Bank Stick-Ups on a Steep Rise in Manhattan

Years ago, a scruffy-looking white male in his 30′s walked into a busy midtown Manhattan bank and handed the teller an alarming, if confused, note.

“THIS IS A FUCK UP,” the note read. “GIVE ME THE MONEY, MOTHERSTICKER!”

Though he’d already robbed several banks in the area, this particular thief-now legendary for his pathetic writing skills-proved to be no more successful at robbery than he was at communicating. He was soon apprehended by police.

But lately, other New York City bank robbers have been decidedly more successful. Police say that New York is currently experiencing a bit of a bank-robbery renaissance, as dozens of thieves-some intrepid, others reminiscent of Woody Allen’s hapless Virgil Starkwell in Take the Money and Run -have made brazen daylight heists.

“There’s been an increase,” said James Murtagh, executive officer of the 19th Precinct, which covers the Upper East Side, including Madison, Lexington and Third avenues.

Most of these recent New York bank robberies have been relatively small, with the thieves making off with less than $5,000. But some robbers, like the “mothersticker” bandit once did, have tried to make bigger hauls by hitting more than one bank at a time. Just the other day, on Jan. 13, three banks-two on the Upper East Side, one on the Upper West Side-were robbed in the same day, possibly by the same individual, police believe.

Right now, banks in the traditionally calm but well-moneyed Upper East Side appear to be a favorite target of thieves. According to police reports, of the more than 10 bank robberies in the city during first two weeks of January 2003, seven were on the Upper East Side.

Many of these bank robberies have been similar in technique. The culprit entered the institution and, without alerting other customers or security in the bank, slipped a note to a teller explaining his intentions. Sometimes a weapon was brandished. In most instances, with little hesitation, the teller gave cash to the robber-usually out of an unlocked top drawer used for transactions-and the robber quickly exited, without speaking to or injuring staff or customers.

This old-school pass-the-note technique isn’t foolproof, or particularly useful for obtaining large sums, but lately it has proven both fast and efficient. “They’ll slip a note and they might display a gun or a paper bag with a note in it,” said one former New York City police detective who has observed the recent spike in robberies. “The [tellers] are actually scared-and out of fear that they’re gonna get shot, they freeze up and just take the money out.

“To be caught, you’d have to hold up a bank out in Syosset or somewhere,” the ex-detective added.

Not surprisingly, banks are reluctant to talk about the robberies, or their protocols for dealing with robbery attempts. Representatives for Chase, Citibank and Commerce Bank-institutions that have all experienced robberies recently-declined to be interviewed for this story. Police, too, didn’t want to discuss the recent robberies in great detail, since many investigations are still pending.

But the former detective said that the recent spate of attempts shows that current security techniques do not deter all thieves. While many banks equip tellers with “dummy packs” of cash with exploding dye-the time-release dye explodes soon after a thief exits-tellers sometimes panic and don’t think quickly enough to pass a “dummy pack” to a robber, he said. And while most banks have thick-glass “bandit barriers” designed to deflect gun bullets, the fear of a weapon is sometimes all a robber needs, the detective said.

“One bank down on Broadway and Eighth was robbed twice in a week,” the former detective said. “The guy came in and fired a few shots. If you’ve been involved in a holdup like that, your heart starts beating and you’re sweating; you’re like, ‘I want to get out of here and I want to get home to my family.”

The tellers that give in most easily are the ones that have already been through a holdup, the ex-detective said. Sometimes the robber will scout for the most vulnerable of the lineup. “Some are new and nice and look scared,” he said. “If I held up a bank, I would try to find the [teller] who would shit their pants if I pointed a gun at them.”

Video surveillance is also not a deterrent to some of today’s would-be Willie Suttons. “A lot of times, people don’t care if their face is on-camera,” the ex-detective said. “They come in wearing a baseball hat, and they pull it down over their eyes so you really can’t get a good face shot of the guy.” Sometimes “they’ll walk out and look at the camera, and it’s like they were posing for a picture.”

Who’s committing these robberies? The former detective said that traditionally it’s been men under the age of 50, most acting alone: “A lot of them are career criminals that just need ways to make money without working.” Others need money to obtain drugs or to pay off gambling debts. Nearly every ethnic group is represented.

“In New York, I’ve seen everybody-black, white, Spanish, guys in their 20′s and 30′s,” said the former detective.

But tellers, too, are sometimes suspects in robberies, the ex-detective said. “We had a holdup once where [the teller] gave all the money in the drawer, and after the guy left she started screaming. You work very closely with her and ask her why she gave away the money when she’s got three-quarters of an inch of plastic between her and the thief. It turned out to be her boyfriend. They rig it so they find a friend who works for a bank and say, ‘You’re gonna get held up.’”

There are multiple theories to explain the recent surge in New York bank robberies. Partly it’s the season, said Detective Walter Burnes, a spokesman for the New York City Police Department, who pointed out that the early winter months are a time when many people-not just crooks-are low on cash. “Historically, this is a time of year when people are looking for money,” he said.

But others attributed the rise in bank robberies to the drop in police staffing levels.

“We’re heading this way because we’re not replacing the officers,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who is also chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Mr. Vallone said the city’s police force has declined from 41,000 in 2001 to 37,000 officers in 2002.

More ominously, Mr. Vallone said that the increase in bank robberies could be a warning that crime in general is on the way up after years of significant decline. “I think we’ve seen a few warnings lately,” he said. “The recent rapes in the parks, this bank-robbery spree and spikes in crimes in certain areas are all indications that the drop in crime may be slowing.

“Trends like crime rate take a long time to change,” Mr. Vallone continued. “Eventually, criminals realize that they have less of a chance to be caught.”

Leslie Barnett, R.I.P.

Leslie Barnett died on Jan. 12, almost exactly one year after she’d been diagnosed with the lung cancer she had contracted from social smoking. She was a really lovely woman in her mid-40′s whom I met by chance out one night last fall, then interviewed for The New York World a few days later (see the Oct. 21 issue, “Light”).

Her prognosis was never very good. Reluctantly, she got back on chemotherapy in November and was back in the hospital around Thanksgiving.

Last weekend, as she was losing consciousness, she looked around the room and told those present, “It’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” then went to sleep.

“Leslie didn’t think she’d make it to 40,” said Barbara Darrow, who was her roommate at the University of Vermont. “She was always a healthy person, but she just always had a premonition.”

A service for Ms. Barnett will be held on Jan. 18 at the Middle Patent Rural Cemetery in Bedford, N.Y. and, according to Ms. Barnett’s orders, there will be “drinking and carousing” afterward.

“She was very adamant that there be a party,” Ms. Darrow said.

She also wanted everyone to sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” A horseback rider her whole life, Ms. Barnett also designated a charity: Pegasus Therapeutic Riding (www.pegasustr.org).

-George Gurley