Grandma Bandit Holds Up SoCal Banks

Police are on the hunt for an elderly woman who has robbed four banks so far.

March 30, 2009, 8:48 PM

March 31, 2009 — -- The face of the typical bank robber is young, male and often worn by the stresses of drug abuse. But as the weakening economy spreads desperation from New York to California, the face of bank robbery may be changing.

Meet Southern California's Grandma Bandit.

She's about 60 years old, a sturdy 5 feet 4 inches tall and speaks with a foreign accent. She works quickly, pulling stick-ups with a nervous energy that gets her out in a couple of minutes.

In bank surveillance video obtained exclusively by "Good Morning America," she wears a range of attire, from a turban to wigs to hooded sweatshirts. So far, she's robbed four banks -- two in one day -- since January 2008, the latest in December. And though she looks harmless, even sympathetic, she's nothing of the sort.

If you've seen the Grandma Bandit, call the FBI's Inland Regional Apprehension Team Tipline at (951) 248 6533.

"We have to assume that she's armed and dangerous," said Don Roberts, supervisory special agent with the FBI in Riverside, Calif. "We just don't' know what's going to happen, so we have to be careful."

No one knows yet what makes the Grandma Bandit rob banks -- or how long she may be at it. She's unusual not only for her age, but for her gender.

Female bandits commit only a small fraction of total bank robberies nationwide, though their numbers are on the rise: In the last 10 years, the percentage of female robbers has jumped from 2 percent to 6 percent of the total.

One reason for recent increases may be the weakening economy.

In May 2007, a woman named Joyce Banks, 56, and sporting a T-shirt with "I'm mad as hell" written on it, entered an Atlanta bank and asked a teller for $2,000. She was promptly arrested and confessed to the crime.

In December of that year, a woman named Valerie Harris, 51, robbed a bank in Northern California. She was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

According to authorities, both women said they were behind on their bills and desperate for the money.

If the Grandma Bandit is following their pattern, retired FBI bank robbery coordinator Bill Rehder said, she's hurting financially, too.

'Likely...Financial Difficulty'

"I don't see a hardcore narcotics addict in the photographs I'm viewing of grandma," he said. "I think it's more likely there is financial difficulty here that has possessed her to go on this spree."

In pictures taken during a November 2008 heist of a Bank of America in Chino Hills, Calif., the woman is seen getting out of a red SUV while wearing what the FBI believes is a white wig. She goes into the bank and presents a note saying that someone has strapped a bomb to her body and is forcing her to rob the bank.

A month later, she pulled her most audacious stunt: two bank robberies in one day. During the first, at a bank in Cerritos, Calif., time-lapse video shows her wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a dark wig and motioning inside her shirt to what she claims is a gun.

"We have no idea what's going on in that person's mind," Roberts said. "She may be desperate, (but) we don't know what her motivations are for robbing the bank."

In fact, law enforcement officials said they worry that financial desperation may cause the number of bank robberies to rise quickly during this recession, just as it did during the Great Depression.

There's a popular perception that a successful heist can set you up for life, but that's almost never the case. Most robberies of neighborhood banks yield an average take of $2,000.

"The big score is a big myth," Rehder said. "That's something that the movies have promoted. Banks don't carry that kind of cash."

But romantic notions of crimemay persist for some people. Authorities said they fear that people who have fallen on hard times will admire robbers like the one they're calling Grandma, just as some of the people who were hurting almost 80 years ago viewed John Dillinger as a folk hero, robbing the institutions that they blamed for their problems.

In the end, though, the story is rarely a happy one for the robber. She may not get gunned down like Dillinger, but if the Grandma Bandit strikes again -- as authorities expect her to -- her already high chances of getting caught will increase markedly.

Three out of four bank robbers land up in jail, the highest capture rate among perpetrators of all major crimes.

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