published Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Is he a geezer or just a thug in a mask?

  • photo
    FILE - This undated file image provided by the FBI shows a suspect, nicknamed the "Geezer Bandit" in the process of robbing a bank April 20, 2010. To his legions of fans, the "Geezer Bandit" is a bank-robbing old man with a quirky nickname whose popularity only seems to grow with each heist. For authorities, the doddering robber is no laughing matter. They say he is an armed and dangerous menace who leaves bank tellers terrified for their lives. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

By THOMAS WATKINS

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Entrepreneurs are printing surveillance shots of his wrinkled face on T-shirts, thousands of people “Like” him on Facebook and many are wishing him continued success at evading the law.

To his legion of fans, the “Geezer Bandit” is a bank-robbing old man with a quirky nickname whose popularity only seems to grow with each heist.

But authorities trying to track him down say there is nothing light hearted about the doddering robber.

They say he is an armed and dangerous menace who leaves bank tellers terrified and could strike at any time. He might even be someone younger disguised under a lifelike special-effects mask.

In a region the FBI has dubbed the bank robbery capital of the world, where stickups still occur on an almost daily basis, the “Geezer Bandit” case has captured the public’s interest like few others in recent memory.

And for now at least, the aging robber is showing no signs of retiring.

On Jan. 28, authorities say the blazer-clad geezer struck at a Bank of America branch in Goleta, a city northwest of Los Angeles. Witnesses estimated him to be between 60 and 70 years old.

It was the farthest he’d roamed from San Diego County, where he is suspected of robbing 11 banks starting in August 2009. He is also believed to have robbed a Bank of America in Bakersfield, bringing the total tally to 13.

A typical posting on one of the two Facebook pages set up to honor the crook exhorts him to “Run Geezer Run!”

One frequent commentator, Kenny Walsh, said he is pleased to see a robber targeting Bank of America.

“Talk about a bunch of crooks glad to see you got some of the american people’s money back,” he wrote.

Hoping to make a quick buck, several people have designed T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia with the robber’s image from surveillance footage. It’s not clear how many have actually been purchased.

The fascination with bank robbers goes back generations in America, with some venerating the most notorious — John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James.

University of California, Los Angeles, sociology professor David Halle said some people derive satisfaction from seeing large institutions under attack.

“There is a long tradition of not liking banks in the U.S.,” Halle said. “They have been unpopular for ages and now they are unpopular again for obvious reasons. (The ’Geezer Bandit’) is not robbing old ladies.”

FBI Special Agent Steve May is appalled by the bandit’s elevation to antihero status.

“I am totally not a fan of that,” said May, who has spent 11 years tracking bank robbers. “Those tellers .. They are scared to death. They are worried that person is going to come back again and kill them.”

Adding to the case’s interest is the possibility that the elderly-looking robber is not old at all. The theory gained traction after a white Ohio man admitted to robbing several banks while wearing a mask that made him appear to be black.

It was so realistic that police mistakenly arrested a man who had similar facial characteristics. Even the wrongly accused man’s mother thought a photo she’d seen of the robbery suspect on the news was her son.

The real culprit, Conrad Zdzierak, who pleaded guilty in November, said he bought the mask from SPFXmasks in the San Fernando Valley.

Another type of mask the firm makes is called “The Elder.” Its deep wrinkles and blemished skin bear a striking resemblance to the grizzled visage of the “Geezer Bandit.”

“There are some similarities, but that doesn’t mean that someone is wearing that particular mask,” FBI spokesman Special Agent Darrell Foxworth said.

The FBI has spoken with the mask company but is not saying whether agents have tried to track customers. Publicly, the agency says it is still looking for an old man — not someone with a silicone mask.

In some cases, witnesses reported seeing plastic tubes running from the robber’s nose to a bag housing what may have been a breathing apparatus. He speaks in a deliberate voice and often wears smart clothes such as button-down shirts or a fedora. The FBI and various banks are offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction.

If it turns out that the robber’s geezer credentials are real, he is part of a rare but persistent demographic of older bank robbers. Bank heists usually are committed by men younger than 50, Foxworth said, but there are plenty of exceptions.

In October, authorities snagged a man suspected of being the “Golden Years Bandit” when they arrested William McCormick Jr., 59, on suspicion of robbing five banks in the Los Angeles region.

A year earlier, “Baby Boomer Bandit” suspect Salvador Sanchez, 64, was arrested on suspicion of carrying out several robberies in Pasadena.

The FBI in Houston said that Theresa Mary Gaas, who was 56 at the time of her 2009 arrest, robbed two banks, earning her the nickname of “Grandma Bandit.”

The Los Angeles area currently has its own robber with the same moniker. The local “Grandma Bandit,” a frail, straw hat-wearing woman in her 60s, is still at large, most recently robbing a bank in Palm Springs, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

The unlikely image of an older person robbing a bank at gunpoint may help them escape.

In the “Geezer Bandit” robberies, his frail gait and inconspicuous manner attracted little attention. Often, the only person aware that a robbery was taking place was the teller.

“When he goes in, he is not drawing a lot of physical attention to himself,” Foxworth said. “He will wait in line sometimes. When he gets to the teller counter . he tells them to give him the money or he will shoot them.”

In several cases, he has been captured on surveillance camera brandishing a small-caliber revolver in his left hand. He might be wearing gloves.

The bandit then shuffled out of the building and disappeared. The FBI is not sure whether he uses a vehicle or has a getaway driver.

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