How thugs put one S&L branch out of business

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 15, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This time the thugs have won. Victory was declared on the afternoon of April 21, when the two guys with the water jug walked into the Slavie Federal Savings and Loan, 730 N. Collington Ave. in East Baltimore, and turned the jug over and emptied the contents in front of two tellers.

Inside the jug was gasoline. Give us money, they told the tellers, or we light a match and everybody dies. Minutes after the robbers fled, Robert Schueler, president of Slavie Federal, showed up and closed all the doors.

Then he put out the word: This branch, originated in the early years of the century by immigrant Czechs who'd started by pooling their resources in the back of somebody's neighborhood bar, will be temporarily closed.

This was a stalling tactic. At the end of an 11-month period of four holdups, at the end of a couple of decades of decay in the neighborhood, Schueler had something more lasting in mind, and needed confirmation from his board of directors.

A letter went out to depositors several weeks ago:

"After a year of turmoil and much deliberation, we have made a decision to close our branch office. . . . The safety of our employees and customers was foremost in the minds of management and the board of directors. The decision to close the branch was based solely on crime and economic related factors."

So the thugs have won. A savings and loan closes, a neighborhood feels the chill. An institution with $76 million in assets cannot cope with those who prowl the streets. Customers at Collington Avenue will now have to find their way to the Slavie Federal central office, at 3700 E. Northern Parkway, or find some other place to transact their money.

"It's very sad," Schueler said yesterday, "but we had no choice. We've had tellers with guns put to their heads, tied up, forced to lie on the floor. Depositors walked out the door and had their purses grabbed. We tried everything to stop it. Nothing worked."

"We just couldn't stay," added Chris Ball, assistant vice president and savings officer. "Customers had to be buzzed in. We had to create a separate, secured entrance if you wanted to see a teller, but robbers would grab the doors as people left. Some depositors were getting mugged on the street. There were drug dealers standing right out front, and crowds of people would run to buy drugs from them."

"We've got one teller who's now under psychiatric care and another who's out of work from going through these holdups," said Phil Logan, security officer and executive vice president. "You can't go on like that. Our board really tried to make a go of it, but the guys with the gasoline just showed us it was impossible."

So the thugs have won. The last intruders came with gasoline and matches, but others came with guns, and one came with something he claimed was explosive. The cops tried to help. Some of them hid in a second story room, with binoculars, instructing undercover guys on the street whenever they spotted something suspicious. Once, they were accidentally successful. In March, three officers went to the branch to discuss a recently implemented Community Policing Program. A man told a teller he had a remote-controlled bomb he would detonate if she didn't give him $2,000 in cash. The police grabbed the man as he fled with the money, found him carrying a remote-control box with a bunch of wires attached to nothing.

It was an isolated victory. Law enforcement people say most robberies today are committed to support narcotics habits. Police in East Baltimore shake their heads ruefully over drug traffic, but they're not alone.

Last month, the FBI said bank robberies in the city are now running four times higher than a year ago, and are racing toward a new record across the state as well. The country's now at least a quarter-century into a drug epidemic and still clueless about stopping it.

We know most of the fallout: Homes invaded, street muggings, the hideous homicide rate. But the closing of a savings and loan branch, explicitly linked to the decaying streets, is a new step.

Once, we saw these institutions as virtually impregnable, the occasional holdup viewed as an aberration. The new statistics tell us they are no longer fortresses. The closing of Slavie Federal tells us the new reality: This time, the thugs have won. Everybody else loses.

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