Women Are Moving into a Male Domain: Robbing Banks

Recent incidents show a rise in stickup women.

May 26, 2011 -- It's called the Bonnie without Clyde phenomenon. More women are robbing banks.

A woman dressed for success in a pink blouse, brown skirt and heels got an undisclosed amount of cash from a teller at a Charter One bank In Toledo, Ohio, on Tuesday. The robber, armed with handguns, drove off in her own getaway car

Police tasered a woman who robbed a bank in Wilmington Del., on May 17, according to ABC affiliate WPVI TV. Melanie Lynn Pagan, 32, was leaving the bank with the cash when she was caught and a .22-caliber handgun was recovered.

The "Bad Hair Bandit"—named for her unattractive wigs—hit a Spokane, Wash., bank on May 9 and may have been involved in up to a dozen heists in Washington State, sheriff's spokesman Dave Reagan said in a press release.

A more fashionable ring of at least six little old ladies has earned the nickname of "Mad Hatters" for the head gear they wear while robbing banks, picking pockets and using stolen credit cards. One bank alone estimated it had lost at least $200,000 at the hands of the hatters.

These women are among a growing group of female bandits invading a time-honored male domain. FBI numbers show that the percentage of women committing bank heists has risen from 5.4 percent in 2003 to 7.08 percent last year. The increase is especially marked among white women, experts say.

"It's not an epidemic, but it's definitely a trend," says Rosemary Erickson, a forensic sociologist in Florida. She noted that women are also robbing more convenience stores. And they are doing so on their own, whereas in the past women robbers were usually accomplices of men who led the operation.

She sees the trend as tied to the weak economy, and thinks women often resort to robbery because they need the money for practical purposes, whereas some men may commit the crime for the thrill.

But Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, thinks the increase is connected to the nature of bank heists, which today are relatively safe crimes to commit.

"It's a safe robbery for women. There's a sense that no physical harm will occur. You pass a note, maybe you menace that a gun is present, the teller slides back money and off you go," he said.

Bank robberies, he says, are no longer the violent operations portrayed in old movies, where an armed gang invades a bank and customers dive to the floor. "It's not Dillinger," agrees Erickson.

In fact, she says, bank robbery, once the domain of the professional crook, chas become a crime for amateurs, who often don't really have guns.

Banks have become easier targets, McCrie says. "They're less secure because they want to be friendlier," he said.

Banks have also developed techniques to lessen their losses. Tellers have a limited amount of money in their cash drawers, and robbers often will take what they can get. "Banks realize we don't have to give them $5,000. They'll be happy with $500," McCrie says.

Women who turn to bank robbery aren't embarking on a long-term criminal path: 75 percent of bank robbers get caught, as compared to only 25 percent of robbers in general. And according to Erickson, the person most likely to be killed in a bank heist is the robber herself.