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Montreal Called Bank Robbery Capital of N. America

February 14, 1988|JANE ARRAF | Reuters

MONTREAL — In an otherwise law-abiding city, bandits called "the Hat" and "the Quiet One" keep Montreal the bank robbery capital of North America.

Police say this city of 2 million usually has more armed bank robberies a year than New York or Los Angeles, a phenomenon that baffles Montreal police, given the overall low rates here for major crimes.

Elsewhere in Canada, no one has held up a Yukon Territories bank for nine years. Prince Edward Island has experienced only one bank robbery since 1978, according to the Canadian Bankers' Assn.

Montreal, in contrast, has so many bank robbers that the province isn't big enough for them.

Exporters of Robbers

"We're exporters," Detective Lt. Marcel Lemay said, explaining that when robbers run out of local targets, they move on to Toronto.

Toronto police are not happy about that.

"I don't know why Montreal has so many bank robbers," Toronto Police Sgt. Bruce Butler said. "They'd mail their guns to Toronto to avoid detection. . . . They'd rob our banks and then they'd drive back to Montreal."

According to Montreal investigators, a handful of people commit most of the bank heists.

"It's not uncommon to see the same fellow having committed 10, 16, 18, even up to 40 holdups," Lemay said. Three bandits were responsible for about 100 of last year's 507 holdups, he said.

'Quiet One' Snared

But Montreal police recently snared one suspect, Michael Patrick O'Brien, 26, dubbed "the Quiet One" because he never said a word during robberies but simply handed tellers a note saying "holdup."

"He was many times dealing with French people and he didn't want to make long conversation," Lemay said.

A generous taxi tip was his undoing.

As Lemay tells it, O'Brien successfully carried out his second bank robbery of the day and hailed a cab as a getaway car. He gave the driver a $100 bill and asked him to keep quiet. The cabbie called the police, and O'Brien was arrested and charged last month with 13 counts of armed robbery.

Robberies and Drugs

Lemay said police nabbed "the Hat" after he pulled off about a dozen holdups, wearing a different baseball cap each time.

"Naturally, the robbers don't make millions out of every holdup. They have to pay the rent, they have to eat, they have to drink--heavily, normally," Lemay said, explaining why some robbers pull off literally dozens of bank heists.

They also buy drugs. Police estimate that about 90% of bank robbers are addicted, usually to cocaine.

According to the bankers' group, the average take for a holdup is about $3,000, although the haul can range from $500 to more than $40,000.

Unemployment Link

Los Angeles, with a population of more than 3 million, last year reported 373 armed bank robberies. Greater New York, with about 7 million people, reported only 165 bank robberies, up from 77 the year before.

Andre Normandeau, head of criminology at the University of Montreal and the co-author of a recent book called "Armed Robbery," said that Montreal has 4 to 6 times the national average of armed robberies but below-average rates of other violent crimes.

Normandeau and colleague Thomas Gabor speculate that Quebec residents commit robberies because they are relatively poor, powerless and alienated. Lemay also noted that Quebec has a serious unemployment problem.

Normandeau said that a "subculture of thieves" seems to thrive in Montreal bars and taverns, where criminal traditions are passed on from one generation to the next.

60% of Holdups Solved

The Montreal Police Department's 25-person holdup squad has so far solved about 60% of last year's bank holdups, contrasted with Los Angeles's 80% and New York's 51%.

New York FBI Agent Joseph Valiquette said the solution rate has improved since federal and local authorities stopped fighting over territory.

"We wasted more time on disagreements with ourselves than really concentrating on what we should be doing," he said.

Police in Montreal have found that witnesses can point out suspects in a lineup but have trouble giving an accurate enough description for them to track down the suspect in the first place.

Holdups Decline

"The descriptions are fantastic," said Lemay, a 21-year veteran. "Take a short cashier, for example. To her everybody's tall, all the guys are big and tough and everything."

Normandeau said that holdups have actually declined and become less professional since the 1960s, because police work has improved and banks keep less money in the till.

"There are a lot of armed robberies where people are not even wearing a mask, for example," he said. "You would not see that in the '60s."

Unlike the bold and glamorous bank robbers who became legends of the Wild West, Normandeau and police paint a bleaker picture of the modern bank robbers.

Poor, Uneducated

They said they are usually poor, uneducated and spend most of their lives in and out of jail.

And unlike the Hollywood image, most bank holdups are done by one robber with little planning. Robbers carry guns but seldom fire them, experts say.

"They can use the gun, but they usually fire into the wall to make their point," Police Director Andre Tessier said. "It's very rare that they fire on somebody."

Despite the dangers and the minimal rewards, some armed robbers interviewed by Normandeau and Gabor appeared hooked.

"You don't do a holdup just for the money," one convicted robber told them. "You don't really choose to do it. There's an atmosphere that grabs you. . . .

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