Wash. Man Pulls Off Robbery Using Craigslist, Pepper Spray

Straight out of the movies: A man robs armored truck, escapes with inner tube.

October 1, 2008, 4:20 PM

Oct. 1, 2008— -- In what authorities described as one of the most unusual robberies in recent memory, a man wrested a bag of cash from an armored truck guard and escaped down a creek with an inner tube after using decoys summoned from a Craigslist ad to distract witnesses.

Police from the small town of Monroe, Wash., are still wondering how he managed to pull it off. They were on the scene two minutes after the call came in Tuesday, but have not found the robber, who shed his clothes as he ran toward the local creek and, according to witness statements, escaped with an inner tube.

Police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said the robbery was unusual both in preparation and execution.

"The Craigslist thing is very weird," she said. "Hopefully, that will give us some clue as to where they are."

Willis said an ad was posted on the free classified advertising site, asking for 15 to 20 men to show up near the Bank of America on Old Owen Road at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday to work on a maintenance project called "Restore Monroe."

The men were to wear dark blue shirts and surgical masks covering their noses and mouths. In return, they'd be paid about $28 per hour, which Willis said is well above the standard for that kind of work.

Watching From Across the Street

Mitch Ruth, a councilman and manager of his family's real estate businesses, was sitting in his office talking on the phone shortly after 11 a.m., staring directly at the Brink's armored truck that was parked in front of the freestanding Bank of America at a local shopping center.

"A guy walks across the street, seemed very normal," Ruth said.

He was wearing a blue, long-sleeved T-shirt, sunglasses and a light blue baseball cap, his long shaggy hair tied into a ponytail.

Ruth said he was carrying a two- or three-gallon spray tank and thought the man was just one of the shopping center's grounds workers. But when the truck driver got out of the armored vehicle carrying a large canvas bag, the man broke into a run.

Ruth said the man dropped his spray tank and held up a smaller spray can, about the size of a hairspray bottle, and blasted the guard in the face with what police said was Mace or pepper spray.

The blast, which Ruth said extended several feet behind the guard's head, gave the man the opportunity to snatch the canvas bag, rip out the plastic bag containing the cash, and take off.

The Brink's guard hit with the pepper spray received medical treatment at the scene.

Police would not release the amount of cash stolen from the Brink's truck, but Willis said it was "a large amount."

Seeing him run toward his office, Ruth -- who was on the phone with 911 by then -- gave chase, watching the man toss off his hat, revealing short dark hair underneath.

He lost him as the man entered the woods leading to the creek.

"Tasseled loafers, I guess, aren't the best in dirt and wet grass, anyways," Ruth said of his own footwear.

That's just as well for Ruth, who has been chastised by everyone from the police to his wife for running after the robber.

"I've been teased just unmercifully for this," he said.

The Getaway: Yellow Inner Tube

Willis said police found the man's shirt and pants. Witnesses reported seeing him with a yellow inner tube, which police found about 200 yards down the creek that feeds into the larger Skykomish River.

One witness reported seeing a second man with binoculars standing in a parking lot near the bank before the robbery. That and the robber's quick disappearance from the creek have led police to believe there was at least one other person helping him and that he was likely picked up after he dumped the inner tube.

A police helicopter that arrived on the scene about a half-hour after the initial call was unsuccessful in locating any suspects.

Police were back out on the river today searching for clues, and authorities have hired professional, independent trackers to analyze any footprints or other evidence left in the woods.

The FBI has also been called in as an assisting agency because a bank was involved.

Police talked to two of the "workers" hired by Craigslist and are trying to locate the others.

KING 5, a local Seattle-area television station, quoted a man at the scene, who was only identified as Mike, as being one of the people unwittingly hired as part of the robbery.

Mike told the station that he responded to the Craigslist ad last week and received an e-mail back with instructions on where to show up and what to wear.

"Yellow vest, safety goggles, a respirator mask ... and, if possible, a blue shirt," he told KING 5, adding that he and about a dozen other people thought they had been stood up before hearing about the robbery.

Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI agent, said he has worked on hundreds of bank robberies, and the Monroe robber's plan showed a lot of "forward thinking."

But maybe not complete creativity.

Like Something Out of the Movies

Garrett said the plan sounds very similar to a storyline in the 1999 movie "The Thomas Crown Affair" in which an art thief, played by actor Pierce Bronson, hired decoys dressed just like him to throw off the police.

But while it's not uncommon to see copycat robberies ripped from the storylines of movies and television, Garrett said, it is unusual for a robber to try such a stunt with an armored truck.

"It's not bad thinking," he said, "if you're so pre-disposed to do this type of high-risk robbery."

In a typical armored truck robbery, the perpetrators will ambush the driver, usually with guns, when the truck pulls up. That kind of situation can escalate quickly, Garrett said, because it causes a lot of attention and the guards are usually armed themselves.

"Most of your armored car robberies fit this profile," he said.

The Monroe robber also deviated from the plan by using the pepper spray.

Garrett recalled some unique in-store bank robberies, but came up short trying to find a case comparable to this one.

"He did a high-risk, potentially violent crime, with a lower threat threshold," he said.

A message left with Brink's was not immediately returned today.

But Bank of America, in a statement, said: "The safety and security of our customers and associates are our top priority. We are cooperating with law enforcement to aid in the investigation. The banking center was reopened today to serve all of our customers."