By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Not long after the task force began its investigation into the Knotty Head Clique, it got a lucky break. A West Palm cop stopped a car two days after the Wachovia robbery and one of the passengers, a teenager who hasn't been named by investigators, carried two bait bills stolen from the bank. For the FBI, it was their first solid lead. Although it wasn't enough to arrest any of the men on bank robbery charges, in the car was a dreadlocked 21-year-old named Juan Bannister, who would soon become the investigation's main target.
The first time authorities heard of Bannister was when he was a high school student moonlighting as a street-level dope dealer. West Palm cops watched him selling bags of dope through car windows in June 1999, when he was just 16 years old. He admitted to cops that the pot hidden nearby in a Fritos bag was his, and he was sentenced to four months in jail. Thus began a string of petty arrests, recalls his grandfather, Clarence Bannister, a 78-year-old retired construction worker. "That boy was all over town getting into all kinds of trouble, just like his mother," his grandfather says. "You can't keep track of either of them."
In February 2000, he was given 60 days in jail for trying to punch a cop at Forest Hill High School. He got six days in jail after police in March 2001 found him in a stolen car with crack cocaine, according to a police report. Then he showed a vicious side in November 2001 when he threatened to kill his girlfriend in a convenience-store parking lot. "If you gave me AIDS, bitch, I'm going to kill you," Bannister told her while putting a gun to her head, a police report quotes him as saying. "I should kill your ass now." He beat the more serious aggravated-assault charge and was given 30 days for improper exhibition of a dangerous weapon.
In the three years since, Bannister hasn't been convicted of a crime, according to court records, and prosecutors say he recently spent his time running a recording studio on Eighth Street, in the center of West Palm's toughest neighborhood, northwest downtown. They say he lived in a one-bedroom apartment rented by his girlfriend at 2100 Australian Ave., in a ratty West Palm project. The pink pastel-colored building smells of urine and trash, and it's probably a good place for bank robbers to hide. According to police, few residents would dare to report gun-toting thieves living in the dingy hallways.
Just old enough to buy beer, Bannister has a baby face that makes him look barely old enough to drive. He wears gold crowns over his front teeth and keeps his hair in tangled dreadlocks, looking as if he's trying to toughen his youthful image. He walks with a limp that would have made it difficult to jump counters and sprint into the bank vault. His 140-pound, five-foot-nine frame isn't menacing enough to be convincing muscle for the bank robbing job of crowd control; investigators say Bannister took on the role of getaway driver.
In November 2003, just a month after the Knotty Head Clique got its start, investigators say, Bannister showed a crack in the discipline required of bank robbing pros. He began bragging about the gang's success to Alfred Minus, a friend who would soon become a snitch, police say. If it's true, Bannister's big mouth may be enough to sink him.
After cops pulled up behind Alfred Minus' Ford Focus back on March 27, he jumped out of the car and, according to court papers, blurted a confession: "Officer, I got to be honest with you. Those boys think I shot Maurice. I got to protect myself." The five-foot-ten, 200-pound, muscular 22-year-old, who keeps a short trimmed goatee around his mouth and dreadlocks down past his shoulders, told the pair of cops on Broadway in West Palm that, yes, he had a gun in the car.
The cops found a .40-caliber Glock handgun under the driver's seat. They found a bag of crack next to a bottle of brandy in the car's center console. Then things got interesting. In the trunk, they discovered a box of latex gloves and a blue mask. They asked Minus about it, and he offered that he had "knowledge of several recent bank robberies in the area," according to a police report.
To give Minus some motivation to testify, the cops sent his case to the federal court system. Prosecutors charged him with federal crimes for the gun and 4.5 grams of crack. Because the Glock was manufactured outside Florida, prosecutors used a legal loophole to charge him with moving a gun illegally across state lines. The gun and the $130 worth of drugs, which may have landed him in county jail for a few months, could now cost him decades in prison under the stricter federal court system. Minus pleaded guilty and was given a 46-month sentence. Prosecutors agreed to ask a judge to lessen it if he testified against the bank robbers.
Minus told the cops that back in November 2003, he was hanging out at Bannister's recording studio when Bannister showed him a shiny, .357-caliber revolver, according to court documents. Bannister told him the handgun had been taken from a security guard during one of the robberies.