Bank jobs

Why are low-payoff, high-risk enterprises on the rise?

IT MAY BE THE DUMBEST of all crimes—people get hurt or killed, the loot is often meager and comes with dye packs, marked bills, and signaling devices, and the perp may wind up someone's bride at Leavenworth. But bank robbery is still the rage in Washington: Averaging a heist every Monday through Saturday, the state this year is expected to top the record 326 bank holdups in 1997 that made us third in the nation, the FBI says. That's largely thanks to holdup guys such as the one who took a Horizon Bank near Mill Creek the afternoon of September 17th. It was another in a regional wave of bank jobs—more than two dozen in the past few months—and underscored the point that, despite the supposed high security of banks today, many are still pushovers.

The Horizon holdup man wore a long coat, baseball cap, and sunglasses—typical of today's faddish robbery ensemble. At least four local robbers dress similarly (one of them, the King County Baseball Cap Robber thought responsible for 12 recent heists, including two in one day, was recently nabbed).

Pushing through the bank's glass doors on the Bothell-Everett Highway at 2:12 pm, the Horizon robber pulled a cash bag from inside his coat. He carried a full-sized shotgun at his side. Except for two women chatting at a desk behind him, the bank was near empty. He glided up to a teller, pushed the bag across the counter, and lifted the gun to her face. Fill the bag, he said. The stunned teller quickly complied. He lowered the gun, turned, and was out the door. It took 40 seconds. (He's getting faster. Five days earlier, he robbed the same bank, needing almost a minute.)

About seven out of every ten robbers are eventually apprehended, and holdups remain a deadly profession: Of 19 people shot in US heists in 1996, 17 were the robbers. Nonetheless, robberies are on the rise—in part because of the growing population, the proliferation of smaller bank branches, and longer banking hours. Experts also say robbers know banks can be an easy score: Tellers are trained not to confront them, and many banks are short on prevention (most robbers come and go almost unnoticed by customers; the King County Baseball Cap Bandit often waited his turn in line). Larger banks may resort to costly high-tech security measures including bullet-proof teller cages and "mantraps"—sets of doors that can lock a fleeing robber in the vestibule. But smaller outlets don't even bother to post guards, since that can lead to confrontations and lawsuits.

"Countermeasures normally have a cost assigned to them," top US security consultant John W. Kennish tells us. "If the banks are willing to make the investment, the problem will end quickly." Kennish, based in Connecticut, says the Horizon Baseball Cap Bandit is likely to "continue to strike until someone—a police officer, customer, or bank employee, or he, is injured in one of these attacks." Kennish is consulting on 30 such injury cases, including one in Tacoma—all of which reflect, he says, a pattern of banks taking action only after someone is hurt. Most robbers are in a high emotional state, and many are "mentally unbalanced, driven by peer group or gang pressures, or have other dangerous anti-social tendencies. They may be desperate. They are also aware of the potential deadly consequences should they be confronted by law enforcement officers."

Yet they rob on. At his Web site (, Kennish notes that many robbers may be addicted to a controlled substance, do not case a bank prior to the heist, and do not wear a disguise or have a post-robbery plan. Approximately half of the robberies he studied occurred on a Friday, with more than 80 percent of them occurring at branch locations without bullet-resistant teller barriers.

Kennish just took on a new case buttressing his contention that banks don't turn security-conscious until it is too late. Last month he was hired by a Detroit law firm as its robbery expert on a bank shooting in which four died. "Two employees, a customer, and a bystander were all killed during the commission of a branch bank robbery committed by a single robber armed with a sawed-off shotgun," Kennish says. "I've also been to several funerals of police officers who were killed by bank robbers. Prevention, not apprehension, is the key."

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