It’s a banker’s nightmare.
Three employees are beaten and bound before a bank opens, and three men believed to be responsible for the violence have escaped.
Yet, it’s a fear shared by many city bank and credit union managers as they cope with a rash of robberies and attempt to help police put together the pieces on nearly a dozen ongoing investigations.
There have been 15 bank and credit union robberies in the city in 2012, more than in the past four years combined, according to Fort Wayne Police Department records.
With the increase in robberies, police are becoming more concerned about the escalating violence and believe serial robbers are responsible for the rising numbers. Local financial institutions say they are cooperating with law enforcement, and police have released many surveillance photos to the media in hopes that the robbers will be recognized.
But one expert warns that authorities can rely too much on surveillance photos and should refocus their energy on encouraging bank employees and the public to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.
Early in the morning on Nov. 30, a female bank employee left her car and began walking toward ProFed Federal Credit Union on Stellhorn Road to begin work for the day. Seconds later, she was ambushed, held at gunpoint by a man dressed in black.
A short time later, about 8 a.m., she and two female co-workers sat on the floor of the bank, hands and ankles bound, as three men bagged cash and fired shots inside the building before running out the door.
Although the employees suffered no major injuries, the ProFed robbery was cited as one of the most violent robberies of a financial institution this year.
The reason behind 2012’s rash of robberies remains a question city police have yet to answer as they piece together information about the remaining unsolved cases.
Although a majority of the individual cases remain under investigation, Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said there’s definitely evidence of serial robbers.
There’s a proportionate number of events that we know are caused by the same individuals, York said. It goes back to we know what we’re dealing with are serial robbers.
York recalled seeing a high number of bank robberies in the late 1990s, before the creation of the Northeast Indiana Bank Robbery Task Force in 1999. The task force includes members of the Fort Wayne Police Department, Allen County Sheriffs Department, Indiana State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Local FBI officials declined to comment on the 2012 bank and credit union robberies.
York said the task force, although operating largely unnoticed by most people, is very intensely investigating the robberies.
There’s a definite dedicated, substantial focus, York said. It’s probably not something that people are going to notice out there, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of hours being put in.
Among the 2012 bank robberies, three men have been arrested so far – two of them have been convicted and one is scheduled to stand trial in January. An arrest warrant has been issued for a fourth suspect.
Police also said there are several individuals under investigation for numerous other bank robberies this year, including three people in an Ohio jail who have been arrested on other criminal charges.
A Journal Gazette analysis of city police data shows 11 of the robberies occurred early in the morning as employees were arriving to work for the day or preparing to serve their first customers of the day. In all but three cases this year, the robberies took place before noon.
Police records reveal most robbers confronted tellers with guns or threatened the use of weapons without revealing whether they were carrying one or not.
Only three months – February, May and June – had no robberies, while thieves struck multiple times in April, September, October, November and December. The longest stretch without such a robbery this year was from April 18 to July 10.
In six robberies, men arrived in pairs – typically with their heads covered with sweatshirts or hats.
The Nov. 30 robbery at ProFed Credit Union was the only holdup this year with more than two robbers.
Eight times, financial institutions were robbed by only one person. Of the eight robbed by one person, police have made an arrest in four.
Of the 15 robberies, six have taken place at Chase Bank locations. This month, robbers hit the Chase Bank on Lower Huntington Road for the second time this year. Robbers also hit Freedom Financial Credit Union on Inwood Drive twice. The same branch was robbed twice in 2011.
Freedom Financial Credit Union did not return calls regarding the robberies.
Chase spokeswoman Christine Holevas said it’s difficult to compare bank robberies because each involved completely different circumstances, many of which remain under investigation.
Holevas declined to discuss security in place at various Chase locations throughout the city, but said Chase continues to work closely with law enforcement.
Our folks are doing exactly what we’ve asked them to do, she said.
By the numbers
Nationally, bank robberies have been declining in recent years, according to FBI reports. And although there’s been some ebb and flow to the numbers, FBI reports show a similar decline across Indiana.
So why are robberies rising in the city but declining in the state and nation?
That, says Jim Rechel, a former FBI agent who now serves as a financial security consultant for the Indiana Bankers Association, is the million-dollar question.
Rechel, of The Rechel Group in Cincinnati, has tracked bank and credit union robberies for the past 25 years and said the outbreak isn’t something that’s unique to Fort Wayne but rather, it’s like trying to assess the path of the flu virus.
Why do certain cities have outbreaks and others don’t see any? Because it’s not necessarily the city, but maybe it’s the person who started the flu-like trend someone who happened to visit Fort Wayne instead of Indianapolis, he said.
In most cases, he said, a rash of robberies is the result of some unseen variable – like a criminal being released from prison or moving to the area, gang activities or individuals graduating from other crimes.
The problem with the why here? question is it usually won’t be answered until the cases have been solved and the analysis is complete, Rechel explained.
York said it’s difficult to say why Fort Wayne has seen such an increase, except that a number of (robberies) are due to a specific group operating in this area.
York declined to discuss further details about who that group might be or how many robberies might have been conducted by the same group of people.
Banks that have been targeted multiple times might look to enhanced training for bank employees to teach them how to better handle robbery situations, Rechel said. Police patrols, improvements to surveillance equipment and minimizing the amount of money available to a potential robber can also help deter robbers, he said.
And although cameras can play an important role in security, Rechel warns against relying too heavily on the technology.
Technology is all too often a crutch that immobilizes the mind when not used properly, he said.
Instead, he said, the key to deterring and preventing robberies is to have bank employees, customers and residents who are alert for suspicious behavior.
As a result of the increase in robberies, York said his department has been receiving an increase in calls about suspicious persons – including calls from financial institutions.
There’s certainly a heightened sense of awareness, he said.