Nov. 16, 2010— -- The FBI and police in California are searching for the "geezer bandit," an apparently grey-haired elderly man who has committed armed robberies at 12 banks, the latest on Friday in Bakersfield.
The elderly persona -- whether real or donned for the robberies -- may be one reason why the bandit has been so successful. "People may think that because of his overall appearance he may not be as threatening," said FBI special agent Darrell Foxworth in San Diego. "But you have to keep in mind that he's an armed bank robber. And he has threatened tellers with the use of that gun -- we have photos where he is actually pointing a gun at a teller."
Foxworth said "witnesses described him as wearing a Halloween-like old man mask. Whether he's actually an elderly man or someone wearing some type of disguise is something we're considering as part of the investigation. We have not limited ourselves in any way."
The first 11 robberies in San Diego and Riverside counties share characteristics with Friday's heist in the town of Bakersfield, according to the FBI. In the first 11 episodes, which took place from August 2009 through June 2010, the robber showed a demand note, asked for cash, pointed a revolver at tellers, and threatened them with a gun if they did not comply.
In Friday's heist, Sergeant Mary DeGeare of the Bakersfield police department said the robber waited until the last customer left at 6 p.m., the bank's closing time. The robber, who "fumbled a bit with his gloves," according to DeGeare, then approached a teller with his demands. After that teller followed his instructions, DeGeare said another bank employee, unaware of the robbery that took place, unlocked the door to allow the robber to exit.
There is a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the "geezer bandit."
Witnesses described the robber as white, male, apparently 60-70 years old, 6 feet tall and approximately 190 pounds.
"There's a conception that people get nicer when they get older, such as 'nice grandpas,'" said Lawrence Frolik, a law professor specializing in guardianship and elder law at the University of Pittsburgh. "A lot of older people try to avoid confronations in public and are not as physically strong."
Though it's not clear whether this bandit is actually old, young criminals often become old criminals, he added. "Most psychologists believe as you age, you pretty much stay the same. Personalities stay the same. It's certainly true with white collar crimes. The robber has to adapt their criminal behavior with what they can get away with."
While there are other serial bank robbers in southern California on the loose, Foxworth said the "geezer bandit" is one of two cases in the region that have the FBI on heightened alert. The other thief, known as the "ho hum bandit," for his casual appearance and manner is responsible for about a dozen robberies in San Diego and Orange County.
"The geezer and ho hum bandits are two of the most active series that we're looking at right now," said Foxworth. "It has to do with the number of robberies, the level of activity, and also, the potential threat to the public."
Foxworth said the longest spree he has seen in his career from a single thief was a two-year string of more than 40 bank robberies. That robber, known as the FedEx thief for sometimes carrying a FedEx envelope as a prop into banks and filling it with cash, ended in 2005 with the arrest of Farhad Farhbaksh near the U.S.-Mexico border. Farhbaksh was sentenced to 34 years in prison in 2006.
FBI agent Rob Rice in Chicago told ABC news that naming criminals with monikers is a practice that makes them more easily identifiable, especially to the media.
"We have over 200 bank robberies a year," said Rice. "It's much easier for the investigators to refer to somebody by their serial name rather than the guy that robbed five banks."
The FBI's four field offices covering Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, are working with local law enforcement officials on the investigation.
"The key to remember is that this is an ongoing active investigation, we're seeking the public's assistance with any tips they may have concerning the geezer bandit," said Foxworth.