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'Granddad Bandit' is not what you expect in a bank robber

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C01

The balding, middle-aged man does not look the part of a criminal mastermind, with his wire-rimmed glasses, polo shirts and paunch. But he has calmly walked into banks in 13 states, including Virginia, and made off with thousands of dollars.

FBI agents call him "the Granddad Bandit," and he has eluded them for 19 months.

Now federal authorities are launching a nationwide campaign to put a name to the face that has been captured in so many surveillance photos. He is suspected of robbing 25 banks from Florida to Texas to New York. He wears no mask. He doesn't appear to have an accomplice. And as far as anyone can tell, he doesn't bring a gun.

"He reminds me of Uncle Fester when I look at him," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Amanda Moran, who is in charge of bank robbery investigations.

"It's amazing this has gone on so long," she said. "The Granddad Bandit does not conceal himself at all. We don't often have bank robbers who don't use hats, sunglasses, scarves. Most bank robbers try to hide their identity."

In coming days, the FBI plans to post the man's image on nearly 2,000 digital billboards in more than 40 states, a tactic usually reserved for the most-urgent investigations, such as trying to track down a violent criminal on the run. But in the case of the Granddad Bandit, news releases and wanted posters distributed near the banks he robbed have yielded nothing, so authorities decided to make the plea for help nationwide.

Authorities think the man first struck on Dec. 19, 2008 at a SunTrust Bank in Richmond. Just after 5 p.m., a man in a dark coat went to the counter and handed a teller a note. The robber demanded a specific amount of money, police said, but they would not say how much. Loot in hand, he walked out of the bank and blended in with the afternoon crowd.

One look at the clear surveillance photo and Richmond police Detective George Mihalcoe thought the arrest would be quick. Surely someone would recognize the man and phone in a tip. The police sent the image to local newspapers and television stations and showed it around within the department.

"We said we'll have him locked up in 24 hours, he's so distinctive," Mihalcoe said. "When we didn't have him in 24 hours, we said: 'We're not going to solve this. This guy is from out of town.' "

A month later, the man resurfaced at a bank in Alabama. The robberies continued in Arkansas, Kansas, Georgia and Florida. He has struck as far north as New York. He has never robbed two banks in the same state in a row. And he has never struck in Maryland or the District.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said he thinks the Granddad Bandit is well aware that his image is on surveillance videos.

"I think this is one of those people that like the idea of becoming a celebrity bank robber, like a Dillinger or a Bonnie and Clyde," Kobilinsky said. "He's not afraid of revealing himself. He's saying: 'Here I am. You can't catch me.' "

In 2009, more than 5,900 banks nationwide were robbed, and nearly $46 million was taken, according to the FBI.

This particular robber follows a pattern, authorities said. He walks up to a teller and shows a note asking for a specific amount of cash.

"It started with, 'Give me $2,000' or '$3,000,' " said Bradley Bryant, chief of the FBI's violent crimes and major offenders unit. "Lately, he's been saying, 'Give me $5,000.' "

The man hasn't threatened or harmed anyone, the FBI said. On a few occasions, he gestured toward his pocket, giving a teller the impression that he might have a weapon. But no weapon has been seen.

Lt. Emmett Williams of the Richmond police said he thinks the man is committing his crimes far from where he lives and works.

Williams plotted the robberies on a U.S. map. Did the robber seem to travel along a major highway? Were all the robberies near airports? Would any pattern emerge?

Nothing.

"He's just kind of all over the place," Williams said. "You see how many areas of the country he's hit. I can't help but think he's somewhere in the part that's left over."

FBI agents agree.

The robber, who is white, is described as between 45 and 60. He is about 6 feet tall, and authorities describe his build as "heavy" or "stocky." He is balding, with short, grayish hair on the sides. Authorities said he does not appear dangerous or act in a threatening way. He does not attract much attention at all.

"Every baby boomer in the world is him," Williams said.

The Granddad Bandit returned to Virginia in May 2009, robbing a Valley Bank in Roanoke. Then he was off again, hitting a Wells Fargo bank in Dallas and a Bank of America branch in Wichita, among others.

In late June, he popped up again in Virginia. It was a Tuesday afternoon when the man in the beige polo shirt and jeans entered the Union First Market Bank branch in Glen Allen. He handed over a note and left with the cash.

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