Bank robber! Be careful! He's carrying . . . a note Gun-toters outnumbered in record year

November 16, 1993|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

In the days of the John Dillinger gang, criminals robbed banks with Tommy guns. In the 1990s, they prefer pen and paper.

The latest note-carrying bandit has robbed a dozen banks in downtown Baltimore, handing tellers a succinct written message: "I have a gun. Money now. Or else." He doesn't stay long, getting anywhere from $500 to $1,500 -- and then losing all or most of it when a dye pack explodes in his face.

Holdup men with threatening notes are slowly changing the image of bank robbers from slick, gun-toting gangsters to petty-theft artists whose only limitation on pulling a heist is their ability to spell.

Not that the fear of the bank robber has diminished. The dangerous, gang-style robbers packing pistols and shotguns are still on the streets. Some have used violent tactics and hauled as much as $200,000 in a single Maryland bank robbery.

But about 50 percent of the state's record-setting number of bank robberies have been committed by men with notes and no visible weapon, according to the FBI. And a review of court records shows that most holdups net the bandits no more than $2,000 -- and often much less.

The FBI, which investigates all bank holdups, reacted with little alarm last week when Baltimore broke its record for bank robberies in a single year. Yesterday, the figure stood at 103 -- the old record of 96 was set in 1980.

"In downtown Baltimore, your typical robber passes a teller a note, gets a small amount, then disappears into the crowd," said FBI spokesman Andy Manning. "If they can't rob a bank with a note, they're not going to do a robbery. They're not going to put themselves in jeopardy."

Bank employees are instructed by their supervisors and the FBI not to resist robbers and hand over some cash when demanded. It's a policy designed to protect bank employees, in particular the tellers, who have to deal with the robbers face to face.

While the "give-them-the-money, no-questions-asked" policy is supported by fearful employees, just about everyone agrees that the cat has gotten out of the bag.

"The robbers know we're going to give them some money. That's why we're setting records," said a teller at a downtown bank, who asked that her name not be used out of concern of losing her job.

"I've been robbed at my window twice. Both times the guy gave me a note scribbled on a deposit slip. One time, I gave the guy $500 and the other about $1,200," she said. "I never saw a gun in either case, but I was still scared."

She said she and other tellers agree with the policy of not resisting the robbers. But, "It's made us easy targets, I suppose."

Bank officials said there are no plans to change the policy, which they say helps to eliminate aggression in the robbers.

"The paramount thing is safety. The lives of our employees are more important," said Lola S. Kayler, president of the Maryland ,, Association of Bank Security, a network of about 100 law enforcement and bank security officers. "The nature of these crimes is that [the robbers] want to get in and out as quickly as possible. We're not going to antagonize them."

Ms. Kayler said the industry is not taking the robberies any

lighter because they are being committed with notes.

"Any time you have a robbery in a bank, it's a big deal. We're very concerned about the increase," she said.

So far in 1993, 287 bank robberies have been committed statewide, breaking the old mark of 236 set just a year ago. Baltimore County is also on a record-setting year (68); Prince George's County is next with 45, followed by Montgomery County (30) and Anne Arundel County (22).

The sometimes heroic image of the bank robber depicted in the movies is a far cry from reality.

Agents with the FBI's Maryland-Delaware bank robbery division maintain that many bank robbers are drug addicts desperate for fix.

"The increase in bank robberies, like increases in other violent crime, is a sign of the times. A good portion of them are driven by drugs," said Special Agent H. Thomas Moore, the bank-robbery coordinator for the Maryland-Delaware field office of the FBI.

"A lot of these robbers are hooked on crack cocaine. Their future is two days and $600. Once they get a taste of the so-called 'free' money, they'll keep doing it until they're caught," said Mr. Moore, who has investigated bank robberies for 22 years.

But the loot -- often a few thousand dollars or less -- does not come risk-free.

A bank robber is likely to be photographed by a surveillance camera; FBI statistics show that roughly 70 percent of all robbers get caught; and federal jail terms for bank robbery are severe -- 20 to 25 years.

Modern-day bank security is another obstacle to the robber. Bank alarms are set off through remarkably simple motions by a teller that a robber would never recognize as tripping the alarm.

A few banks -- such as Maryland National -- employ armed security guards in some branches. Bullet-proof glass is more prevalent in downtown banks. High-quality video cameras are regularly posted over each teller window.

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