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The History of Davis Bank Robberies

Seventy-five years ago, on July 22, 1934, America’s most notorious bank robber, John Dillinger, was gunned down outside a movie theater. As people struggle with an economic situation that has a lot in common with the 1930s and with Johnny Depp now portraying Dillinger in Public Enemies, bank robberies are a hot topic again. Working on this story also had a personal connection for me, because my sister survived eight hold-ups, including two armed take-over robberies, before shifting her career from banking to working in a retirement community.

This story was generated by an interest in local bank robberies, especially the infamous armed robbery of First Northern Bank when money dye packs exploded as the robbers were trying to make their escape. We’ll start with some vivid memories of that robbery and conclude with some more general information about local robberies and what you should do if you’re even involved in a robbery.

Sept. 29, 2005, is almost four years ago, but to one person who was working at the Davis branch of First Northern Bank that day, it could have happened yesterday. After interviewing this person, I decided that this was a story that needed to be told. However, I could also see by the emotional reaction that this person shouldn’t be forced to go through the details again and again. To decrease that chance, I’m going to just call that person Sandy and try to tell the story through Sandy’s eyes.

It was 10:04 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005, and Sandy was working in a side office when a loud noise came from the lobby. Sandy was on the phone to the main office in Dixon at the time and quickly figured out that a robbery was taking place. Sandy told the people in Dixon what was happening so they could notify law enforcement, left the phone off the hook, and walked out into the lobby.

A man in dark clothing with gloves and a mask was running across the lobby shouting and cursing. He had something in his hand, which Sandy soon realized was an assault rifle.

A second man, also in dark clothing with gloves and a mask, had somehow gotten behind the counter and was back with the tellers. He was waving a handgun. Both men were screaming orders, sometimes contradicting each other. One would yell “Get down!” just as the other shouted “Don’t move!” It might have been funny in a movie, but with the weapons it was life-threateningly serious.

The robber with the handgun yelled for someone to open the safe. A woman employee began to explain the dual key control process and to point out that the employee with the second key wasn’t currently in the branch. The robber would take none of this, so he shoved the woman down and pulled his foot back to kick her in the head. She was able to move quickly so that the kick hit her shoulder instead of her head, but she stayed on the ground.

Things were escalating dangerously, so Sandy stepped in to redirect the robbers to the cash drawers. Sandy told the tellers to put their keys on top of each cash drawer and then step away from the drawers. Then Sandy went to the first cash drawer and opened it. The robber methodically grabbed the highest denominations first, but then took just about all of the money in that first drawer.

Sandy went to the second drawer. This time the robber was getting more anxious so he still got most of the big bills, but scattered much of the money on the floor as he grabbed it.

By the third drawer, more of the money was finding its way to the floor than into the bag. After Sandy took the robber to the fourth drawer, where more money was added to the bag and more spilled to the floor, it looked like things could be over.

Then the robber noted another drawer that was locked and directed Sandy to open that drawer. When Sandy explained that the person who had the key to this drawer was not in the bank at the time, the robber took his handgun and put it to Sandy’s temple.

“Open the drawer or die!” he shouted.

Sandy confirmed that your life does pass before you at a time like this. Fleeting thoughts of the spouse and children you may never see again run through your head when you feel this may be your last moment on earth.

Suddenly the robber with the assault rifle yelled, “We’re out of time, let’s go!”

Sweeter words were never heard, as Sandy felt the gun pull away and watched the two men flee out the door into a waiting car. The robbers turned the corner, got boxed in behind a UniTrans bus in traffic and then the dye packs exploded, sending tear gas and red-orange dye everywhere. The robbers fled on foot, leaving much of the money from the bank heist in their stolen car.

Sandy remembers every person who was working that day, remembers that they had food from Sophia’s Thai Kitchen in the break room, and remembers the counseling that each employee received after the robbery.

Over and over again, the details of the robbery played in Sandy’s memory like a song you can’t get out of your mind. Sometimes the details changed as Sandy wondered how things might have turned out differently if this had happened or that hadn’t happened. For months the movie, with mostly the same horrific scenes and a few changes here and there ran and reran through Sandy’s mind. The counselors explained that this was a common reaction. The key was how long it would take until it stopped playing. That was the movie Sandy saw again when I asked about the robbery.

Sandy and all of the customers and employees got through that day relatively unharmed physically, but the psychological impact was more damaging. The bank-provided counselors did their best and helped most people through the process, but some employees couldn’t return to work at that branch, some couldn’t return to work in banking, some people couldn’t even walk into the building for months.

The FBI says bank robbery is a property crime. I think everyone in First Northern Bank on Sept. 29, 2005, saw it as much more personal that day.

And although Sandy didn’t do the foolish things the police and trainers warn people not to do, Sandy was a hero that day and a hero for retelling that traumatic story again four years later. Thanks, Sandy for sharing your story.

Moving on to bank robberies in general and locally, let’s test your knowledge of bank robberies. Please identify which of these statements are true and which are false:

Davis has a reputation for being so laid back and non-confrontational that bank robberies are much more common here than in neighboring communities.

When asked why he robbed banks, infamous bank robber, Willie Sutton, said “because that’s where the money is.”

The average bank robber gets away with more than $20,000 in a bank heist.

Bank robbers are less likely to be caught than arsonists, burglars, auto thieves, rapists and those who commit larceny.

Davis is such a safe community that bank robberies are rare and highly unlikely events.

Which ones are true? Actually none of them.

Let’s begin with our historical bank robber, Willie Sutton, who is said to have robbed nearly 100 banks and who spent more than half of his adult life in prison. Sutton is often quoted as having made that statement. However, in his book, Where the Money Was, he said, “I will now confess, by the fact that I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill his copy.” So much for legends.

How much do today’s Sutton’s and Dillinger’s get away with on an average robbery? In today’s world of electronic transactions, banks just don’t keep vaults full of money like the banks you see in the movies do. A national study of crimes known as the Uniform Crime Report shows that the average robbery nets less than $5,000 now.

As violent crimes go, there are eight “Part 1 crimes” that include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. Of those eight, the “clearance rate” or percentage of solved cases is relatively low for general robberies, with only a 25 percent chance of being caught, but the rate for bank robbers is 58 percent, which is second only to murder, at 62 percent, as the crime most likely to be solved with the culprit apprehended. Rob a bank, go to prison.

The fact that banks are federally insured raises bank robberies to a higher level than a robbery of a fast-food store or gas station and means the bank robbers have committed a federal offense and will have not only local law enforcement, but also the FBI involved in tracking them down. That and the fact that banks generally have better security cameras, better-trained employees and more security than those other businesses also makes a big difference in increasing the probability that someone robbing a bank will pay for the crime.

As for bank robberies in Davis, the city doesn’t really fit either of the extremes listed in the quiz. Davis is not what I once heard described as “happyland,” where crimes never happen. Davis is close to the freeway, has a mixture of students and slightly more affluent residents and has businesses that stay open late, so it does get its fair share of crime. Not surprisingly, the future home of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame leads all local cities in stolen bicycles.

Due to that image of safety, we’re also likely to be surprised when crime does happen. There is a tendency to either dismiss a given crime as an anomaly or to over emphasize it so people think we’re a crime haven.

A search of police and Internet sources turned up 10 bank robberies in Davis this decade, with three in the past year. A less extensive search found eight in Woodland during the past three years.

However, even if we only average a bank robbery a year, the fact that many robbers either say they have a weapon or actually brandish one makes robberies a frightening experience for bank employees and customers alike.

I spoke with several representatives of local banks to talk about what they do to train their employees and to find out what they would like customers to know.

Since the world headquarters of one bank, First Northern Bank, is close by in Dixon, I started there and got a good overview of the training process. One piece of universal advice after talking with the Davis Police, corporate trainers and those working in local branches was “Don’t be a hero.” The majority of bank robberies are those in which a note is passed and customers may not even realize a robbery is taking place. However, when a weapon or the threat of a weapon is in place, the consistent advice is to cooperate with the robbers and get them out of the bank as soon as possible with no injuries to customers or employees. If the robber says he or she has a gun, the best advice is to act as if there is a gun, whether it is visible or not.

One of the first things employees are taught is to make eye contact with each person who enters the branch so they know they have been observed. Employees are also trained to note items of identification including height, hair color, clothing style and color, tattoos, glasses, hats or caps, shoes and any other distinctive characteristics. A bank official was pleased to hear that when I was standing in line to get in for an interview, three different people not only caught my eye, but made a comment like “someone will be with you in a moment, sir,” while they were looking at me. If I had been a guy with a robbery note, those three and the teller would have each had a good look at me.

Bank customers can help by being equally observant, but they shouldn’t stare or take notes in a way that makes it obvious to the robbers. This is a time when no customer wants to do anything that makes him or her stand out to those committing the robbery.

After the banks do corporate training of new employees, the branches follow up with training specific to each bank and community. Every bank is set up a little differently and each has little nuances that need to be understood by the employees. Two of the three banks that have been robbed in Davis this year were banks inside grocery stores, bringing a whole different set of factors into play with a very mall bank inside a large store.

Each bank also has its own individual collection of security devices that could include silent alarms, security cameras, dye packs, uniformed security officers, GPS tracking devices, plain-clothes security people, direct lines to police, dual locks, bulletproof glass, limiting entry to fewer doors, timed locks and bandit barriers. The bank security divisions are always looking at new technologies to advance ways of protecting employees and apprehending culprits. Some ideas are so new and confidential that employees are not even aware that they are in place.

To sum it up, robbing a bank in Davis won’t pay the mortgage for six months, will let you follow John Dillinger onto the FBI’s wanted list, and will make it more likely you’ll get some rent-free accommodations behind bars in the near future.

Several banks declined to be interviewed for this story, but I appreciate the information I got from local banks and from others in the banking industry for the story. Special thanks to Kim DeBra, Susan Clark, Celso Peña, Karen Walker and Ann Diamondstone from First Northern Bank; Kathleen Ross from River City Bank; Dave Kaiser from Granite Community Bank; local representatives from the Bank of America; Carol Steele from Redlands Federal Savings; and Lt. Tom Waltz from the Davis Police Department for their cooperation and good advice for customers and employees in this story, and for putting me in touch with Sandy.

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