How the FBI names, nabs serial bank robbers
When it comes to catching bank robbers, an FBI expert says, technology often takes a back seat to more traditional "gumshoe" investigative techniques.
Special Agent Garrett Croon, former coordinator of the bureau's bank robbery division, says that approach helped lead to the recent arrest of a 40-year-old Glendale Heights man, Joseph David, who is charged with the Sept. 26 armed robbery of West Suburban Bank in Warrenville. Authorities say two other bank jobs -- in Glendale Heights on July 29 and in Carol Stream on Aug. 23 -- had similar characteristics.
Croon recently sat down with the Daily Herald to talk about how the FBI pursues suspected bank robbers, what it tells bank employees about dealing with robberies and how it comes up with some of the nicknames it gives to bandits.
Q. How does the FBI determine if the thief is a serial offender or a one-timer?
A. We're always in an analytical phase. We're always trying to predict the next bank robbery. Where is this serial offender going to strike next?
We're searching for a guy now that we call the Midday Bandit, because he robs banks in the middle of the day. We're always in a phase of analyzing and trying to determine which banks will be robbed next by the serial offender.
Q. How do you track a serial bank robber?
A. It's based on years of investigative experience. The FBI Violent Crime task force houses seasoned investigators. So it helps in determining who we believe is responsible for multiple bank robberies, and that's done by the investigative work while at the bank.
We conduct employee interviews, analyze evidence and do the gumshoe work. Sometimes you're able to attribute more bank robberies to a lone offender only because the modus operandi is consistent with past robberies. I've had cases where we will attribute a number of robberies to one suspect and then learn months later, after we get our evidence back from Quantico, Virginia, after DNA testing or fingerprint testing, that other bank robberies can be attributed to this robber. So it works both ways.
Q. When you walk into a bank after a robbery, what are you looking for?
A. Typically, local police are first on the scene. When we arrive, the FBI conducts interviews, assesses the situation, and then it's up to us: Do we believe this offender is responsible for other robberies?
We're always looking for something to tell the public to be on the lookout for. If a robber's got something distinguishable, we try to get something to the public.
Q. What is the most important thing tellers should do during a robbery?
A. I tell employees to look for something that stands out on the offender that we can get to the press to get their assistance in locating that person. And it's not necessarily something the suspect can easily remove. Is he missing an ear? Does he have a freckle somewhere? Does he have a mark on his face? Something on his hands? Something distinguishable like that will not only lead to that suspect's arrest but also a conviction down the road, because I can stand in front of a judge and raise my right my hand and say, "Your Honor, he's the bank robber and here's why."
Q. What else should bank employees do to remain safe?
A. I've always taught employees to do what they can to get the suspect out of the bank as quickly as possible. All we ask, from the law enforcement perspective, is to be a good witness. Look for those things that stand out. If a bank robber says "I have a weapon" or if a bank robber shows you a weapon, you're going to treat it the same way. Give them the cash and get them out the door.
Q. Do most serial robbers use a disguise?
A. It's not just law enforcement and the media that go to bandittrackerchicago.com. I've interviewed suspects who told me they go to the website and look at themselves. They know, "Hey, maybe I should change my appearance." Many times they don't wear a disguise. One guy was really upset not to be the featured robber on the website. I told him we reserve that for people we're really searching for.
Q. What's the difference between a takeover robbery and a nontakeover robbery?
A. A takeover robbery is just that. A bad guy or a suspect enters the bank showing weapons so everybody knows the bank is being robbed. It's sometimes loud and very scary. And it can lead to the vault and a lot of money being out the door. A nontakeover bank robbery is quiet. Typically only the teller knows the bank has been robbed, and the other employees don't even know there's been a robbery. Nontakeover robberies are responsible for 91 percent to 93 percent of robberies.
Q. What reasons do suspects give you for robbing banks?
A. Every robber has their own, and I can sum it up as: Drugs, alcohol or gambling.
Q. How do you come up with robbers' nicknames?
A. It's a collaborative effort, and it's not scientific. It's the violent crimes agents coming together to come up with a decent nickname to reflect the actions of the bank robber. It's guys sitting around, drinking coffee and thinking about it. Years ago, I made the mistake of nicknaming a guy the Citibank Bandit after he hit three Citibanks in a row. The next week he robbed a US Bank.
Q. Speaking of nicknames, the most well-known local bank robber, the Wheaton Bandit (suspected in at least 16 suburban bank robberies from January 2002 to December 2006) remains at large. Are you still tracking him?
A. Always. We're always looking for a prolific, well-known suspect like him. But each FBI office has a robber or two always on their radar because of the acts they committed.