Mar. 11--When bank employees noticed two suspicious men outside in a car last week, they didn't waste time wondering whether they were up to something. They wrote down the license plate number and got ready to call police.
It might sound presumptuous, but the downtown Fort Worth Bank of America had been robbed twice since late December. And it was probably not the only bank where workers were feeling antsy.
The Tarrant County FBI office has investigated 44 bank robberies this fiscal year, which began in October. Last fiscal year, the Tarrant County region had 33 robberies.
During a three-week period last month, banks were robbed in Fort Worth, White Settlement, Keller, Haltom City and North Richland Hills.
"We've had a flurry, no doubt about it," said Dale Ensley, special agent for the FBI's Fort Worth-area Safe Streets Task Force. "These things usually seem to come in cycles. You can't predict them."
But, he said, there is reason for optimism.
The Bank of America employees' intuition was right. After robbing the bank, the two men were quickly arrested. They are suspects in two other recent robberies, including one at the same branch.
Also last week, police arrested a man suspected of being "The Consistent Bandit," believed to be responsible for at least four Tarrant County bank heists, as well as one attempted robbery. He is also a suspect in several out-of-state bank robberies.
"The way these things work, you often have individuals responsible for a series of robberies," Ensley said. "It makes it seem like there are all these different robbers out there, when actually you might have one or two serial robbers.
"They'll keep robbing them until they get caught. We think the arrests will slow things down."
'They think it's easy'
This isn't the old days, when a city had a few large banks that handled residents' money.
Tarrant County has 29 banks with about 265 branches, according to the Texas Bankers Association. They are scattered in downtowns, in the suburbs, in strip malls and in grocery stores.
But the proliferation of bank branches probably isn't the biggest thing encouraging bank robberies, said Buck Revell, a former FBI agent who headed the Dallas division from 1991 to 1994 and now owns a private security consulting company.
"They think it's easy," he said. Most bank tellers are trained to comply with threats, he said. A lone robber can quietly walk up to a teller and pass a note making a threat and demanding money. Few banks employ armed guards anymore.
"It's for good reason," Revell said. "They don't want to put their employees or their clients in a situation where there is an armed confrontation."
In many recent heists, the robbers implied that they had weapons but did not show them.
At least one didn't even get out of his car.
Last fall, a man robbed a bank by passing a note through the drive-up window. He tried again a week later, but the teller dropped to the floor and hit the alarm. The robber honked his horn and argued briefly with the bank's manager over an intercom before fleeing.
The Consistent Bandit, after being thwarted by a teller in Haltom City, committed a successful robbery the next day in Fort Worth.
Ensley said bank robberies are often unplanned and committed by drug users desperate for quick money.
"It's a spur-of-the-moment deal," he said. "Professional bank robbers are rare; we've dealt with them. But the most are committed by people who haven't put a lot of thought into it."