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After last fall's bank robberies, the FBI took surveillance-camera videotapes of the heists to the western Palm Beach County farming town of Pahokee. There, Police Chief Duran watched as the crooks pointed his AR-15 at the heads of security guards and used the butt of the weapon like a club. Duran noted the flashlight he had installed on the top of the rifle, a sure identifier that this was his gun. "It was very disheartening," Duran recalls. "It gets to you because it's your gun they're using." His only solace was that the thieves hadn't used his guns to kill anybody, at least so far.
Aside from the gun, investigators had little to go on. The T-shirts the men wore left little for physical descriptions aside from young, black males, and they wore latex or work gloves during the robberies to avoid fingerprints. They had carelessly dropped ammo in the banks, but none of the bullets came back with prints. The stolen cars led nowhere.
Agent Rita Hessel of the FBI Bank Robbery Unit in West Palm Beach put together a task force including detectives from West Palm Police and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. She needed -- and still needs -- the help. Already in 2004, robbers have knocked off more than 160 banks in South Florida. With the agency's resources diverted largely to terrorism, the FBI acknowledges that it now investigates only violent or multiple robberies. Still, the FBI and local police remain confident that the clique can be caught. About two-thirds of South Florida bank robberies are solved. "We have a very good success rate catching bank robbers," FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela says. "Of course we'll catch them."
The truth is, robbing banks is simple. Every time mild-mannered criminology Professor Fred Desroches enters a bank, he finds himself casing the joint. He looks for the exits, access to the vaults, and the location of security cameras. "I get a lot of dirty looks from armored-car drivers," Desroches says. "They don't like it when somebody is watching them, and I find myself doing that a lot." A bank robbery expert at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Desroches has interviewed 80 bank robbers in his research. He learned that the odds of being caught during a bank heist are slim. Temptingly slim.
Desroches says robbing a bank has become as easy as knocking off a convenience store. Smart crooks will use a stolen car, cover their faces, and if they know to avoid dye packs and marked bills, there's little chance of being caught. But what Desroches found in his research is that the odds of arrest increase dramatically as bank robbers continue their work, and they always do. "What these guys do," Desroches says, "is they keep doing this till they get caught. They do not stop."
But the Knotty Head Clique's yearlong success is extremely rare, says Bill Rehder, a former agent with the FBI bank robbery squad in Los Angeles. Most serial bank robbers are caught after a few times at it, he says. They're usually addicts desperate for money, mostly for drugs or gambling, and the cash just feeds addictions. Rehder spent 31 years at the FBI, mostly trying to predict the next moves of bank robbers. He believes that the Knotty Head Clique may have started out as a small-time group of friends, but by now there's a formal organization to the gang. It's likely the clique has developed a hierarchy, with a leader who's scoping out banks and then ordering others to carry out the robberies. That way, the mastermind of the heists avoids arrest and can recruit others if his minions are caught. "This is a technique developed in Los Angeles by street gangs and imported across the country," Rehder says. "We are now seeing examples where bank robbers will travel elsewhere to teach others how to do this."
The robbers know there's little to stop them. Few banks install theft-deterrent measures, like time locks or security doors, for fear that customers will be scared away, Desroches says. Time locks slow transactions for customers who deal in large amounts of cash -- the banks' favorite customers, of course -- and security doors, like those in pawn shops, would drive customers to competing banks. Hiring security guards armed with handguns is also rarely a deterrent since few dare to challenge burglars carrying greater firepower.
Bottom-line analysis shows that extra security measures may cost more than the money banks lose in robberies, Desroches says. It's a bank thing. Calculate your gains against your expenses. So instead of high-powered security, banks rely more on inexpensive devices like marked bills and dye packs to help catch the crooks.
"Banks have adopted a policy to comply and have ordered their employees to do whatever the burglars want," Desroches says.
It has become so simple to knock off a bank that the criminals who used to rob convenience stores have switched targets, says Thomas Kerr, senior vice president and head of the robbery reward task force for the Florida Bankers Association. The association brought together a hundred banks in the state to put up rewards for repeat bank robbers, as it did for the Knotty Head Clique.