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Need to feed spending habits fuels many holdups
From "Geezers" to "Moms" to"Hoax Bombers" to women wearing floppy hats, bank robbers are getting more and bigger play in news cycles, ever since the worldwide economy tanked.
This year in San Diego, there's been a noticeable spike in the number of holdups. By May 13, 2009, there were 38 bank robberies in San Diego and Imperial counties -- the vast majority in San Diego. This year: 53.
The FBI said we're seeing only a "snapshot" and that it's too early to call it a trend. But the methods and disguises are many and intriguing. For their part, authorities don't want things to turn violent or deadly.
Historically, more than 70 percent of bank holdups wind up being solved -- and most perps get slammed for long stretches.
"When you look at the exposure, the sentencing guidelines, the fact that this is considered a crime of violence," FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth said, "it's a very serious matter."
Unlike Michael Wilson, who pleaded guilty to using a fake bomb to hold up a Bank of America branch in City Heights last September, bank robbers don't figure to get off with probation and credited four months served for four months' jail time. That after his sad story of terminal cancer and debts totaling $50,000. Wilson got away, but not far -- because of his large girth and poor health -- with $100,000 in cash.
Few bank holdups yield a six-figure haul, though.
"A lot of times, they're not getting a lot of cash out of it," San Diego police Det. Gary Hassen said. "They're not driving away with truckloads of money. It's usually very insignficant."
The robbers may be undergoing hard times -- foreclosures, unemployment, illness -- but authorities see more common links to spending on drugs, gambling, consumer goods and entertainment.
"It's not that they're out there trying to pay their mortgage or pay their car payment," Foxworth said in an interview Thursday. "It's because they're out there feeding a habit. And they see this basically as a means to finance that."
And while the gun-toting Geezer Bandit has a Facebook following, he and others of his ilk can be more dangerous than adorable.
"Any time somebody uses a weapon in the commission of a crime, they're capable of using it," Hassen cautions. "If they display it, there's always the chance somebody could get hurt or killed or shot.... Let's get them off the street. There's nothing heroic here. This is a cowardly act."
Authorities said that while bank personnel are trained on how to respond appropriately to holdups, customers and passers-by should do nothing more than try to be a good witness, noting appearances, vehicle descriptions and license numbers. Intervening or trying to give chase, officials said, is risky business.