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An Enigma Wrapped in a Mysterious Racial Identity

His chameleon-like, multiethnic appearance is one reason the 'Kangaroo Bandit' has remained so elusive.

March 13, 2001|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is tempting to liken him to smoke. He coils in and out of view, his presence an omen of danger. Then he evaporates into a sunlit afternoon, while those left behind wonder what it is they have just seen.

He is, however, the opposite of ghostly. Many have seen this man up close--while he ordered them to the floor, his gun pointed at their heads. Nameless so far, he is considered the most wanted bank robber in California. Eyewitnesses describe him in detail, and bank cameras have captured images of him, yet he remains elusive. Part of the problem is that when people look at him, they don't agree on what they see.

It is a strange meeting of two Southern California phenomena: There are more bank robberies here than anywhere else in the nation; the population is so multiethnic that race can often be a meaningless descriptor.

The elusive bank robber defies racial categorization. He is that prototype of the future: Multiethnic Man. An amalgam. A little of this, a little of that.

"We've had him described as a dark-skinned white male, as a light-skinned African American, as Puerto Rican, as Brazilian and I think we had Middle Eastern," sighed agent Joseph T. White of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Santa Ana. "You know they all can't be right."

Or could they?

"Well, this is California," White said.

Dubbed the "Kangaroo Bandit" by the FBI because of the knapsack he wears dangling in front, the robber has hit 24 banks in 19 months, including ones in Calabasas, Brentwood, Marina del Rey and Mission Viejo. His racial mutability is not the sole reason he has eluded capture--the bandit does his homework, casing banks carefully before robbing them. But the myriad and inconsistent racial descriptions of him add an intriguing complication to the hunt.

No one seems more aware of his mutability than the Kangaroo Bandit himself. In some robbery photos he has a mustache and beard. In others he is cleanshaven. Sometimes his skin looks fair, sometimes dark. A few tellers have said they believe he had on makeup--particularly dark foundation.

"In reviewing the surveillance photos from the different robberies, it appears he's making a conscious effort to disguise his race," said Agent Mark C. Hunter of the FBI's bank robbery squad in Santa Ana.

What is known: The Kangaroo Bandit is between 25 and 30 years old, stands 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall and weighs about 180 to 200 pounds. He wears long-sleeved shirts buttoned at the cuffs, dark sunglasses and a baseball cap. After a robbery, he has been seen fleeing on foot, but also getting away in a red Toyota Tundra pickup and a black sport utility vehicle--possibly a Lincoln Navigator.

His method is the same. He enters a bank, orders tellers to place money on the counter and then tells everyone to lie down on the floor. He then walks down the teller line scooping the money into his knapsack--it is standard FBI policy not to reveal how much. The bandit has done this in banks in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

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The case suggests how important race is in identifying people--in a backdoor way, said professor David Wellman, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz. "When people can't establish a racial category for this guy they can't see him; in a sociological sense he's invisible. "But what makes him interesting is not just that he could be passing--moving between races--but that he's playing with it."

The Kangaroo has been written about by newspapers, featured on the news and was even the subject of an "America's Most Wanted" segment last August. The FBI has offered a $15,000 reward for his capture and, as a result, hundreds of people have called to turn in men of every ethnic hue.

"What is fascinating is that by simply applying foundation, he is able to move from one group of millions of people to another group of millions of people," said Matt Kelley, publisher of Mavin, a quarterly devoted to interracial issues. "But it especially makes sense in California, where there is so much intermarriage that all of a sudden there is all this racial ambiguity."

Statewide, a Times analysis of birth certificates conducted last summer found that one in six births in 1998 was to parents of mixed race or ethnicity, up from one in seven in 1989, and the trend is accelerating. In California, multiracial births are now third, behind white and Latino births. Also, although the state accounted for only 13% of all newborn babies nationwide in 1998, it accounted for almost one-quarter of all births to parents of mixed race and ethnicity.

Using race as the only tool to identify someone is the flawed methodology behind practices such as profiling, said Wellman of UC Santa Cruz. Yet the opposite, being colorblind, means ignoring the profound role of race in social, economic and political hierarchies.

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