Bandit Tracker help nab bank robbers

July 26, 2009 12:47:49 PM PDT
Beware, Smelly Bandit. Watch out, Red Line Robber. The FBI's Bandit Tracker is looking for you. The agency's Web-based effort to capture bank robbers, which debuted in Texas in 2007, has expanded to Illinois and Indiana since May, bringing to four the number of states participating in the program. FBI officials say they hope eventually to take the online crime-solving tool nationwide.

The Web sites showcase surveillance photos of elusive or dangerous suspects who are often given memorable nicknames to generate media attention, such as those bestowed on Fort Worth's body odor-plagued bandit and the Chicago robber who is believed to ride trains to and from his targets. The sites allow visitors to e-mail tips that can help police solve crimes and even put reward money in tipsters' pockets.

"We consider tips to be an integral part of the investigation. And Bandit Tracker's just an opportunity to get more of those," said Tom Gancarz, assistant special agent in charge at the agency's Indianapolis field office, whose site debuted in June.

Eleven of the 30 bank robbers on the Bandit Tracker Arkansas site have "captured" signs across their faces, and four of those have been a direct result of tips sent to the site that debuted last year, said Kimberly Brunell, a special agent in the FBI's Little Rock field office.

"Our best way to capture any of these guys or these girls is to have their picture out there," said Mike Shepard, security officer with Metropolitan National Bank in Little Rock. "The ability to have that out there all the time is probably the best solving tool we have."

Those involved say response to the Web sites is strong. Traffic on Chicago's Bandit Tracker site was so heavy that it crashed the site on three days after it went live in May.

The Web sites generally include still photographs from bank surveillance video, descriptions of suspects' appearance and technique and maps to show robbery patterns. The public can anonymously e-mail tips if they recognize a suspect. Some sites offer archives going back as far as 2003.

While rewards aren't guaranteed, they often are available from banks, anti-crime groups such as Crimestoppers and in certain high-profile cases from the FBI, Gancarz said.

Banks submit video for uploading to Bandit Tracker to the FBI, which prioritizes inclusion based on the level of danger posed by the suspect and the difficulty of the case. "No bank robbery's simple to solve," Gancarz said.

The Indianapolis field office has a bank robbery coordinator, whose job includes uploading electronic data from banks, checking online tips and comparing suspects on various sites to determine if they are operating in more than one state.

"Most of our true professional bank robbers are going to travel," said Shepard, the Arkansas bank security officer.

In addition to the Bandit Tracker states, the FBI operates a Web site in Georgia, www.georgiabankrobbery.com. The agency also links from its Bandit Tracker site to similar sites operated by banking organizations or local authorities in Colorado, New York, New Hampshire, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

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