The Bank Robbery Boom

Can there now be any doubt that the '90s will be a decade of retrenchment--an era of smaller sirloins, fewer M.B.A.s and countless "Mr. Ed" remakes? Even in the world of criminal enterprise, it seems there is a return to basics. In the '80s, if you wanted to fleece a bank, you bought one (preferably a savings and loan) and artfully drove it into the ground, making sure of course to skim off a healthy take and to save a few dollars for your favorite senator. In the new decade, the approach is far simpler: you go into the bank and stick it up.

The bank heist is back. After all the videotapes are in and all the ski masks have been counted, the FBI projects that more than 9,000 bank robberies will be reported this year (not including thefts from patrons of automatic-teller machines)--up at least 10 percent from 1990 and easily the worst year in American history. Not since the '70s have banks witnessed such a dramatic increase in robbery. The cause is unclear. Some law-enforcement officials blame drug addicts, who are in constant need of money and may account for three quarters of incidents. Sociologists say there is also a close correlation between bank robberies and a poor economy. But Gabe Ornelas, formerly head of the Los Angeles Police Department's bank-robbery detail, disagrees. "I don't come across robbers trying to put their kids through schools," says Ornelas. "I don't buy this recession business."

While cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are at record highs, it is Los Angeles that has become the robber's favorite place to withdraw money. As of midNovember, 2,000 bank jobs already had been reported there--over one fifth of the projected national total. In a single September week, the city had 67 holdups. In one of them, four gunslingers wore Groucho disguises and made off with $434,000 from a Wells Fargo branch in Tarzana. The entire crime took 90 seconds, It was the third time that Wells Fargo had been hit by that gang. So incensed was the bank that it posted an old-fashioned $10,000 reward-a tradition it did away with in the 1890s. The bank named the reward after James B. Hume, in honor of its former security chief who captured the notorious highwayman "Black Bart" at the turn of the century. "We are returning to our history," says Lois Rice, Wells Fargo's executive vice president. "We're tired of waiting for the next robbery to happen."

Los Angeles has always led the FBI charts in bank jobs. It's not hard to figure out why. For one thing, there are a lot of banks, most of which provide long hours. Design is a key factor. In the East, many banks were built 100 years ago like fortresses, places where a Morgan could feel at home. "In California," says Los Angeles FBI chief Charles Parsons, "you have potted plants, subdued lighting and open teller stations." Better yet for the bank robber is the state's road system. "You rob a bank, take a right turn and in 32 seconds you're on the freeway," Parsons laments.

Even with the record numbers, none of today's heistmeisters has the panache of the old breed. George Leonidas Leslie, for example, was regarded as the criminal genius of the 1860s and '70s. Known as "King of the Bank Robbers," Leslie masterminded many of the great thefts of his time, all the while leading the life of a Manhattan socialite. Since his technique involved the meticulous study of a bank's floor plan, Leslie could spend years preparing for heist. A half century later, "Ma" Barker, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson were household names. In the 1940s and '50s, Willie (The Actor) Sutton became a folk hero, with his bag of disguises, odd limps and escape-artist tricks.

The modern bank robber, alas, is a dim, uncreative sort. He (it's hardly ever a she) acts alone, typically on Friday between 1 and 3. He's usually white and has no weapon, preferring instead a threatening slip of paper demanding the cash. Planning isn't part of the program. One bank robber in Philadelphia had to ask the teller for a pen to write his note. Another asked only for a $10 bill. In Brooklyn, two years ago, a thief got mugged on his getaway and reported it to the police. Today's thief doesn't even have a clever nickname. The best the Los Angeles area has come up with are the "Yankee Bandit" (always wears that baseball cap), the "Shutup Bandit" (loves that phrase) and the "No Coins Bandit" (bills only, please). "Our bank robbers are not very sophisticated," Parsons says. "In fact, bank robbery is a dumb crime."

Sure is. The average take in a heist last year was $3,244. In L.A., 85 percent of the robbers are caught. And the sentences, set by federal law, are stiffarmed--robbery carries a maximum of 25 years in the pokey, unarmed robbery just a few years less. It's "every detective's dream," Ornelas says. "With most crimes, you start with very little information. With bank robbery, the bandit announces his presence. There are cameras, witnesses, and within minutes there are lots of cops."

And a host of other tools to thwart the robber. Some banks now sneak exploding bundles of cash into the crook's sack, so that a red dye spills on the money and later the crook. A sneakier gadget is a plastic transmitter that tellers can bury inside a stack of bills; this allows police to track a thief once he leaves the bank. The most obvious device, of course, is the "bandit barrier," that bulletproof shield between patrons and tellers. It stops most robberies, but many banks, especially in the West, don't like them. "They don't want to look like Fort Knox," says Alan Bernstein, head of domestic operations for the Wackenhut security company. "They want to be the friendly family bank."

Even as security experts work to stop the basic give-meyour-money-or-else robbers, a few savvy criminals are looking at o at other new banking opportunities. That means automatic teller machines, which are, as Willie Sutton liked to say, where the money is. There are more than 77,000 ATMs in the country, and on any Friday each is stuffed with $10,000 to $50,000 in small bills. So you're no good at computer codes and can't break into the machines? A few robbers have been bold enough to steal the entire ATM, using a forklift and truck. Maybe there's hope yet for the originality of the American criminal mind.

PHOTO:Criminals at work: A holdup in a New York City bank branch, a California gunman vaults over the counter of a credit union

When the Wild West was opened and the Great Depression hit, bank robbers piqued the nation's imagination. Portrayed as dashing scoundrels, in fact they tended to be thugs.

The daring robberies pulled by this outlaw and his gang became a symbol of Western derring-do. In 1882, he was shot in the back by a confederate who wanted the $10,000 reward.

Bonnie and Clyde were small time (top haul: $1,500), but stylish. They flummoxed police for almost two years until they were ambushed in 1934.

He was known as "Willie the Actor' because of his talent for disguise. And immortalized for an explanation (he later disowned) of why he robbed banks: "That's where the money is."

His robberies in 1933-1934 made him Public Enemy No. 1. So did his escape from an Indiana jail using a gun carved from a bar of soap and blackened with shoe polish.