By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
CHICAGO -- Maybe it's not surprising that, in a city famous for bank robbery, two brazen bandits practice their craft with a show of civic pride.
The Chicago Bandit, responsible for at least eight heists, is known for his blue ball cap inscribed with the city's name. The Cubs Fan Bandit, wanted in three robberies, wears headgear celebrating a local baseball team.
Metropolitan Chicago logged a record number of bank robberies in 2006, for the second year in a row. The 284 holdups surpassed the 2005 record of 240. How busy was it? On Sept. 25, a downtown bank was hit twice.
And 2007 is off to a fast start, with six robberies by Jan. 9.
No one really knows why, but the FBI speculates that multiplying storefront and grocery-store branches provide attractive targets.
Chicago is not alone: Los Angeles, New York and Dallas also experienced more bank robberies last year. Dallas County had 145 bank robberies in 2006, up from 64 the year before.
"To have that many in this area is astronomical," said Dallas FBI spokeswoman Beverly Esselbach.
Los Angeles -- "the bank robbery capital," according to FBI spokesman Bill Carter -- led the country with 470 bank robberies, up from 455. L.A. robbers included the camera-toting Paparazzi Bandit, who was known for photographing tellers, and the Goofy Hat Bandit, who wore a black fedora. Washington's total jumped to 50, from 26 in 2005.
New York's total of 290 was up from 229 the year before, but FBI spokesman Jim Margolin said the city's decline in armed heists with the potential for violence is more significant than the uptick in nonviolent "note jobs."
The trend in armed bank robberies "has been down in recent years," he said, noting that there were 45 robberies with a clearly armed assailant in 2005 and 28 in 2006. "We hesitate to speculate why, but some think there's a correlation with the economy or demographics. The aging of the population means a decrease in the male 18- to 30-year-old population, which criminologists believe is responsible for most crimes."
Melvena Cooke certainly doesn't fit that profile. Cooke, 79, is charged with trying to rob a downtown Chicago bank in September with a toy gun. Cooke, who was wearing a visor saying "Princess," left without any money and was quickly arrested.
Several high-profile Chicago suspects were caught in 2006, including the Harry Caray Bandit, who dressed up like the beloved late Cubs announcer, and the Panama Jack Bandit, wanted in 10 robberies and known for wearing a straw hat.
Yates said the FBI increasingly relies on the public's help to catch suspects, because improved surveillance camera technology makes it easier to circulate images of suspects, and FBI resources have been diverted to anti-terrorism duty.
The Goatee Bandit, suspected of 13 robberies, was caught after being featured on a "Chicago's Most Wanted" segment on Fox News. In November, three witnesses caught a suspected bank robber, stained with an exploded dye pack, who was fleeing through an alley. They held him until police arrived.
But the FBI is still searching for a number of Chicago serial robbers. An armed, aggressive suspect nicknamed the Wheaton Bandit tops the list, with at least 16 robberies netting more than $100,000 in the past four years. The FBI is offering $25,000 for tips leading to his arrest. The robber, thought to have military or law enforcement training, enters suburban banks wearing a mask and carrying a gun, then orders everyone to the floor.
Chicago federal agents also want to nab the Carjack Bandit, who steals getaway cars from bank employees or customers; the Newspaper Bandit, who wraps stolen money in a local paper; and the Hardhat Bandit, who has worn a yellow construction helmet in at least five robberies. "Maybe he does it on his way home from work," Chicago FBI spokeswoman Cynthia Yates said.
Chase, the most-robbed bank company in Chicago, has tried to improve security, including adding more bulletproof glass to its facilities, spokeswoman Calmetta Coleman said.
But fatalities in bank robberies are rare; in Chicago last year, there were no deaths or serious injuries. It is not a particularly lucrative crime, with most robbers netting only a few thousand dollars and facing about 75 percent odds of getting caught, Yates said.
Chicago robbers are continuing a long tradition. The city was where Depression-era bandit John Dillinger, perhaps the nation's most famous bank robber, was gunned down in an alley in 1934 after being betrayed to federal agents by a companion.
Other notorious robbers included "Baby Face" Nelson and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. Even current City Council member Walter Burnett Jr. served two years in prison as a young man for his role as a getaway driver in a bank robbery. He was later granted clemency.