How police found Bothell bank robbery suspect

SEATTLE — The 29-year-old owner of a Bothell nursing home allegedly turned to robbing banks to feed a gambling addiction, according to police.

Cristian C. Babalai was arrested Friday morning near his home just south of the Snohomish-King county line.

Police allege that he’s the “Tour de Banks” robber, an armed stickup man who struck at least eight banks in Snohomish and King counties this year. The moniker referred to the robber’s use of a bicycle in the getaways.

Babalai was being held Monday on $800,000 bail, said Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County prosecutor’s office.

The state also has suspended operations at his nursing home, and all the residents were being relocated pending an investigation, officials said Monday.

Other than a handful of traffic-related cases in recent years, Babalai has no criminal history in Washington.

In the holdups, the Tour de Banks robber would park a car near the bank, ride over on a bicycle, level a handgun at tellers and demand cash, court papers show. The robber then would ride away on the bicycle, stow it in the car and drive away.

A car believed to be Babalai’s 1995 Mercedes Benz C220 was spotted in surveillance video from near the scenes of at least two of the robberies, including one July 30 at Washington Federal bank along U.S. 2. in Monroe, according to court papers.

After that robbery, Monroe police detectives scoured video footage from businesses around the bank, Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said Monday. They found some key clues.

“The video showed the suspect removing the bicycle from his back seat and riding off toward the bank,” she said.

The video wasn’t crisp enough to get a license plate from the car, but it helped detectives narrow down the suspect’s vehicle to just a few makes and models, she said.

People were worried the robber would come back, Willis said.

“Whenever you have that, it puts the community on edge that they’ve been victims once, they could be victims again,” she said.

Investigators have credited the arrest to coordinated efforts among half a dozen police agencies in both counties and the FBI.

“We each had parts and pieces, and we were able to put it together because of our cooperation,” Arlington police spokeswoman Kristin Banfield said.

Investigators served search warrants Friday at Babalai’s home and his business, the Loving Adult Family Home at 21124 46th Ave. SE in Bothell.*

Police allegedly found a pistol at the home that matched the one used in the robberies, court papers show. Employees at the home reportedly told police that Babalai had begun paying them in cash recently, which seemed unusual to them.

Investigators also had been tracking Babalai’s bank account, which reportedly saw large influxes of cash after some of the robberies, court papers show. The bank also had reported concerns about the way the money was deposited.

Police believe Babalai had lost about $60,000 gambling in King County since May.

“Comparison of the bank robbery losses, the cash deposits made by Babalai, and his gambling losses showed an obvious pattern of incoming and outgoing cash all related to one another,” police wrote in an affidavit.

Those findings also led police to review Babalai’s cell phone records, including cell phone tower connection data that reportedly showed that his phone was in the general area of each scene at the time of the robberies, according to court papers.

The state on Friday suspended operations at Loving Adult Family Home, said Linda Moss, district administrator for residential care services within the Department of Social and Health Services’ Aging And Disability Services Administration.

All six residents were being relocated due to “the potential of imminent harm,” she said. No new residents can be admitted pending the investigation.

“Based on police information, we took the step to make sure that residents were safe,” she said.

Babalai also is a registered nursing assistant with the state Department of Health, according to their records, spokesman Donn Moyer said Monday.

“There’s been no discipline or complaints against his nursing assistant credential, but we’re in the process of opening a complaint file based on the arrest,” he said.

The Tour de Banks case is unrelated to the Sept. 25 shooting of a suspected bank robber in Stanwood.

In that case, police allege that a financially troubled Anacortes developer had used a similar bicycle-car getaway scheme in holdups in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

* Correction, October 23, 2012: Cristian C. Babalai, suspected as the “Tour de Banks” robber, owns the Loving Adult Family Home at 21124 46th Ave. SE, Bothell. Two other businesses in the area, owned by others in his family, have the same name but different addresses. This story originally incorrectly identified the adult living facility where police served a search warrant and the state had suspended operations.

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