdeen, Maryland. As a standoff with police ensued, Johnson put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
We Have Your Picture
Bank robberies are investigated jointly by local police departments and the FBI. The bureau has been involved since 1934, when New Deal reforms made bank robbery a federal crime. Success in capturing and killing bank robbers during the Depression established the FBI’s initial fame.
Although the FBI has shifted agents to antiterrorism work since the 9/1l attacks, it remains a partner of local law enforcement in bank-robbery investigations. Local police detectives and FBI agents, along with security experts from major banks, hold monthly meetings to compare notes on robbers, some of whom are “crossover bandits” who operate across jurisdictional lines. If they’re caught, they may be tried in either federal or state court.
Arrests are made in nearly 60 percent of bank robberies, says the FBI—a clearance rate second only to murder. A third of bandits are caught the same day, and most of the others are picked up within 18 months.
Conviction rates are high; most of the time the evidence includes an image from a surveillance camera. A federal conviction carries up to 20 years, with five more if a weapon is used.
Robbery investigations are in some ways routine. Detectives look for fingerprints and DNA, examine the demand note, break down the surveillance video, and interview eyewitnesses who may have noticed accents, tattoos, beards, or other details. These descriptions and the videos, along with a robber’s modus operandi, offer clues to whether he has robbed other banks. Screen grabs from surveillance cameras are distributed to local television stations and newspapers. An especially violent robber or one who’s been a long time on the lam may get attention on the nationally televised America’s Most Wanted.
Bankbandits.org adds a new dimension. Jeffrey Cisar, the FBI special agent who created it, says it has a couple of advantages over flashing an image of a robbery suspect on television news. You can look at the Web site as long as you like, and there are dozens of suspects to peruse.
Reward money is available for tips. It’s usually under $1,000, though the reward in the case of the DC commandos reached $50,000. Tips may be confidential, and they may be delivered via the Internet or phone to Crime Solvers organizations, local police, or FBI field offices in Baltimore, which covers Maryland, or in the District, which covers DC and Virginia.