The ‘AK-47 Bandit’ may have been unmasked by a jailhouse call

By Kyle Swenson / The Washington Post

It easily could have had a lurid pulp fiction finish. Betrayed for the six-figure reward money. Caught in a rollicking gun battle with police. But the bank robber known in FBI offices across the western United States as the “AK-47 Bandit” may have contributed to his own downfall with an ill-advised jailhouse phone call.

Last week, Richard Gathercole was in a Nebraska jail, accused of trying to kill a Kansas state trooper, when he dialed up a woman identified by law enforcement as his mother. “Did you get all the guns out too?” the 39-year-old Montana man asked.

“No, not yet,” she replied, according to a transcript of the call that reads like a castoff scene from a Coen brothers’ film about low-IQ criminal behavior.

“You need to do that,” Gathercole stated. “As soon as possible.”

“Um, this is recorded,” the mother reminded her son. “You know that.”

Sure enough, two days later federal authorities cited the recorded dialogue in a court filing for a search warrant.

Local and federal authorities quickly raided Gathercole’s small single-story house on a shady residential street in Roundup, Mont., a small cow-town ringed by the Bull Mountains. Thanks to Gathercole’s directions, law enforcement found guns and bomb-making material, further evidence reportedly tying Gathercole to the “AK-47 Bandit” heists, brazen robberies committed since 2012 by a masked man in paramilitary gear, wielding his namesake Russian automatic weapon.

Although Gathercole has yet to be officially charged with any of the robberies, court records indicate investigators have tied him to two holdups and the Los Angeles Times reports investigators believe they now have their suspect.

The assault weapon wasn’t the only hallmark of the bandit heists. Beginning in 2012, in each of the seven suspected robberies, the assailant brandished a weapon with a high-capacity drum magazine; he wore a black balaclava-style mask and a protective ballistic vest.

In his first known appearance, a holdup at a California Bank & Trust in Chino, Calif., the bandit shot and seriously wounded a police officer. In the last reported robbery, court records indicate the bandit targeted an Iowa Heartland Credit Union in Mason City, Iowa, on July 28, 2015. After demanding money at gunpoint from the tellers, the robber left behind a homemade bomb before disappearing in a black four-door Toyota Camry with $126,000.

In between, the bandit struck in Sacramento and Vacaville, California; North Bend, Washington; Rexburg, Idaho; and Nebraska City, Nebraska. Eventually, the reward for information about the culprit climbed to $100,000.

The circumstances surrounding Gathercole’s arrest are just as dramatic as any of the robberies themselves. According to court records, on June 19 around 6 p.m., a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper eyeballing traffic shooting eastward on I-70 not far from the Colorado border spotted a black four-door Toyota Camry with an obscured back license plate.

The trooper began following the car to verify the registration. Pulling close, the trooper read a New York registration number, but when he ran the digits, they came back for an Acura — not a Camry. The trooper swung behind the Toyota, snapping on his emergency lights for a traffic stop. The Camry, however, kept going. The car suddenly jammed to a halt, then sped up. As the trooper tried to keep pace, he noticed the Camry’s driver seemed to be reaching for something on the passenger seat.

A rifle barrel popped out of the Camry’s window. Gunshots started blasting into the road. The trooper swung out of the way, then followed at a distance. When the Camry exited the highway and stopped at the off-ramp near Brewster, Kansas, the trooper reached for his own rifle, exited his patrol car and used it as barricade while he traded bullets with the Camry driver. The trooper eventually lost the car on the rural back roads.

About an hour and a half after the dramatic highway shootout, a man later identified as Gathercole allegedly carjacked a green Ford F-150 at gunpoint in the area, according to court filings. The stolen vehicle was reported missing, and around 12:25 a.m. the next morning, a sheriff’s deputy from Dawson County, Nebraska, saw a truck matching the description at a truck stop.

The deputy arrested Gathercole and found three loaded handguns in the stolen truck, as well as a computer bag, according to court records. Inside: a black balaclava-style ski mask. Gathercole also had a Toyota key fob on him, according to court filings. Back in Kansas, police found the 2009 Camry near where the Ford was stolen. Inside: an AK-47 and a homemade explosive device.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gathercole was arrested on suspicion of possession of stolen property and stolen firearms.

Two days after he was booked, the Montana native placed his call to his mother. “If you can, if possible, get everything out of the house,” Gathercole stressed over the phone, according to the transcript filed with the federal court.

“So they have you on solitary confinement?” his mother asked at one point. “How lovely.”

“They’re not really too, too nice, if you know what I mean,” Gathercole replied.

Court documents filed Monday indicate Gathercole’s family may not have an opportunity to carry out his request. An itemized document compiled by authorities lists the seized items, including guns, ammunition, tactical gear and a military helmet. The Los Angeles Times also reports authorities found so many homemade bombs they called in a bomb squad to clear the property.

“Multiple departments are investigating whether evidence found during the search in Montana may be linked to a series of bank robberies currently under investigation in California and other states,” an FBI spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times.

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