In Fort Worth Area, Bank Robbers Busy, But Few Escaping the Law

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."

If they did, they might realize that they're probably going to get caught.

Candid cameras

Surveillance photos of the Consistent Bandit were all over the newspaper and TV news. They were good pictures -- in one his sunglasses were pushed back on his head, keeping his hair away from his face.

He was arrested after a Haltom City police officer spotted him driving one afternoon.

Most bank robbers wind up in a jail cell -- especially in Tarrant County.

In fiscal 2005, the Fort Worth-area task force cleared 73 percent of bank robberies, Ensley said.

One reason the crimes are solvable is improved surveillance cameras. High-quality digital photos are often available immediately after a robbery and are so clear that they almost resemble yearbook photos.

"We're getting better and better images of people robbing banks," said Lori Bailey, spokeswoman for the Dallas FBI. "The equipment has improved and that can only help us."

The tellers are aware of this. One at a bank known for good surveillance photos said she always makes sure the back of her hair is fixed nicely because it shows up in images of the robber released to the media.

Texas banks post photos of robbers on a members-only Web site to alert one another about whom to look out for, said Olivia Solis, communications director for the Texas Bankers Association. They also post pictures of people who pass bad checks or commit fraud.

"The photos are really good," she said. "There is also a really good training program for tellers to learn exactly what they should do during a robbery."

The photos are usually the robbers' downfall, Ensley said. They are most commonly caught when a relative or friend sees the image and calls police, Ensley said.

"Someone almost always recognizes them," he said. "That's why they usually don't get away with it."

Those who don't can face decades in prison, depending on how many banks they robbed and whether they used a weapon.

And in the federal prison system, there is no such thing as parole.

(Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth) (KRT) -- 03/13/06)

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