By Michael E. Miller
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Bannister's court-appointed attorney, Ian Goldstein, calls the government's case circumstantial. There's no physical evidence tying Bannister to the robberies aside from the safe, Goldstein says, and cops found the safe in an apartment that did not belong to Bannister. "I keep thinking there's got to be more, but there's not," Goldstein says. "They have no evidence to charge him with this."
Since Bannister's arrest, prosecutors have secured the testimony of another suspected Knotty Head Clique member, John "JJ" Wilkerson. He claims that early on the morning of April 14, a friend named Rashard "Pitbull" Reddick woke him up and took him out to breakfast at McDonald's. Wilkerson had complained about being broke, and Reddick told him that his problems could be solved if he joined the Knotty Head Clique in robberies that day, according to court papers. Watching videotape of the robbery, Wilkerson told prosecutors he was the one who pointed a gun at a Suntrust employee's head in Port St. Lucie and threw the pillowcase and dye pack from the window of the Cherokee. Wilkerson pleaded guilty to bank robbery charges October 7 and has promised to testify against Bannister.
Prosecutors arrested Reddick earlier this month. Another gang member, a teenager who goes by "Firecracker," whom they identify in court papers only as "N.J.," has also agreed to testify against Bannister, according to court papers.
Still, Bannister's attorney claims the other men are trying to save themselves by pinning the crimes on his client. He says it began with Minus, who stands to have his sentence greatly reduced if he testifies. "This guy [Minus] is trying to testify against everybody and his brother," Goldstein says. "He picked Juan Bannister, and besides this, they don't have a case."
Despite the FBI's modest successes -- with four alleged gang members behind bars -- authorities say the robberies haven't stopped. The clique has knocked off ten banks since Bannister's arrest. Investigators won't confirm which bank robberies are attributed to the clique, but there are five in Palm Beach County that fit the system the gang developed.
On May 11, four hooded men robbed a Fidelity Federal in Boca Raton and beat two bank tellers for opening the vault too slowly. A week later, four masked men with rifles and handguns stormed another Boca Raton bank, pistol-whipping two tellers before fleeing in a stolen car. Two masked men robbed a crowded AmTrust in Delray Beach on June 18 and kicked two tellers before making off with an undisclosed sum. Two thieves struck a Union Planters in Boynton Beach on June 29. And on August 3, two masked men knocked off a World Savings Bank in Delray Beach before fleeing in a stolen Nissan, which they abandoned just 300 yards away.
As the clique becomes more violent, bankers fear that things will escalate. The bank group held a news conference September 17 to draw attention to the gang, but little has been written about them in the local press. Bank robberies have become so common in South Florida that most end up as quick mentions in a police blotter column. Even though the Knotty Head Clique has been at it for a year, the name is still unknown even among many in local law enforcement. Kerr, with the bankers association, says bank officials have discussed new alternatives to help catch them, although he declined to discuss specifics.
"We want to get these guys off the street," Kerr says, "before somebody really gets hurt."