By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005
When it comes to multitasking, it's hard to beat the woman who can rob a bank and never interrupt her cell phone conversation.
In an act of either incredible cool or something much more sinister, a young woman has robbed four Wachovia bank branches in Northern Virginia in recent weeks, all while seemingly immersed in cell phone chats, police say. In the most recent holdup, on Nov. 4 in Ashburn, video footage shows the woman to be almost uninterested as a teller hands her a stack of cash, and she continues talking on her phone as she turns and walks out of the bank.
"This is the first time that I can recall where we've had a crime committed while the person was using a cell phone," said Loudoun County sheriff's spokesman Kraig Troxell, echoing comments by officials from other law enforcement agencies. "The question would be whether anyone is on the other end of the line or not."
The cell phone bandit first struck in Vienna on Oct. 12. A woman in her twenties with dark hair, about 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 120 to 130 pounds, walked in carrying a box and talking on a cell phone. She moved directly to the teller counter and displayed the shoebox-size box, which had a note taped on it demanding cash. Police would not disclose the wording of the note.
As in the other cases, the robber exchanged few or no words with the teller, because she apparently was busy talking to someone else. She scooped up the cash, started walking and kept talking.
In the most recent robbery, however, there was a twist, Troxell said: a gun.
During her brief visit to the Wachovia branch at 43780 Parkhurst Plaza in Ashburn, the woman carried a purse and simply opened it up, showing the gun to the teller about 5:30 p.m., Troxell said. Then she handed over a note demanding cash, with the cell phone still firmly attached to her ear, Troxell said.
The tellers have not been able to hear much of the conversations, police said. Troxell said the chat from the robber's end on Nov. 4 was mainly a bunch of "okays."
About 3:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Wachovia branch at 7030 Old Keene Mill Rd. in Springfield, the woman did speak briefly to the teller, Fairfax County police spokeswoman Mary Mulrenan said. "She was well-spoken, in English, with a light Hispanic accent," she said.
It appeared to witnesses that there was someone on the other end of the robber's line that day, Mulrenan said. "The huge leap that we're making," she said, "is that she's talking to somebody that knows what's going on, possibly a lookout." Mulrenan said the robber was "speaking on the cell phone the whole time that she's robbing the bank."
If she's not conversing with a co-conspirator, investigators have theorized, she could just be using the phone as a prop. "Is she talking to someone," Troxell said, "or using it to make herself look less noticeable or nonchalant as she approaches the teller?" Some might argue that people who stay on a cell phone throughout a bank transaction tend to draw attention to themselves.
Fred Desroches, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, interviewed 80 bank robbers for a book on the subject. He categorized robbers as either aggressive or covert, and because the cell phone robber falls into the latter category, he doubted she was talking to a co-conspirator. "You don't really need a partner" to quietly rob a bank, Desroches said, "you don't get that much money, and then you have to split it."
He theorized that "maybe because she's a woman, she feels less secure physically, and by talking to somebody, it makes her feel secure." Or, Desroches added, "maybe she's talking to her mother."
In Fairfax County, she became the county's third female bank robber in 12 heists this year, Mulrenan said. That 25 percent rate is more than double the national average: Federal crime statistics show that women are responsible for about 10 percent of bank holdups.
The first of the cell phone robberies occurred the morning of Oct. 12 at the Wachovia branch at 212 E. Maple Ave. in downtown Vienna. Lt. Russ Marsh said the woman appeared to be using her phone the whole time, did not show a gun and used the note-taped-to-a-box approach to make her intentions known. He could not recall any phone-equipped robbers, and very few female robbers, in Vienna's past.
Police are investigating cell phone usage in the vicinity of the robberies at the time they were committed but have not identified a suspect. Not all the surveillance videotape has produced clear images of the woman.
The second robbery was at the Wachovia branch at 8441 Sudley Rd. in Manassas on Oct. 21. Photos show the robber coming through the bank's door, already on the phone, and holding the threatening box. Prince William police Sgt. Kim Chinn said the woman did not speak to the teller and did not show a weapon.
Police don't know why only Wachovia branches have been targeted, and they would not disclose the amount of money taken.
The third robbery was the next day, in Springfield. Then there was a pause of nearly two weeks before the Nov. 4 robbery in Ashburn, the first to involve a weapon.
"It appears, with the handgun," Marsh said, "maybe she's escalating" the seriousness of her threats.
Anyone with information about any of the robberies is asked to call Crime Solvers at 866-411-TIPS.