A boom in bank robberies, many of them fueled by criminals in search of money for drugs, is alarming law-enforcement officials across the nation.
After declining a couple of years ago, robberies in the U.S. are on the rise again, according to the FBI, and two recent violent cases prove just how dangerous those crimes can be.
In Bessemer, Ala., a bank robbery in mid-May erupted in gunfire, leaving two tellers dead and two injured. A week later, in Chicago, three armed robbers stormed another bank, killing one teller, and injuring a customer and a security guard.
"These poor tellers, and these people who are employees of the bank, they're really risking their lives out there," says Ray Velboom, a retired supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Velboom led the police task force that captured the so-called Band-Aid Bandit last year. Authorities said he was responsible for 39 bank robberies in Florida, and two attempts. The prolific robber earned his nickname by wearing a bandage on his face to cover a mole. Some of the Band-Aid Bandit's victims testified that while he didn't hurt anyone physically, he terrified people when he, and sometimes an accomplice, pointed a gun at them and forced some onto the floor.
Recounting their testimony, Velboom says the overwhelming fear was, "I thought I was gonna die."
Some regions hard-hit
FBI statistics show bank robberies rose nearly 4 percent in 2006 to 6,985, the equivalent of one heist every hour and 15 minutes. That compares with 6,748 in 2005. Authorities said this year's numbers appear to be climbing even higher, with some areas hit particularly hard.
"There's been pockets; there's certain cities like Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and Boston," says FBI Assistant Director Kenneth Kaiser.
In the Tampa, Fla., area, Hillsborough County had 17 bank robberies last year; this year, it already has had nearly 50 percent more.
Maj. Harold Winsett, who heads the Criminal Investigations Division of the county sheriff's office, says he worries that with the higher number of robberies, the chances of someone getting hurt also increases.
"They become more brazen, the tendency to become more violent is there, because they get cocky, they get confident in what they're doing," Winsett says. "When someone gets captured or confronted in a bank, that scenario turns violent very quickly."
Reasons for robberies
Driving his unmarked police car around the Tampa area, veteran Hillsborough County Detective Ron Noland points out several bank branches that have been struck by robbers. Some suspects have told him they were feeling desperate during tough economic times, he says. "They lost their jobs, you know, they gotta support a family. They need the money, can't find a job."
Authorities say the primary reason bank robbers strike, however, is to support addictions — to drugs, alcohol or gambling.
"Fifty percent of them have a drug addiction problem," says the FBI's Kaiser. "Normally after the robbery, we only recover about 20 percent of the money."
Adds Winsett: "The money's gone shortly after they leave the bank, because they're spending it on drugs or some other type of habit. They're not savers. They don't take from one (bank), and go deposit it in another."
According to the FBI, of the $70 million taken from banks last year, only $9.5 million has been recovered.
Most get caught
Police say most bank robbers are eventually apprehended, even though the money they took usually slips away.
"When they commit multiple robberies, the odds of catching them are increasing every time," says Kaiser.
In the robbery section at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, detective are working to catch a serial robber they have dubbed the Knife Bandit. Examining a security camera photo of the robber brandishing a big knife in front of a teller, detective Tony Palladini explains how the crime is usually committed — with a knife hidden in a black-colored notebook planner.
"He opens it up and that knife is laying in the planner, and he'll demand the money," he says.
Police say they are working hard to catch the Knife Bandit before someone gets hurt.
Authorities urge customers and tellers who find themselves confronted by a bank robber to cooperate fully, and to allow the robber to leave the bank as quickly as possible, reducing the chance of violence. At most, experts urge victims to remember the robber's appearance and actions.
Asked why they think there are so many bank robberies, police say one factor may be the increased number of branch banks around the country.
"Banks are on every corner to be a convenience for the people that deposit their money there," said Winsett. "Well, it makes it just as convenient for the bank robber."