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Once the stuff of drama, bank robberies fall off as crime of choice

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Posted at 8:00 PM, Sep 27, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-28 12:31:34-04

Banks aren’t where the money is anymore — not for robbers, at least.

Bank holdups, a staple of headlines and crime dramas since the days of Jesse James, don’t pay like they used to. Whether criminals are counting their cash or not, the rate of such robberies has dropped steadily over recent years, by as much as two-thirds in East Tennessee alone.

Authorities say the drop’s part of a nationwide trend. FBI statistics indicate robberies of banks around the country have dropped by about half compared to this time a decade ago. Banks from Bristol to Chattanooga saw as many as 60 such robberies in 2008; the region clocked in with 21 last year.

“Statistically, robberies have gone down significantly,” said Agent David Bukowski, who works most bank robbery investigations for the Knoxville office of the FBI. “Knoxville had 17 last year. Chattanooga had three. Johnson City had one.”

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Experts haven’t pinpointed any single reason for the decline. Some suggest that improved security at banks and a high rate of arrests have discouraged would-be John Dillingers. Others suggest identity theft and other data crimes have siphoned criminals’ interest.

“I think people are looking more at other avenues,” said Doug Johnson, senior manager of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association. “Cybercrime is more attractive. So is identity theft. It’s always hard to pinpoint these trends because there’s no visible correlation between economic trends and bank robberies, and a single set of serial robberies can throw one area’s numbers way off.”

Today’s robbers face more obstacles than ever. Bank security cameras, for example, once famous for producing images that looked more like inkblots than photos, now increasingly rely on digital technology to produce crisp, clear photos and videos that can be posted online within hours and slapped on billboards within days.

“Everyone we’ve ever put on a billboard has been caught,” Bukowski said. “Our office averages about an 86 percent solve rate for bank robberies across the board. Nationally, it’s about 60 percent.”

The potential rewards — typically about a couple thousand dollars — seldom match the risk — an average sentence of about seven years in prison at the federal level, more if a gun’s used. Some robbers choose to roll the dice anyway.

“The money’s nothing compared to the time they’ll serve in jail,” said Agent Rich Calcagno, who oversees violent crime investigations for the Knoxville FBI office. “But the popular perception is that there’s some huge, comprehensive planning session prior to the robbery. What we really see here is a spur-of-the-moment act. They’re usually not well-planned at all. It’s not like the Great Train Robbery.”

A way to get high

Investigators say that’s the greatest misconception about such cases — the Hollywood-driven notion of bank robbers as sophisticated master criminals funding lives of luxury.

“They’re robbing banks to get high,” Bukowski said. “The bulk of them are fueling an addiction. Most don’t even put much thought into it. They’re operating out of a sense of desperation.”

The average bank robbery lasts fewer than five minutes — just as long as it takes the robber to hand the teller a note demanding cash. The popular notion of a gun-waving outlaw shouting for money at the top of his lungs belongs mainly to TV shows and movies.

Smart robbers know the less attention, the better. A polite, soft-spoken robber generally gets the haul; some even apologize to the tellers.

“Takeover robberies are extremely rare,” Bukowski said. “If we see one or two of those a year, that’s unusual. It’s much more common for someone to just pass a note, but the note job doesn’t make for good TV.”

The exceptions can be terrifying when they happen. A Newport police officer found himself on the wrong end of the gun two years ago when he showed up to a report of a bank robbery in progress the day after Christmas 2012 and met two armed men coming out the door. He ended up handing over his service pistol to the pair, who sped away.

The men, Brandy Joe Charles and Anthony Robert Clifton, had struck a bank in Gainesville, Ga., two weeks earlier, according to the FBI. They were sentenced last month to federal prison time — 10 years for Clifton and more than 15 years for Charles.

Statistics show the average bank robber tends to be a white man in his 20s or 30s, usually addicted to drugs and usually with a criminal record. Again, exceptions turn up.

“We’ve had them all the way up to a guy in his 80s,” Bukowski said. “Women are rare. If they’re involved, it’s most often as a getaway driver.”

The average robber’s main weapon tends to be a note demanding cash, although he might carry a gun or what he claims to be a bomb, usually fake.

He’s seldom a challenge to outsmart.

Take the robber who interrupted his getaway to stop at a convenience store for YooHoo and crackers, or the man who hired a limousine for a getaway car and brought along his dog.

“One guy wrote his demand note on a car repair bill that had his license plate number, cell phone number and address on it,” Bukowski said. “We had a couple who wrote their notes on cell-phone bills. We had one who took his sportcoat off and left it behind. It had a prescription bottle in the pocket with his name on it.”

FOILING A FELON

If the robber doesn’t give himself away, security footage or a dye pack often will. Agents cite those two precautions as among the greatest improvements in catching robbers.

About half of the robbers don’t even try to conceal their faces.

One of the first priorities after a robbery: get the security footage. For serial robbers, a nickname to go with the face helps keep the case in the public eye — the elderly Grandpa Bandit, the frizzy-wigged Bad Hair Bandit or the 300-plus-pound Big Boy Bandit, for example.

“Now we can usually get pics out to the public within about an hour,” Bukowski said. “The dye pack is going to create witnesses. There are all these theories out there on how to get the dye off the currency, but you can always see it. No matter what, you just can’t get it clean.”

Some banks have installed barricades, bulletproof glass and doors that lock automatically to block and trap would-be robbers. Sometimes those measures end up blocking customers as well.

“You’ll sometimes hear concerns about whether those scare customers away,” said Johnson, the ABA expert. “We’ve found hiring greeters is generally more user-friendly than guards or mantraps. The last thing a criminal wants is to be noticed, especially right off the bat.”

If those tactics fail, there’s always the offering of a reward. The prospect of quick cash makes friends, family and accomplices eager to turn someone in.

“Sometimes it’s that,” Bukowski said. “Sometimes it’s a disgruntled ex-wife.”

Some robbers stay ahead of the law long enough to make short careers of their holdups.

David Bruce Voss, known as the “Bicycle Bandit,” admitted to 28 holdups in 16 states — including one in Knoxville — before hanging himself in a Florida jail cell in January 2007. Chad Schaffner, an ex-convict from Indianapolis, held up 11 banks, a credit union and a store in six states in 2009 — including banks in Morristown and Jefferson City — until a billboard campaign helped lead to his capture and 26 life sentences in federal prison.

Once caught, robbers tend to crack quickly, especially when they see themselves on camera.

“They had the pictures,” said Bobbie Joe Phillips, who’s serving federal time for seven bank robberies, including three in East Tennessee. “What else was I going to do? If they offer you a deal, you better take it.”

Agents said they generally find suspects happy to point themselves out in security photos, sign statements and spill the details of what they did and why.

“Most of them confess,” Bukowski said. “Even those that don’t confess end up pleading guilty. I’ve been working bank robberies the best part of 20 years, and I’ve been to trial twice. We’ve had people who call in and say, ‘Come get me.’ They’re in a state of desperation when they commit the robbery.

“Once they’re caught, they’re in a different state of mind. Most of them are just decent people who have run off the tracks somehow.”

Some robbers eventually leave prison and get their lives back on the tracks. Others go right back to the only thing they know — at the risk of an even tougher sentence next time.

Agents won’t offer a guess on how long the current trend might hold — whether bank robbery might come back into style or whether it’s on the wane for good.

“I think it’s more of a flattening out of the numbers,” said Johnson, the ABA expert. “There will always be people looking for quick, easy money.”