Philadelphia has never really been a bank-robbery town.
Some cities have that reputation, deserved or not. Think Los Angeles, home to spectacularly violent heists, a region that once logged 2,600 bank robberies in a year.
Philadelphia bandits are not known for flash or firepower, even smarts. Many are drug addicts, clumsily picking targets in their own neighborhoods, hiding under a cap or hoodie, and brandishing nothing more than a nasty note.
Most get caught.
Still, last week was an unusually busy stretch in an unusually busy season for unauthorized withdrawals. Robbers hit five city banks in six days, upping the total to 14 in barely a month. After fewer than 75 attempts each of the last two years, it seemed like a surge.
FBI Special Agent John Kitzinger and Philadelphia Police Lt. Joseph Del Grippo see the stretch as part of the ebb and flow of crime. But the men, supervisors on the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force, say the uptick is peculiar, even confounding.
There is no serial robber, organized crew, or clear pattern. Only one suspect has been identified.
"There's been nothing that really sticks out," said Del Grippo, who has spent a quarter-century as an officer and four years with agents and detectives on the 16-member task force.
The most recent heists could not have been more spread out. A PNC bank Feb. 9 in North Philadelphia. A Republic Bank in Center City two days later, on Monday. A Wells Fargo branch in Frankford the same day. Another PNC site Wednesday, this one in Center City.
The last one came Thursday morning, when a man in his late 20s or early 30s walked into a TD Bank branch on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough with a demand note. The robber, a black man with a goatee, glasses, dark ski cap, gloves, and coat, ran out before getting his cash.
Some speculate stickups spike when times are tough, but there are no indisputable data. Nine years ago, Philadelphia bank robberies soared to 187, smashing the 1991 record of 158. Then, mirroring a national trend, they began sliding back down, falling to 72 in 2011 and 74 last year. Of them, only three were armed robberies. The rest of the robbers used notes or delivered their demands orally.
An FBI analysis of Philadelphia bank robbers two years ago showed that more than 90 percent lived within a mile of their target. "For us, guys who go from North Philly to South Philly, that's like international travel," said Special Agent J.J. Klaver, a spokesman for the Philadelphia division.
The take is usually small - the average bank loss nationwide was $4,704 in 2011, FBI records show - though investigators don't like to share many details of the crimes or to open a window into how they do their job. They say they rely on the typical tools - fingerprints, informants, surveillance. But few things are as effective as publicity.
Kitzinger, who has been investigating violent crime for 18 years, said he always considered bank robbery a dumb choice, but technology has made it even dumber. Most banks are so wired now that their cameras snap crisp images of customers from every angle.
"The photos are so good," Kitzinger said.
Then it's just a matter of getting the pictures onto the streets, via the media, billboards, and fliers they give to beat cops and agencies. Besides their own website, Philadelphia police post suspect videos and photos on Facebook and YouTube.
Take the case of Brandon Shields. In December 2011, he walked into a PNC Bank on Frankford Avenue. He wore a baseball cap and gloves and passed a note that read: "I HAVE A GUN. GIVE ME THE MONEY. NOBODY GETS HURT. QUIET."
A teller handed him $1,290. Shields walked out.
Investigators circulated his photo and asked for the public's help. More than one tipster called in Shields' name, including a parole officer who previously worked with him, court records show. Agents arrested Shields in January 2012. In November, he was sentenced to 110 months in federal prison.
"Here's the thing: When we get it out there, we get the bodies in," Del Grippo said.
In December, FBI headquarters unveiled its own searchable website, bankrobbers.fbi.gov, with a database, surveillance photos, and a map that lets users search by name and location, even for serial robberies or rewards. On Friday, the site listed 127 suspects from heists in two dozen states. The goal is to broaden the net and spotlight on robbers.
"There's this mentality of a no-snitch culture," said John M. Cosenza, an assistant special agent in charge of the Philadelphia FBI office. "But social media does help, the neighborhood canvasses do help. Putting this in the paper - people react to that."
As the week ended, Del Grippo said a few decent tips had come in on the unsolved robberies, listed in red ink on a dry-erase board in the task force offices. Agents also concluded that the Roxborough bandit was the same man who robbed three Lower Merion banks in recent weeks.
Kitzinger said he would be surprised if half the board was not cleared in a week.
"I'm always confident," he said, "that we're going to catch these guys."
Bank: First Niagara Bank, 11730 Bustleton Ave.
Date: Jan. 16
Identifying information: Black male, mid-30s to early 40s, 5 feet,
9 inches tall.
Bank: Citizens Bank, 6324 Stenton Ave.
Date: Jan. 24
Identifying information: Black male, late 30s, 6 feet, 3 inches tall.
Bank: PNC Bank, 6855 Frankford Ave.
Date: Jan. 29
Identifying information: White male, mid-30s to early 40s, about
6 feet tall.
Bank: Wells Fargo Bank, 6420 Frankford Ave.
Date: Feb. 4
Identifying information: White male, mid-40s to early 50s, about
6 feet tall.
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