Posted 2/19/2007 12:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
Lunsford Bridges was visiting a relative in Hot Springs on Dec. 23 when he got the call informing him that one of his employees had been shot during a robbery.
The president and CEO of Metropolitan National Bank left Hot Springs and went straight to Baptist Hospital. By the time Bridges arrived, the 25-year-old teller, Jim Garison, had died.
"There were six or seven bank personnel there at the hospital to try and help the family and ... try to figure out how to reach out and to respond," Bridges said. "There's no dress rehearsal for something like this."
The robbery of Metropolitan's Colony West branch in west Little Rock was one of 51 bank heists that the FBI worked in Arkansas in 2006, marking the highest number of holdups in at least five years. While the number of bank robberies reported to the FBI statewide in 2006 was up 30 percent compared with 2005, the number in Little Rock actually fell from 18 to 17.
Experts find it difficult to pinpoint a cause for the spike.
"It's a crime of opportunity," said Special Agent Steve Frazier in the FBI's Little Rock office. "Every bank robber has his own reason. Some do it for drugs, some do it for desperation, some do it just for the kicks of it, [and] some do it to obtain money."
Usually, the bank robber is desperate to feed an addiction, such as narcotics or gambling, said Bill Rehder, who tracked bank robberies for the FBI in Los Angles for more than 30 years and wrote "Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World."
Rehder said he thinks the increase in bank robberies in Arkansas may be caused by several new serial bandits who have robbed a number of banks.
"I've always likened it to eating potato chips. Nobody can eat just one," he said. "If they do the one robbery, it's almost inevitable that if they are successful that they will come back and rob again."
The Arkansas Bankers Association is trying to prevent further bank robberies by informing its members of anti-crime programs. One campaign calls for banks to put signs on their entrances that ask customers to remove hats, hoods and sunglasses while in the bank. (Security video of the robber who killed Garison - whom police and prosecutors have identified as Grover Evans Jr., 18, of Little Rock — showed that he had the hood of his blue jacket pulled up over his head and also had the lower half of his face covered.)
"Some of the banks have chosen to do that," said Ken Hammonds, president and CEO of the ABA.
Soon the ABA will offer posters of the signs so banks can stick them in their windows.
Another sign the ABA is pushing warns that the penalty for robbing an Arkansas bank is 25 years in prison. The ABA also is establishing a reward fund that would offer up to $25,000 to catch perpetrators.
"We haven't finished making all the adjustments to [the reward program]," Hammonds said. "We'll work with the police and the FBI in that program on how much the reward [should be]."
The two most common bank robbery techniques are the note job and the takeover.
In the note job, the robber, who may be armed, will hand the teller a note demanding money. Note-job robbers want to attract as little attention as possible.
"Once he has obtained the cash, he'll flee," Rehder said. "Once that cash is gone, ... then he'll come back and do another."
Over the last 15 years, the average take nationwide in that type of robbery is $2,500, he said.
Banks set different limits on their cash drawers, even within the same bank branch; one drawer could contain $5,000 while another could hold $20,000, Hammonds said. But a robber wouldn't know which teller had which amount.
The more dangerous — and more lucrative — crime is the takeover heist. It usually involves more than one robber, and the perpetrators want all the attention on them.
"This usually involves a great deal of profanity, counters are jumped, guns are thrust into people's faces," Rehder said.
The takeover is the most feared in the banking industry, too. Almost all bank robbery violence occurs in takeovers. Even if the workers aren't hurt physically, they sustain some physiological damage to the point where they might file a workers' compensation claim, Rehder said.
Some workers quit after the robbery, "which is always an expensive proposition because you have to train [new] people," he said.
In the past 15 years, the average loss for a bank is $25,000 during a takeover robbery because the vaults and all the tellers' drawers are targeted.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which insures depositors against bank failures, doesn't insure a bank's loss from a robbery. Rehder said most banks, especially larger ones, are self-insured.
"Some of the smaller banks may have some private insurance, but usually that's not the case," Rehder said. "They just have to suck up the loss themselves."
What happened on Dec. 23 was unusual in almost every respect. The solo robber didn't have a note, and he didn't attempt a takeover. His gender and age were the only things that were typical; bank robbers are nearly always male and more than 40 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to FBI statistics.
Police say Grover Evans Jr. went into Metropolitan National Bank's Colony West branch at 10300 N. Rodney Parham just after 11 a.m. Two customers were in the branch.
The robber went to the window in front of Garison, who had worked at the bank for about a year and was working the drive-through teller station.
"Jim saw him as he came in, and we're not sure exactly what occurred from that point," Bridges said. "Jim was turning his back to face his window, when he was shot."
The robber went to another teller and took some money from her, Bridges said.
"As he was leaving, he said, 'Merry Christmas.'"
Garison died later at Baptist Hospital, making the crime that much more unusual. In 2005, only 2 percent of bank robberies resulted in injuries, according to the American Bankers Association. Bridges said Garison was the only bank employee killed during a robbery in Arkansas during his 44 years in the banking industry.
In the aftermath of Garison's murder, Bridges said, counseling services were made available to the customers, Garison's family and other employees.
"You have to collaborate with your whole [management] team on how to respond," Bridges said.
Most banks reopened the following Tuesday, since Christmas fell on Monday. But Bridges kept the Colony West branch closed one extra day.
"And that was a decision that we talked about and thought about an awful lot before we decided to open that soon," he said. "We felt that it was important to our customers and to our employees to open when we did."
The Arkansas Crisis Response Team, a nonprofit organization in North Little Rock that helps companies and individuals recover from traumatic events, assisted the bank's employees.
Robert Stebbins, senior vice president and director of marketing for Metropolitan, said none of the tellers who witnessed the shooting has quit or left the company.
"[We] have more closely monitored the ones that worked at the location and worked with Jim, just to make sure they are getting the support they need," Stebbins said.
Forethought isn't a bank robber's strong suit.
National FBI statistics show that 75 percent of bank robbers are caught, which is a higher apprehension rate than for most other crimes. In 2004, law enforcement agencies in the United States cleared 46.3 percent of violent crimes and only 16.5 percent of property crimes, according to FBI statistics.
The biggest reason for the relative success in catching bank robbers is the high-quality video that is being made from the moment the robber walks through the doors. Plus, banks are well lit and, by their nature, provide several witnesses. Getting away with the money is difficult because some branches have bulletproof barriers between the teller and the customers and two sets of doors that slow or trap a robber as he's fleeing the building.
If the robber does get some cash, an exploding dye pack or an electronic tracker will typically be hidden in the stash of money.
Rehder said most bank robbers are caught within six months. In the case of the Metropolitan homicide, the arrest came much faster — 11 days.
The Little Rock Police Department and the FBI used the image of the suspect caught on the bank's camera and blasted it to the media.
While most of his face was covered, the robber's droopy eyes were clearly visible — and so distinctive that Evans' mother called police.
"It took tough love on the part of [Evans'] mother and father to turn him in, which says a lot about them," Bridges said.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Police Department officers had noticed Evans in a car and asked him what he was doing there, said Little Rock Police Department spokesman Michelle Hill.
Evans said he had just relocated to southern California and was looking for a job. The officers told him to go to the library and look for work on Web sites, Hill said.
The next day, when officers learned that Evans was wanted for the robbery and homicide, they went to the library and found him pecking away at a computer, looking for work, Hill said.
He was arrested without incident on the capital murder charge.
In the federal court system, the maximum penalty for bank robbery is 20 years if a gun isn't used and five additional years if a gun is used.
But the crime can also be tried in state court, where the penalty could be 10 to 40 years or life for aggravated robbery. And he would have to serve 70 percent of his sentence before being eligible for parole.
The prosecution of Evans, of course is on an entirely different track: The penalty for capital murder could be life without parole or death.
John Johnson, chief deputy for the Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said his office and the U.S. prosecutors have an unwritten rule to review bank robbery cases to determine which system is likely to put a given defendant behind bars longer before charges are filed.
"Usually if [officers] arrest them, they're really good cases," Johnson said. "They generally end up not going to trial simply because they stand so much to lose."