By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
A year or so ago, they were probably just a bunch of punk car thieves.
It was a night in September 2003, and a group of them -- friends, most of them teenagers -- were hanging out in a Wal-Mart in Royal Palm Beach looking for a car to steal. The car they picked was a black Ford Crown Victoria, and they couldn't have missed the police radio and blue lights in the grill. They took it anyway. Its owner, Pahokee Police Chief Rafael Duran, came out of the store with a bag of toothpaste and office supplies just in time to see the bandits speed away in his cruiser.
The crew of automobile heisters may have planned nothing more sinister than a late-night joy ride. But at some point, they popped the trunk. They found an arsenal lying on top of the spare tire: boxes of ammunition, a pistol, a shotgun, and a Colt AR-15 assault rifle. The Colt looked like an M-16 semi-automatic used by the military; the choice of snipers and military assault teams, it can slice through car doors or pierce a bulletproof vest. The car thieves unloaded the cache of weapons and left the Ford abandoned on an airport access road.
The guns would quickly open a new, sinister chapter in their criminal careers.
Two weeks after stealing the car, the young men pulled up in front of a Fidelity Federal Bank on Broadway in West Palm Beach in a stolen white Taurus. In what would soon become their calling card, they wrapped black T-shirts turban-style around their faces and bolted toward the bank, new arsenal in hand, like an NFL special team pursuing a punt receiver.
Security guard Al Lettieri, standing in the bank's parking lot as they charged, saw them coming. The astonished Lettieri ducked quickly through a side door. He could've called the cops, maybe even taken up a defensive position to fight the men off, he acknowledged later, but he told police that he didn't think what he saw warranted calling the authorities. Lettieri, a retired cook who will turn 78 years old this December, kept his jacket on over his security guard uniform so they wouldn't know he worked there.
Lettieri is nobody's fool. "I wouldn't have tried to stop them, no," the bank guard, a rifleman in World War II, said when reached at his home in Margate. "I would've got shot, I'm sure."
So the young men charged unchallenged into the bank. It was a few minutes after opening, and the bank was empty except for a handful of employees. Out past the wall of windows that faces the tellers, rush hour traffic was still whizzing by on Broadway. The men ordered Assistant Manager Vera Jones to fill a pillowcase with money, and she complied, quickly handing over what looked like a hefty stack of cash.
The booby trap device that Jones slipped into the heist money is called a dye pack, an exploding, radio-controlled device packed with an indelible red stain. As the rookie bank robbers sped away from the bank, the pillowcase erupted, sending red ink everywhere.
The learning curve for novices in the felonious cash removal trade is usually short. Amateurs tend either to get caught quickly or, like high achievers in any field, to graduate in short order to professionals.
The Palm Beach County robbers, who continued to brandish Duran's prized assault rifle in banks across the county, would learn from their initial mistakes, developing holdup techniques that would begin to work like clockwork. In just a year, they have become South Florida's most sought-after gang of crooks. And the brash rookies who didn't know about dye packs have developed into a hardened gang with a reputation for violence, assaulting tellers and customers, often for no reason. In the past year, the band has robbed at least 16 banks, authorities say. The most recent tally puts their loot total for six robberies through April at more than $283,000, according to court papers. The gang has knocked off at least ten more banks since then.
So far, authorities have had little success at slowing them down. In April, West Palm cops had a promising break in finding the clique's hideout. Police and FBI agents nabbed four of the gang members, including alleged getaway driver Juan Bannister. They hoped those in custody would rat out the others and put an end to their activities. No such luck. Instead, the clique has continued robbing banks while investigators struggle to find a way to stop them.
The FBI allots more of its resources these days to chasing terrorists than on bank robbers. There's a bank robbery every other day in South Florida, and across the country, about two dozen banks are robbed daily. Catching the robbers often comes down to luck -- a cop who happens to be passing by or a customer who turns into a hero.
The clique's success, though, has begun to frustrate bank officials. In September, several local banks banded together to offer a $10,000 bounty on the group. Calvin Cearley, chief executive of Palm Beach County Bank, says fellow bankers have become impatient with the FBI's lack of success. "We want this to stop," Cearley says. "We have offered this reward in hopes of helping this investigation."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."