Holdup note's unlikely payoff Evidence: A chance discovery, thanks to an Ocean City breeze, and a fingerprint lifted from a piece of trash lead police to a bank robbery suspect.

September 11, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Teased by an ocean breeze, a crumpled ball of notebook paper wobbled on the asphalt at Tim Wootten's feet. There was nothing unusual about it. Just a bit of wayward trash blowing across the parking lot of an Ocean City condo complex.

"I have no idea why I opened it up," said Wootten, a 28-year-old groundskeeper. "We pick up stuff around here all the time and just throw it away -- that's part of the job. But when I read it, man, that was weird. I knew right away it was serious."

"Give me all your $100, 50, 20, 10," the note demanded. "NOW."

Within an hour of Wootten's discovery last week, police and FBI agents were crowded into the manager's office at Our Place at the Beach resort complex, receiving their first solid break in a string of holdups in four states.

By Sunday, they had a suspect -- Bradford Primeaux Jr., 29, an unemployed salesman from Aberdeen. He now sits in a Delaware jail on $500,000 bail awaiting an extradition hearing next month that is expected to send him back to Maryland to face state and federal charges for nine bank robberies here.

This week, investigators lauded Wootten as the central character in an unlikely story involving a faceless bandit, an uncommon act of civic virtue, a fragile clue and a feat of high-tech wizardry that enabled them to close a frustrating six-month manhunt in 72 hours.

"Up to the moment he found that note, we had no idea who the guy was that was doing all these robberies," said FBI spokesman Peter A. Gulotta Jr. "Thanks to this one heads-up individual, we were able to take this guy out of action. It's a very rare kind of case."

Thursday, Sept. 3, was trash day at the condo complex.

While walking across the parking lot to the manager's office to pick up his paycheck, Wootten spotted a ball of paper that apparently had fallen from a Dumpster emptied that day.

Events quickly unfolded from there.

The soft-spoken maintenance man walked into the office and showed the note to condo manager Marcella Hansen, 49.

"If you were a bank teller, and I showed you this, what would you think?" Wootten asked her.

"I'd think I was being robbed," Hansen replied, laughing. "Where'd you find that?"

As Wootten explained, another employee walked in complaining that he had just tried to cash his paycheck at the nearby branch of the Bank of Ocean City, but was blocked from going inside by police.

"Somebody just robbed the place," the worker said.

"You're kidding, right?" Wootten said.

"No, man, I'm telling you, somebody just robbed the bank."

'Ballcap Robber'

It was the third such bank job in the resort town since March, and police and merchants suspected they were all the work of the same man. Known as the "Ballcap Robber" for the low-slung hats he wore to obscure his face from surveillance cameras, the thief would show a note to a teller and gesture with his hand in his jacket pocket.

"The threat was implied, but very clear, that he was carrying a gun and you'd better do what the note says," said Sgt. Jay Hancock of the Ocean City Police. "But he was always careful not to leave the note behind."

The robber would then run from the bank and disappear into the surrounding neighborhood, where it was suspected he parked his car to avoid having it spotted at the scene of the crime.

"He was always very careful," Hancock said. "It was obvious he had given it all a fair degree of thought."

As spring gave way to summer, reports of similar crimes came from elsewhere in Maryland -- Elkton, Phoenix, Havre De Grace, Cockeysville. Then from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Fourteen robberies in all.

tTC "By August, we had a nice accumulation of physical evidence, plenty of photos and lots of bank tellers ready to make a positive ID," Hancock said. "But we had nothing specific to link it to any one individual -- no names, no fingerprints, no nothing -- until this note was found."

Police theorize that the robber tossed the note into the condo Dumpster as he ran through the parking lot on his way to his car at a shopping mall, and it simply fell onto the ground when the trash was emptied a short time later.

But for pure fortune, the balled-up paper might just as easily have been incinerated or buried under tons of garbage in a landfill.

Said Hansen, the condo manager who called to alert police to Wootten's find: "It looked like a law enforcement convention down here last Thursday. You couldn't get into our parking lot, there were so many cop cars."

The note was promptly sealed in a plastic bag and rushed to the Maryland State Police Crime Lab on Sudbrook Road in Pikesville.

'Moment of truth'

There, in a cramped suite of offices jammed with filing cabinets and computer terminals, technicians hung the rumpled paper in a ventilation locker and sprayed it with Ninhydrin, a chemical that reacts with amino acids excreted through the skin. As it dried, telltale purple smudges began to appear on the paper.

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