Monday, October 25, 2010
Robbers Show a Creative Side
Dan McCaffery, an FBI special agent in the New York office's Violent Crimes unit, said most robbers make some attempt to hide his or her identity. The type of disguise usually depends on the type of robbery, he says.
For instance, Mr. McCaffery specializes in tracking sophisticated South American stick-up crews that target jewelry stores and jewel carriers. For those criminals the most popular disguise is an old standby: ski masks.
"The reason being it shows the least amount of identifying information; it conceals you face, your hair, your complexion," Mr. McCaffery said. "A close second, I would say, is hoodie sweatshirts with bandanas pulled up over the face."
David Caskey, the FBI's Bank Robbery Coordinator in New York, says that among bank robbers, "very few wear anything other than a baseball hat and sunglasses."
"In a lot of jobs customers and other tellers don't even know the bank is being robbed," he said. The bank robbers "usually want to get their money and just get completely out of there without drawing any attention."
At the other end of the spectrum has been the series of New York robbers wearing unusual masks over the past few months.
Around lunchtime on June 24, Shana Spalding, 28 years old, is alleged to have donned a cat mask that covered the upper-half of her face before pulling a gunpoint robbery at the Arche shoe store at 10 Astor Place in the Village. Reports said her take was $86. Ms. Spalding, who sang in a death-metal rock band called Divine Infamy under the stage name Purgatory, was arrested in late August after allegedly pulling another robbery, without a mask, at a SoHo store. She is currently being held at the Rikers Island jail.
As detectives were still looking for the "cat woman," the "Bouquet Bandit" struck. Carrying a bouquet of flowers rolled in a pink cellophane wrapper in front of his face, Edward Pemberton, 44, allegedly passed a robbery note to a teller at the Bank of Smithtown in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood and made off with $440. Unfortunately for Mr. Pemberton, the flowers didn't totally obscure his face from the surveillance cameras, and days after his photo appeared on the front pages of two of the city's newspapers, he was arrested. Police said Mr. Pemberton confessed to six bank robberies, including incidents during which he used a bouquet of roses and a potted plant to divert attention. Mr. Pemberton is also awaiting trial.
On July 22, the day after Mr. Pemberton was arrested, a man in a Darth Vader helmet and a blue cape walked into a Chase bank in Setauket on Long Island. A customer, who thought Lord Vader's robbery attempt was a prank even though he was brandishing a handgun instead of light saber, was shoved to the ground when he refused to comply with the robber's demands to hit the floor. The costumed bandit then robbed a teller and ran, and has yet to be captured.
Nor has a man who, while wearing football pants and carrying a pair of red football shoulder pads and helmet, in August attempted to rob a Burger King restaurant at 655 Rockaway Turnpike in Meadowmere on Long Island. He ran off empty-handed when he saw two employees run out of the restaurant and call for help.
Earlier this month, a gunman dressed in all black and wearing a mask that resembled Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" entered the kitchen of a Dunkin' Donuts in Farmingdale through a back door and announced a robbery. However, the man aborted his attempt when a dishwasher sprayed hot water on him using a sink hose.
That these suspects haven't been caught yet isn't too unusual.
Of the four major violent crimes—murder, rape, robbery and assault—robbery is by far the hardest to solve. According to FBI statistics, only slightly more than 28% of all robberies ended in arrest in 2009. By comparison, two-thirds of murders, 41% of rapes and 57% of assaults were closed out, according to the statistics.
"It's not like TV, when CSI comes in and they're able to pull hair and spit and they're able to instantly get a picture of the suspect on a computer screen," Mr. McCaffery said. "If you go into an armed robbery, you're wearing gloves, a hat and sunglasses; those can be hard cases to solve."
That has proved to be the case in the most recent and perhaps most bizarre of the string of uncommon-disguise robberies.
A 15-year-old was riding his bicycle in front of a strip mall on Route 25A in Rocky Point on Long Island when he was approached by two men wearing gorilla suites and another dressed in a chicken costume. One of the gorillas punched him in the head, knocking him off his bicycle. The chicken then grabbed the bike and pedaled off with the two gorillas running behind him, police said.
"We're still following the banana peels," a Suffolk County detective joked before passing a call from The Wall Street Journal to his boss, Detective Sergeant John Best.
Mr. Best said that when they first heard the call, police found it hard to believe it wasn't a prank, and subsequently there have been more than a few jokes about it in the squad room. On the other hand, the detectives haven't lost sight of the fact that a 15-year-old was assaulted, received stitches and had what Mr. Best said was his "prized-possession," his decked-out bicycle, stolen.
"It sounds amusing but what you still have here is three people who brazenly attacked a kid," he said. "So it's a serious investigation and we treat it as such."
Mr. Best said that even though the robbers wore attention-grabbing outfits and struck in a usually-busy shopping plaza, there have been few witnesses. Detectives checked every costume shop in the area but came up empty, and the few leads they received didn't pan out.
"The costumes do hinder our investigation at this point because the victim can't identify them by face," Mr. Best said. "They could walk by him on the street and he wouldn't recognize them."