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.

NYPD Adventure

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“So when I get there, are you going to demand money for my phone?” Cooper stared off into space, negotiating with the man who had robbed him. I heard the man’s voice come back through my cell phone.

“That was the wrong question to ask me, son. Now you have thirty minutes to get here or I’ll just sell your phone. Meet me at the Bank of America.”

“At least tell me what you look like!”

“You don’t need to know that either.”

Cooper got off the phone quickly and looked at me, not knowing what to do.

We were sitting at a Starbucks in the heart of midtown New York City, just blocks away from the United Nations, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the New York Public Library, all iconic and famous buildings.

My sister Sheri and I, there on vacation, had just left the United Nations after a wonderful tour through the massive and reverent facility, and Cooper had messaged me, saying his phone and wallet had been stolen at the coffee shop. He was in town auditioning, preparing for a big move to the city as an actor a few months down the line, and we had talked about meeting up while we were both in the same place. He and I had been on exactly one date a few years ago, and had stayed friends, but he had moved to Los Angeles now and was working as an actor, while I was still in Utah working and raising my sons. He had been working on his laptop, had bent down to get something out of his backpack, and had sat back up to find his phone missing, and with it the attached case that contained his cash, credit cards, and identification.

Before Sheri and I arrived at Starbucks, Cooper had opened his laptop and accessed an IPhone tracker app. By entering his number and password, he was able to see the location of the phone through the city, and it was several miles away. Cooper had entered a phone number of a friend into the phone, which would then allow the robber to call that number only. Cooper could also push a button that would make the phone ‘ding’ loudly, even if it was on silent mode. The only way to quiet it would be to shut it off, and so far the man hadn’t done that. So once we arrived at Starbucks, Cooper changed the number in the tracker to my number, and the robber had called it.

“What did he sound like? Do you know what he might look like?”

Cooper grimaced. “I don’t want to sound racist, but he sounded like an older black man. I know that type of voice. And I think I remember a guy like that here. He was an older guy, blue shirt, with a cap on his head.”

I laughed, lightening the moment a bit. “You aren’t racist. If I said it, it might sound racist, I’m the white Utah kid. But you’re the black Utah kid, so saying another man sounds black is less racist.” We both chuckled a bit.

“Okay, listen,” I told him, leaning in over the table. “This is clearly some kind of scam. When I was 21, I was in Philadelphia, and a guy tried engaging me in conversation on the street. When I slowed down, he signaled his buddies and suddenly I was surrounded by men who mugged me. I ended up unconscious as they ran off. So this guy clearly has some sort of plan. This is something he has done before. You can’t go up there, and even if we had a car, there is no way you could make it in thirty minutes. Maybe you call 911 instead.”

And so Cooper called 911. “What’s my emergency?”  he said when they answered, and he explained the whole situation, how he could track the man with the phone, and how the man wanted him to show up by himself to a bank. The unsympathetic operator told Cooper to head up there to the bank on his own and see if the man was there, and then to call the police and they would arrive. Except it would likely take the police over an hour to arrive. The call ended abruptly.

We strategized briefly. Cooper had a plane to catch the next morning. He absolutely couldn’t go meet a criminal with a credit card at his bank. A call to the airlines confirmed he could still board his plane if he had a police report that showed his ID was missing, so he could cancel his credit cards, get a new phone, and get the police report.

On our walk to the police station, the man called back and I found myself laughing out loud as Cooper channeled his inner black girl in his responses, his walk more confident, his gestures more dramatic.

“Okay, listen, nigger, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I am coming up to you in a place I don’t know when you won’t describe yourself. No! Just leave my cell phone with a bank teller then! What’s that? Oh, you want me there in person so that you can see the look on my face when you hand it to me! No! I’m not a fool! What do you take me for! Fine, then sell my phone! The screen is cracked and the battery is almost dead, and I have the charger, but I bet you can get 20 bucks for it! Go ahead! Go right ahead!”

The man hung up, and although we tried calling several more times, he didn’t answer again. But he didn’t turn the phone off either. Cooper, strangely, was a bit elated. He talked about having the best time with this, and how this was an epic New York adventure. We kept laughing as we walked into the local police station precinct of the NYPD, an older tomb-like building with poor lighting inside and a set of chairs in front of the reporting desk. We saw several policemen walking around, all men, a multi-ethnic team of professionals of all ages.

Cooper explained the story to the dispatch officer, who called in his supervisor, who called in his supervisor, who called in his supervisor. We showed them Sheri’s phone, which now had the IPhone tracker downloaded on it, and we could see the man had moved several miles again to Central Park. We tried calling him again with the police there, but he wasn’t answering. And suddenly, one of the men spoke up.

“Well, let’s get an undercover car, and let’s go get him.”

And before I could blink, Sheri, Cooper, and I were piled into the back of an unmarked police car. In the front sat Sergeant Morales, a thin, handsome Hispanic cop with a no-nonsense attitude, and Officer Francis, a linebacker-sized Caucasian man with a tremendous sense of humor. Both men had huge hearts and were clearly very passionate about their jobs.

The car began whizzing in and out of traffic down Fifth Avenue toward Central Park, and I had to crack a window to keep from getting nauseous. I was fatigued, and hungry, and dehydrated. The officers triggered the siren to clear traffic when necessary and ran several red lights.

As we drove, Sheri, ever the comedian, quipped, “Cooper, what if the guy just thought you were hot? What if he stole your phone to get your attention?”

Cooper, all smiles, laughed back. “That would be the most twisted and elaborate story of all time. Maybe I’ll meet my future husband now!”

Sheri kept going. “What if the cops are in on it? Are you guys just actors leading Cooper to an epic date?”

Officer Francis looked back seriously. “Yup. Surprise!”

And Sergeant Morales, more serious, still chuckled. “Right. Cause we could get an unmarked cop car and break traffic laws for that.”

Cooper and I exchanged an ‘is-this-really-happening’ look and soon we were near Central Park on a busy intersection, right on top of the blipping dot on the tracker.

“Okay,” Officer Francis explained. “Chad and Cooper get out and walk down the road. Push the little button that makes the phone ding. I’ll hang out behind you and as soon as you point him out, I’ll grab the guy.”

We walked up and down the block, watching for a man that met Cooper’s description. He pushed the button, but we heard no pings. My heart was pounding and my senses on hyper-alert. At the end of the city block, the tracker suddenly showed the man another 8 blocks away. We all piled back in the car, wondering if he was on the subway or a bike or a city bus. Two more times, we walked the busy streets filled with pedestrians, and each time he would be blocks farther away. We kept calling and pinging the phone, but the man never answered.

Finally, we identified the bus he was on. And so the NYPD activated their siren and pulled the bus over. On Fifth Avenue. In New York City. Blocking traffic. And my friend, my sister, two cops, and me walked on to the semi-crowded bus. To catch a criminal. Who had stolen a cell phone. My head was spinning.

As we got on the bus, an older woman rushed off. “I want nothing to do with the cops!” she exclaimed, basically fleeing.

Sitting right there at the front of the bus was an elderly black man with a walker. He was wearing thick black glasses, a blue ballcap, a grey sweater over a plaid shirt, and blue pants. Cooper was off the bus pushing the ‘ping’ button and I heard it going off in his pocket. The man’s walker was draped in clothing and bags.

“Is there something going on, officers?” the man asked. They explained they were looking for a stolen cell phone and the man reached into his sweater pocket and pulled it out. “You mean this one? I was at a Starbucks a few hours ago and I found it sitting in a bathroom. I have been trying to talk to the kid to give it back, but he didn’t want to, so I kept it here in my pocket. I’m just on the bus, headed down to K-Mart to buy me some socks.”

The police pulled the man off the bus and he took a seat on his walker on the sidewalk as the officers got his identification. His name was George and he was 72. He had no criminal record except for a speeding ticket back in the 1970s.

George kept talking, professing pure innocence at what he had done. He seemed to mostly be dialoguing for himself, and now, days later, I’m not sure if he was a master criminal with a very convincing cover story that he has used over and over, or a slightly senile old man who was purely innocent. I found myself questioning him as he spoke, as did Cooper, as did the officers, but his story didn’t change.

“Look, I found the cell phone in the bathroom. I didn’t realize it had your ID and credit cards in it. Look, nothing is missing, see? I had no idea the police could track a phone like that! Wow, how did you guys even find me? And on a bus! Anyway, I didn’t steal it. I didn’t give the phone to someone at Starbucks or see if anyone there had lost it because I didn’t want anyone to steal it. You say you left it on a table? No way, I found it in the bathroom. So I just put it in my pocket. I was trying to give it back to you, wasn’t I? I didn’t ask for no reward. Why didn’t I describe myself? Because I wanted you to be surprised! Why didn’t I just leave the phone with a bank teller? Well, because, I wanted to see the smile on your face when you got it back! That would have been my reward! Why did I threaten to sell the phone? Well, what else was I going to do with it! Why was I miles away at a bank? Well, because I had to go up that way for some glasses! That was just a good place to meet you!”

And in the most telling moment of the entire conversation, the man turned to Cooper and said, “Look, did I ask you for any money for your phone?”

And Cooper quipped back, “No. But I had to get the cops to chase your bus downtown to grab it.”

Officer Francis explained that they definitely had enough evidence to arrest the man, but that he rather believed the man was a bit senile and didn’t mean to steal it. He said it would be the weirdest arrest he had ever made, taking the man in his walker back to the station for booking. He explained that since there were credit cards with the phone, that George would be charged with a felony. And Cooper, magnanimously, decided not to press charges.

Before the police gave us a ride back to the station, before we firmly shook their hands and sincerely thanked them for their amazing service, before we all went about our days with giant smiles and spinning heads, before I could ruminate on what an insane adventure that had been, before George got back on the next bus to go on and buy his socks (and maybe to steal another phone)… before all that, I made one suggestion.

“Hey, Cooper, you and George want to get your photo taken?”

And so Cooper held up his phone and stood next to George, who stood up off his walker and put his arm around Cooper. They both smiled and held up their thumbs as I snapped the shot. People passed behind them, texting, oblivious.

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