This week’s robbery of a Seafirst Bank branch was the fifth along Sprague Avenue in the Valley this year, and continued a surge in bank robberies around the Spokane area.
The run of robberies - 16 in the Spokane area this year, according to the FBI - has frustrated law enforcement officers and forced banks to review their security systems and training programs. The five robberies in the Valley matches the total for all of last year in the entire Spokane area.
“If we continue like this, we’re going to break any records we have,” said Michael Byrne, supervisory agent in charge of the Spokane FBI office.
No one has been hurt during the Valley robberies and no suspects have been arrested.
In three of the Valley robberies, witnesses described the suspect as a dirty man in his 30s, standing about 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8. FBI agents are reviewing bank surveillance video to determine if the robber in each of those heists is the same person, but suspect different men are behind most of the holdups.
Agents believe the banks have been robbed by men trying to support drug addictions. Nationwide, Byrne said, 90 percent of bank robberies are committed by junkies looking to pay for their drug habits.
Robberies committed to support drug habits often are unsophisticated, and the suspects eventually make mistakes that lead to their arrests. Byrne predicts that will also be the case in the Valley.
“Sooner or later we’re going to catch them,” Byrne said. “Their luck’s going to run out.”
All of the Valley robberies have been small, quick jobs pulled by single robbers, and not the “full-bank takeover” style used during separate holdups of the same U.S. Bank branch last year. The monetary hauls the Valley robbers have escaped with appear to have been relatively small - in most cases, whatever they could carry while they dashed from the banks on foot.
“They’re looking for quick cash,” Byrne said.
Authorities and banks do not disclose the exact amounts taken because they believe it encourages more robberies.
Tellers are concerned, but not consumed by the string of recent robberies, bank officials said. Unlike the two robberies last year of the U.S. Bank branch at Sprague and Mullan by heavily armed men who burst in with guns and homemade bombs, weapons have not been displayed during the string of recent robberies.
The March 21 robbery of the Inland Northwest Bank branch at 15111 E. Sprague is the one in the recent string in which a gun was seen. Even then, the gun was left tucked into the robber’s waistband during the holdup.
Still, that’s little comfort to tellers, bank officials said.
“You’re always a little nervous when there are robberies in the area - although we don’t let it rule us,” said a Key Bank security official who did not want to be named.
The potential for a bank robbery to escalate into a violent situation is the most unnerving, said Ric Odegard, Farmers and Merchants Bank’s chief operating officer.
Odegard, who has been a victim in three holdups during his career, said a teller followed her training and did everything the robber demanded during a Seattle-area holdup a few years ago. She was shot and killed anyway.
“That lady didn’t do anything wrong,” Odegard said. “She just went to work that day.”
Jennifer Johnson, Inland Northwest Bank vice president, downplayed the robberies, calling it coincidental that Valley banks are being held up.
“In any customer service industry you’re subject to robbery,” Johnson said. “They’re robbing grocery stores. They’re robbing convenience stores.”
But the FBI’s Byrne said the number of smaller bank branches in the Valley may be making Sprague Avenue a popular target. Eight bank chains have about a dozen branches along the eight-mile stretch of the Sprague Avenue business corridor in the Valley.
Four of the banks have had branches robbed, and one has been hit twice. Although the banks that have been robbed have surveillance cameras and alarms, none has guards posted at their front doors, Byrne said, and all offered quick getaway routes.
“You get out into the outlying areas and you have branch banking,” Byrne said. “It’s always an easier market.”
Monday’s robbery at the Seafirst branch bank at 8505 E. Sprague was the latest heist. The man who robbed that bank apparently discarded the cash he had just stolen when a dye-pack exploded in the plastic bag he was using to carry the money, Sheriff’s Department spokesman David Reagan said.
Authorities believe all of the money taken was recovered, Reagan said.
The man, who was in his 20s, was last seen walking west along the railroad tracks behind a car dealership a couple of blocks away. A sheriff’s dog zig-zagged its way through brush and cars for several blocks, apparently tracking the suspect’s scent, but did not find the man.
On April 10, a man walked into Key Bank at 11205 E. Sprague and demanded money. No weapon was seen and the robber did not indicate he had a gun, authorities said.
That robber was last seen driving west on Sprague in an older, tan Suburban or Jeep. He was 5-foot-8, 160 pounds and dirty, and had a mustache and blond hair in a pony tail. He was wearing white gloves, blue jeans, a jacket, and a baseball cap. Authorities stopped a couple of trucks before finding what may have been the getaway car abandoned several blocks away. The suspect was not found.
The Inland Northwest Bank branch at 15111 E. Sprague was robbed for a second time in two months on March 21. A man lifted his shirt to reveal what appeared to be a handgun and demanded money from a teller. He then fled on foot through the parking lot the branch shares with Yoke’s Pac ‘N Save grocery store.
No getaway car was seen.
The branch also was robbed on Jan. 9 by a man wearing a fake white beard who kept his right hand inside the Army jacket he was wearing, suggesting he had a gun. The suspect left carrying two bags full of money and ran north of Progress Road.
Deputies called in a K-9 unit from the Spokane Police Department to track the suspect, who was not found.
A similar search after the robbery of Wells Fargo Bank, 12902 E. Sprague, last month also was unsuccessful. Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers combed an old railroad right of way for several minutes before converging on two barns behind houses two blocks from the bank.
After entering with guns drawn, they did not find a suspect.
Until the suspects are caught and the robberies slow down, tellers will be a little edgy.
“No matter how well you train for (a robbery), when it happens it drives you up the pole,” Odegard said.
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