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Yearlong string of Harford bank robberies mostly unsolved

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Wednesday's robbery of the Sovereign Bank branch in Forest Hill is one of a string of a dozen bank and post office robberies in Harford County dating back to last fall, most of which remain unsolved.

Though he suggests motives for the crimes may be changing, Harford County's top law enforcement officer says the number of robberies is on par with other years.

Sheriff Jesse Bane said the actual number of crimes belies the perception that there have been more bank robberies this year.

"The key word is 'seems,'" Bane said in an interview last week.

Bane's agency counted 18 commercial robberies – not just bank robberies – in the first nine months of this year. That doesn't include Wednesday's midday bank robbery, which Bane's spokesman said involved two men and was particularly brazen.

"The number is right on track to be about the same," Bane said. "We are right on track to be very close to what we had last year."

Based on prior reports from law enforcement agencies that cover the area, however, Wednesday's robbery makes at least 10 robberies of banks and post offices in Harford since October 2012 for which no arrests have been made.

One factor that may be different in the most recent holdups is the motivation, Bane said.

While most robberies in years past seemed to be committed by people feeding their substance addictions, the Sheriff's Office has made a couple of arrests in which the suspects explained they robbed a bank or convenience store because they were trying to provide for their families.

"Addiction was a common denominator, but lately, the reason they give us is they need to put food on the table," Bane said.

Arrests have been made in six of the non-bank commercial robberies so far this year. According to Bane, two of those suspects told deputies they have to put food on the table for their families, while the other four were addiction-related.

"It's the economy," Bane said. "It seems to be catching up with us."

Tricky investigations

The unsolved bank and post office robberies have all occurred in the generally violence-free areas around Bel Air and Fallston.

Bane and other law enforcement officials in Harford say one thing that makes these investigations trickier is the sheer number of law enforcement agencies working in Harford County, as well as outside agencies that can get involved on occasion, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the FBI.

The current investigations are spread among the Sheriff's Office, Maryland State, Bel Air Police Department and the Postal Service.

An arrest has been made in two of this year's bank robberies. The "I-55 bandit," as he was dubbed by the FBI, is believed to have robbed two banks in Bel Air, other banks in Maryland and several banks in other states.

The 19-year-old suspect surrendered earlier this month, just days after surveillance photos from a dozen bank jobs were put out nationwide on news websites, television and other media. The banks robbed in Bel Air were the Harford Bank branch on South Main Street on June 5 and the Wells Fargo Bank branch in Tollgate Plaza.

No such breaks have occurred for those investigating the other holdups, even though police have been able to release clear surveillance photos of many of the robbers, at least until Wednesday's holdup, where the two robbers wore full facial masks and were heavily clothed.

But having stills from video footage that capture the robbers' images does not necessarily mean the crimes will be easier to solve, Maj. Doug Verzi, of the Sheriff's Office, said.

"A lot of people think if video is there, it's a magic tool," Verzi said, explaining that while the footage "gives us a general idea" of the suspect, "it is just another tool."

Many of the images might be on old technology that uses VHS tapes, so although the Sheriff's Office is able to translate them, they remain very grainy or unclear, he added.

In addition to Wednesday's holdup at the Forest Hill Sovereign branch, the Sheriff's Office is investigating three holdups at the branch on Emmorton Road near Bel Air South, which was robbed in a span of 18 days in December and January and again on April 25.

"We are running down every lead that we get," Verzi said of the earlier cases. He declined to disclose if suspects have been identified.

Though the FBI appears to have cleared the two of this summer's bank holdups in Bel Air, a more recent one remains under investigation by Bel Air Police.

The Liberty Bank branch inside Harford Mall was held up Sept. 6. Police said the robber struck just as the branch was opening on a Saturday morning.

Bel Air detectives continue to pursue leads in that case but have not made any arrests.

"They are currently working that case," BAPD Deputy Chief Richard Peschek said.

Fallston banks, post office hit

Two BB&T bank branches in the Fallston area have been robbed, one of them twice. The BB&T at Upper Cross Roads was robbed at the end of July and the branch on Route 1 in Fallston was robbed last November and again in February. Maryland State Police from the Bel Air Barrack, just blocks from the Route 1 branch, initially handled all three cases.

First Sgt. Jeff Thomas, of the Bel Air Barrack, said last week that the state's new Criminal Investigation Bureau, created earlier this year, has changed some of the ways crimes get assigned and investigated.

"The reason they did it was to try to break down cross-jurisdiction boundaries to work the cases more easily," Thomas said, explaining why he is no longer handling the BB&T robberies.

"The same style of weapon was used in several of the robberies," Thomas said. Investigators have described it as black "bullpup" style pistol, which was displayed in both Fallston BB&T robberies.

Also robbed twice, in December and April, was the small Benson Post Office that serves the area around Routes 1 and 147 between Bel Air and Fallston and is a block from the State Police barracks.

Verzi of the Sheriff's Office said his agency is assisting the Postal Service in the investigation. The two post office robberies are believed to be connected, though investigators don't believe they are related to the various bank holdups, he noted.

Some patterns

With five robberies occurring at either Sovereign or BB&T branches, the connection may appear to indicate some type of "master plan," Hopkins, of the Sheriff's Office said, though it's more likely just coincidence. Their locations could make them more vulnerable, he said.

Many of the Harford robberies have occurred in suburban or semi-rural neighborhoods that are near an intersection of major highways, enabling the robbers can escape relatively quickly.

Using Wednesday's Sovereign Bank robbery as an example, Hopkins said if the robbers hit the traffic lights right, they could be far away before police arrive.

So quickly in fact, that oftentimes no one gets a clear look at where the robbers go. Police haven't released a description of a getaway vehicle in Wednesday's holdup, nor were detailed vehicle descriptions available in some of the earlier holdups.

"Some are in areas where they become vulnerable because of where they are. It may be easy access for the customer, but remember that same easy access provides easy getaway access for someone who wants to rob your bank," said Hopkins, who pointed out there are more branches in outlying areas to satisfy the demand of a more mobile customer base.

Though Hopkins said some experienced robbers will target and survey places, scoping out what they want to do, other robberies are crimes are crimes of opportunity.

"More often than not, criminals are acting haphazardly, randomly," he said. "They just happen to be at the right place at the right time when the victim is most vulnerable."

Anyone with information on any of the bank or post office robberies can provide tips to Harford County Crime Solvers, 1-888-540-8477, or Metro Crime Stoppers of Maryland, 1-866-756-2587.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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