This is a holdup!

FBI working to curb rise in robberies at county banks


Herald Writer

When the Martha Lake branch of Wells Fargo Bank was robbed for the third time this year on May 9, bank employee Scott Higgins and his co-workers watched as the thief left, stuffing money in his pants pocket.

What employees knew but the robber didn’t was the money contained an explosive dye pack.

"Those are kind of vicious when they go off," Higgins said. "It knocked him to the ground. It just went BOOM! He dropped on all fours. It looked like only on sheer adrenaline he was able to get up again. It engulfed not only his body but about a 4-foot radius in a purple cloud."

Such incidents are becoming more common as bank robberies are on the rise in Snohomish County. Through the end of September, there have been 27 in Snohomish and Skagit counties, the jurisdiction of the Everett FBI office.

The Seattle area ranks third highest in the nation in bank robberies, behind Los Angeles, the undisputed leader, and San Francisco. But per capita, Seattle is the worst spot in America, FBI spokesman Ray Lauer said. Through September, King County had 130 bank robberies, compared with 99 in 1999 and 119 in 1998.

Authorities for years have been trying to figure out why the Seattle area is so popular with robbers. There a number of possible reasons.

"It’s a guess," Lauer said. "There’s still the perception that banks have money."

In reality, they don’t. The average bank robber gets between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, not the big pot of gold they expect.

"It’s not a very good occupation to have if you’re looking to get rich," Lauer said. "The payoff is small, and the penalties when you get caught are pretty severe."

Bank robbers can get up to 20 years in prison.

The quantity of banks is another attraction.

"Tie in the large number of banks that we have here. Branch banking allows for a whole heck of a lot of branches to be all over the place," Lauer said.

There are 150 bank branches in Snohomish County and 43 in Skagit County, not including credit unions, said Susan Putzier of the Washington State Financial Institutions.

"You tie that in with the nice weather that the West Coast has, which tends to attract transients, who tend to be drug users," Lauer said. "We find that most of the bank robbers do have drug problems. They’re going into banks to get a quick fix to their problem.

"Occasionally, we have professionals who know what they’re doing. Those robbers are very few and far between."

The good news is about 80 percent of bank robberies are solved, although cases can take a year or more to get through the federal court system, authorities said.

More good news: Only about 15 holdups a year in Washington are violent, with the robber firing a gun or taking control of a bank, Lauer said. Earlier this year, a robber entered a south Everett bank and fired two bullets into the ceiling to get everyone’s attention. It did. But those instances are rare.

"We’ve been pretty lucky here concerning the violence that occurs at banks," Lauer said. "The majority of our robberies are either note jobs or done through verbal demands. Weapons are rarely displayed or violence used."

Still, banks are providing more security because of the quantity of robberies.

"Because of what has happened in the past, banks have to take a more proactive approach in providing their own security. The banks also have to balance customers’ comfort with security. There is a lot more security in banks than is visible to the eye," Lauer said.

Banks that get robbed a lot have begun increasing visible security precautions, such as "bandit barriers" around teller areas and metal detectors installed between two sets of entry doors. If the detector goes off, the second doors won’t allow the person to enter.

The efforts may be working. at least at Bank of America, which said its robberies in the Northwest are down 36 percent, corporate spokeswoman Mary Kelley said. The bank has 26 branches in Snohomish and Skagit counties.

"We take the security of our associates and our customers very seriously, and it’s a top priority for us," she said, adding that the bank constantly monitors safety procedures and security measures and works closely with the FBI.

Robberies take their toll on bank personnel, even when there’s no violence. Tellers are taught how to handle robberies, and banks provide employee debriefing after them, Kelley said.

Higgins, who has worked at several banks, has witnessed four or five holdups.

"It’s a very intense feeling of a combination of shock, disbelief and terror at the same time. You’re shocked that somebody is doing it to the point you almost don’t believe they’re doing it. You go into work every day, and it’s a routine and something you get comfortable with.

"Once you know it’s (a robbery) going on, there’s a relatively deep-seated feeling of terror, of wanting that person to be gone," he said. "Everything that we do during the robbery is for one reason: to get that person out of the branch. It’s just maintaining the safety of the customers and staff. We could care less what they get away with."

In many robberies, most people in the bank are unaware it happened until it’s over, he said.

"I’ve been through so many of them now that I know just by the nature of the way they run for the door. You look at the robber and then you look at the teller line and you know instantly who it happened to because they’ll have the look of the deer in the headlights," he said, adding some bank employees leave the business after being robbed.

Authorities hope that employees and customers will pay close attention during a robbery.

"What we want is good witnesses. We don’t want heroes. Just do as you’re told, and remain calm, and be as good a witness as you can be. We don’t want anybody hurt. Money can be replaced; people can’t be," Everett police detective Steven Kiser said.

"For most people, this is the most violent thing they’ve ever had to confront, regardless of the level of violence," Kiser said. "Most people are pretty shaken."

Everyone knows that banks have alarms, and most robbers are in and out as quickly as possible, he said.

Kiser has seen robbers go to banks on motorcycles, on foot, in cars or on the bus.

"We’re not talking about master planners here. I remember one who was so drunk he went down the street and just sat down, and that’s where we caught him," he said.

About 10 years ago, a robber ran down the street from the bank to a barber shop and tried to get a haircut to change his appearance.

"The vast majority are drug related. … They’re doing something because of the drug habit. The drugs lead to their capture," Kiser said.

"You get the ones that are just stupid and write the robbery note on the back of their deposit slip. We’ve had them all the way up to those who are smart enough to take the note with them," he said.

Five or six years ago, a masked bandit entered an Everett bank and cranked off two gunshots, one into the ceiling and one into the floor, Kiser said.

"The one in the floor was very close to a teller who was prone on the floor," he said. "Those people were really traumatized. Assume they’re always armed and act accordingly."

Higgins couldn’t agree more.

Before he joined Wells Fargo, one robber held up the bank while armed with a shotgun, co-workers told him.

"They’re on drugs, they’re shaking, the gun could go off accidentally," he said. "I can tell you right now, the first time a gun is pointed at my face is my last day there. I’m not a coward, but I refuse to be shot."

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