For 11 years, John Michael Yates was a top salesman at Koons Ford in Falls Church. Then two years ago, he decided to open his own investment business and racked up enormous credit-card debts in the process, according to law enforcement officials.

Now, a federal grand jury contends that Yates, 63, found an unusual solution to his money problems.

The Potomac resident was charged this week with robbing nine Virginia banks--nearly one a week between Dec. 18 and Feb. 24. He is also a suspect in a 10th bank robbery in Bethesda, said FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd.

In the robberies, a middle-aged white man wearing a trench coat and a false mustache and goatee brandished a small dark pistol and demanded money, Lloyd said. The alleged haul topped $25,000, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

But Yates--homeowner, Army veteran and father of four grown children--contends the indictment is a horrible case of mistaken identity.

"He is innocent of these charges. He didn't do it," said his attorney, Patrick Anderson.

Yes, Yates does drive a white two-door Ford Escort GT much like the getaway car and he owns a Walther .380-calibre semiautomatic pistol that resembles the one used in the robberies. Both his investment business--PSYCO, which specialized in the oil industry--and Koons Ford, where he returned to work in April, are near a number of the victimized banks. And, Anderson concedes, two witnesses picked Yates out of a lineup.

But a number of other witnesses mistakenly picked Fairfax County police officers out of the same lineup, Anderson said.

Yates has no criminal record. He has been married more than 44 years and spent 23 years in the Army. His co-workers at Koons were floored when the FBI swooped down and arrested him on Thursday.

"We are all amazed," said general manager Mike Nikolich. "Mike is Mr. Gentleman. . . . Customers loved him. I don't think he's a threat."

U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Rawls Jones Jr. agreed and ruled yesterday that Yates--unlike most accused bank robbers--would be allowed to post bond and go home until his trial.

But law enforcement officials say they believe they have the right guy.

At the detention hearing, FBI case agent Paul Timko outlined the strongest evidence against Yates. At one of the robberies, a witness was able to pick out the license plate number on the white Ford getaway car. The plate turned out to have been stolen from a car parked in a long-term lot at Dulles International Airport.

About the time the plate was taken, the parking lot's electronic monitor recorded a car that came and left within 15 minutes. Its license plate was registered to John Michael Yates, Timko said.