Legally Speaking: The Great Getaways

John G. Browning Feb. 25, 2010, 9:24am

In my recent article "Take the Money and Run", I chronicled how would-be bank robbers were foiled by their failure to adhere to some pretty basic principles of their chosen career: show up when the bank is actually open, write a legible stick-up note, wear a disguise that actually works, and so forth.

Alert readers reminded me that I had overlooked perhaps the most critical point of any robbery scheme: making a successful getaway.

As it turns out, however, holdup artists seem to have as much trouble getting that aspect of a heist right. So here are some more helpful hints gleaned from robberies gone wrong.

Don't rob a bank on an empty stomach. At the risk of sounding like a Jewish mother, you shouldn't rob a bank when you're hungry, since it just increases the temptation to stop for a bite to eat when you should be making your getaway.

Such was the case with 42-year-old Lee Harris, who robbed a Citibank branch in San Francisco in 2003, and then felt the need for a nosh.

After leaving the bank, he ducked into Le Central Bistro on Bush Street and probably didn't blend that well with other diners with his desert camouflage fatigues and bulging duffel bags full of cash.

Wait staff who had seen police cars zipping past the restaurant got suspicious, and alerted law enforcement to the unusual guest, who was apprehended before he could finish his smoked salmon.

I hear the food's pretty bad where Harris is currently spending his time, but you don't get to send it back to the chef.

You're only as good as your equipment. In the film "Out of Sight," the erstwhile smooth-as-silk bank robber played by George Clooney pulls off a successful bank job, only to be caught when his less-than reliable getaway car won't start.

Thirty-five-year-old Randall Walker and 35-year-old Jason Dietrich can probably identify. The pair were arrested in June 2009 after Walker allegedly held up the Riverside National Bank in Daytona Beach, Fla.
After leaving the bank with the money, police say Walker jumped into a Jeep Cherokee driven by Dietrich.

They didn't get far, however, because the vehicle quickly ran out of gas. Although Walker and Dietrich got out and split up, authorities quickly tracked the abandoned SUV back to its owner (Dietrich), and the two men were arrested.

Many of us have locked our keys in our cars at one time or another. But most of us haven't done that in the course of a robbery, unlike John Wilkinson of Big Spring, Texas.

In August 2008, the then-24-year-old allegedly robbed the Stanton Drug Store of Xanax and hydrocodone using a caulking gun (maybe they had really serious grout issues).

When Wilkinson returned to his car, parked with the engine running in front of the drug store, he discovered he had locked himself out. After fleeing on foot, Wilkinson was shot in the shoulder by police (who didn't realize he was capable of nothing but home repairs) and taken into custody. As Homer Simpson would say, "D'oh!".

Of course, it always helps if your getaway involves less slapstick than the average Three Stooges sketch.

In January 2009, a shoplifter ran out of a store in Cape Coral, Fla., after stealing six designer purses.

As a security guard pursued her, the shoplifter's getaway car pulled up. The woman tried to get in, but failed and was run over by the car.

She managed to get up, jumped on the hood of the car, but fell off and was run over - again.

Apparently, the third time was the charm as the luckless shoplifter managed to make it into the vehicle on the third try. In all the confusion, the guard had ample time to jot down the car's license plate and to pick up a check that the woman had dropped during the getaway, ultimately leading to her arrest.

And for anyone who doesn't believe that size matters, allow me to introduce you to a pair of robbers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In September 2008, the two thieves must have thought they'd pulled off the perfect crime after hijacking a security van with nearly £1 million in cash.

But as they began transferring the bags of currency to their getaway vehicle, they realized the car was too small; as a result, the robbers had to leave most of the loot behind.

Said police chief Shakaruddin Che Meed, "The bags are quite big. I consider [the robbers] quite stupid. Their planning was very shortsighted."

Choice of car matters. Clearly, those Malaysian armed robbers didn't think they could make a successful getaway in something as noticeable as an armed van. But for some would-be stickup artists, an inconspicuous getaway car has not been a big concern.

In April 2009, a German police detective, who'd purportedly been experiencing severe financial problems, walked into the Baden-Wurttemberg bank, held up tellers with his police-issue pistol, and fled - in his police car.

Police had little problem tracking down the 55-year-old detective and his nearly $12,000 in stolen cash.

Meanwhile in December 2009, a man attempted to rob a convenience store in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, but didn't put much effort in covering his tracks.

Police arrested him quickly by tracing the thief to a local air conditioning firm where he worked - not as hard as it might seem, since he used the company van as his getaway vehicle.

Who says you can never find a cab when you need one? A bank robber, who held up a Trustmark Bank branch in Jackson, Miss., in November 2009, fled in a taxi (the cab driver had previously taken the thief to a grocery store just before the heist - hey, bank robbers have errands to run, too).

Police had little difficulty tracking down the man - let's hope he at least gave the cabbie a decent tip.

Residents of the 85051 zip code in Glendale, Ariz., had a good reason for not getting their mail one August day in 2007.

A man who had robbed a Future Cuts hair salon after getting his hair cut (hey, I've had bad haircuts before but I've never been motivated to rob the place) decided to use a nearby postal truck as his getaway vehicle. The truck was later found abandoned 10 miles away.

The robber was last believed to be carrying an undisclosed sum of cash and leaving a trail of those annoying little magazine subscription cards.

My favorite bank robber choice of getaway car has got to be the unidentified individual who robbed the Harleysville National Bank in Limerick, Penn., in January 2009.

After going drawer to drawer taking money from the tellers, the stick-up artist calmly walked out of the bank, went to a nearby coffee shop, and carjacked a Toyota Prius.

The apparently eco-conscious bank robber escaped in the hybrid vehicle, and though the environmentally-friendly car was later found, there was no trace of the thief - no carbon footprints to follow, no pair of Birkenstocks left behind, and no donations made to National Public Radio.

It looks like he used the Prius to make a "clean" getaway.

When there are no cars, you have to improvise. Not every robber's getaway vehicle is a car.

In April 2008, a gray-haired man proved himself "handi-capable" when he held up the Wachovia Bank branch at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, Calif., and left in a motorized wheelchair.

In October 2007, a shoplifter in Limbach-Oberfrohna, Germany, fled the scene of the crime in a cement-mixer.

Another German thief made his getaway after robbing a camera shop in a kid's toy - a pedal go-cart. He was caught not long after, thanks to curious citizens who reported seeing a suspicious man pedaling a go-cart along a canal.

In September 2009, a thief in Mumbai, India, figured someone else could do the pedaling. After stealing a heavy silver idol from a local temple, Qudir Shaikh flagged down an auto-rickshaw driver to make his escape.

Unfortunately for Shaikh, the driver was a regular worshipper at that temple, recognized the idol, and pedaled Shaikh straight into the hands of waiting police.

Of course, times are tough, and not everyone can afford a car in the first place.

In September 2009, a man robbed the Midwest Credit Union in St. Louis before fleeing - on a bicycle.

If there's a getaway vehicle even less cool than a bicycle, it's a children's bicycle. Yet that's what the man who held up two legalized betting shops in Cheltenham, England, used to get away in August 2007.

The robber was last seen pedaling away and looking ridiculous. I suppose it could have been even worse - if the bike was a little girl's model, complete with flowered basket on the front, and "Helly Kitty" tassels on the handlebars.

Meanwhile, the chase scene after a recent burglary in Palm Harbor, Fla., seemed straight out of a really lame movie. In January 2010, Christopher Schaumburger fled after allegedly burglarizing two homes, jumping on a bicycle he had hidden in the bushes.

But intrepid homeowner and unwilling crime victim, Nicholas Hammond, chased him on foot and - showing the importance of good cardio - caught up with Schaumberger.

After a brief confrontation, Schaumberger fled down a street, only to have it dead end on Lake Tarpon.

With nowhere to go, the hapless thief jumped in a pedal boat and tried to escape across the lake. He furiously pedaled away (taking on water as he did), but in the end Schaumburger was apprehended by police with the aid of a helicopter and another boat. He's now in the Pinellas County Jail.

Finally, inflation may be bad for the economy, but it certainly proved helpful for one bank robber in Monroe, Wash.

In September 2008, a man wearing a blue shirt and a respirator mask executed an apparently carefully-planned robbery of an armored car guard in the parking lot of a Bank of America branch.

The robber intercepted the guard, who was carrying heavy canvas bags loaded with cash, and sprayed him with pepper spray before fleeing with the money. He then ran about 100 yards to a nearby creek, jumped into an inner tube, and floated downstream to the Skykomish River (police later found the inner tube, but no trace of the suspect).

Meanwhile, police arriving at the bank parking lot found about a dozen men milling around wearing blue shirts and respirator masks.

All of them had responded to the same Craigslist ad seeking workers for a road maintenance project, and had been sent e-mails instructing them to meet at the bank right around the time of the holdup.

Seattle FBI spokeswoman Robbi Burroughs had never heard of someone using an inner tube as a getaway vehicle before.

"I do remember one time we had a bank robbery in Olympia, and the guy got into scuba gear and dove into the water," said Burroughs. "I thought that was the most bizarre thing I'd ever heard until [the inner tube robbery]."

Let's just hope this bank robber isn't buoyed by his own success.

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