The "Scarecrow Bandits," so named for their plaid shirts and floppy straw hats, were a crafty crew.
The seven-man group pulled off 21 bank robberies across North Texas in the span of about a year, according to the FBI. For a time, there was a $90,000 bounty over their heads, among the highest rewards for crimes of that kind.
The elusive robbers were finally caught in June 2008. How? With help from a public tip prompted by one crime-busting Web site.
Launched in 2007, BanditTracker.com displays images of armed robbers pulled from security cameras, as well as descriptions of the suspects. The site lets law enforcement officers across a given region pool information and then easily share it with the public.
The original site was designed for Texas by the FBI, the North Texas Crime Commission and Electronic Tracking Systems (ETS), a Carrollton, Texas-based location and tracking security organization. Since then, similar sites have spread to Chicago and St. Louis and for states like Arkansas and Indiana.
BanditTracker Northeast, for the New York and New Jersey area, launched this week.
FBI Agent: 'Phenomenal' Tool for Law Enforcement
"It has been a phenomenal tool for us," Special Agent John Wetherington, the Dallas FBI's bank robbery coordinator, said at a law enforcement event about the service. "The Dallas team has seen a great, great response from this Web site."
While the FBI posts similar information on its Web site, it's often posted in an ad hoc and incomplete manner, said Jim Margolin, an agent and spokesman for the FBI in New York.
BanditTracker makes it easy for officers from all levels of law enforcement to immediately share information with each other and members of the public who might be able to spot suspects in their neighborhoods and local businesses, he said.
Margolin also said that while officers are assigned to geographic regions, robbers often commit crimes across several different areas.
"Robbers don't necessarily adhere to those boundaries, so it made sense to combine information from all four [FBI field offices]," he said.
Public Tips Often Help Solve Cases
And he added that, anecdotally, tips from the public often help law enforcement solve cases. After a short piece about a robber on the evening news or a wanted picture in a local people, he said his office will often receive several calls, some of which can lead to an arrest.
Of the nearly 500 people on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list since 1950, one-third were apprehended as a result of tips from the public, he said.
When BanditTracker Northeast launched Wednesday, it listed 26 robberies, including a heist at a Bank of America in Buffalo and a TD Bank robbery in White Plains, N.Y.
One of the "featured" robberies, highlighted at the top of the page, was of a February robbery at a Chase Bank in New York City.
"Subject is wanted for a series of armed robberies in Queens, N.Y. Subject approaches either customer service or bank manager, produces a hoax device and displays a handgun while demanding money," the entry read.
If the Web sites for other parts of the country are an example, BanditTracker Northeast will quickly grow, said Karl Kevilus, who worked with ETS to develop all the BanditTracker sites.
Developer: BanditTracker Helps Connect the Dots
He said that since the first site launched, at least 10 million photos have been viewed on all the BanditTracker sites. While he couldn't quantify their success, he said the sites have helped solve several crimes in nearly all of the regions.
"Being able to connect the dots a little easier and see the images had helped see results," Kevilus said. "I think the best thing is getting the information out there and keeping it out there."
People may see fleeting images of suspects on the news, but he said that's not the most effective way for people to relate and process the images.
The Web site lets people see how the suspects appeared when they committed crime and read about how they executed their robberies, he said.
And he emphasized that part of the site's success is that, though the content is supplied by law enforcement, it isn't officially a law enforcement Web site. That helps speed up the process of getting the information online and in front of the people who could help, Kevilus said.
Some might say that the name – BanditTracker – doesn't hurt either.
When he first started working with Texas law enforcement to create the site, Kevilus said information wasn't always moving smoothly between the various organizations. But BanditTracker has helped agencies that have sometimes been tight with the information they share with crime-fighting partners and the public and ultimately it has helped catch crooks.
"As it continues to grow, we'll get more and more of these guys," he said.