Detectives investigating the so-called "shotgun bandits" now believe that a criminal mastermind or core group is a prime force behind many of the dozens of holdups at Baltimore-area businesses in recent months.
"The prevailing theory of the task forces is that there is a head man" directing the robbers, E. Jay Miller, Baltimore County police spokesman, said yesterday of the groups of police officers working on the crime wave in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and the city.
Baltimore County detectives linked Thursday's $36,700 holdup at a Towson credit union, in which hostages were taken and one man was captured, to last month's robbery of the Household Bank branch on Baltimore National Pike.
After screening surveillance tapes from cameras in the State Employees Credit Union, investigators decided "they are good enough to convince us that one player from the House hold Bank was involved," Mr. Miller said.
The still-unidentified man -- wearing a hat and double-breasted suit -- was one of four bandits who held up the bank in the 5500 block of Baltimore National Pike, displaying a shotgun, an Uzi submachine gun and a handgun, Mr. Miller said.
Police in the city and county earlier this week said they had identified a common suspect in eight other gang robberies, obtaining arrest warrants charging 19-year-old Sadiyq Abdullah Muhammed, also known as Tony Bedford, in those cases. The suspect, whose address was unknown, is still being sought.
The suspect captured in Thursday's credit union holdup was identified yesterday as Eric Cornell Wheeler, 29, whose last known address was in the 1100 block of McKean Avenue in Baltimore.
Wheeler -- on probation from an earlier assault conviction -- was held in lieu of $150,000 bond pending grand jury action on 13 kidnapping counts plus charges of armed robbery and using a handgun in a crime.
According to the Division of Parole and Probation, Wheeler used several aliases -- Eric C. Whit and Eric C. Whut, and the middle names Cornelius and Cornellous -- and had two Social Security numbers and two birth dates, three years apart.
He was sentenced last September in Baltimore District Court to six months for assault, with all but 90 days suspended, and a year of probation. But Wheeler never reported to a probation officer, a division spokeswoman said, adding that a detainer warrant would be obtained adding probation violation to the string of charges against him.
According to some of the 13 employees briefly held hostage as heavily armed officers surrounded the credit union building, the suspect boasted that he was "the shotgun bandit" -- but Mr. Miller, the police spokesman, said yesterday, "He told the employees more than he's told us. He isn't talking to us."
One of the hostages said the suspect also claimed "that for every one that was captured, others would be recruited."
"Without question," Detective Sgt. Richard Barger of the Baltimore police said yesterday, "this is a group of guys linked by one or two guys who go around soliciting other guys to do these holdups with them. There's a definite link."
The back wall of Sergeant Barger's office at the Northeastern District police station is covered with newspaper clippings and manila folders scrawled with details about robberies in Baltimore and Baltimore County going back to late last year.
"The hardest thing," Sergeant Barger said, "is trying to figure out who's doing what. You look at the different holdups and see similar styles, but you don't know for sure if the person who did one is still active."
He said that in more ordinary crimes, a robber would often hold up a person or business within three blocks of his home.
"This is a more mobile group," Sergeant Barger said. "Their actions are guided by what they're hitting, not where they're hitting. The 'where' is their defense so far because they've been mixing it up -- east-side, west-side, two here, two there."
"To me, I think it's multiple groups doing the most popular holdups -- the two or three guys together with shotguns," he said -- and suggested that news accounts of the crimes might play a part in the growing numbers. "The more press, the more #F holdups; the more holdups, the more it becomes a fashion," he said.
"One of the things they're doing is they're not going in like gangbusters," the sergeant said. "They're infiltrating first, going in one by one and getting into position before they announce the holdup."
As an example, he cited the Feb. 5 Valu Food holdup on Frankford Avenue by four men wearing long coats.
"One went in first, another after him, and two stayed back and hung around the pay phones outside before going in. They took positions near the registers, the front door and the safe near the manager's office, and then they announced the holdup. That was thought out; it didn't happen haphazardly," he said.
As the robberies continue, detectives have taken to sorting them out like puzzle pieces.