More than a dozen banks from Providence to Pawtucket have been robbed over the past five months, leaving some to wonder if bank robberies have reached epidemic proportions in the Blackstone Valley.
While it may seem like the valley is a hotspot for bank theft of late, Special Agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the FBI’s Boston division, says the recent spate of robberies, which include Monday’s heists in North Providence and Cranston, and Thursday’s robbery in Pawtucket, are not an indication of an overall rise in the number of bank robberies in the state.
In fact, bank holdups have dropped nearly every year since 2003, when nearly 7,500 robberies were reported nationwide with $77 million taken. In 2011 – the last complete year for data – about 5,000 banks reported robberies with $38 million stolen. The trend continued into 2012 with an especially sharp decline in bank heists. Nationwide, there were 3,870 bank robberies last year, according to preliminary data from the FBI.
“New England has more bank robberies compared to other parts of the country, and we also know that Rhode Island normally has fewer robberies when compared with Massachusetts,” Comcowich says.
Whenever there is a noticeable uptick in bank heists, the assumption is that it’s hard economic times driving the increase. But Comcowich says it’s the FBI’s experience that whenever there is a rise in robberies in a specific geographic area, its’ usually serial robbers like the Bearded Bandit who pleaded guilty earlier this month to robbing nine banks in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
“Normally, in these cases what you’re seeing is a serial person,” he said. “We just recently had a guy who was robbing a bank every other day and for a little while it was every day.”
Comcowich was referring to the “Merrimack Valley Bandit,” a bank robber responsible for a string of armed heists that began in February. Arrested in April, Rafael Beamud Jr., 32, is facing federal charges after the FBI arrested him in Salem, N.H. Beamud is only charged for the Feb. 21 robbery of the TD Bank branch on Broadway in Methuen, in which $4,162 was stolen, but he is a suspect in 13 other bank robberies and one convenience store robbery.
The typical bank robber produces a note claiming to be armed and demanding money. Some wear disguises or use a ball cap or hoodie to hide their features.
In a majority of cases, serial offenders who cause a spike in bank robberies are drug dependent and desperate and are looking for quick cash to feed their addictions.
“It’s been my experience that it’s usually drugs that motivates most people to rob a bank because they need quick money to either buy drugs or to pay off drug debts,” says Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas S. Carey.
Carey says the most popular method of bank robbery is using a note to demand money, with a threat of violence implied if said demand is not met. The approach is to step up to a teller and make a demand verbally, with a written note, or both. In 2008, the most recent full-year data available, demand notes were issued in 3,833 of the 6,700 bank heists during the year. Verbal demands occurred in 3,683 bank jobs, though some were combined with the demand notes. Weapons were threatened in roughly a third of robberies and used in about one in four bank jobs, the statistics show.
“In a majority of cases we’re not dealing with Bonnie and Clyde,” says Pawtucket Police Major Arthur J. Martins, who says three out of four robberies involve notes and no weapons.
Martins says while it is unusual that Pawtucket’s recent robberies all occurred within a short span of time and in close proximity to one another, the number of robberies, so far, is not dramatically higher than this time last year.
“While we would rather see zero bank robberies, what we have seen so far this year is not shockingly high or alarming,” he said. “Still, we treat this very seriously when it does happen in our community.”
Most bank robbers end up getting caught, says Comowhich, adding the FBI has a solution rate of between 65 and 70 percent.
“There’s a risk certain people are willing to take to rob a bank,” says Special Agent Brad Bryant, who heads the Violent Crimes Unit, which supports 43 violent crime task forces across the United States. “They know there’s a camera. They know employees are trained to recognize faces. They know the police are going to respond, that the FBI is going to respond.”
“It’s a high-risk crime for the subject,” he added. “Chances are you’re going to get caught.”
It’s a chance some people are apparently willing to take.
Bank robbers last year walked away from federally insured banks, credit unions, savings and loan associations, and armored trucks with more than $38 million in cash, according to the last full year of FBI bank crime statistics. In one in five cases, the money was recovered. In the unsolved cases, surveillance images of suspects were often posted online - on FBI wanted posters and elsewhere - to enlist the public’s help.
In 2011 alone, more than $30 million was stolen and just over 100 people killed or injured in some 5,000 robberies of financial institutions reported to us from across the nation.
The FBI has had a primary role in bank robbery investigations since the 1930s, when John Dillinger and his gang were robbing banks and capturing the public’s imagination. In 1934, it became a federal crime to rob any national bank or state member bank of the Federal Reserve. The law soon expanded to include bank burglary, larceny, and similar crimes, with jurisdiction delegated to the FBI. Now, as then, the bureau works alongside local law enforcement in bank robbery cases.
“We help out any way we can,” Comowhich says. “We can do our own investigation or there are things we can do like providing technical assistance.”
Last year, the FBI launched a new Wanted Bank Robbers website at bankrobbers.fbi.gov, the first national system of its kind. The new website includes the most pressing bank robbery cases from the FBI’s 56 field offices.
The site features a gallery of unknown suspects and a map function that plots robbery locations. Users can search by name, location, or other factors. Search results deliver a Wanted by the FBI poster that contains more images, a suspect’s full description, and a brief narrative of the crime.
“This website is an operational tool to help law enforcement identify and prosecute bank robbers more quickly, with the public’s help,” says Jason DiJoseph, who runs the FBI’s bank robbery program at FBI Headquarters. “The idea is to make it easier for the public to recognize and turn in potential suspects and to draw connections between robberies in different cities and states.”
“Bank robbery sounds like an old-fashioned crime, but it is a dangerous and often violent criminal act that still results in the loss of lives and takes a significant toll on local communities,” DiJoseph says.