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The Reality of Bank Robbers

Modern American culture has fallen in love with violent criminals, especially bank robbers.  But the love affair is based on fantasy.  The reality of bank robbers, however, is very different.  The truth is that bank robbers are weird and ineffective criminals.

The media portrays bank robbers as good looking and justifiably rebellious: Brad Pitt as a Jesse James; Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, each driven by an inner wild-child.  Most recently, the media dubbed a serial bank robber “Grandpa Bandit.”  Bank robbery surveillance photos show the Grandpa Bandit is a bald, pale, heavy-set man in his 50s to 60 years old.  The robber, who has 21 bank robberies in 12 states, was calm, deliberate and low key.  Dressed in nondescript clothing, he “gently” robs the bank, typically with a demand note for a specific amount.  The American public was invited to imagine him as a kind, older gentlemen with grandchildren.  When trying to figure out what drove him, one reporter speculated aloud that the perhaps the Grandpa Bandit had a sick wife and was robbing banks to pay off medical bills. 

The truth about the Grandpa Bandit was something else.  Michael Francis Mara, 52, had a string of criminal convictions dating back to 1981.  He had only been released in 2004 after serving a sentence for breaking and entering.  He was hardly a warm Grandpa just trying to pay the medical bills of his wife of 50 years.  He was instead an experienced criminal.  Although much was reported about him before he was caught, the media gave far less attention to Mara’s personal reality.  It was not romantic or interesting. 

So goes the American fantasy about bank robbers.

Famous American bank robber John Dillinger and his murderous associates have been glamorized in at least eight movies.  Dillinger, depicted most recently by Hollywood heartthrob Jonny Depp, was portrayed as a rebellious, exciting man who enjoyed the challenge of robbing banks and evading boring law enforcement officials.  In reality, Dillinger was a violent man who spent his childhood bullying and terrorizing other children.  Dillinger’s father was allegedly physically and verbally abusive.  Dillinger was constantly in trouble as a juvenile.  Charming, but possessing not concern for others, Dillinger would con bank employees believing he was a bank alarm salesman or a movie scout, viewing locations for a film company.    Dillinger even convinced his own attorney to smuggle a wooden gun into jail, which he later used to escape.   Federal agents received a tip that Dillinger was at a Chicago movie Theatre.  As he exited the theatre Dillinger was killed by the agents, thereby ending his murderous spree.  Dillinger killed police officers, terrorized bank employees and manipulated and abused those who came in contact with him buy kamagra uk online.   

Legendary bank robber Jesse James has also been depicted as a hero of the common man in films.  Recently actor Brad Pitt portrayed James.  Like Dillinger, James’ modern media image has been so completely re-worked that he is now remembered as almost charming.  In truth James was what we would now call a violent racist.  He was raised in a southern Missouri community where slaves made up twenty-five percent of the population.  In letters sent by James to local newspaper editors, he supported Missouri seceding from the Union so I could sustain its slave-holding philosophy.  In the 1860s, James joined a secessionist group that was later implicated in the massacre of union soldiers and their civilian sympathizers.  Around the same time, James started robbing banks that were owned by men who supported the abolition of slavery.  This targeted robbing of abolitionists raised James to the status of folk hero in the minds of those who supported the Confederacy.  In an early instance of media romanticizing, a secessionist newspaper editor in Kansas City portrayed Jesse and his gang members as action heroes, further glamorizing their violence and pro-slavery views.  When James expanded his criminal activity to train robberies, his fellow gang members began to get killed or captured.  Eventually James’ fellow gang member, who was secretly working for the Governor of Missouri, killed him.

In 2009, the FBI reported that the U.S. experiences about 6000 bank robberies a year.  The typical bank robber gets no more than $1500.  That will hardly get a villa in Tuscany or pay for the plane fare to Mexico.   In fact it’s a sum so small that it stands no bigger than a large sandwich.  For this meager haul, bank robbers are willing to expose themselves to Federal bank robbery charges that can be as high as a life sentence.

I investigated bank robberies for 20 years as an FBI special agent.  Most of the bank robbers I investigated had addiction problems, somewhat lower IQs, and mental health problems.  Most also got caught.  With the use of surveillance cameras, crime stopper rewards and television news exposure, bank robbers tended to leave clues that led to their capture, even when they took pains to disguise their faces.  What is more, criminal trials against them tended to result in guilty verdicts.  With those odds, it would be fair to say than bank robbers are not the smartest criminals.  America’s tendency to romanticize  bank robbers has no basis in reality. 


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