By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
While it wasn't enough to arrest Bannister, the tip made him the first suspect in the Knotty Head Clique robberies. The task force developed a plan: as soon as the clique struck again, officers would wait for Bannister to return to his girlfriend's apartment in the West Palm projects.
The clique's best, and worst, day began early on April 14, when it struck the First National Bank in Tequesta, in northern Palm Beach County. Not only did it get in and out in a couple of minutes but it avoided the dye packs and successfully raided the vault. They stuffed $94,100 into a pillowcase with a rose print and drove off in a stolen Jeep Cherokee.
It was a good day's take. The five men must have been pumped with adrenaline and, at least to some degree, fear. But they didn't stop. Prosecutors claim Bannister, the getaway driver, drove 42 miles north to Port St. Lucie, perhaps the first time they had traveled outside the county. A half hour later, they charged from the Cherokee into a Suntrust. As they ran, each man put his right hand on the shoulder of the gang member in front of him. They moved through the bank, taking on assigned roles. "It was all very organized," says a bank employee from the securities department, who asked that his name not be used. "They knew what they were doing." The orderliness was a dramatic change from the sloppy robberies just a few months earlier, and it was clear on that April morning that the Knotty Head Clique had become bank robbing veterans.
One of them took a position by the front door. He was the lookout and in charge of crowd control. "Put your hands up and lay on the ground!" he yelled to the customers. When 75-year-old Ausma Losardo tried to enter a side door, he threw her to the ground with the other customers. "It's too upsetting to talk about," Losardo recalls now. "I still can't talk about it."
Behind the counter, one of them managed the bank employees. He ordered the three tellers to load a beige pillowcase with cash and carefully tossed away the bait money, with its marks that identify it as stolen. A third robber went for the vault. A manager opened it for him, and he loaded cash into a flowered pillowcase. From the lobby, the lookout yelled that they had taken too long, according to witnesses and police reports. "The alarm button has been pushed. Let's get out of here."
Perhaps the warning distracted the gang member at the vault, but he failed to notice the dye pack in the pillowcase. As they sped away in the Cherokee, it exploded. The men tossed it from the SUV into the parking lot, and with it $60,318. But the robber in charge of the tellers managed to grab $13,718 in unmarked bills. In total, they stole $108,818 in the two-robbery day that ended just before 9:45 a.m. -- not even an hour's work.
They fled in the Cherokee and sped behind a nearby Kmart, where Bannister was waiting in a silver Dodge Caravan stolen earlier that morning, according to court papers. They may have gotten away clean if magazine deliveryman Dean Orrison hadn't been standing nearby. "I thought they were terrorists the way their heads were wrapped in black," says Orrison, who lives in Cocoa. "I don't think they saw me, so I watched as they got into the minivan."
Orrison called the cops, who notified the FBI that robbers were fleeing in a silver Caravan. West Palm police descended on what they believed was the gang's hideout, the apartment of Bannister's girlfriend at 2100 Australian Ave. They arrived at 11:11 a.m. to find a group of dreadlocked men leaning on the silver Caravan. The men fled inside the apartment complex. An employee of the projects told police that he and many of the residents had often seen a gang of men enter one of the buildings carrying long guns, but they had been too scared to report it. The West Palm SWAT team surrounded the complex, and cops eventually found Bannister inside, though the other clique members apparently escaped.
Police searched two apartments and say they found all the tools of a bank robbing gang, including masks, black T-shirts, and a rose print pillowcase of the same brand used in that day's heists. In the closet of a baby's room, they found an arsenal of five loaded guns, including Chief Duran's assault rifle. They also found a safe with $14,700 inside. Among the cash was money stolen from the Tequesta robberies. Police say that inside the safe, they found fingerprints from Bannister and his brother, Quinton Bannister, who has not been charged with any crimes related to the robberies.
The FBI arrested Bannister that morning, hoping he would provide evidence against other gang members. It hasn't happened. According to court papers, Bannister told the investigators: "If you can show me a picture of me in a bank, then I'll talk to you about bank robberies. Until then, I got nothing to talk about."
In the visiting room of the Broward County Jail, Bannister laughs about the idea that there would be an article about him. He's facing 25 years to life at a trial scheduled to begin in December. Bannister maintains his innocence. "I didn't do it," he says in the visitor's area. He sits with his back turned defiantly toward the glass partition and jokes with another inmate about the idea of being famous. He shrugs off questions about whether he is a member of the Knotty Head Clique and ignores others about whether he was the getaway driver. Finally, he stands up and says the interview is over, making a slashing motion across his throat.