In Birmingham, Mich., No Explanation for Rash of Bank Robberies

A day after Birmingham's third bank robbery in a week, holiday shoppers strolled the suburb's sidewalks, past the snow-covered park where children pose for pictures with Santa, the lampposts adorned with freshly cut garland and boutique windows decorated for the holidays.

Normally, Birmingham Police Chief Richard Patterson said Wednesday, officers are chasing shoplifters, not bank robbers.

But this year, criminals are robbing banks in Michigan in record-high numbers.

"I don't know what drew the robbers to Birmingham," said Kevin Krue, the 43-year-old manager of Graziella Ltd., a boutique for linens, china, crystal and other expensive gifts. "Maybe they think of Birmingham as more of a relaxed atmosphere. Here, the banks don't have teller windows that are made of 2-inch-thick Plexiglas."

At his bank, just down the street, he said, the tellers know him by name.

Patterson said he does not know why Birmingham has become a target for bank robbers.

"Maybe they think that they'll score it big," he said.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 441 bank robberies in Michigan -- the most in the state since the FBI began tracking them, said FBI special agent Terry Booth. The previous record, set in 1996, was 356 bank robberies. Last year, there were 265. Only one other state has had more bank robberies this year, California with 848.

Booth said he doesn't know why there have been so many bank robberies in Michigan this year. Wayne County had 219 bank robberies; Oakland County, 52, and Macomb, 23.

Booth speculated that the bank robbers may have a drug or gambling problem and need the money to support their habit. They keep robbing banks until they get caught, he said, and 50 to 70 percent of them do.

Birmingham police said they caught both men who tried to rob banks there.

On Dec. 8, after a four-hour standoff, police arrested a 32-year-old Birmingham man who police said robbed two Birmingham bank branches, Fidelity Bank and Charter One, by saying he had a gun. Faran Graham is scheduled for a preliminary exam today in 48 District Court in Bloomfield Hills.

Graham was charged with two counts of armed robbery and faces a maximum of life in prison, if convicted.

On Tuesday, less than three blocks from Santa's North Pole field office, police said, a 42-year-old Clarkston man robbed the Comerica Bank branch. Police said Blake C. Williams slipped a teller a note threatening to set off a "small but nasty bomb." An employee tripped a silent alarm, and within minutes, police had Williams in handcuffs.

The incident caused a ruckus, forcing the evacuation of surrounding businesses, including the Uptown Palladium 12 theater.

Police said Williams admitted to robbing four other suburban bank branches and is expected to face federal bank robbery charges.

In addition, police said, a man in a blue ski mask with a gun recently has robbed two Birmingham restaurants -- 220 Merrill and Bakers Square -- stealing thousands of dollars. Bakers Square was robbed just before midnight Sunday and 220 Merrill was robbed at about 12:45 a.m. Nov. 30. The suspect, police said, is still on the loose.

It's not that bank robberies don't happen here, said Patterson, who has been on the city's police force for 37 years. A bank branch might get knocked over every two years or so, he said; but for three to get hit by two robbers within days of each other is highly unusual.

Store managers and shoppers said the recent crimes weren't going to stop Christmas celebrations.

"It don't think the incidents are going to keep anyone away," said Debbie Vail, the manager of Adventures in Toys in Birmingham, as she wrapped a toy for a customer in a fur coat. "People come here for the service and hard-to-find toys. We've been very, very busy."

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