Number of bank heists plummets

Published February 11, 2007 1:09 am
And at 75 percent, Utah has above-average solved-case rate
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Steven Bingham has advice for anyone considering bank robbery.

"Don't do it," said the former Utahn, now serving time for robbing banks in Orem and Herriman. "It's not worth it."

Statistics suggest Utahns are heeding Bingham's words. Utah had just 34 bank robberies in 2006, less than half the previous year, according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, Utah law enforcement continues to catch the bulk of the bandits. Arrests were made or criminal charges were filed in about 75 percent of Utah bank robberies during 2006, the FBI says. The national average is about 60 percent.

Some officials, however, say bankers should not grow too comfortable.

Tom Nolan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University, said Utah's annual robbery statistics are so low that conclusions shouldn't be drawn from a one-year decrease.

And Wendy Holloway, a senior vice president at the Utah Bankers Association, said criminals in Utah are abandoning bank robbery in favor of identity theft. Bank robbery, Holloway said, poses too much risk for the reward.

"There just isn't that much money available [in a bank robbery]," Holloway said.

Bank robberies have retained a certain romance in the state ever since Utah posses chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There have been recent attention-grabbing cases, including two men arrested for allegedly firing guns during three bank robberies and a newlywed couple accused of robbing a bank in Utah County.

Someone robbed a bank Monday in Ogden. It was the city's first bank robbery since December 2004. Police captured a suspect, a parolee, the same day at the Greyhound bus station in Salt Lake City.

Bank robberies appeared to be epidemic in 2003, when the state had a record 130 robberies at banks and credit unions. The FBI said 56 percent of the cases were solved that year.

Peace officers attributed that spike to Utah lacking a statute distinguishing bank heists from other robberies and a belief among criminals that federal prosecutors would decline to pursue cases.

While the current downward trend might be influenced by criminals choosing new crimes, cops and federal agents also attribute improved cooperation among law enforcement.

"There's very few turf battles," said Supervisory Special Agent Rick Rasmussen, who oversees violent crime investigations for the FBI in Utah. "In fact, it's better than very few. There aren't any."

Robbery detectives from Salt Lake and Davis counties meet once a week at the Salt Lake City Police Department to discuss cases they're investigating and share information. Peace officers from multiple agencies serve on task forces investigating major crimes, and there are other task forces dedicated to apprehending fugitives, including suspected bank robbers.

Investigators "can compare notes and, coming together this way, they can isolate the offenders and kind of turn the tables on them," Nolan said.

Banks are doing more to help catch robbers, too. Digital surveillance camera technology produces clearer pictures than the VHS cameras that once monitored banks. And digital footage displaying suspects can quickly be e-mailed to news outlets to show the suspect to the public.

Bank employees are trained to note the suspect's description and details of how he or she committed the robbery.

If a robber isn't captured, he or she likely will rob again, police say, so an arrest can solve multiple cases and prevent future robberies.

"If they get away with it, it's a rush for them," said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Jon Richey. "And it's lucrative, potentially, and we typically see them repeat their crimes."

Richey also said some Utah crooks might turn to robbing pharmacies for prescription pain relievers rather than holding up banks. Utah authorities say drug dependency is the primary characteristic of a bank robber.

Speaking to The Tribune by telephone from a federal prison in Englewood, Colo., Bingham, 28, said he was addicted to methamphetamine and was selling it in 2004 when he robbed banks in Utah. Bingham said he thought the loot could help him change his lifestyle and quit drugs.

In the first robbery, Bingham and two accomplices placed a pipe bomb outside the Orem City Center and telephoned a bomb threat to a Wells Fargo bank to distract police. Then Bingham and another man entered a Far West Bank with a shotgun. They fired a round into a wall and hit a man with the butt of the shotgun, authorities said, before leaving with about $2,000 from a register.

The next month, Bingham walked into a Zions Bank in Herriman and went to the manager, saying he was there to rob the bank but did not want to hurt anyone, but that his partners were watching.

The manager took Bingham to the safe and gave him about $78,000.

The three men were captured later that month after an informant contacted police.

"We were careful, but we weren't that careful," Bingham said. "Eventually, they would have caught us even if we hadn't been [snitched] on."

Bingham, from Altamont and Orem, is serving an 8 1/2-year prison sentence for the robberies. The crimes have been painful for his family, which includes three sons. He agreed to an interview in the hope of deterring others from robbery.

The decline in Utah bank robberies has come as national rates have stagnated or increased. Frank Fisher, the corporate security director for Zions Bank, said it's difficult to analyze trends in bank robberies and he's not sure Utah's lower numbers will remain that way.

"It's kind of like the stock market," he said. "It will fluctuate."


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