Bank Robberies on the Rise in Valley; Feds and Local Authorities Pledge to Work Cases Hard

The number of bank robberies in the Valley have doubled compared to the first few months of 2008, prompting authorities to pledge to work harder on the cases.

From January to May 1 in 2008, robbers held up 44 Valley banks. In the same four months in 2009, they hit 88. There were 179 bank robberies in the Phoenix metro area last year, a notable increase from 2007. But if the current pace continues, authorities say, this year might achieve a total of 271.

To help tackle the problem, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office led a news conference today, announcing an anti-bank-robbery "task force" of local and federal law officers. The task force apparently won't do much above and beyond what is typically done --authorities admitted at the news conference that they already work together on such crimes. But the announcement did put the general problem, and a few specific cases, in the public spotlight.

We've told you about a couple of the unsolved cases. One is the "Bad Hair" Bandit, who we thought looked like the Fifth Beatle in one of his get-ups. The FBI released a new photo today of the man (above), who robbed another Scottsdale bank last night while wearing an afro wig.

Officials had posters displaying two other robbers who had been given memorable names by the FBI. One is called the "Raggedy Ann Robber" based on her orangish hair dye:

Another is the "Thou Shalt Not Steal" robber, who we wrote about in late March. The suspect planned the crime meticulously and first broke into a Christian bookstore next door to the bank. He cut a hole through a wall that was adorned with dozens of crucifixes and statutes of the Virgin Mary, giving rise to his FBI handle. FBI Agent Lance Leising told New Times that after boring the hole, the robber hung out in the bookstore until the bank opened, then handcuffed the employees and stole money from the vault.

You can see complete details and more pictures of the wanted robbers on the FBI's local Web site.

The dog-and-pony show was attended by (from left to right in the photo below): Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, FBI Phoenix Special Agent-in-Charge Nathan Gray, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Scottsdale Police Lieutenant Craig Chrzanowski, Mesa Assistant Police Chief John Meza, Phoenix Assistant Police Chief Andy Anderson and U.S. Attorney for Arizona Diane Humetewa.

Nathan Gray, who recently took over as the top FBI guy in town, told the media there's "no rhyme or reason" for the increase in bank robberies.

The cause isn't believed to be desperation borne of the country's economic problems, officials said, and there's no sign of involvement by Mexican "ripoff crews" or drug cartel members. Rather, the robbers' motives seem to be typical -- they need quick cash to pay a drug debt. Oddly, other armed robberies across the Valley have been on the decline, officials said.

Gray said the new partnership between law enforcement agencies will be "force multiplier" against the robbers. And as they're caught, federal and county prosecutors stand ready to bury them with severe criminal charges.

Would-be robbers ought to know that federal law treats armed and unarmed bank robbers the same -- they all qualify for up to 20 years in prison, said Humetewa. Brandishing or "using" a weapon during the crime means extra years behind bars. She added that the legal punishment would be the same for the drivers of getaway cars, lookouts or other members of a robbery team as it is for the people swiping the money inside the bank.

"We are going to seek the toughtest sentences possible," she said.

County Attorney Thomas said state penalties are roughly the same as the feds'.

Police said that anyone who wants to share information about suspected bank robbers should call Silent Witness at (800)WITNESS.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.