Monday, October 18, 2004

'Gentleman' bank robber defied police


43 holdups, six states - and a 21-year sentence

By Andrew Wolfson
The Courier-Journal

THE SERIES
Day 1: 'Gentleman' bank robber defied police
Day 2: More holdups feed confidence, bravado
Day 3: At moment of capture, robber showed pride
The first time David Brankle robbed a bank, he was so nervous and ill-prepared that he had to stuff handfuls of cash into his jacket because he forgot to bring a bag.

"I didn't have much finesse," he would later say. "I wasn't very good."

By the time he robbed his 27th bank, Brankle said, he was giving advice to a teller.

"I've never done one of these before," she told him. "What do I do?"

"Well, you give me all your money, and I put it in this bag, and then I leave," Brankle replied.

Part-time developer and self-admitted con man, Brankle always had ideas for striking it rich. But by the spring of 2002, all had failed or were failing.

So he began robbing banks. A lot of banks.

In a 20-month spree that ended just before Christmas 2003, Brankle held up 43 of them in six states.

He hit seven banks in the Cincinnati area and 11 in Kentucky, including one in Fort Wright. He hit eight times in Indiana.

Police dubbed him the Interstate Bank Mart bandit, reflecting his penchant for robbing banks inside supermarkets and near interstate highways.

Downloading escape routes from the Internet and casing banks weeks in advance, Brankle took in so much cash - $175,141 - that he got sick of counting it and even asked a teller during one heist where he could buy a counting machine like one in the bank.

"It's filthy, dirty crap," he would complain later to police about the loot. "Your hands are black ... and you're never sure of the count."

Map
He had no experience and only one criminal conviction, a misdemeanor, but would become one of America's most prolific bank robbers, eluding 52 police agencies - none of which ever identified him by name or caught him in the act.

"What made this guy so special was how cool and calm he was," said Louisville Metro Police Detective Larry Duncan, who led the hunt after determining that a serial bank robber was at work.

"This was a serious holdup man who ... wanted to get in and out as fast as he could," Duncan said. "He walked to his car, he didn't run. He quietly drove away. He didn't peel out."

Brankle, 48, was apprehended last New Year's Eve in Vincennes, Ind., two days after he'd fled from a Bloomington police officer who'd stopped him for a traffic violation.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced last monthin U.S District Court in Cincinnati to 21 years in prison for robbing banks in 10 federal jurisdictions and for using a gun while carjacking the vehicle he used in most of the holdups: an $80,000 BMW he took during a test drive in Louisville.

Brankle, who described himself as a "gentleman bandit," claimed he never carried a gun and walked away from banks if Girl Scouts were selling cookies nearby.

But police say they believe he was armed and that the only reason he didn't hurt anybody was that he didn't have to.

And while no one was killed or injured during Brankle's heists, police say, there were many victims -including dozens of tellers who were traumatized. An innocent Louisville man also was arrested and wrongly charged with four of Brankle's robberies.

After being arrested, Brankle gave a videotaped statement to detectives that spanned three days and filled 481 pages. He also talked to a reporter for five hours about a double life in which he spent part of each week with his third wife and son, and the rest with a girlfriend, who police say became his accomplice, although she has not been charged.

Brankle said he always intended to tell all if he were caught because of his respect for Duncan and two other lawmen who hunted for him, including a Blue Ash detective.

"This is the way I've always looked at it - this is a situation between gentlemen," he said to his captors. "There's a gentleman on the good side of the law, and there is a gentleman on the other side of the law. Now when the game, if ever, is over, and we're sitting and talking to each other, you know, 'Jolly good show, ol' chap, you did well and what do you want to know?' "

Lies and mysteries

Brankle grew up in a middle-class Indianapolis neighborhood worshipping the Sunday night television drama, The FBI.

His father, an engineer, sold steel. His mother stayed home when he was a child, then returned to the workplace - as a teller and later an officer at a bank.

He went to Indiana University in 1975, where he took two classes in forensic criminology. He dropped out after getting the woman who would become his first wife pregnant.

Two divorces followed. He met his third wife, Kim, at an Indianapolis health club where they both worked out. "She was the human definition of eye candy - tall, built and dazzling," he remembered.

Kim said David Brankle was always something of a mystery. For a long time, for instance, she didn't know where he lived. He also told her several things she found out later weren't true - that he had graduated from IU; that he had been a Navy Seal; that his grandfather was a millionaire owner of a piston manufacturing company.

"It always bothered me," she said. "Why would the person married to you make these things up?"

Brankle, who was by then in his 30s, made good money selling garage-door openers after they wed, but most of his ventures failed. The couple frequently had to borrow money from their parents.

Kim said David forced her into bankruptcy when a restaurant he'd bought with advances on her credit card failed. The couple's finances plummeted further when Kim quit her job in 1998 to care for their only child.

Later that year, Brankle was found in contempt of court and briefly jailed in a civil suit over failure to pay for his son's prenatal care and delivery. The family moved from house to house as landlords came after them for not paying rent.

Over Christmas dinner in 2001, Brankle's in-laws charged that he was a deadbeat and threatened to finance Kim in a divorce. "They told me I was good for nothing," Brankle said, adding that he was devastated and embarrassed.

A stolen BMW

On March 20, 2002 - broke after another failed scheme and desperate for transportation after totaling his car - Brankle purchased a $20 bus ticket to Louisville, walked from the Greyhound station to the Seelbach Hilton Hotel. He asked the concierge to hail him a cab to an areaBMW dealership.

He told the manager there that his wife's "Beamer" had broken down and that it would be towed in shortly. In the meantime, he said, he'd like to shop for another BMW.

Brankle and a salesman, Jeff Bricker, headed out Interstate 64 on a test drive of a 1999 740iL. Brankle asked to look at the salesman's cell phone, then jerked the car to the side of the road, pulled a gun and told Bricker to get out.

Bricker, left stranded on the side of the interstate as night fell, was unable to call for help. He also had neglected to make a copy of Brankle's driver's license.

The dealership reported the BMW stolen, but police never entered it into a database as stolen.

At home, Brankle explained to Kim that the BMW was a company car provided by the Mafia. He'd told her before they married that he had mob connections, Kim said, and his use of aliases and fake Social Security numbers over the years seemed to back that up.

"He told me he had been moved up to a higher position in the Mafia family," Kim said. "And that's what I thought he did until the day he was caught."

First test on familiar turf

Brankle, who now had a car, but still no money, said he knew that "if I didn't pay the bills, I lose my son."

So he began planning a bank robbery.

For his first, he returned to his roots - a northeast Indianapolis neighborhood he knew well.

He'd played Little League baseball in Lawrence Community Park, across the street from the Marsh Supermarket that houses the Union Federal bank branch.

On April 24, 2002, after walking the streets of Indianapolis for five days, he said, he entered the bank wearing a red ball cap and sunglasses. He carried a demand note he'd typed at home on his computer.

After the robbery, which netted $3,585, he was so shook up that he drove two miles, got out of the BMW and threw up.

A few nights later, he and his son were in their living room feeding five abandoned kittens, he said, when television news showed a surveillance photo from the robbery. He was sure police soon would knock on his door.

"I nearly lost my mind," he said. "I figured that if I know that that's me, everybody else knew that was me."

But the police didn't show.

It was a test case, and Brankle had passed the test.

'So much information'

Brankle learned to be a bank robber, he says, by robbing banks.

"There aren't any books in the library to tell you how to be a bank robber."

But there is plenty of available reference material.

Brankle said he used the Internet to identify his targets, cross-referencing lists of banks with lists of supermarkets to pinpoint those inside stores. He studied real-estate listings to identify affluent neighborhoods less likely to have extra bank security. He downloaded maps and aerial photographs to plan escape routes.

"There is so much information out there you can use!" he said in a statement to police.

After each robbery, Brankle recorded elaborate notes, critiquing his performance, noting anything odd about the heist and listing the precise amount of his take.

"It was better than an accountant would keep," he bragged.

Rob a bank, watch soccer

It was at this time, Brankle said, that he met the love of his life at Night Moves, a Bloomington, Ind., topless bar. Dona Jo Hewins worked there as a waitress and dancer. "I was one of her nicer customers," Brankle said.

He said he told Hewins he was divorced and soon moved in part time with her and her children, a son about the same age as his, and a teenage daughter.

With proceeds from his robberies, Brankle said, he helped Hewins pay rent and tuition for her son, while giving his wife $100 a week.

Brankle said he played a dizzying set of roles.

"One day I'd be robbing a bank and the next I'd be in my son's kindergarten class teaching math or going to Dona's daughter's soccer game," he said in an interview.

The wrong man

On Sept. 3, 2002, Brankle pulled off his fifth holdup, this time at a Kroger store in St. Matthews, just outside Louisville. Working behind the counter at Fifth Third Bank was teller Lorri Joiner, who gave Brankle $2,000. Joiner said she was so frightened that it was a week before she felt safe enough to go back to work. She was convinced that the robber would return.

And that is exactly what she thought happened three weeks later. Spotting a man she thought was the robber lurking by the salad bar, she called the St. Matthews Police Department, which dispatched Detective Larry Alvey.

By the time Alvey got to the store, the man who Joiner thought was the robber had left. But the Kroger surveillance camera had captured his image standing in the grocery line, and Alvey pulled the man's name from the credit card he'd used to buy lunch.

Alvey took the picture that day to Joiner, and to other tellers who worked at US Bank branches that had been robbed. All identified the man -Troy A. Rufra - as the robber.

Rufra, a 30-year-old financial adviser for an American Express franchise, was arrested on Sept. 25, 2002, the day after Joiner said she saw him.

Facing 60 years in prison, Rufra feared his career was shot. As his lawyer put it at the time, "Who wants to invest their money with somebody accused of robbing banks?"

'A flippin' holdup'

Hitting his seventh bank, on Oct. 5, 2002, in Hamilton County, , Brankle came up against the first teller who tried to keep him around long enough for the police to arrive.

"Let me get you an envelope,'" he recalls her saying before she started counting bills from a stack of fifties.

"She tells me, 'Let's make this seem real,' " Brankle said in his statement to police. "And I'm looking at her going, 'It's not real, this is a flippin' holdup. I'll just take what you have and trust your counting.' "

That teller was the only one to report seeing Brankle carrying a gun.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 11, 2002, Brankle struck again, this time at a Winn Dixie on Dixie Highway in Jefferson County, Ky.

He had forgotten his computer-generated demand note, as well as the floppy disk he would take to Kinko's when he needed to print a new one. He was forced, for the only time, to write his note by hand.

This robbery also was the first that brought him head to head against then-Jefferson County Police Detective Larry Duncan, who would chase him for the next year.

Duncan, then 44, had specialized in robbery for 11 of his 15 years on the force. He loved to try to get inside the heads of bank robbers, to identify patterns, to try to figure out where and when they will hit again.

Determined to catch Rufra in the act, or clear him, Duncan sent a squad car to Rufra's house immediately after the Dixie Highway robbery, hoping to nab him as he showed up with the money. But Rufra didn't come home that night.

When Duncan showed a photo pack that included Rufra's mug to the teller and a grocery clerk who watched the robber flee, neither picked out Rufra. They said the robber was grayer, older. Duncan began to suspect that St. Matthews and Jeffersonville might have the wrong guy.

Brankle is 16 years older than Rufraand four inches shorter.

Duncan, meanwhile, had been surfing police Web sites for similar crimes and stumbled across a bank job in Hamilton County that seemed eerily like the one on Dixie Highway.

The demand notes, for example, were practically identical, although the Dixie Highway note was handwritten and one in Hamilton County was typed. Both had distinctive spaces between the demands -and both had no punctuation marks:

THIS IS A HOLDUP, I HAVE A GUN, BILLS ONLY, BOTH DRAWERS, NO BAIT MONEY, NO JUNK MONEY, NO ALARMS

Duncan figured that Rufra either was expanding his turf or wasn't the perpetrator. The detective decided on the latter.

Rufra had an alibi for the Dixie Highway robbery. Five witnesses, including the bartender, vouched that he was at R Place Pub in Lyndon, 18 miles away, at the time. Rufra also produced a credit card receipt showing he paid his tab at 5:54 p.m. - nine minutes after the robbery. Duncan concluded there was no way Rufra could have pulled off the heist and gotten across the county in that time.

Duncan said he knew then that police had a serial bank robber on their hands - and it wasn't Rufra.




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