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Cash and Carried Away

Two more men are being sought in the Aug. 6 slaying and robbery of an armored-car courier outside a bank in Hyattsville.

That is the most terrifying side of bank robbery -- the side that all the romance skips over. Fortunately, it is also rare.

"The seriousness of what I was doing started to hit me," says a now-imprisoned Calvin Adams, who robbed 17 area banks last year. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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These armed bandits who take over entire banks commit less than 10 percent of robberies, says the FBI. Only about a third of all bank robbers carry weapons, and in less than 2 percent of robberies is anyone injured. Deaths occur in two out of 1,000 bank robberies.

Unarmed note-passers like Adams are the most common. Also typical: The same day the courier was ambushed, a robber wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sports goggles tried to rob an Adams National Bank near 15th and K streets NW, but fled empty-handed. So he went around the corner to a Riggs Bank, where he passed a note to a teller and made off with $9,500.

Simple as that.

In his ode to Pretty Boy Floyd, hero of Dust Bowl farmers facing bank foreclosure (Floyd supposedly destroyed mortgage records in banks he robbed), Woody Guthrie sang that some men "will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen." In Guthrie's moral universe, bankers robbed people with a pen. Now the pen is the most popular weapon for people to rob banks.

Bank robbery is another one of the oldest professions, probably dating back 5,000 years to when Sumerian priests accepted deposits and made loans. Despite mighty leaps in security technology -- silent alarms, dye packs, bait money, digital security cameras, bulletproof teller cages, electronic trackers -- there's no end in sight.

The first recorded American bank robbery was in 1831. Edward Smith absconded with $245,000 from City Bank on Wall Street. He was caught and sentenced to five years hard labor in Sing Sing, but the bad guys didn't learn a lesson. Last year 7,451 banks got hit, according to the FBI.

In Washington last year there were 28 bank robberies, 30 in Montgomery County, 40 in Prince George's, 32 in Anne Arundel, six in Howard, 31 in Northern Virginia.

It's an archaic crime kept in style by desperation. Banks lose 10 times more money each year to check forgery than to bank robbery -- $700 million compared with $70 million. (Only about 20 percent of robbery proceeds is recovered.) But bank robbers aren't organized enough, or smart enough, to forge checks, practice credit card fraud or steal identities -- where the big money is. They're as literal-minded as plumbers, going directly to the source of instant cash.

They're as opportunistic as kudzu: In Davenport, Iowa, this month, while police had their hands full with simultaneous visits by President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry, three unrelated sets of robbers hit three banks in an hour. Davenport usually gets that many bank robberies in a year.

Even so, usually the take is not that great. The vision of emptying a vault is a Hollywood fantasy, a throwback to Willie Sutton. Today's vaults are virtually impregnable. The average haul per robbery is $4,763, according to the latest FBI figures.

Robbing a bank is like boarding a runaway train. Most robbers can't stop. They're driven by addiction to drugs, gambling, spending. The money always runs out -- and the train terminates in prison.

"They're going to get caught eventually," says Michael Ross, supervisory special agent of the violent crime squad in the FBI's Baltimore field office, responsible for Prince George's and Montgomery. Repetition is one reason bank robbery has one of the highest solution rates for any crime -- about 60 percent.

"The guy who's going to do well is the guy who does one, and that's it," Ross says.

William Rehder, a retired ace FBI bank robbery investigator, put it this way in his 2003 memoir, "Where the Money Is": "Sure, anyone with the IQ of a sprinklerhead and a minimum supply of luck can rob a bank or two and stand a good chance of getting away with it."

Looking around the country in recent years, you could be excused for thinking anyone can rob a bank.

Twin 14-year-old girls wearing masks and carrying a BB gun made off with $3,500 from a Sun National Bank near Toms River, N.J., two years ago. Their mother drove the getaway car. They wanted to save their house from foreclosure. The girls were sentenced to four years in juvenile detention, their mother got 15 years in prison and their stepfather got four.

An unarmed 43-year-old air traffic controller in San Francisco making $98,000 a year robbed six banks in 2000 and 2001 of about $40,000. He wanted to pay his debts and buy airline tickets so his children could visit him. He got four years.

An unarmed 44-year-old former horseback riding instructor in suburban New York, known as the Blond Bandit because of her wig disguise, was sentenced to four years in February for robbing six banks in two days of $42,000. She said she wanted to give to victims of Sept. 11, 2001.

Then there's the undisputed bank robbery champion -- the man who "robbed more banks than anyone else in the history of the world," in Rehder's words. The title goes to a former antiques dealer-to-the-stars in Los Angeles named Eddie Dodson.

Known as the Yankee Bandit -- he always wore shades and a Yankee ball cap -- Dodson needed to feed a ferocious heroin habit. He would walk into a bank with a fake gun and a leather satchel and mildly inform the teller, "You know what? This is a robbery." He robbed 64 banks in seven months for $280,000 in the early 1980s. Once he hit six banks in one day. He got caught when a teller followed him out and alerted police. After a stint in prison, he robbed eight more banks in four months for more than $32,000 in 1999. Agents tracked him to his needle-strewn motel room. He served three more years and died of liver failure a free man last year at 54.

Seventy-two banks: "No one else has ever come close to that record," Rehder writes with grudging respect, "nor do I expect anyone to."

The Money Grab

Calvin Adams is wearing matching khaki shirt and pants as he sits near a window in an empty community room of the medium-security federal prison in Cumberland, Md., his home for the last year and the next 10.

He's short and slim and looks younger than his 24 years. He speaks in a quiet, polite voice of his onetime dream of becoming "filthy rich."


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