Sunday, June 11, 2000

Bank heists soar from '99

City tops last year's final tally

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A recent string of bank robberies ranks Cincinnati third in heists among Ohio's major cities this year.

        And the Queen City is second only to Dayton in pace, with robbers in less than six months sending the number over last year's total. That's contrary to Cleveland and Akron, where fewer robberies have taken place this year than as of this time in 1999.

        “It's just sheer luck,” said Tom Campbell, an agent in the FBI's Akron office. “It depends on where they go.”

        Several cities around the country are experiencing dramatic rises this year in heists. The spikes are occurring despite a steady decline nationally in the federal crime.

        Cincinnati-area investigators were working eight bank robbery cases this time last year. Now, they have 33, more than the 28 they investigated in all of 1999. Cincinnati's lowest number in recent years was nine, in 1994. Authorities have made arrests in seven of this year's robberies.

        Officials in Dayton were concerned enough to organize a task force to target all armed robberies after noticing that many of the bank robbers were hitting other establishments, too, said Cincinnati FBI spokesman Ed Boldt.

        Robbers have hit 45 banks there in 2000, up from 34 this time last year. In Columbus, where totals usually surpass those of Dayton and Cincinnati, the current number is 37, compared with 48 for the same time period in 1999. Cleveland is down, too — 25 so far, compared with 35 for same time last year and 106 for all of last year and 71 in 1998.

        That's a far cry from the figures in places such as Los Angeles, which is again living up to its reputation as the nation's bank robbery capital. After years of declining numbers, robbers there this year had hit 267 times as of the end of May — almost a 20 percent increase over the 229 this time last year.

        “But it's not to say that by the end of the year, it won't level out,” said Cheryl Mimura, spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles. “We hope it does.”

        Until now, the city experienced declines since 1992, when robbers hit 2,641 times. Last year's number was 639.

        Investigators in Dallas are busy, too: 71 so far this year, compared with 83 in all of 1999.

        Among officials' theories for the increases: more drug abuse, leaving more robbers with habits to feed; and pat terns in investigative work.

        “What you see with bank robberies is that they do it over and over again until they're caught,” said Robert Hawk, spokesman for the FBI in Cleveland. “We saw a big decline in 1997 because we caught a lot of people in 1996.”

        Los Angeles agents offer another idea. Ms. Mimura said many robbers arrested years ago are beginning to get out of prison, only to rob again.

        The one factor backed by FBI statistics is drugs. Of the more than 5,800 robbers identified in 1998 robberies nationally, 49 percent of them were determined to be narcotics users. Fewer than 1 percent had been previously convicted of bank robbery.

        Financial institutions in the United States were robbed almost 8,000 times in 1998, the latest year for which complete FBI figures are available. That's down from 8,420 the year before and 8,383 in 1996. The decline began in 1992.

        Nothing was taken in 659 of the 1998 incidents. In the others, however, the institutions lost almost $80 million worth of property, virtually all cash or checks. Investigators recovered at least some of the stolen loot in 1,542 of the heists, for a total of $17.6 million.

        Bank experts constantly re-evaluate security systems, said Paul Bresson, spokesman at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. He said some financial institutions are switching from surveillance video to film — a more expensive alternative, but one that offers better-quality pictures.

        Ohio led the region in bank robberies in 1998, with 329. Numbers in Kentucky and Indiana were significantly lower, 83 and 93, respectively.

        No Northern Kentucky institutions have been robbed this year. The last heist there took place in November. The FBI there, however, is trying to track Average Joe, the man blamed for 17 robberies in Greater Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington since February 1998.

        • The robbers: Disguises make it impossible for the FBI to know the race and gender of all 10,000 robbers in the nearly 8,000 heists that took place across the country in 1998. But in the ones where descriptions were possible, more than 9,000 were men and more than 500 were women.

        • The motive: Agents were able to identify more than 5,800 of the robbers involved. Of those, almost half were determined to be drug users. Fewer than 1 percent had previous convictions for bank offenses.

        • The customers: Seventy-one were taken hostage during the 1998 heists. Thirty were hurt, none killed. The robberies were most dangerous for the perpetrators — 23 died.

        • The timing: The most popular robbery day and time: Friday between 9 and 11 a.m. Source: FBI


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