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California | ON THE LAW

Bank Heists Become Less Frequent, but Deadlier

More and more robberies are confrontational incidents in which everyone on the scene is threatened.

June 20, 2003|Akilah Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Bank robberies in Southern California may have dropped to 645 in 2002, nearly a 10-year low, but they are becoming more dangerous.

More and more are staged, not by quiet thieves who whisper their demands, but by those who operate commando-style: taking over bank branches, brandishing automatic weapons and threatening everyone inside

"In sheer numbers, it's not that we're necessarily seeing an increase," said an FBI spokeswoman, Laura Bosley. "We're seeing a rise in the violent style."

An example is February's shootout during a heist at a Beverly Hills Washington Mutual branch. Two armed men, one of them wearing a black wig and glasses, and two guards exchanged gunfire after the robbers ordered tellers to hand over cash and then tried to flee.

When the smoke cleared, one of the assailants had escaped and the other was dead. No one else was wounded during the holdup.

In 2001 and 2002, so-called takeover robberies -- the most dangerous kind, the kind in which the robber or robbers make such a display that everyone in the bank is aware of what is happening -- made up nearly 30% of the 1,322 bank robberies in the Los Angeles area. During the early 1990s -- when it wasn't unusual for the FBI to investigate 1,500 robberies a year -- only about 20% were takeovers.

If the trend continues, the FBI estimates that, by next year, takeovers will account for about 40% of all bank robberies in the Los Angeles division's seven-county area, which consists of Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

John McEachern, supervisory special agent for bank robberies in the Los Angeles area, said the violence and the screaming associated with takeovers makes them especially volatile situations.

"They're walking into banks and slapping a customer with a pistol in the head," McEachern said. Even if victims comply, he said, robbers still push them or hit them.

Bank robbery experts blame recidivism. Convicts from the 1980s and 1990s are released from prison, they say, only to recruit kids off the street to knock off banks.

These "shot-callers" teach their recruits how to stake out the targets: watching for armed guards and noting when shifts change, said LAPD Robbery-Homicide Det. Jim Fountain.

"Then these dumb kids run in there, fill up the bags, then run out," Fountain said. Later, everyone meets up and the money is given to the shot-callers.

On average, most bank robbers who use notes to demand money earn less than $2,000 per job, said LAPD Robbery-Homicide Lt. Jim Grayson.

Takeovers typically mean more money, Grayson said, because access to the vault is easier. "But it takes more people, so it's a bigger split," he said. "So it still doesn't average that much money."

Street gangs are making their presence felt.

FBI statistics show members of Los Angeles County gangs have been responsible for many takeover thefts this year.

Some gang specialists are puzzled by gang involvement in bank robberies.

"It just doesn't fit," said Cheryl Maxson, a professor at UC Irvine's Department of Criminology, Law and Society.

"This is an atypical pattern of gang violence."

Most gang crimes are impulsive, Maxson said, and street gangs usually don't have the level of organization needed to rob banks.

LAPD's Fountain agreed that gangs lack discipline, which often is their downfall. After pulling a heist, most gang members call attention to themselves by purchasing flashy cars or splurging on trips to Las Vegas, he said.

Authorities say state-of-the-art surveillance cameras, bullet-proof partitions and trained tellers have become big helps in hunting down the culprits.

"Banks are doing their part," said McEachern. "For years, they were not."

Perry Slaton, Bank of America's vice president of protective services, said the rise in takeovers and escalating violence during bank robberies have, in part, caused the bank to customize security measures at all of its 281 Los Angeles-area branches.

"If we are robbed, the criminal can expect surprises, such as hidden devices that emit tear gas and smoke," Slaton said.

Since the bank implemented these and other safeguards last year, Slaton said, robberies of all sorts at local branches have dropped from 77 to 24.

According to the FBI, more than 70% of bank-robbery cases are solved.

Last year's heist at Sun Country Bank in Lancaster, shows the style of takeover robberies.

The three pistol-wielding teenagers who held up the bank were all affiliated with the Bloods gang, but they were not trying to benefit the gang, according the authorities. They forced nine employees and a customer into the vault, then made off with about $39,000 cash.

Kaleb Williams and Vernon Jackson -- two of the three involved -- were sentenced to 13 years each in prison for the crime. Jermaine Thomas, the only one who didn't carry a gun, received a five-year prison term.

All three were arrested within two months of the crime.

"You really have to be an idiot to walk into a bank to rob it," Grayson said.

"For the price you have to pay, it's not worth it."

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