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Robbing four banks, cell phone in hand

A video image provided by the Fairfax County, Va., Police Department shows a woman talking on a cell phone while robbing a bank. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A video image provided by the Fairfax County, Va., Police Department shows a woman talking on a cell phone while robbing a bank. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – When it comes to multitasking, it’s hard to beat the woman who can rob a bank and never interrupt her cell phone conversation.

In an act of either incredible cool or something much more sinister, a young woman has robbed four Wachovia bank branches in Northern Virginia in recent weeks, all while seemingly immersed in cell phone chats. In the most recent holdup, on Nov. 4 in Ashburn, a video shows the woman to be almost uninterested as a teller hands her a stack of cash, and she continues talking on her phone as she turns and walks out of the bank.

“This is the first time that I can recall where we’ve had a crime committed while the person was using a cell phone,” said Loudoun County sheriff’s spokesman Kraig Troxell, echoing comments by officials from other law enforcement agencies. “The question would be whether anyone is on the other end of the line or not.”

The cell phone bandit first struck in Vienna, Va., on Oct. 12. A woman in her 20s with dark hair walked in carrying a box and talking on a cell phone. She moved directly to the teller counter and displayed the shoebox-size box, which had a note taped on it demanding cash. Police would not disclose the wording of the note.

As in the others, the robber exchanged few or no words with the teller, because she apparently was busy talking to someone else. She scooped up the cash, started walking and kept talking.

In the most recent robbery, however, there was a twist, Troxell said: a gun.

During her brief visit to the Wachovia branch in Ashburn, the woman carried a purse and simply opened it up, showing the gun to the teller about 5:30 p.m., Troxell said. Then she handed over a note demanding cash, with the cell phone still firmly attached to her ear, Troxell said.

The tellers haven’t been able to hear much of the conversations, police said. Troxell said the chat from the robber’s end on Nov. 4 was mainly a bunch of “OKs.”

On Oct. 22 at the Wachovia branch in Springfield, Va., the woman did speak briefly to the teller, Fairfax County police spokeswoman Mary Mulrenan said. “She was well-spoken, in English, with a light Hispanic accent,” she said.

It appeared to witnesses that there was someone on the other end of the robber’s line that day, Mulrenan said.

If she’s not conversing with a co-conspirator, investigators have theorized, she could just be using the phone as a prop. “Is she talking to someone,” Troxell said, “or using it to make herself look less noticeable or nonchalant as she approaches the teller?” Some might argue that people who stay on a cell phone throughout a bank transaction tend to draw attention to themselves.

Fred Desroches, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, interviewed 80 bank robbers for a book on the subject. He categorized robbers as either aggressive or covert, and because the cell phone robber falls into the latter category, he doubted she was talking to a co-conspirator. “You don’t really need a partner” to quietly rob a bank, Desroches said. “You don’t get that much money, and then you have to split it.”

He theorized that “maybe because she’s a woman, she feels less secure physically, and by talking to somebody, it makes her feel secure.” Or, Desroches added, “maybe she’s talking to her mother.”