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Invasion of the Stick-Up Men

Call it a coincidence—or something more. A year ago this month, FBI director Robert Mueller ordered the transfer of 620 agents, nationwide—previously assigned to investigating narcotics, bank robberies, kidnappings and other traditional crimes—to investigating and analyzing the terrorist threat to the United States.

And now, bank robberies are soaring in San Diego—despite continued consolidation and bank branch closures. In the first three months of this year, says FBI spokeswoman Jan Caldwell, San Diego and Imperial counties had suffered 56 bank robberies, 25 of them in January—“the most robberies in recent history. This year,” she says, “we have definitely gone up.

“Some of the guys working the street say there’s no rhyme or reason; others say it’s tied to the economy,” Caldwell says. “But the fact is, Southern California is the bank robbery capital of the world, with branch banking on every corner, easy freeway access and San Diego right on the border.”

The recent uptick also may be due, at least in part, to the proliferation of mini-banks in grocery stores, such as Wells Fargo branches in Vons supermarkets. “Those are becoming targets of opportunity,” Caldwell says.

But some observers, including at least one local law enforcement source, believe there’s more to it than that. They fear the FBI’s much-publicized shift away from bank robberies and other traditional crimes may be encouraging would-be robbers.
“They think the FBI is looking the other way,” one observer speculates.

Caldwell, however, insists the FBI isn’t giving bank robberies short shrift. “We continue to investigate all bank robberies as vigorously as we ever have,” she says. “We work very closely with local law enforcement, and we have a solution rate of about 70 percent—the same as it’s been for years.”

Still, there’s no denying the number of bank robberies has soared dramatically since September 11, 2001. In 2000, there were 117 bank robberies in San Diego and Imperial counties. In 2002, the first full year after the terrorist attacks, there were 168. And if this year’s rate holds up, 2003 could be in for more than 220 bank robberies—a figure not seen since the early 1990s, when in one year (1993) there were a record 413.

Dennis Tedder, vice president of security and investigations for Union Bank of California, is clearly concerned. “I’m experiencing more [robberies] in San Diego than in other areas, and I don’t have an answer,” he says. In response to the rise, Union Bank this year will “enhance” security at its 81 local branches, Tedder says, with more video monitoring and, in some cases, erection of clear, bulletproof “bandit barriers” separating teller windows from the lobby.

“We’re putting more in where it’s appropriate to deter crime,” Tedder says. “We really need to stop these people.”

Among banks hit so far this year: the First National Bank on Silverado Street in La Jolla (suspect got away, despite an exploding dye-pack); the Union Bank on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach (robber escaped with $4,000); and the USA Federal Credit Union on Erma Road in Scripps Ranch (held up by a man wearing a blue San Diego Gas & Electric Company shirt).

Caldwell says some banks are more likely to be hit than others, but she refused to provide a list of financial institutions that have been robbed repeatedly. “The banks would not like that,” she says. “They don’t even like to give out the amount taken, because it makes them look like a target.”
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