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Cash and Carried Away

That time the teller was a large man -- male tellers are rare -- and Adams could feel him sizing up the relatively scrawny bank robber. The teller came around the counter and grabbed him, but Adams threw a few punches and got away.

Most tellers were scared. Adams tried not to think about the effect he was having on them. Near the end of his spree, one teller, after reading his note, started shaking violently as if she were having a seizure. Adams was shocked.

"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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"The seriousness of what I was doing started to hit me," he says. But still: "I wouldn't expect for them to be terrified of me, because I didn't show them a bomb or 20 guns or told everybody to lay down. I just showed them a note, you know."

A note threatening that bodies would start dropping.

One of the tellers later wrote to the federal judge overseeing Adams's case: "Sometimes at night I have dreams about the robbery. These dreams disturb my sleep. My behavior at work has been seriously affected."

"I feel sorry for her," Adams says.

The FBI began circulating images from bank surveillance cameras, and one day Adams got a call from a friend.

"Man, I seen you on TV."

Adams took refuge in an apartment on Benning Road NE. He says he told only one person where he was.

March 12, the day after his last robbery: FBI agents are pounding on the door . . .

Adams quickly confessed.

"They knew it was me, ain't no need to go all around the bush with it," he says.

Financial Security

A man in jeans, T-shirt and vest, with a goatee and sunglasses, walks up to the teller window. His right hand is jammed in the pocket of his vest, as if he might have a gun. He pushes across a note.

The teller looks terrified. She starts stacking up cash.

Suddenly a man in a suit steps forward: He is the narrator of this teller training video. We have been watching a dramatization of a robbery. A few minutes before, the scene was a mock takeover robbery.

Either way, the narrator's advice to bank employees is the same:

"The first thing you must do is stay calm. The whole thing will be over in a matter of seconds. Most robbers will indicate precisely what they want you to do using a note, verbal instructions, or gesture.

"Do exactly as you are instructed -- nothing more, nothing less."

This is why robbers like Calvin Adams can be so successful, for a while. Industry-wide, the message to most bank employees is: Cooperate.

"Do not scream, faint or do anything else that will prevent you from carrying out the robbers' instructions or that will call attention to yourself or to the robbery," says the narrator in the video, distributed by the National Association for Bank Security in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Do not try to be a hero."

This policy is in the best interest of employees and customers, say industry representatives.

"Because of safety reasons, bank employees aren't supposed to catch criminals," says John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Association.

Robbers exploit the paradoxical purpose of a bank: Keep the money secure and the people safe -- yet maintain a friendly and open retail environment. Banks could redesign themselves as fortresses, with no contact with tellers except by video -- but that might deter more customers than robbers.

Much of a bank's security technology is geared toward apprehension, not prevention.

Silent alarms: Tellers can push them to summon police. Calvin Adams knew all about those and didn't care. He figured it would take police a few minutes to respond, and he'd be gone in 30 or 40 seconds.

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