The first in Willingboro's strange string of bank heists came on an evening in January, when a 6-foot-tall man wearing a mask and hooded sweatshirt entered a Beneficial Bank, robbed it at gunpoint, and fled.

That could have been it for the year. The Burlington County township of 34,000 residents had only one bank robbery in all of 2007. There were none the year before.

Yet in February, the same Beneficial branch, at the corner of Beverly-Rancocas Road and Rose Street, was robbed again.

In April, again.

This month, yet again.

Nobody has been caught. And nobody knows what's going on. The small, nondescript branch has been the scene of nearly half of all bank robberies in the county this year, according to FBI figures.

"Four times in four months?" said customer Walter Brown, a township resident. "Goodness."

"Obviously, I would say that's considered abnormal," said Stephen Kodak, a spokesman at the FBI's national headquarters.

"It's unusual," conceded Willingboro Police Lt. Joseph Dey. He theorized that the bandits may now feel "a comfort level" at the branch, located near Route 130, a major road that offers an easy getaway.

The robberies have much in common. Surveillance footage shows that all of the robbers were black men wearing masks and dark sweatshirts with the hoods up, Dey said.

Though robberies more often involve a written note and no weapon, all of the men verbally demanded the loot and brandished a gun.

All committed their robberies in the middle of the month, at the end of the week.

All escaped by foot.

But the man in February was 5-foot-9, police said, and the others have been of various heights. In April, a pair of men came in; one vaulted the counter to get the money.

On May 16, at 1:30 p.m., a duo struck again. Police are investigating a possible connection to an incident a half-hour earlier when a man walked into a nearby Papa John's pizza shop and randomly fired shots before running away.

"Unfortunately, being victimized once does dramatically increase [a business'] chance of being victimized again," said Deborah Weisel, of North Carolina State University, who has done research on bank robberies.

"We don't want to scare people," Weisel said, "but those are the places that need an increased level of security."

Such a rapid succession of robberies is likely the work of people who know each other, she said.

Police have not revealed how much was stolen, though nationwide, the average take in a bank robbery was $4,330, according to 2006 FBI statistics. The branch's tellers and manager have declined to comment.

In a statement, the Philadelphia-based Beneficial, which has more than 70 branches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said it was working with authorities and "aggressively looking into this situation."

"We have state-of-the-art security systems in place," the statement said. "The safety and security of our employees and our customers is a top priority."

The Willingboro branch does not have bulletproof glass, known as a "bandit barrier," in front of its tellers.

Of the 164 banks robbed in New Jersey last year, just 30 had the barriers, said FBI Special Agent Steven Siegel, bank-robbery coordinator for the agency's Newark division.

Tellers are trained to hand over money right away in a robbery, though banks are increasingly keeping only a few thousand dollars in each teller's drawer, said Margot Mohsberg, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.

Banks provide counseling for tellers after a robbery, she said. Employees are typically instructed not to speak with each another after a crime so that they can give independent accounts.

Dey, of the Willingboro police, wouldn't specify what authorities have done to thwart another stickup, only that they have increased police checks at all township banks.

A police car was seen parked in front of the Beneficial Bank branch on three different days. On one occasion an officer was viewed sitting inside, her arms folded, keeping a silent lookout.

Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com

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