High-tech tools foiling low-tech bank robbers

A man walked into a bank. He leveled a gun at the teller. He fled with the cash.

Sounds familiar, right?

Snohomish County may have felt like bank robbery central these past few months. High-profile heists came one after another. The county was hit by at least four suspected serial bank robbers since summer. Two suspects now sit behind bars.

When it comes to bank robberies, police tend to stay even more tight-lipped about the crime than usual, especially if they’re working with federal agents. Still, the recent slew of holdups left a trail of investigative documents that shed light on how bank robberies get cracked in modern times.

The crime itself has hardly changed, but with new partnerships and sophisticated equipment, police and banks have gotten better at fighting back. These days, even the loot itself can hold hidden clues.

For the old-fashioned bank robber, technology must be a major buzz-kill.

More than 5,000 banks were robbed in the U.S. in 2011 and more than $38 million taken, FBI data show. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office alone reported six bank robberies so far this year.

The Cases

The suspected “Phony Pony Bandit,” Todd Kirkpatrick, 54, of Anacortes, made a first court appearance Oct. 19. He was shot by a sheriff’s deputy on Sept. 25 after a deputy reportedly interrupted him mid-holdup at KeyBank in Stanwood. Police believe he also was responsible for several robberies, some of them botched, in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

The suspected “Tour de Banks” robber, Cristian C. Babalai, 29, of Bothell, allegedly robbed eight banks in Snohomish and King counties to feed a gambling addiction. He’s being held on $2 million bail.

The “Duct Tape Bandit” remains at large, suspected of at least four bank robberies in Snohomish and King counties, including one May 24 in Stanwood and another June 20 in Edmonds.

Still another robber is suspected of hitting the same Stanwood bank three times since January 2011.

The rest of the suspects didn’t try as hard to cover their faces or their tracks. One apparently was a Snohomish teen, now accused of donning only sunglasses and a funny hat during a holdup there. The hat was dropped near the scene, reportedly complete with DNA evidence.

“Typically when you look at crimes like this, particularly bank robberies, there is a very clear intent to ensure that identification would be much more difficult,” said David Makin, a Washington State University professor who holds a doctorate in criminal justice and criminology. “It’s almost like they don’t know how developed technology has really become, particularly our ability to share information.”

The contemporary robber

Robbery remains one of the most high-risk crimes compared to potential gain, Makin said.

Bank robbers can face federal prosecution, in part because banks are federally insured.

The average low-level robbery, such as a convenience store stickup, rarely nets more than a couple hundred dollars, Makin said. In comparison, the average home burglary nets about $1,700 in cash and goods.

The Tour de Banks robber pocketed $77,000 in one stickup, but that’s rare.

Police pour more resources into robberies because they’re considered a violent crime. Even if a robber uses a fake weapon or only implies having a weapon, the crime is treated the same in court.

Criminals don’t always understand that, Makin said.

In fact, in bank robberies, weapons are mentioned via verbal or written threats almost twice as often as they’re physically displayed, according to 2011 FBI data.

Robberies tend to be desperate acts, prompted by addiction, substance abuse or a sudden change in lifestyle, Makin said.

“Robbery is that immediate need of access to money,” he said.

That said, bank robbers who repeat their crimes get better at it. Robbers are most apprehensive during their first heist, Makin said. That’s similar for most kinds of crimes. They get more daring.

The downside, though, is multiple robberies leave patterns, and police have gotten good at recognizing patterns.

In several of the Snohomish County cases, police upped patrols near banks or created special patrols in response. The deputy who captured the “Phony Pony” suspect in Stanwood was on one such patrol.

More connected police

In the Tour de Banks case, detectives closing in on the suspect tracked the man’s movements, cell phone tower connections, bank accounts and gambling debt.

In many of the robbery cases, detectives compared notes across county lines. They swapped data analysis, surveillance stills, suspect sketches and fresh leads. Local police credited the major arrests to teamwork.

A key step often is deciphering the serial robber’s “signature,” Makin said.

Serial robbers may target banks with certain features or surroundings, such as easy access to a major highway, or lots of nearby parking.

Police can analyze data and hot spots in more advanced ways than ever before, Makin said. Combined with critical thinking and traditional police work that can be quite effective.

Smarter banks

Meanwhile, banks are moving toward digital surveillance video, which is easier and faster to share with police and the public, Makin said. Police have gotten better at soliciting tips, which helped lead to the Snohomish arrest, among others.

Since the heyday of the bank heist in the 1980s, banks have become better designed to discourage robberies too, he said. They stopped papering their windows with posters. That made it easier for people to see inside. They hired guards or greeters. They posted warnings about the cameras.

“When you make it much more difficult for the robber, they have to evaluate the risk more appropriately,” Makin said.

Banks use “dye packs” that explode and stain the money, the robber and his clothing. Search warrants in these cases often involve looking for stained clothing or cash.

Banks also now may have access to tiny radio-frequency identification tracking tags that can be hidden in the money, Makin said. The tags function sort of like microchips for pets, and GPS tracking also is on the horizon.

The radio tags haven’t shown up in arrest reports here, so it’s hard to gauge their use locally.

Working together

Furthermore, banks and police partner on prevention.

That was going on in Snohomish County long before the recent cases, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

For example, police chiefs in Stanwood and Snohomish meet with bank managers and staff regularly, she said.

Deputies also have also gotten better about communicating with bank staff, Ireton said. They talk about being proactive, how and when to contact police during a robbery, and teller safety.

In general, bank robberies hold many more clues than, say, burglaries because of developments such as surveillance video, tracking devices and silent alarms, Ireton said. There also tend to be multiple witnesses at banks compared to an empty house.

“However, as any bank teller who has witnessed a robbery will attest, it can be a traumatic experience, especially when a weapon is involved,” she said.

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

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