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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then there was the case in the late 1990s of the bank-robbing car salesman. He was a man in his early sixties, a 23-year Army veteran, married 44 years, the father of four grown children, and for a decade a top-producing salesman at Koons Ford in Falls Church. After starting an investment business and running up big credit-card debts, he turned to robbing banks and was charged with hitting nine in Northern Virginia before he was caught.
Since the day when frontier banks rang a cowbell during a holdup in hopes that somebody would gun down the crooks as they rode out of town, banks have played a chess game with robbers over keeping their money secure. Federal law requires banks to use security devices to prevent robberies. But banks also are interested in avoiding a fortified look that might alienate customers.
The security arrangements in banks are well known to bandits. Most are better at helping to track down suspects later than in nabbing them on the spot.
Silent alarms. These devices, triggered by pushing a button hidden beneath a teller’s counter, alert police or a bank security office that a robbery is in progress. The FBI says they are set off in about 90 percent of robberies. But robberies happen so fast that police often get there too late, and some robbers threaten tellers with harm if they set off the alarm.
Surveillance cameras. Banks have multiple cameras, many trained on people approaching teller windows, and the FBI says they record 95 percent of all robberies. These images can be fed quickly to police cars, detectives carrying BlackBerrys, and local television stations and newspapers. They also provide solid evidence in court. Arlington County police have taken to posting them on YouTube; photos of the robbery of a BB&T bank in Rosslyn last January have garnered more than 13,000 hits.
Dye packs. These little devices, slipped in with the cash by tellers, explode within a few minutes, splattering red or violet ink over the bills and in some cases also spewing a cloud of tear gas. The tear gas calls attention to a bandit during a getaway, and the ink, which is hard to remove, marks clothes and skin and makes spending the money difficult. Dye packs are used in only about 13 percent of robberies, says the FBI, partly because bandits warn tellers not to use them.
Bandits in this area have been caught when dye packs exploded inside their jackets, in their cars, in taxicabs, in buses, and on the Metro. In one incident a man robbed a bank on K Street and ran into the Farragut North Metro station, where the dye pack went off, sending coughing and teary-eyed riders running up the escalator.
Some bandits try to salvage the damaged money, trying to clean it off in washing machines or launder it in vending machines that dispense gift cards. Much of it ends up being tossed away. Some dyed cash was found in Rock Creek Park during the search for the body of Chandra Levy.
Bait money. These are bills with prerecorded serial numbers that are handed out by tellers so police can alert merchants. Bait money is deployed in about 35 percent of robberies, says the FBI, while newer electronic tracking devices are used in fewer than 4 percent.
Bandit barriers. The most common barriers cover the front of teller stations in bulletproof plastic, with a slot for the exchange of documents and cash. They most often are used in branches that have been victimized before or that security experts believe are vulnerable. Their downside is that they are costly and may give customers an uneasy feeling.
Guards. They are less common because their deterrence value comes with a downside: They are expensive, and armed guards heighten the possibility of gunplay. Banks are most likely to use them on a temporary basis during a spree of robberies, in high-crime areas, or in banks that have been victimized repeatedly—situations when police and FBI agents also occasionally employ stakeouts. Armed guards are more common accompanying armored cars, which carry large amounts of cash to and from banks.
Lobby lookouts. Banks sometimes place greeters at desks near the front door. They give the bank a welcoming feeling, but their job is also to watch for potential bandits. Some banks post signs asking that customers remove hats and sunglasses.
Cash management. Most bandits approach a teller window to demand money, with only about 5 percent ever getting into the vault. Losses can be minimized by limiting the amount of cash in teller drawers.
Compliance. Given the potential for violence, banks train their employees to comply quietly with a bank robber’s every demand. They are told to remain calm and act quickly. The idea is that it is far better to give up some cash than risk the death or injury of an employee or customer. Most banks carry insurance covering robberies, though deductibles are far higher than typical losses.
Security experts advise customers caught in a robbery to do the same: Be quiet, do as you are told, and don’t try to be a hero.
Robberies on occasion are thwarted by employee ingenuity or by acts of daring that are not recommended. Bandits have been known to leave in frustration when told that their demand notes are illegible. During a robbery at a credit union in College Park, the teller at a drive-in window slipped a note out to a driver, who alerted police.
Most bank robberies are little dramas that follow a script played out in an atmosphere of surprise, anxiety, and potential violence. Most of the time a single bandit demands cash from a single teller. And it all begins and ends quickly because bandits want to get away before police arrive, and the bank wants them to leave before gunplay breaks out.
The FBI has found that Friday by a slight margin is the day bandits most often strike. Last year, nationwide, more than 1,250 robberies occurred on Friday, compared with 1,160 on Monday and just over 1,000 on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. With more banks now open on weekends, 460 took place on Saturday and about 70 on Sunday. It may be that bandits need money for weekend drugs and partying or that extended banking hours on Friday offer a bigger window of opportunity.
The FBI has discovered that while bandits strike at all hours, they are slightly more likely to show up between 9 and 11 am, perhaps because they figure the bank has fresh cash. There are occasional “morning glory” heists, where bandits lie in wait and confront employees as they are opening the bank. In a case in California, a couple of teenagers in ski masks tried to open a bank’s locked front door a few minutes before it opened, then went back to wait in their car, where they were picked up by police.
Some detectives have noted an uptick in bank robberies in the Christmas season, when everybody needs a little extra cash. Winter also gives bandits a couple of advantages—early nightfall offers better cover for escape, and coats and hats used as disguises are less conspicuous than in summer.
The dress code among bank robbers favors the casual, often featuring a hoodie over the head. Many bandits wear gloves so they won’t leave fingerprints, and they carry away the loot in everything from backpacks and briefcases to trash bags and grocery sacks. Headgear includes everything from a bike helmet to a beret, though a stocking cap or a baseball hat with logo are most common.
Occasionally a robber will be dressed to impersonate a police officer, security guard, package-delivery person, or highway construction worker, complete with a hardhat and reflective vest. There have been cross-dressers in wigs. And a man who robbed several banks a few years ago in suburban Maryland wore Middle Eastern desert clothing and became known as the Sheik.
So rare is a suit and tie that anyone who shows up in such attire may get a nickname from police. Dapper Dan robbed a bank on King Street in Alexandria last year wearing a suit, tie, and fedora. And another well-dressed man, dubbed the Gentleman Bandit, robbed half a dozen banks in DC’s downtown business district until he was captured last year in an alley after hitting a SunTrust Bank at 19th and K streets.
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.
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.
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.
Tipsters do come forward, including childhood friends, relatives, and former coworkers, says Fairfax detective Jake Jacoby. Aggrieved ex-wives or ex-girlfriends are another common source of tips, he says: “There are some angry people out there.”
One way of generating news coverage in a robbery investigation is the use of nicknames. The names, more memorable than a case number, are sometimes dreamed up by detectives, sometimes by crime reporters trying to make page one.
The inspiration for nicknames has many sources. From attire: the Trenchcoat Robbers, the Fishing Hat Bandit, Panama Jack, the Garden Glove Bandit, and Bad Bart, a Houston bandit who wore a big black cowboy hat. From hairstyle: the Ponytail Bandit, Attila the Bun, and the Dreadlocks Bandit. From pop culture: the Barbie Bandits and the Harry Caray Bandit. The Paparazzi Bandit always took pictures of the teller, the Striptease Bandits sometimes forced employees and customers to undress, the Skunk Bandit dressed in black and white, the Visine Villain had bloodshot eyes, and the Clearasil Bandit had bad skin.
Washington’s biggest splash in the nickname game involved the Cell Phone Bandit. The young woman robbed four banks in Northern Virginia during a three-week stretch in 2004, getting lots of media attention because surveillance cameras caught her casually talking on a cell phone as she presented tellers with a holdup note. She was talking with her boyfriend, who was in a getaway car outside.
They weren’t exactly Bonnie and Clyde—she showed a weapon in only one robbery—and it turned out they were unlikely thieves. She was an attractive 19-year-old community-college student, and he was a 19-year-old who had worked in one of the banks they robbed. Young lovers who had taken a shortcut to easy cash—$48,000 in all—they ended up where most bank robbers go: They each got 12 years in prison.
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This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.