A homeless man living at a Salvation Army shelter in Bethesda was arrested yesterday as a suspect in two botched bank robberies and is under investigation in holdups at three other suburban Maryland banks in the past three weeks, according to police and the FBI.

The suspect, Santos Kunle Nkanta, 34, was charged with holding up one bank in Montgomery County and another in Prince George's County within 40 minutes yesterday.

Those holdups resembled three others in which the robber never wore a mask or displayed a gun, passed notes to demand cash from tellers and used small paper bags -- sometimes carryout bags from McDonald's restaurants -- to carry away the money, according to police. In yesterday's two holdups, the robber, lacking a car, used a bus and taxicab in his getaway attempts, police said.

Several thousand dollars, but "less than $10,000," was taken in the five robberies, according to FBI agent Edward Roach.

Nkanta, a Nigerian who has been in the United States for about seven years, has lived at the Bethesda homeless shelter for several months. Last night he was being held by Prince George's County police pending a bond hearing.

The events that police said led to his arrest started yesterday morning when a packet of red dye exploded in a bag of cash that a holdup man was carrying as he fled a United Bank & Trust Co. branch at 8121 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.

The man dropped the bag and boarded a Metrobus to Langley Park where, 40 minutes later, he held up a Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association branch at 7911 New Hampshire Ave.

The man then fled in a taxi, police said. But within minutes, they said, the cabdriver was alerted by two-way radio that his passenger had just robbed a bank. The passenger heard the radio message, too, and demanded to be let out of the taxi, police said. They said Nkanta was arrested a short while later as he emerged from behind a Langley Park school with a bag of cash in one hand.

Prince George's and Montgomery County police each charged him with one count of robbery. Roach said the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore is investigating Nkanta in connection with three other bank robberies in Montgomery -- one on Sept. 10 and two within the last week.

Nkanta was among 20 to 30 residents of a shelter for homeless men, operating at 4848 Cordell Ave. under a contract with the Montgomery County government.

A Salvation Army member, who asked not to be identified, said Nkanta seldom appeared to have much money. What little money he did appear to have, he professed to have earned at odd jobs, the shelter worker said.

"He was very likable, extremely likable," the worker said. "He went out of his way to be helpful to us, cleaning up, scrubbing floors, watching the front desk for me when I was busy."

Nkanta lived in a room with as many as a dozen other men.

He allegedly robbed the United Bank & Trust Co. branch at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, police said, then dropped the bag of dye-stained money about 150 feet from the bank's front doors, in the parking lot at Georgia and Sligo avenues.

The Langley Park robbery occurred at 11:10 a.m., police said. Nkanta walked out and climbed into a cab at a taxi stand in front of the bank, police said.

Bank employes raced out of the bank seconds later. Realizing a robbery had taken place, a waiting cabdriver radioed a warning to the taxi carrying the holdup suspect, police said. Nkanta paid the driver $10 and got out at 15th Avenue and Merimack Street, according to police. He was arrested moments later.

In each of the three robberies before yesterday, the robber fled on foot, detectives said. Only once was a weapon mentioned during a robbery, they said, and in no case did a teller slip a dye packet in with the money. In these three cases, the suspect was described in similar terms, as being in his twenties or thirties, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, with short hair and a mustache.

The three holdups involved the Citizens Bank & Trust at 1100 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, on Sept. 28; the Columbia First Federal Savings and Loan at 4825 Cordell Ave. in Bethesda on Sept. 25, and the Citizens Bank & Trust Co. at 13975 Connecticut Ave., Aspen Hill, Sept. 10.

Staff writer Joseph E. Bouchard contributed to this report.