Knotty Head Bandits

In the bank robbing business, these guys are the best. They're also the most wanted.

The reality is that robbing banks is perhaps easier than it has ever been, judging by the number of attempts and the times the crooks get away. Banks spend little money or time preventing heists. Bankers have taken the stance that giving robbers whatever they want will avoid the injuries during thefts that could lead to lawsuits. Tellers, who are most often young women, typically get detailed instructions on how to help burglars quickly. Bank robberies have become common and simple and, as the clique has learned after it stole a police chief's car, an easy way to become rich. So far, the clique has operated with little public attention. If its successes continue, that's likely to change.

The group is apparently preparing for such a contingency. According to the FBI, group members, in a moment of youthful hubris, have given themselves a marketable name. Referring to the dreadlocks many of the robbers wear, they have dubbed themselves the Knotty Head Clique.

Accused getaway driver Juan Bannister
Accused getaway driver Juan Bannister
Alleged flipped gang member John "J.J." Wilkerson
Alleged flipped gang member John "J.J." Wilkerson

Hidir Dundar didn't have anywhere to go. The Knotty Head Clique had just stormed the Bank of America in a Winn-Dixie shopping center in West Palm on November 10 of last year. It ordered the customers to hit the floor. "Get on the ground!" the robbers demanded, pointing the shotgun, the assault rifle, and the pistol at everyone. But Dundar, who had been waiting to make a deposit, had no room to squeeze onto the floor. There were already people blocking the floor, so he just stood there with his head down. Having survived two years in the Turkish army, Dundar wasn't afraid. He knew it was either his time or it wasn't. "It's just destiny," Dundar says, "so if it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

Next to Dundar, construction worker Reinaldo Ordaz of Miami crouched on the floor and tried to sneak a peek at the men. Like many in the bank, he was surprised that their hands and small frames made them look like boys, perhaps teenagers or younger. Their heads were wrapped in T-shirts pulled tightly across their mouths and then around the back of their heads. It showed little of their faces and hid the dreads many of them wore. But their physical features revealed their youth. Finally, Ordaz realized he had better quit trying to look before they spotted him. He was scared for his family. "I just kept thinking of my kids, my kids," he says.

The robber holding the assault rifle pointed it at the head of a security guard, a young, boyish-looking man who has since quit his job. He knelt on the floor as the robbers stole his pistol. One of the three robbers, the shortest one, tried to hop the counter. He didn't make it and tripped on a half-door. "It was kind of a Benny Hill skit," says a teller, who asked that his name not be used. "Me and my manager kind of laughed about it. It was this serious moment. We were getting robbed, but we found ourselves laughing because it was obvious these guys didn't know what they were doing."

The robbers fled, leaving Dundar still standing frozen in the center of the bank, Ordaz in a heap below him, and the bank thousands of dollars lighter. In their second robbery, the clique was still performing like rookies. But now that they had been tricked once, the robbers knew to watch out for exploding dye packs. They completed their first successful bank heist.

They also perfected a simple getaway strategy. Beforehand, the gang had stolen two cars. They parked one nearby and then, at another location, switched halfway through the getaway to lose pursuers. According to a police report, the trio of robbers made off with $9,078, a first taste of what was to come.

They knocked off a Union Planters in West Palm Beach about a month later, on December 4, stealing $7,596.17. Things changed, however, in their next heist. This time, the gang targeted a Wachovia on Golden Lakes Boulevard, an odd-looking branch housed in what appeared to be a double-wide trailer. They stormed into the cramped bank, and there were more of them this time -- six robbers with guns. They swarmed around the center aisle where customers fill out deposit slips. Two jumped the counter, and one went into the manager's office to the right. They wanted access to the vault. The men dragged bank employee Ferzouq Malik to the vault, but he told them he didn't have a key. They struck him in the head with the assault rifle.

From the front of the bank, one of the robbers was pacing and checking his watch. "Hurry up," he yelled. "Let's go. Time's up." Frustrated, the burglars started going through customers' pockets. One of them, 65-year-old Carl Clausius, fought back when a robber tried to steal his checkbook. They struck him in the head with the rifle. For no reason, one of the men turned to another customer -- a 125-pound, 48-year-old woman from Royal Palm Beach -- and kicked her as she lay on the floor.

They made off with $20,100, but their violence caught the attention of the FBI. Investigators found a gory scene, with the floor near the entrance smeared with blood, a puddle behind the counter, and a spatter near the vault. It was clear to investigators that they were now dealing with repeat and violent bank robbers.

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