Notorious bank robbers have been highly publicized — and often glamorized — throughout American history. The names Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Willie Sutton are legendary, and their lore sometimes grew as long as Pinocchio’s nose.
Today’s bank robbers may not get as many headlines or have the allure of the thieves from bygone days, but they pull off thousands of heists every year throughout the country. Even in these days of high-tech cybercrime, thieves still make off with millions of dollars from banks, credit unions, armored cars and other businesses the old-fashioned way, according to the FBI.
An average of nearly 12 banks were robbed daily in the U.S. in 2016, and one bank was robbed every five days in Connecticut, according to Connecticut Magazine’s analysis of FBI statistics.
Those numbers may sound alarming, but the good news locally is that no one has been killed or seriously injured in a Connecticut bank robbery in at least 11 years, according to New Haven-based special agent Lisa McNamara, who investigated such crimes for the FBI during those years.
Nationally, violent acts were committed at banks in 146 of 4,251 robberies, burglaries and larcenies in 2016, killing one bank employee and causing 35 injuries, FBI statistics reveal. Seven robbers were killed, and eight were injured.
McNamara says bank robbery is a crime with one of the highest apprehension rates — about 80 percent of robbers in Connecticut are apprehended.
“If you are going to rob a bank in Connecticut, there’s a very high likelihood you are going to jail,” McNamara says.
So, despite the obvious risks, why do robbers keep heading for a bank?
“I’ve been told by bank robbers,” security consultant Chris McGoey says, “that it’s the perception of a big payoff compared to robbing a convenience store or fast-food outlet.”
In reality, though, most robbers usually target one teller and leave a bank as quickly as possible with a small amount of money, says Frank Teti, president of the Connecticut Bankers Reward Association, which offers money to people who provide information leading to the apprehension of bank robbers. A teller’s drawer could contain a “couple of thousand” dollars, he says.
McGoey says robbers are also attracted to banks because they “appear to be soft targets without security guards,” and tellers “are trained to cooperate fully with a robber’s demands and hand over the money. “Robbers like it when they don’t have to use force and don’t have to worry about tellers pulling a gun on them.”
Most bank robbers in Connecticut, McNamara says, are addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling, and, unlike years ago, “we are seeing people with mental health problems robbing banks.” Last year (2017) was uncommon, she says, because, through mid-November, five women had robbed banks, up from the usual one or two per year.
One was Courtney Worthington, 29, of West Haven, who was arrested in January at an East Haven hotel and pleaded guilty in July to committing three robberies in January and December 2016. She admitted that she robbed a TD Bank in West Haven on Dec. 19, 2016, a People’s United Bank in Woodbridge on Jan. 2, 2017, and a TD Bank in Killingworth on Jan. 5.
During each robbery, Worthington handed a teller a note containing threats and demanding money, the U.S. Department of Justice says. She faces a maximum 20-year prison term.
Most robbers pass a note demanding money and do not use a firearm, and their robberies take less than two minutes, McNamara says. A getaway vehicle is usually involved, and robbers sometimes have an unsuspecting taxi or Uber driver waiting.
On Nov. 14, after reviewing surveillance images and talking to a taxi driver who drove an alleged bank robber to a local hotel, New Haven Police detectives arrested Andre Edwards, 40, of Hamden. He was charged with passing a note to tellers demanding cash at three different New Haven-area banks on Nov. 6, 11 and 13.
There were 72 bank robberies in 2016 in Connecticut, and the same number through mid-November 2017. The annual number fluctuated between 56 and 108 from 2003-16, and guns are used in 20 or fewer of the heists each year, McNamara estimates.
Robberies that police say occurred in 2017 include:
A robber wearing a sling and holding a handgun got away with more than $11,000 from People’s United Bank in Monroe on Sept. 14. A Trumbull man, Joseph Grosso, 33, was arrested more than a month later for allegedly committing the crime.
A Newtown man allegedly handed a teller a note saying he had a gun and robbed $833 from a local Bank of America branch Aug. 24. Newtown police say John McCarthy, 63, left the bank on foot and was carrying a large knife when he was arrested across the street outside a paint store.
A fitness enthusiast and model was arrested May 3 in California and charged with three Greenwich robberies in April. David Byers, 34, of Solana Beach, California, allegedly robbed a Chase bank in Riverside on consecutive days and a gas station in Cos Cob.
Robert Abel, 54, of St. Augustine, Florida, pleaded guilty Nov. 6 to robbing $1,517 from a Webster Bank in Stratford on Feb. 17. He faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, and his sentencing is set for later this month.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Abel also admitted to last February robbing $733 from a McDonald’s restaurant in East Palm Coast, Florida, and a CVS in St. Augustine, and stealing a woman’s car in South Carolina. Then, the Justice Department says, he tried to rob a Walgreens pharmacy in Stratford and left without any money, before his arrest by Milford Police on Feb. 17.
Technological advancements, McGoey says, have made it more difficult to pull off a bank robbery without being caught.
“The quality of digital video surveillance cameras is far superior to those used in the past,” he says. “Color digital images of robbers can be extracted immediately from the footage and disseminated within minutes to every law enforcement agency and the media.”
In bags of stolen money, banks place GPS tracking devices and exploding dye packs that stain the cash and the robber. Many dye packs are supplemented by tear gas that is triggered by an electromagnetic field near a bank’s exit door and can immobilize a perpetrator, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a nonprofit organization that provides information to address crime problems.
Sometimes the technology can go awry. In 2010, four employees at the Liberty Bank in Mystic needed emergency medical care when a dye pack exploded in a vault and released tear gas.
But technological advancements have also helped robbers.
“Bank robbers are using the same old tactics, but have the advantage of cellphone technology for texting by lookouts, and cellphone video for planning purposes,” McGoey says. “Otherwise, banks are still a box with mostly female tellers and staff that appear to offer little resistance to mostly male perpetrators.”
Of 4,900 people known to be involved in robberies, burglaries and larcenies at banks, credit unions and armored carrier companies throughout the U.S. in 2016, 4,529 were male, according to FBI statistics. About 44 percent were black, 37 percent were white and 5 percent were Latino.
The FBI has detailed information about 2,537 of those involved, and the information shows that 40 percent were narcotics users and 27 percent had been previously convicted of bank-related robberies, burglaries and larcenies.
Bank robbers may often be looking for money for a weekend getaway. FBI statistics show that robberies at banks happen more frequently on Fridays than on other days, and more frequently between 9-11 a.m. than during other time periods.
The number of annual bank robberies throughout the country rose from 3,866 in 2014 to 4,002 in 2015 and 4,168 in 2016, but the numbers are substantially smaller than in past decades. More than 7,400 robberies occurred in 2003, and more than 9,500 in 1992.
The number of robberies has dropped because of “a number of factors, including better security at the bank,” says Sarah Grano, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “Banks invest heavily in sophisticated alarm systems, bait money and surveillance cameras to help deter and catch robbers. Improved investigative techniques, tougher sentencing and the shift to electronic transactions have also contributed to the drop-off in robberies.”
McGoey suggests other steps to deter would-be bank robbers. Banks should reduce the amount of cash on hand that’s immediately accessible to tellers and install at the bank entrance “a highly visible video camera” that makes visitors aware their images are being recorded. “Many robbers scope out the location in advance, and their unmasked image is captured, giving them something to worry about,” McGoey says.
The security consultant also suggests testing “a time-delay system” that requires people with large cash demands to wait minutes for a machine to dispense the money. “This has worked in the convenience store industry,” McGoey says. “The bank industry rejected this idea, because it causes the robber to stay inside longer, and the robber may get antsy. The time-delay safe could also trigger a hold-up alarm.”
Dick Cross, a former vice president and chief security officer for the Bank of New York in Manhattan, says banks need to reduce the number of entrances and station an unarmed guard at the front entrance to greet everyone coming in. The guard, he says, may deter someone who is casing the bank for a future robbery attempt.
Some Connecticut banks have armed guards, but Cross, Teti and McNamara are not proponents of such a security measure. They express concern that innocent lives or bystanders could be wounded or killed. Teti believes the number of robberies in Connecticut in the future will not decrease substantially, because robbers “know bank employees are trained to do what the robber says. They know employees are not going to fight them, and they probably get more money from banks than from a mom-and-pop store.”
Connecticut bankers, Teti says, have a very good relationship working with the FBI, which has had a primary role in bank robberies since 1934, when it became a federal crime to rob any national bank or state member bank of the Federal Reserve System. The FBI, though, usually defers to local law enforcement authorities to conduct the bulk of the investigations, and Teti says he would like to see more, and better, communication between banks and local agencies.
McNamara applauds local and state law enforcement authorities for their work in robbery investigations and credits the public and the media for the apprehension of many suspects. “We can’t do it without those partners,” McNamara says. “We need the public. The public solves a lot of our bank robberies that are not solved early on.”
Will there ever be a solution to end all bank robberies?
“We’ll always have bank robberies,” Cross says. “It’s not going to stop.”
McNamara agrees. “As long as banks have money, they are going to get robbed.”
McGoey has some parting advice, though, for would-be bank robbers planning a heist, particularly those with a partner or partners. “Your co-robbers will rat you out when caught,” he says. “Crime doesn’t pay. Get a real job!”
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Connecticut Magazine.