Microchip is latest weapon against crime Tracking device can be used to pinpoint bank robber

September 17, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

More than two hours after scores of Baltimore's finest began chasing a suspected bank robber over what seemed like half the city, a cryptic call crackled over the police radio: "The hound has caught the rabbit."

The message confirmed what has been the Police Department's most closely guarded secret in its war against bank holdups. Baltimore's bank robbery rate is among the highest in the nation.

For the past month, local banks have been inserting tiny electronic tracking devices into packs of money that tellers give to bank robbers. The transmitter -- or "rabbit" to police -- emits a signal that can be picked up by a monitoring device -- the "hound" -- in police cars.

Already, at least one robbery suspect is known to have been caught. Eric Spence, 36, was charged with holding up a NationsBank on West Cold Spring Lane on Aug. 21. Spence and the $1,348 he had with him were tracked to a Northwest Baltimore house within hours of the holdup, police said.

Yesterday's hunt was not an unqualified success.

The device apparently fell out of the money pack in the vestibule of the First Mariner Bank at 16 S. Calvert St. It was picked up by someone who inadvertently led around a swarm of police for two hours from downtown streets to a vacant rowhouse in West Baltimore where the microchip, but not the money or suspect, was recovered.

While not acknowledging the existence of the microchip in Baltimore, John Bowers, executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association, said in a recent interview that they are "trying to expose banks to cutting-edge technology."

The new device, used on the West Coast for more than a decade, replaces the more traditional dye pack, which explodes and sprays red dye over the suspect and the money, rendering the loot unspendable and making the robber easily identifiable.

The new technology gives police a secret leg up on solving robberies.

"The microchip just creates the opportunity to home in on that signal and allows the police to try to find where the money is," Bowers said.

No confirmation

Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a city police spokesman, would not confirm whether the device was in use in Baltimore "because there are officer safety and operational confidentiality issues."

Officials at NationsBank, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and for two suburban police agencies refused to comment for this story. "Officially, we're not talking about any device like that," said Baltimore County Police Sgt. Kevin Novak.

Sources have identified the supplier as ProNet Tracking Systems, whose officials did not return repeated phone calls over the past several weeks. Police sources have said it is a violation of department regulations to discuss the contract.

ProNet, based in Dallas, markets "radio-activated electronic tracking security systems primarily to financial institutions throughout the United States," according to documents on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "The system consists of radio transmitters, or 'TracPacs,' which are disguised in items of value.

Follow the signal

"When such an item is removed from a financial institution without authorization," the SEC documents state, "the TracPac signals the appropriate law enforcement authorities, who in turn follow the signal to recover the item and apprehend the suspect."

Maryland banks looked into the system, similar to the Lo-Jack anti-theft car system, in 1993, but decided it was too expensive, bank officials said. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas have used it for years.

Banks in Baltimore and surrounding counties have been hit hard by robbers. A recent spate in Anne Arundel County has turned particularly violent, with armed robbers taking over the institutions instead of robbing one teller.

The robberies in the city have not followed any particular pattern, with 116 holdups recorded in 1993, 51 in 1994 and 68 in 1995. But in 1996, 133 banks were robbed, setting a record. This year, 92 banks have been hit.

291 robberies

In 1995, the latest federal figures available, 291 banks were robbed in Maryland, putting it fourth in the nation behind California with 2,012, Florida with 556 and New York with 315. The frequency caught the attention of U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who has met with police chiefs throughout the state.

"I don't want to be number one," Battaglia said, noting that Maryland is 27th in population in the nation.

The new tracking device pro- duces a high-profile police response.

Within minutes of yesterday's mid-afternoon robbery at the First Mariner Bank, dozens of police cars roared into downtown and blocked off streets, bringing traffic to a grinding halt on several streets north of the Inner Harbor.

Even Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, listening on police radio to the frantic officers who at one point thought shooting had broken out, called The Sun to tell a reporter about the holdup.

Frazier declined to comment on the tracking system.

Strong signal

Officers could be heard on the police radio following signals up and down Calvert and Redwood streets, and eventually through a subway to the stop at Mondawmin. They finally picked up a strong signal in the 1500 block of Poplar Grove St.

"It's definitely around the 1500 block of Poplar Grove," an officer said over his radio. "It's got to be there."

Finally, about 4 p.m., officers found the small sensor, minus the money and suspect, in a vacant house and the troops were called off. "Very good job," a supervisor said over the air.

"It was a good day to come to work," an officer answered.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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