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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Why Rob a Bank? To Get a Nickname

May 14, 2003|Dana Parsons

In no small irony, the Whisper Bandit brought the curtain down on himself quite loudly two weeks ago out on Interstate 5. For reasons that died with him, the bank robbery suspect shot himself as police chased him across the Orange County line into San Diego County.

Thus ended the career of someone who, according to authorities, repeatedly went about the business of quietly robbing banks. Eschewing theatrics, he simply went into bank after bank, sometimes flashing the butt of a gun, and in hushed tones demanded the money. The FBI says he may have been responsible for seven Orange County robberies between Jan. 1 and his final caper May 1 at a Wells Fargo branch in Irvine.

Merely another chapter in America's book of bank robbers.

Who was this man, so mannered yet tortured as he pursued his life of crime?

He has been identified as Clifford Jerome Marks of Los Angeles. The FBI is still working on his profile "to get behind the scenes, to get inside his head," says Special Agent Mark C. Hunter. Thirty-four years old, unmarried and with no children, Marks' last known job was as a computer programmer. The bureau believes Marks fits the profile of a robber who used the money to support a drug habit and to pay for his day-to-day expenses. The kind of guy who hopped from motel to motel when he wasn't living out of his car.

While the FBI doesn't glorify bank robbers, its history is inextricably linked to them. It was the FBI's pursuit in the 1930s of such notorious stickup men as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly that thrust it into the public's consciousness. The country has never run out of bank robbers.

And the Whisper Bandit? "This guy, he wouldn't draw a lot of attention to himself, wouldn't cause a lot of commotion," Hunter says.

Why the whispering? Why do some whisper and others shout?

"Usually, it's your personality," Hunter says. "If someone goes in loud and boisterous and tells everybody to get down on the floor, like in the movies, that's usually what he's like outside the robbery context. There are exceptions, of course ... but if you're meek, mild and timid during the robbery, that's usually how you are in your personal life."

I ask Hunter if, deep down, even the FBI doesn't marvel at the chutzpah of someone willing to walk into a bank and stick it up.

"I'm always amazed that people and all the media loves this stuff. A guy goes into an Albertsons and steals [thousands of dollars] and nobody says anything, but he takes 15 hundred in a bank robbery, and it's a big deal."

That's probably, I suggest, because the FBI nicknames them. While the bureau does it only as a shorthand way to identify them until they're captured, it also probably contributes to the public's ongoing fascination with them.

With 150 bank robberies a year in Orange County, you've got to keep track of them somehow, Hunter says. The Whisper Bandit was "very timid" in his first robbery, Hunter says. "He had a low voice; that's why we nicknamed him the Whisper Bandit. He'd walk in and approach the teller and say, 'This is a robbery.' "

From start to finish, Hunter says, the job took a couple of minutes.

As to why Marks killed himself, Hunter says that part of the puzzle isn't complete.

But as for why he robbed banks, that's the easy part. "To me, there is no fascination," Hunter says. "Maybe it's because I've been in law enforcement for 17 years. Our solution rate is about 70%, but people say, 'Why do they rob banks?' Those of us who work it, we're not mesmerized by that. That's where the money is."


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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