Monday, December 17, 2001

Cincinnati rises as bank-heist hotbed

FBI ranks region fourth-worst in nation

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While bank robberies declined nationally this year, an unprecedented rash of heists helped rank the southern region of Ohio fourth nationwide for bank robberies, the FBI reported.

        In 1999 and 2000, bank robberies reported by the FBI's regional office in Cincinnati ranked it eighth in the nation, but that changed this year in part when bank robberies in Greater Cincinnati hit an all-time high, FBI agents and police said.

        The Cincinnati FBI division covers the 28 southernmost Ohio counties and includes Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Middletown and Portsmouth.

        “Now there is a big shadow cast on us,” said Cincinnati Police Officer Eddie Hawkins, 29, who shot and killed a bank robber Aug. 31 at the CinFed Credit Union in Roselawn.

        “It's a sign of the times. Nobody wants to work for what they get anymore,” he said Sunday in an interview before his shift at the District Four police station. “It seems everybody wants everything fast and easy. But anything that comes real fast, you have to expect it will leave just as quickly.”

        Despite the high numbers in Greater Cincinnati, the city still ranks second to Co lumbus, which has had 126 robberies so far this year and historically outpaces Cincinnati.

        Last year in Columbus, there were 94 heists. Dayton, however, dipped to 39 robberies from 61 in 2000.

        The Cleveland FBI field office, which covers the rest of the state, reported 160 bank robberies so far this year, down from 171 last year.

        As of Friday, 83 banks have been robbed since Jan. 1 in Greater Cincinnati, which includes Hamilton, Clermont and Brown coun ties. Nearly all of those robberies were in Hamilton County.

        Overall, 267 banks have been robbed this year in the counties the Cincinnati FBI office covers. The amount of money taken was not disclosed.

        Last year in Hamilton County, there were 55 bank robberies — the most in 15 years.

        But now the Cincinnati FBI office, which is 42nd in size among FBI offices, ranks fourth in bank robberies behind Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and San Francisco.

        In Kentucky, the FBI Louisville field office, which covers the entire state, reported 70 robberies in 2001, up from 65 in 2000.

        Nationally, however, bank robberies fell this year to 6,453 from 7,130 in 2000.

        The local rise in bank robberies comes from several angles, said Dave Welker, supervisory special agent for the Cincinnati FBI office.

        “The bottom line is greed,” he said.

        Common themes among those arrested for robbing banks are drug or gambling addictions or they require money for pay bills or child support and need quick cash, Agent Welker said.

        Given the hard economic times, the crime also is seen as an easy way to snatch money, he said, and copycat robberies may contribute to the increase.

        Generally, about 60 percent of bank robberies are solved and less than $3,000 is stolen, Agent Welker said.

        Included in the Hamilton County robbery count is the city of Cincinnati, where there have been 50 bank robberies so far this year. Less than half of the city robberies — 23 — have been solved, Cincinnati police said Sunday.

        Last year, there were 24 bank robberies in the city limits.

        Bolstering the upswing in robberies are serial bandits who hit several banks within a matter of weeks this spring and summer.

        For example, Robert E. Conway, 53, a reported heroin addict who has been in and out of state prisons most of his adult life, is accused of robbing six banks in Hamilton County within three weeks in April and May, according to his arrest report.

        Mr. Conway is being held at the Hamilton County Justice Center on $1.5 million bond awaiting trial, but also is wanted on four bank robbery counts in Columbus, one in Dayton and police believe he robbed two banks in Kentucky.

        Bank officials have trained employees to comply with robbers and to push a panic button only after the robber has left the building to prevent endangering employees and customers.

        But with a rise in robberies and guns being used or threatened about 75 percent of the time, some banks have stepped up security by installing metal detectors at front doors or more cameras.

        Others are paying off-duty police officers to work security — and in two robberies this year at the same bank, that led to two shootings, one that was fatal.

        Officer Hawkins killed Brandon Lowe, 18, of Bond Hill, last summer after the red-haired gunman burst into the CinFed Credit Union on Reading Road and demanded cash.

        Mr. Lowe didn't see Officer Hawkins until he emerged from behind a wall and ordered him to drop his gun.

        “We are almost like family there,” Officer Hawkins said of the credit union, of which he is a longtime member and still works off-duty. “The people in that bank hold a special place in my heart. When we got robbed, I really felt like he was coming into my house.”

        Mr. Lowe ignored Officer Hawkins' orders to stop and pointed his gun at him. Officer Hawkins fired two shots that hit Mr. Lowe in the lower right back and his right elbow as he ran toward the door, police said.

        Mr. Lowe, too, was a serial robber — part of a five-member ring that tried to rob three banks in seven days, according to police.

        Shooting the youngster, Officer Hawkins said, reinforced his religious beliefs and mentor work with teens.

        “A lot of young people don't have dreams anymore,” said the soft-spoken father of two small children. “If you're not dreaming, you don't care and that's scary to think of a person who hasn't been on this earth very long doesn't care.”

        That shooting followed another one at CinFed Jan. 23. Following a three-minute running gun battle with police, Christian Johnson, 48, of Forest Park was shot three times by Officer Charles Fullman as Mr. Johnson pointed his gun at another officer.

        Mr. Johnson recovered and has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for an aggravated robbery conviction.

        Because of the robberies, CinFed installed a $50,000 metal detector at its front doors last month, Officer Hawkins said. Similar devices also are at Provident bank branches on Montgomery and Hamilton roads, he said.


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