Bank Robbers

Bankrobber

The scariest bank robber I ever came across wore a mask and carried a gun. I never met him personally, but I saw the pictures. He wore a Halloween mask (not unlike the one in the picture above, which was worn by an actual bank robber in Pennsylvania a few years back) and he entered the bank aggressively, brandishing his weapon.

The man in this particular robbery hit at least two banks in Salt Lake City, a few years ago. He walked into both banks arrogantly, careful not to touch anything, and he pointed the gun at the helpless tellers, demanding money. He knew what he was doing. He asked for cash from secondary drawers, knew to demand no trackers, and brought in his own bags. He climbed behind the counter and pointed his gun at people’s heads, even into their mouths, promising to come back and hurt them if he was caught. He was gone in less than a few minutes and fled.

Of course, the police caught him, but it took them a little bit of time. The aggression of his actions, with a weapon and threats, escalated the crime to the highest levels with nearly maximum sentences. Bank-robbing is federal crime automatically, but using a weapon and delivering threats escalate the crime, though taking hostages, or hurting or killing someone, would obviously result in a more severe sentencing.

As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked the last 15 years doing crisis response work, on the side from my professional business. Though I’m self-employed, I make myself available to businesses who have been impacted by crises. Tragic employee deaths, suicides, corporate downsizings, industrial accidents, and, yes, bank robberies. Bank robberies, over the years, have been the most frequent crisis I get called out to. At this point, I’ve been to the sites of dozens of them (they happen more often than what people think), and I usually arrive just after the FBI has left). All of them are traumatic in their own way, and it is impossible to walk out of one of them emotionally unscathed.

But this man, this selfish, scary, arrogant man in a mask, he spent two minutes trying to get some quick cash, and then he lost everything, facing decades in jail. But for those he hurt, those half dozen people that he threatened and frightened, for them, this experience lasts forever. He never saw them, he only aimed the gun and then ran. He didn’t see them as humans. He didn’t realize that one of tellers would later break off her relationship with her fiancee because she couldn’t handle the nightmares, that one of the men would turn to alcohol to avoid the flashbacks he was having from the war, that an older single mother would quit her job because it was too scary to return, or the young man who suddenly couldn’t get the image out of his head about how his father used to beat him. The robber didn’t realize that some of them would be forever altered by this.

Most bank robberies aren’t this abrupt or violent. Often the robber is quiet, quick, or even apologetic. They are sometimes under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, or just plain desperate. They might stand in line like a regular customer, walk up to the counter, calmly, and pass a note. They may or may not imply that they have a weapon in their pockets, a gun up their sleeve, or even, as one robber pretended, a bomb strapped to his chest under his shirt. They might simply rush out of the store as quickly as possible. One robber I’m aware of hung out in the bank branch for nearly thirty minutes, stating he was waiting for someone, before he finally handed his note over.

Bank robbery notes themselves are fascinating. Some are short and direct. “THIS IS A ROBBERY! PUT ALL THE MONEY IN A BAG AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE!” Some are apologetic. “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but my family is starving. Please give me $2000 in twenties and tens as fast as possible. And don’t call the police!” And some fill an entire page with detailed instructions. “This is a robbery. Do not call the police. Do not signal anyone for help. There is a gun in my left pocket. Before you read any further, raise your left hand in the air to indicate understanding, but do not look up at me. After raising your hand, I want you to take the bag I am placing on the counter and then…” The notes might be legible in lined blue ink, monstrous scrawls in black marker, or even pre-typed on carbon paper.

Bank employees go through a rigorous training in order to work in banking institutions. They learn protocols for how to handle it. They are taught to remember as much as possible, to comply with all possible requests, to focus on safety first, and to get the robber out of there as fast as possible. They are told not to argue, to keep their voices calm, and to call the police in a calm manner afterward, giving them all the details possible. But no amount of training can prepare you for the moment a man (they are almost always men) comes in with a note, an implied weapon, and a threat. Adrenaline kicks in, trauma is triggered, and the heart rises in the throat, and sticking to the training is not always easy.

Immediately after the robbery takes place, the bank tellers have to notify the police and authorities, check on the customers who have been impacted, shut down the branch, and then write down everything they remember. They have to be interviewed by the FBI agents who arrive, provide descriptions and details, make camera footage available. This can take hours, and generally they don’t have a chance to even call their families before that is over. Regardless of whether they are angry, scared, anxious, panicked, numb, or triggered, they have to follow these protocols. And then they have to deal with the trauma for the following days.

Imagine going home to your car after a robbery and having to drive home. Imagine getting home and facing your family. Imagine closing your eyes for sleep that night, images flashing in your brain as you wonder if you locked the door or not. Imagine having to walk back into the bank branch the next morning to start the new shift, all over again. Imagine checking the news repeatedly to see if the police have caught the guy yet. Imagine worrying every time that you leave your branch that your coworkers might get robbed while you are gone.

I enter banks differently now. I view the tellers, young and old, with new respect. They aren’t paid well, and often don’t have a lot of support, yet the put themselves into these dangerous situations generally because they love customer service and they are dedicated employees. Sitting with them in the roughest moments, after their traumas, is difficult, but it is my supreme honor.

the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.