Police capture suspect in city bank robberies

Man's brother is a Northwestern District commander

March 28, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

A man who Baltimore police suspect committed nearly half of the city's 21 bank robberies this year was arrested after a chase through downtown yesterday, ending a manhunt for a robber who demanded money using notes instead of guns.

Police said the suspect - identified as Elmer H. Warfield, 36 - is the brother of a top police commander in the city's Northwestern District. A department spokesman said detectives interviewed the commander, Deputy Maj. Nathan A. Warfield, and are confident that he knew nothing of the robberies.

Maj. James Rood, head of the department's Special Investigations Section, said charges were pending against Elmer Warfield, who was hospitalized with minor injuries connected to his arrest. He said detectives will interview the suspect and witnesses to the robberies to build their case.

Bank robberies in Baltimore have spiked sevenfold this year. Last year at this time, only three bank robberies had been reported.

Police said they are investigating the suspect arrested yesterday in robberies at branches that include Bank of America on Light Street in Federal Hill, the 1st Mariner Bank on Boston Street in Canton and in downtown, and the Provident Bank in the 100 block of E. Lexington St.

Yesterday's break for police came about 9 a.m. when a downtown branch of the Carrollton Bank on North Charles Street was robbed, the second time that branch had been hit in five weeks. The suspect ran east, toward the Jones Falls Expressway. Officers began searching for him and had photographs that they had obtained from bank surveillance cameras.

A police sergeant in a marked cruiser spotted the suspect walking near the expressway and tried to stop him. The officer chased the man and arrested him, police said. Patrol officers recovered a dye pack - a bank security device that explodes and discolors stolen money with ink - and an unspecified amount of cash. They would not say if the dye pack had gone off.

Police said that in past robberies, the man shed an outer layer of clothing to alter his appearance after leaving the bank. Detective Sgt. Scott Serio, head of the department's citywide robbery unit, credited an alert patrol officer with recovering some discarded clothing in an alley near the bank in the 300 block of North Charles St. That helped officers find the suspect.

"It gave us a better direction to travel," Serio said.

Only three times in the city's 21 bank robberies has the robber displayed a gun. The practice passing notes to bank tellers demanding cash remains the most common way to hold up a bank, despite stiffened sentences at the state and federal levels for the practice.

The crime, known as "note jobs" among police and banking industry insiders, was a top issue two years ago among state legislators, who enacted tougher penalties for the tactic. But the trend continues to bedevil banking officials and law enforcement agencies, even as improvements in security and surveillance camera technology appear to be helping authorities catch suspects.

"The trend hasn't changed much," said Rood, the Baltimore police major. "You just give the bank teller a note, and you don't need a gun."

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of the corporation that owns Baltimore-based 1st Mariner Bank, agreed.

"These guys have not been robbing us like they used to, but this guy is an exception," said Hale, who had two branches robbed.

Hale said he thinks the tougher law and better efforts by the industry and law enforcement helped curtail robberies in recent years. But this year, he said, "All of a sudden there's been a rash of them."

Kathleen Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Bankers Association, said she is seeing stiffer sentences being handed down for bank robberies. She said note-passing robbers are being treated more seriously by the court system since a tougher state law was passed two years ago, elevating sentences for the practice even if a weapon was never shown.

"It's a trend that we have seen, and the legislature recognized the need to make changes in Maryland law to reflect what is happening," Murphy said.

Nationwide, bank robberies have been declining, statistics show. In 2001, there were 8,561 bank robberies; in 2005 - the most recently available figures - there were 6,957 robberies at banks, according to FBI figures published by the American Banking Association.

Margot Mohsberg, American Bankers Association spokeswoman, said that bank robbery trends can fluctuate with changes in the economy. About 96 percent of all bank robberies are nonviolent, and 39 percent of the people arrested turn out to be drug users, she said.

Mohsberg said that banks across the nation have been pushing for stronger punishment for bank robbers, but their main focus is upgrading their own security systems.

"The banks' main focus is investing in sophisticated alarm systems, in bait money and surveillance cameras, which they're constantly improving," she said.

Yesterday's suspect is believed to have struck banks in Federal Hill and Canton, as well as banks in South and Northwest Baltimore.

Police have been looking for months for the suspect, for whose photo taken from bank surveillance cameras has been publicized. But Matt Jablow, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said that Major Warfield denied ever seeing news media coverage of the bank robberies, one of which occurred in the district where he works.

"He hasn't been in touch with his brother for months," Jablow said. "We're very comfortable that he had absolutely no knowledge of his brother's activities."

Court records show that Elmer Warfield has a pending drug possession case scheduled in April. The records also indicate that he has two prior convictions for drug possession.gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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