TEL AVIV — He walked into the bank wearing his crash helmet and told a teller to put the cash in a plastic bag. Then he fired one shot from his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson into the ceiling, strolled out and vanished on his red motorcycle.
"Bikerbank" had struck for the 19th time.
They seek him here, they seek him there and the public looks on, enthralled by the cool precision that characterizes his crimes.
State television has done a prime-time report on his exploits. The daily Hadashot is running a series of articles, trying to pierce the mystery of the man hiding behind the nickname and the dark visor. An ex-commando? A former policeman? Theories abound.
His adversary is a tough, mustachioed detective known to colleagues as Shogun. He is Deputy Supt. Chaim Pinchas, head of special investigations in the Tel Aviv force.
Shogun's prestige is at stake. Bikerbank has robbed 19 banks in 12 towns in 21 months, leaving no clue and description--just one fingerprint that draws a blank in the police computer.
He strikes between 10 a.m. and noon. He always robs the teller nearest the door. He's about 6 feet tall, wears cowboy boots and, according to some witnesses, has a slight limp. He rides a high-powered Suzuki motorcycle.
Bikerbank's loot, so far, totals slightly more than $150,000.
"He took out a gun, showed it to everybody . . . and shouted: 'This is a robbery.' He went straight for the counter," Reuven Avraham, an official at a Bank Leumi branch in suburban Tel Aviv, recalled on Israel Television.
"He did not care whether we pushed the buttons or used silent alarm systems. I think he was there no longer than a minute and a half," Avraham said.
Officers have spent hours on stakeouts and roadblocks. Dozens of bikers have been questioned. Some adorn their helmets and bikes with stickers proclaiming, "I'm not the robber."
At least four suspects, including a reserve Air Force officer, have been held. Vehicle registry records have been no help. Authorities believe that his bike was bought from a tourist and is not registered.
When Bikerbank first struck in February, 1989, the customer behind him thought it was a joke and interfered, forcing the robber to flash his pistol and fire in the air.
"Today, his actions are completely professional. . . . He knows where to find the weak spots of the police," investigator Pinchas said.
"I don't think he has a criminal background. I think he comes from a good family. Either he saw a lot of movies . . . or had contact with criminals and decided to go along this way," Amnon Halper, a former senior detective, told Israel army radio.
To compound police embarrassment, Bikerbank twice has struck while suspects were being held.
"At some stage he began to provoke the police. . . . It has become something beyond robbery," Pinchas said.
If the public is not outraged by Bikerbank, it may be because it has not forgiven the banks for the 1983 stock market crash that wiped out many people's savings. Israelis blame the banks for manipulating the prices of their own shares to keep them artificially high.
The robber's nickname, \o7 Ofnobank, \f7 is an acronym of the Hebrew words for biker and bank, a play on the catchy acronyms the banks use to advertise their services.
"Some in the public have some sympathy for the man, but we have to remember it's a real robbery, a weapon is being used and it's a serious violation of the law," said Police Minister Roni Milo.
Still, as long as Bikerbank doesn't shoot anyone, his scampish image is likely to endure.
"I think the sympathy would be the same if he robbed government ministries or post offices, anything linked to the Establishment," said Noam Pinto, a spokesman for Bank Hapoalim.
"It's very frightening," Pinto said. "So far nobody has been hurt, but we worry for the safety of the workers and the public. The workers are under orders to hand out the money without provoking or opposing him."
Shogun hasn't given up hope, however. "I will get him," he said. "It does not matter if he continues or stops. One day we will get him."