Friday, July 18, 2008

The Cross-Eyed Bank Robber

By Jean Henry Mead

I’ve always been fascinated with bank robberies. The first U.S. bank heist was committed August 31, 1798, at the Bank of Pennsylvania’s Carpenter’s Hall. Nearly $163,000 was stolen from the vaults, which would currently amount to nearly $2 million, if not for devaluation. No forced entry was found so authorities assumed it was an inside job. One of two men charged with the crime died of yellow fever two days following arrest. Some might call it poetic justice.

The biggest bank robbery in U.S. history occurred 199 years later when two men stole $4.46 million from the Seafirst Bank in Lakewood, Washington. They hauled off 355 pounds of cash stuffed in canvas sacks, their 28th successful heist. Their accumulated wealth totaled $7 million. One would assume the robbers were geniuses to have alluded arrest for so long, but one man was stopped for speeding with 1.8 million in cash in his car as well as safe cracking tools. His partner neglected to pay the rent on his storage building and the owner found similar amounts of money and tools before notifying police.

Professional bank robbers, according to Corvasce and Paglino, in their book, Modus Operandi, will keep the bank under surveillance for some time before attempting a robbery. They’ll also video tape the bank’s location as well as the teller stations. Only a quarter of lone robbers display their weapons although they threaten the teller that one will be used if they don’t cooperate. Some have threatened to kill customers although very few actually do.

It seems that lone bank robbers are the rule, and they’re nearly always captured. We’ve seen them in the news wearing disguises, or using gimmicks such as Candice Rice Martinez, the 19-year old cell phone bandit, who robbed four Virginia banks for $48,620 in 2005. Her boyfriend, who drove the getaway car, helped her spend most of the loot on a new Acura and two large screen TV sets. It must be tough to get a bank loan when you’re only 19.

Two FBI agents arrived at my desk one morning at a San Diego newspaper office. Dressed as though they had stepped from the pages of GQ, they smiled and asked if I were interested in helping them capture a cross-eyed bank robber. One of them whipped out a grainy bank photo of a stocky young man with dark, curly hair. He was dressed in a nylon jacket and baggy pants. One hand held his jacket at an angle as though he had a gun, the other was stuffed in his pocket as he left the tellers cage. He reminded me of one of the Marx brothers although I could not see his eyes. I took the agents’ word that they were crossed.

Someone who read the article informed police that the robber had checked into a rehab center immediately after the heist. And he wasn’t cross-eyed, after all. He was a Vietnam veteran who had lost one eye in combat, which had been replaced with a glass orb.

For some reason, I wasn’t happy about aiding and abetting his arrest.

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