Robbery gangs expand territory Takeover tactics terrorize bank employees, customers

March 24, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Holdup men who use sophisticated equipment and lots of planning are being turned off by the high-tech security at banks inside the Capital Beltway, and they're taking their business to the suburbs, according to the FBI.

"Areas that never saw takeover robberies are starting to see them," said Steve Tidwell, special agent at the Annapolis FBI bureau.

He rattled off robberies in Waldorf, Hanover, Laurel and Salisbury that have occurred since Dec. 31.

In takeover robberies groups of two or three people armed with shoulder or large caliber guns order employees and customers around to gain access to the teller line or the vault.

In Hanover, the employees and customers were herded into the vault, and one woman was taken to the hospital for shock, Anne Arundel County police said.

"Bank robberies are bad enough, but takeovers are just terrorizing to the victims," Tidwell said, adding that some banks have counseling programs for customers and employees who have experienced such a robbery.

Most bank robberies in Maryland are done by one person who uses a note or fake bomb to demand money and threaten a teller.

The robbers often are drug addicts who are looking for a small sum of money to feed their addiction, according to Kenneth R. Smith, communication director of the Maryland Bankers Association. They get away with $2,000 or less in most cases, FBI statistics show.

But takeover gangs view robbery as a business that allows them to finance a drug trade or lavish lifestyle, Tidwell said.

The groups meticulously plan the holdups to get in and out within a minimal period of time -- sometimes using a lookout to count out the seconds, officials said.

They use stolen cars, arrive wearing masks and gloves and invest in bulletproof vests, body armor, and police scanners to pull off heists of $50,000 or more.

'Bold and brash'

"Takeover robbers are dangerous, and they're committed," Tidwell said. "These guys are bold and brash enough to be prepared for confrontation."

FBI officials say they saw a number of similar robberies in Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties in the early 1980s. Special Agent George Layton, who handles Prince George's and Montgomery counties, said the FBI and local police made several arrests, which kept things quiet for several years.

In the meantime, inside-the-beltway bank branches fortified their lobbies with bullet-resistant glass at teller stations and customer service desks, high-quality security cameras and other measures. The banks also keep less money in their teller drawers and train their employees to recognize suspicious people. Those tactics make it harder for bandits to make a big score.

A group for bank security officers has developed a fax system to notify banks of robberies and to send descriptions of suspects.

But in the past few years, some of those convicted of bank robbery have been released and gone back to their old tricks, Layton said. And movies like "Point Break" and "Set It Off" -- which detail well-organized bank robbery rings -- have glamorized the holdups.

Consequently, gangs have started to emerge again, this time targeting banks without expensive security systems in areas that are either rural or very close to a major highway.

Steady increase

Since 1994, takeover robberies have been steadily increasing in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Thirty-one have occurred since then, with the majority "on the outer limits of the beltway," Layton said.

The gangs have reached into the northern areas of Gaithersburg and Rockville, and one even went as far as Mount Airy in Carroll County, he said.

In Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore, where some banks don't even have surveillance cameras, one such robbery has occurred this year, FBI officials said. Charles County in Southern Maryland has also been hit this year.

Similar robberies occurred in Hanover on Dec. 31, and in Laurel on Jan. 3. Police say they believe they are related.

Anne Arundel County saw at least one takeover robbery in 1993 when two men in presidential masks hit a bank in Arnold. One of the men, Anthony Zenone, pleaded guilty in federal court last December. He was sentenced March 5 to 34 years in prison for his roles in three bank robberies.

His brother, Michael, was sentenced the same day to 12 years in prison in connection with two other bank robberies.

Bank security officers would not say what measures they have taken to deter takeover robberies, but Layton said bullet-resistant glass, which can handle the pressure of small-caliber handguns, would be a start.

Bank robberies

Prince George's, Montgomery county robberies through February 1997.

.. .. .. .. .. 1994 .. 1995 .. 1996 .. 1997

Takeovers . .. .. 7 .. .. 8 .. . 13 .. .. 3

Total .. .. .. . 53 .. . 81 ... 106 .. . 15

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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