Nothing else was working, so Calvin Adams decided to become a bank robber.
But he wasn't naive. He assumed robbing a bank wasn't for amateurs. Slick moves and professional technique must be required. He consulted a guy who had done it before. Secrets were passed, lore was transmitted -- the dark art was handed down to a new generation.
It was a short lesson. Adams remembers it clearly:
"You just, like, go in there, and give them the note. And they going to give you the money. It's as simple as that."
The scribble that orders the teller to fork over the cash: a robber's withdrawal slip.
Like the Bible says, ask and you shall receive. No submachine gun necessary, no Richard Nixon mask.
"To me, that didn't sound like a whole lot to do," Adams says.
Thus was born one of the region's most prolific bank robbers. During a seven-week spree last year, Adams visited 19 banks in Maryland, Virginia and Washington and stole $38,432 from 17 of them.
One week he robbed the same bank twice, plus two others. One morning he robbed two different banks, 25 minutes apart.
He didn't carry a gun.
"Basically because the way everything would go, I knew there wasn't no need for one," he says.
His demand note went through drafts before he got it right.
One of the first banks Adams tried to rob was a SunTrust in Fort Washington, on Jan. 28, 2003. He handed the teller a note that said simply: "Give me all the money out the register."
The teller seemed unimpressed. She appeared to doubt he was serious. She stalled.
"So I left," Adams says.
"I said, 'Damn, why she do that? This ain't how it supposed to go,' you know what I'm saying? So this time I'm going to change it and give it like a ghetto twist. See how this turns out."
The next day he went into a Chevy Chase Bank in Bowie. His note said, "Give me all the bills out your register or some bodies are going to start dropping!!!"
The teller handed over $1,750.
"It was like, 'Okay, he's serious,' " Adams says. "It was like, now I'm making my mark."
He had stepped through the looking glass into one of those strange ambiguous lineages of American culture -- have we made up our minds yet about Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd or Willie ("That's where the money is") Sutton? Have we seen enough noir thrillers involving soft-fingered safecrackers using stethoscopes to hear the tumblers, savvy heist-meisters tunneling in from the sewer, mask-wearing machine-gunners mowing down half of Los Angeles?
Adams might seem a disappointing scion of the legacy -- Jesse James writes a note, Hollywood yawns -- except for one thing: He's real. He is the modern American bank robber.
This high school dropout, who says he was stoned to calm his nerves while he robbed, made it look easy. For a while.
Bandits on the Run
This summer Washington feels beset by bank robbers.
Nine men were just indicted in six robberies since January that netted $361,000. The perpetrators wore body armor and carried assault weapons to "take over" entire banks in Washington and Prince George's County before fleeing in vehicles they quickly torched.
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.
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."
He was already a convicted car thief with a blossoming drug habit when he imagined himself cruising D.C. with a thick wad of cash, buying expensive clothes, partying with friends, but also paying his bills: for his girlfriend, for his three children (ages 5, 1 and 1) by two other women, for his own mother, who had struggled to raise him and his two younger sisters. He hardly saw his father.
After he got out of a Virginia state prison on probation in 2001 for a car theft charge, he tried to go straight, he says. Court records show he worked at McDonald's for three months, but the pay was lousy. He worked two months for a security company, stationed at American Eagle Outfitters in Georgetown. The money was good, but he couldn't get a necessary security license to stay on because of his record.
Just before leaving the security company, Adams hooked up with a guy named Kenny who knew how to rob banks -- and hopped on the runaway train.
They didn't spend much time casing banks. Any bank that didn't have a police car parked outside could be a target. While Kenny waited in the getaway car, usually a black SUV, Adams would enter the banks. He wore a bulky winter coat, but took no precautions to obscure his identity.
"I'm just not the type of person that likes to run around with masks and gloves and all that on," he says.
He had watched a lot of true-crime television shows and was convinced that all the hype about CSI and forensic evidence is "a lie." He was convinced that the way you get caught is if someone snitches, and who would snitch on Calvin Adams? For the same reason, he was unconcerned that his face might turn up on security camera tapes. You'd have to know him to know he was the robber, and he figured no one who knew him would dime him out.
The robbery train blazed across the calendar:
Jan. 23, Chevy Chase Bank, Beltsville, $583; Jan. 28, SunTrust, Fort Washington, $0.00; Jan. 29, Chevy Chase Bank, Bowie, $1,750; Jan. 31, Bank of America, Silver Spring, $1,150; Feb. 3, Bank of America, Crofton, $2,191; Feb. 6, Bank of America, Annapolis, $400; Feb. 7, Bank of America, Temple Hills, $1,187; Feb. 10, Bank of America, Oxon Hill, $19,564 . . .
That was the biggest score. Adams passed his note, the nervous teller pushed stacks of bills at him. The robber sauntered out.
Then the money began smoking red: dye pack!
A dye pack resembles an ordinary banded stack of bills, but only the top and bottom few bills are real. The center is hollowed out to fit a device that usually has a CO2 canister, tear gas and red dye. It's activated when the robber crosses an electromagnetic field on his way out of the bank, and it explodes within a pre-programmed number of seconds.
Witnesses saw the red smoke billow from his coat as he crossed the parking lot.
"I was fanning it as I walked," Adams says. "I put the regular money in my pocket and the dye pack in my hand, so the dye pack would be smoking instead of wasting all the money I had just got."
He says most or all of the $19,564 was unstained, though it took several washings to clean his hands.
. . . Feb. 14, Chevy Chase Bank, Fort Washington, $1,427 . . .
After Valentine's Day, Adams took an unusual 11-day break. As he later explained to an FBI agent, his partner, Kenny, had been shot to death in an apartment in Southeast Washington around then. According to an FBI affidavit, Adams "was 'hurting' because of that and therefore did not feel like robbing a bank."
But the train got back on track.
. . . Feb. 25, First Union, District Heights, $460; Feb. 27, SunTrust, Southeast D.C., $1,422; Feb. 28, First Union, Southeast D.C., $400; March 3, First Union, District Heights, $1,920; March 4, First Union, Northeast D.C., $114 . . .
"I may rob one bank, and I don't feel like I got enough to do everything I want to do and [still] have some [money] left, so I'd say, 'Let me try somewhere else real quick and see how this turns out,' " Adams says. "And then if I'm satisfied, okay, cool, I can go ahead home. Just chill for the day, and probably go to the mall, get my kids some outfits, buy my girl[friend's] kids some outfits, give her some money to help pay her bills, stuff like that. Give my mother some money."
At the same time he was spending as much as $1,000 a day on drugs and booze. Weed, PCP, crack, ecstasy, you name it. He was buying fifths of Remy by the case and drinking half of it in one day. Most of his robbery proceeds were going to partying, not to paying his bills.
On March 5 in particular he was feeling the pressures of a breadwinner.
"That day, I wanted to shop," he says. "I remember my baby['s] mother say she wanted to buy a TV because my daughter don't have no TV to watch cartoons, and she need some clothes and some shoes and stuff for school. And my girl[friend] kept crying about she don't pay her bank note they about to snatch her car. She ain't going to be able to get her kids to school anymore."
. . . March 5, BB&T, Camp Springs, $2,267 . . .
That wasn't enough.
. . . 25 minutes later, Columbia Bank, Clinton, $2,547; March 8, First Virginia, Woodbridge, $800; March 11, Bank of America, Northeast D.C., $250; March 11 (22 minutes later), First Union, $0.00 . . .
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," 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.
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.
* Bait money: Tellers slip robbers a few bills with prerecorded serial numbers to aid in prosecution if they're found in the robber's possession.
* Electronic trackers: A few years ago in Baltimore tiny transmitters would be included in cash given to robbers. Antenna towers would pick up the signal and relay it to police. But the system had glitches and has been dismantled. Now a system relying on global positioning satellites is said to be under review in some parts of the country.
* Security cameras: Just about every robber gets his picture taken. The new digital images broadcast on television are proving to be one of the most effective tools.
* Bandit barriers: Some robbers are deterred by seeing the tellers safely locked behind bullet-resistant plastic. Some banks in California have gone a step further, instructing tellers behind barriers not to cooperate and to walk away when a robber passes a note. The tactic is controversial: What if the robber is provoked to put a gun to the temple of a customer?
* Armed guards: Also controversial. Many banks would rather let the robber go than risk a shootout.
There are clever low-tech strategies. A couple years ago in Massachusetts, security directors noticed that a high percentage of robbers favored the same fashion statement: baseball caps and sunglasses. So banks put up signs asking customers to remove caps and sunglasses before entering. Banks that didn't put up the signs experienced a higher proportion of robberies, according to Tony Brissette, a bank security consultant in Shrewsbury, Mass.
And money talks: Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco has raised the reward to an empirical science. Since instituting a standing $5,000 reward in 1991, the bank has paid $860,000 to catch 258 suspects, or $3,333 per robber -- a good return on the dollar, says William Wipprecht, senior vice president and chief security officer of Wells Fargo.
"More people are likely to know a bank robber than to win the lottery," Wipprecht says, "so we're giving those people the chance of a lifetime."
Some bank robbers feel the industry's pain. They would like to help.
In 1999, Troy Evans finished a 71/2-year sentence for five robberies that netted about $50,000 over six months in Colorado and neighboring states.
Now Evans, 41, is on the lecture circuit, giving motivational speeches about how he turned his life around -- and talking to banking trade groups about robbery and security from his side of the teller window. He wrote a book last year called "From Desperation to Dedication: Lessons You Can Bank On."
"It's pretty much common knowledge the people who work in the banks, they are instructed by policy to do exactly as you tell them to do," Evans says. "Why go into a liquor store where the owner might have a gun behind the counter? Why not go into a place where they're instructed to give you the money?"
He took advantage of that when he was on his spree, trying to finance an omnivorous drug habit. He wore a ball cap and sunglasses. His demand notes, jotted on deposit slips, were precise: He asked for 20s, 50s, 100s, and he instructed tellers not to give him dye packs or bait money. Having dated a teller once, he knew to specify certain drawers he wanted the tellers to empty. He showed a pistol, which he says wasn't loaded.
He was caught after an ex-girlfriend saw his image from a security camera on television.
Evans doesn't advise banks to modify their policy of cooperating with robbers. "The last thing you want to do is make someone angry who has a gun," he says.
But there are other measures that might have prevented him from striking.
One is hire more men. "If I walked in there and saw a male teller, who's bigger than me and might cause problems, then I'd turn around and walk right back out," he says.
Another deterrent, believe it or not, is "great customer service," Evans says. Greet all customers as they enter, look them in the eye, smile and ask how they'd like to be helped. "Kill two birds with one stone," he says. "The legitimate customer loves to be greeted and made to feel important. The would-be bank robber hates it and doesn't want to be noticed."
Banks should consider employing full-time greeters, Evans says, at least on Fridays, when most robberies occur.
Evans, who earned two college degrees while in prison, wrote letters of apology to all the tellers he robbed and probably terrified. Since he is barred from contacting them, he says he mailed the letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole. His ambition is to do enough good works to someday earn a presidential pardon.
He long ago got over his anger at the ex-girlfriend who alerted police: "I can say the worst thing that happened to me -- going to prison -- was also the very best thing that happened to me. It saved my life."
Calvin Adams, too, at first was angry at the person he thinks tipped off the agents. Now he says he's kind of grateful. Sooner or later, he thinks, the runaway train would have killed him.
"The money was good, but in the end, it don't pay," he says. "It didn't feel like it was paying."
Adams is taking classes in prison that he hopes will prepare him for work when he gets out.
"Honest working money," he says. "You feel better about it when you got it."