Inside the FBI Bank Robbery Task Force

Agents study patterns, create nicknames for crooks to help track them down.

DENVER, June 26, 2010— -- The day is off to a busy start.

In Lakewood, Colorado, an armed man has just robbed a Liberty Savings Bank located in a strip mall on Alameda Avenue. Police officers have caught up with him, cornering him in an apartment building about half a mile away.

As police cruisers with flashing lights block the street and officers string yellow crime scene tape, Lakewood Police commander Jeff Streeter dials the bank robbery specialists at the FBI's Rocky Mountain Safe Streets Task Force.

"It was one of our first phone calls," says Streeter. "They have resources available that complement our resources."

Soon after the call, FBI Special Supervisory Agent Phillip Niedringhaus and several team members are on the scene to offer assistance and guidance. After a few tense moments, the Lakewood officers are able to talk the man out of the apartment and take him into custody.

"So now it's putting together the pieces," says Niedringhaus. "And finding the gun and finding the money and the clothes that he used."

Soon the team and the handcuffed suspect are on the way back to Safe Streets headquarters, located inside a 1910 stone and brick building surrounded by railroad tracks and livestock pens near the old Denver stockyards.

The elevators are decorated with cow hides that give off the aroma of leather, and security cameras monitor a locked door where visitors must ring a buzzer when they arrive.

The nine-member team is made up of FBI agents and officers from the Denver, Aurora and Lakewood police departments along with investigators from the Jefferson County Sheriff, Colorado State Patrol and Federal Protective Service.

FBI officials say cooperation with local law enforcement agencies is critical to the team's success.

"They make up 50 percent of our manpower out there," says James Davis, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Denver office. "I think that losing police departments from our task force would be devastating to us."

The team members are specialists in violent crime, responding any time of day to kidnappings, bank robberies and the hunt for fugitives. Every Monday morning, they meet in a fourth-floor conference room to discuss cases from the previous week, sharing intelligence, comparing notes and brainstorming.

One of the first tasks is assigning a catchy name to the newest bank robbers. One robber from the previous week carefully wipes away his fingerprints from the bank teller counter.

"He's the Spic-and-Span bandit," Niedringhaus suggests.

After a few minutes of discussion, the team agrees to call him the "Tom Thumb Bandit" because he was once seen on surveillance cameras wearing a cast or bandage on his hand.

"Naming is very important," says veteran Denver police Detective Mark Woodward, the bank robbery coordinator for the Safe Streets Task Force.

Woodward says naming the robbers helps keep them straight among investigators with full caseloads. It also helps garner public interest in the bandits, which can lead to tips that might help crack a case.

"We try not to pick names that glorify them. We try not to pick names that put them down too much," Woodward says.

The current crop of bank robbers hitting Denver-area banks come with names like the "Hoppin' Hooded Bandits," for the way they storm into a bank and hop over the counter.

The "Portfolio Bandit" is suspected of robbing a dozen banks around Denver, presenting his robbery note to tellers from inside a black folder. There is also the "Southpaw Outlaw," captured on surveillance video waving a gun in his left hand.

"That's the big thing with bank robberies," says Niedringhaus. "You just worry about somebody getting hurt."

Bank robbery can have deadly consequences. Acts of violence during bank robberies caused 21 deaths and 140 injuries last year, according to FBI statistics.

In November 2009 a man and woman robbed a bank at gunpoint in the Denver suburb of Westminster, getting about $8,400. After fleeing the bank, police gave chase and the couple began shooting, wounding two officers. Suspects Christian Benshoof and Ashley Johnson were killed in the firefight.

So far this year more than 70 banks have been robbed in Colorado, per capita more than any other state. Nationwide, the FBI reports there were 5,943 robberies at banks and other financial institutions in 2009, down from 6,700 in 2008.

Robbers got away with nearly $46 million in stolen loot last year, and only about 22 percent -- just over $8 million -- was recovered. Investigators say the average robber gets about $2,000.

Woodward has tracked bank robbers for more than two decades, and disputes the conventional wisdom that suggests a bad economy leads to more bank robberies.

"Good honest people don't turn to robbing banks when the chips are down, bottom line," says Woodward, known as "Woody" to his colleagues. "I call it a virus. People see other people doing it. They run into guys in drug houses and say 'Hey, where did you get all your money?' And it catches on."

Woodward and his colleagues are now tracking a new serial robber they've dubbed the "Limping Latex Bandit," using a computer database known as the Bank Analysis and Information Tool -- or BANDIT.

Starting in November 2009, the "Limping Latex Bandit" has hit six banks. In his first robbery he got away with about $8,000 after witnesses say he waved a gun in the air. His moniker comes from surveillance video that shows him wearing surgical gloves and walking with a slight limp. He covers his face with a hood, making identification difficult.

The team decides to set a trap. At a strategy meeting, they pore over every detail of Limping Latex's past robberies, looking for patterns that might help develop a profile. Everything is taken into account -- time and day of the robberies, any weapons used and the type of getaway vehicle.

Limping Latex also gives away clues to his past in the way he demands money, instructing bank tellers to avoid handing over money bound by straps that might conceal explosive dye packs. That, say agents, could be a clue that he's robbed before.

"You look at the terminology he uses -- 'no straps, no dye packs.' He's definitely educated. Like he's been through the system," Niedringhaus says.

Another clue comes from the type of getaway vehicles. Limping Latex has used a different car almost every time, leading the team to suspect he may work for a rental car company.

Finally, the team thinks they know when -- but not exactly where -- Limping Latex will hit next. Looking at maps and aerial photographs of the Parker area southeast of Denver, investigators go over a list of banks they think Limping Latex might try to rob and try to narrow it down.

More than a dozen banks on the final list will be the targets of an elaborate all-day surveillance operation.

Before the operation gets under way, however, there is a new snag. Many team members are pulled from working bank robbery cases for a higher priority: the search for a missing 12-year-old girl named Kayleah Wilson from Greeley, Colorado.

Kayleah disappeared after leaving home to walk to a party.

FBI agent Jonathan Grusing and Aurora police Sgt. Mike Thrap are part of a 50-member FBI team sent to Greeley to try and drum up leads. Grusing and Thrap canvas the area Kayleah may have been seen, knocking on doors, questioning residents and handing out fliers with her picture.

"We're trying to leave no stone unturned," says Grusing.

Eventually, leads in the case dry up and the number of investigators working the case tapers off. Attention is refocused on other cases, including the Limping Latex Bandit.

The day comes that the team thinks Limping Latex will hit. Agents and police stake out the banks on the list. But Limping Latex doesn't take the bait, and the day comes and goes without any sign of the suspect.

A few days later, however, he's back. He robs two banks in two days in the Parker area near Denver. The second time, he leaves a bank just as a dye pack hidden in a stack of money explodes.

Across a parking lot, a witness spots him and flags down sheriff's deputies who quickly make an arrest.

Limping Latex is identified by police at 66-year-old Merle Alison. The team was right: He has a criminal record for bank robbery and had access to different cars through his work at a Denver-area car dealership.

He could get up to 20 years in prison, a fact that doesn't deter many serial robbers.

"It's just one more off the street," Niedringhaus says. "There's more we're working on. The great thing about this line of work is that there's more work to be done."