Reporting from San Diego
The first heist gained scant notice — just one of those crimes that happens in a big city.
Then came the second and the third, and it was noted that the bandit did not fit the mind's-eye image of a bank robber.
For one thing, he had a small oxygen tank over his shoulder, attached to a plastic nosepiece. Frightened tellers guessed his age between 60 and 70.
So when the FBI gave him a catchy nickname — the Geezer Bandit — a minor media antihero was born.
Now, nearly a year after the first stickup, the Geezer Bandit is blamed for 11 bank holdups: 10 in San Diego County, one up the freeway in Riverside County.
This being the Internet age, some wits have established a Facebook page for the Geezer Bandit and an entrepreneur is ready to sell Geezer Bandit T-shirts and other gear. Most of the comments left on the Facebook page are of the "Go, Geezer, go" variety.
The FBI is not amused. There's nothing cute about someone who points a gun at people and demands money, the agency says.
The FBI, San Diego police, and the sheriff's departments in Riverside and San Diego counties have asked for help in finding him. The banks have offered a $16,000 reward.
Still, the Geezer Bandit remains on the loose and theories about his identity and motivation abound.
Is he really geriatric or just a guy in a theatrical mask and gloves? Is he somebody's grandfather who can't live on his Social Security checks?
Is he striking back at the financial industry because of their shenanigans that plunged us into a global recession?
Or is he, as one Internet joker put it, a truly contemporary crook, "a criminal we can all believe in"?
Jon Gould, director of the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University, has seen it all before: the American veneration of the bank robber. American folklore is replete with tales, real or fabricated, about thieves: Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, D.B. Cooper and more.
There's enough blame to go around, Gould said. He criticizes the FBI for giving catchy names to bank robbers (the agency says the names bring public attention and therefore tips and arrests).
Add the media's interest in quirky stories and Hollywood's celebration of bank robbers and you've got yourselves a full-blown American fascination, Gould said.
"He looks like a grandpa who couldn't hurt anybody," Gould said after perusing some Geezer Bandit photos. "To the media, he's warm and fuzzy, and he moved quickly into cult status."
The reality, of course, is not warm and fuzzy at all.
"What we have to keep in mind is that this guy is armed and dangerous," said FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth, spokesman for the San Diego office. "Those tellers have been victimized and are truly traumatized."
The Geezer Bandit approach is simple: Amble into a bank, flash a gun, demand money from a teller, get the cash and walk out.
He wears a hat and is stiff-shouldered and slightly hunched over, like either an actual old person or someone feigning age.
Descriptions of his height vary between several inches over 6 feet to several inches short of 6 feet. Sometimes his clothing seems racetrack natty, other times straight from a bargain store.
In most regards, San Diego is pretty strait-laced about crime and punishment, but it does occasionally fall for a bank robber.
The B.O. Bandit, given his name because of his aroma, and the Beer Belly Bandit, so named for his weight, never attracted much of a following; a Floppy Hat Bandit suspect was arrested before any buzz could be created. But the Grandpa Bandit, whose age made him unusual, got some of the same notice as the Geezer Bandit.
Possibly San Diego's most acclaimed bank robber was the A's Bandit of the early 1990s.
He wore an Oakland A's baseball cap during some of his robberies, inspiring a local journalist-songwriter-guitarist to pen "The Ballad of the A's Bandit," with the refrain, "He's the mild-mannered bank robber / Proving every day that crime pays."
Caught after 25 bank robberies, the A's Bandit, 22 when arrested, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. His life story, as revealed in a probation report, was a Dickensian tale of parental brutality and abandonment.
At an apparent pace of one a month, the Geezer Bandit may be due to strike again. His last robbery was in Temecula — his first outside San Diego County.
The Geezer Bandit has hit banks in the cities of Santee and Vista, the ritzy community of Rancho Santa Fe and several neighborhoods in San Diego. In all of the robberies, his image was caught on surveillance cameras.
At one of the heists, video shows him leaving the bank and heading down the street, in a kind of Chaplin-esque toddle.
Just how much money he has gotten is unknown. The FBI and banks won't say.
San Diego and Imperial counties are experiencing an uptick in bank robberies, but it's hard to pin down a trend.