April 8, 1995 in Nation/World

Robber Hit State’s Littlest Bank But Farmington’s Sheriff Gets His Man - Voluntarily

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The smallest bank in the West - so tiny its customers don’t have account numbers - was robbed Friday in this Whitman County farm town.

It was the first time since 1953 that the Farmington State Bank has been robbed. The time before that was in 1933, during the Great Depression.

The bank’s two employees didn’t have to look those dates up. Such momentous occasions in Farmington make history, after all.

This time, the lone gunman got away with slightly more than $3,000. But like the other robberies 42 and 62 years ago, this one ended in an arrest.

Michael L. “Hopper” Best, 21, of nearby Tekoa, turned himself in to Stevens County authorities Friday evening, said Whitman County Sheriff Steve Tomson.

Best gave up after learning that he’d been identified as the suspect based on the accounts of several witness, Tomson said.

Moments after Friday’s holdup, descriptions of the robber were popping up like spring wheat.

Tomson said the robber ran from the bank on foot, past the Farmington Centennial Museum that’s been closed since 1988. A biblical reference from the book of Revelations is scrawled on the window of the museum.

The robber got a ride to Tekoa with an unsuspecting, friendly rancher who thought he recognized the hitchhiker walking in the rain.

Best’s arrest was good news for bank president Wayne Wexler and head cashier Barbara Richardson.

They were alone in the bank when a dripping wet stranger walked in at high noon.

They knew something bad was afoot.

They recognize each of the bank’s 350 depositors by name, and they’d never before seen the nervous stranger, Wexler said.

The robber - wet from spring rain on the Palouse - brandished what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun under his coat.

As he departed, he threatened to harm the bank employees. He ordered them to lie down and told Wexler to “kiss the floor” of the 108-year-old bank.

Wexler obliged.

He loves the place, anyway.

His bank is 25-by-60 feet, and there isn’t a computer or security camera in sight.

Account balances are totaled with the old hand-crank adding machines that make more noise than a handful of pennies in a tin can.

Richardson was using them again moments after the robbery.

WSU Cougar Booster Club decals from the early 1980s are fading on the glass front door of the bank at 103 N. First.

So is a hand-lettered sign that says the bank is only now getting around to assigning account numbers.

“We don’t use account numbers because we go by the last names of our customers,” said Wexler. “We’re a hands-on bank, and we know each of our customers.”

The man who has been the bank’s president for 22 years spoke with a pride that seemed to calm the jitters after his first robbery.

“We’re the smallest commercial bank in the 11 Western states, and one of the smallest in the United States,” he said. “We’re by far the smallest in the state of Washington.”

But its smallness hasn’t escaped attention.

A Hong Kong investor, who imports women’s clothing in Seattle, has made an offer to buy the bank from its 35 stockholders. Regulators are processing the paperwork.

“It’s going to take a long time, if ever, to go through, and for now we’re still here running the place,” Wexler said.

ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; map of Farmington area

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