Every year or so, a man in his forties puts on a suit, a tie, a hat and an overcoat and then heads to the business district in downtown Washington. In about half an hour, he makes as much money as an honest person, working a good job, makes in a year.
He is cautious and meticulous -- and on the wrong side of the law. The FBI describes him as a very disciplined bank robber who has worked a small area of downtown, sticking up six banks since 1995 and then living so discreetly that he has not drawn attention to himself or his hauls.
"He's smart," said FBI agent Paul Timko of the D.C. police-FBI bank robbery task force. "And unfortunately he's not bragging about it to people -- not that we know of."
His pursuers call him the Gentleman Bandit because the dapper business attire allows him to blend in with the suits downtown. When he robs a bank, he clears out the vault and helps himself to the cash in an automated teller machine. And then he vanishes.
The last time he struck was about 2:15 p.m. Aug. 25, when he walked into the BB&T branch near 13th and F streets NW, inquired about an account and then discreetly showed a gun to the assistant manager, Timko said. The longest he has gone between robberies is 2 1/2 years, from Aug. 5, 1998, to March 30, 2001. The shortest was four months, in 1996. Three of the six times he has struck were in August.
The FBI, hoping to enlist the help of the public, has now released a photo taken in 2001 by a surveillance camera that captured him in mid-heist. The man wears a topcoat and a hat. He seems to be emerging, without haste, from the vault. He is not prone to bandannas or masks. His face is visible, down to the neatly trimmed beard.
Investigators do not think he is a heroin or crack cocaine addict, as many bank robbers are, because he probably would be thinner and strike more often. More likely, they say, this 5-foot-10, 200-pound black man manages his money so well that he needs to rob a bank only every so often.
"Gentleman Bandit" is a common moniker, used to describe robbers from New York to San Diego, from Italy to Australia, often because of their dapper dress or polite behavior. Washington's version appears to have launched his career April 15, 1995, when he robbed the First Union Bank at 1300 Connecticut Ave. NW, the FBI says.
Since then, each robbery has been in the downtown area, within about a one-mile stretch, at the beginning or the end of the banking day. In each instance, he has walked into the bank, asked a manager or assistant manager about opening an account, and then revealed his true intention. The FBI, out of concern for copycats, does not say how much was taken from each bank. But one law enforcement official said the total haul is about $500,000.
At his last heist in August, the man quietly informed the bank manager that he was staging a holdup, said Timko, who provided the following account:
The bandit held the manager in his office until all but one of the customers had left the bank. Then he brandished his semiautomatic handgun for all to see and directed the assistant manager to usher everyone into the vault.
The bank workers and the customer were instructed to leave their cellphones in a pile so no one could call out. They were warned not to stare his way. He assured them that he did not plan to harm anyone but would if necessary. He then pulled a duffle bag from underneath his overcoat and had two employees fill it with cash from the ATM and the vault.
And then he shut the vault door with everyone inside except one female employee, who was forced to escort him for a block before he let her go.
Anyone who has a clue as to the robber's identity or whereabouts is asked to call the FBI at 202-278-2360.