NorCal bank robberies drop off in 2015

FBI officials announced in San Francisco Wednesday that the number of bank robberies in Northern California fell in 2015 for the second year in a row, but they are still searching for suspects in several high-profile cases that remain unsolved.

Bertram Fairries, an assistant special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office, said Northern California bank robberies decreased to 102 in 2015, down from 152 in 2014 and 229 in 2013.

Fairries supervises FBI investigations of violent crimes in the Northern District of California, which encompasses the Bay Area and northern coastal California up to the Oregon border.

He said authorities theorize there may be several reasons as to why the robbery rate has dipped.

One is that tips from the public, media publicity and cooperation among the FBI and local law enforcement agencies have aided in the apprehension of serial robbers and may have deterred other potential criminals.

“Tips from the public are very significant” and often provide crucial clues or identity information about suspects, Fairries said.

Another factor, Fairries said, is that banks are continually improving security protocols, including the installation of wider surveillance camera coverage that can record almost the entire area within a bank.

“It’s hard to go into a bank and not be recorded. There are very few dead zones in banks” these days, he said.

The agent said he didn’t want to go into details, but said banks in coordination with law enforcement agencies are also improving the training of employees who may be the target of a robbery.

Fairries had some advice for members of the public who find themselves caught in the midst of a bank robbery.

“Safety is the most important,” he said. “Be quiet, don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself, but observe.” The observations can later help authorities in apprehending the suspects, he sad.

The FBI arrested several high-profile bank robbery suspects in 2015, including Darius Gilbert, 48, dubbed the “Clean Cut Bandit” by the FBI.

He is accused of robbing eight banks in Antioch, San Francisco and San Rafael between March and June.

In October, the FBI arrested Richard Laurence Stewart, 52, of San Francisco, who is charged with robbing four banks in the city.

Fairries said that suspects still being sought include a man dubbed by the FBI as the “Droopy Face Bandit,” who is believed to have robbed 10 banks in predominantly Asian neighborhoods of San Francisco between 2007 and 2015.

The suspect, whose image was captured on several bank cameras, has a small build and droopy cheeks and appears to be of Asian descent, according to the FBI. In each case, he caused bank employees to believe he had a handgun.

The robberies include six in 2007, two in 2009 and two in 2015.

All were in Chinatown except for two in the Inner Richmond District in 2007 and on Sept. 16, 2015.

“He appears to be targeting banks specifically in Asian communities,” Fairries said. The FBI is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the suspect’s apprehension and prosecution.

Also being sought are two men who robbed a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Campbell on Nov. 21. Two men armed with guns and wearing black hooded sweatshirts and masks ordered everyone in the bank to get on the floor, forced an employee to open the bank vault and fled in a waiting car, the FBI said.

The agency is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of three other suspects who conducted a violent robbery of a Wells Fargo branch in Salinas on Nov. 9.

Three men wearing hooded sweatshirts, painter’s masks and yellow or orange construction safety vests burst into the bank, took customers and employees hostage and threatened to kill them, the FBI said.

Two were armed with guns and one with a knife, according to police. The suspects, described as Hispanic, fled in a dark-colored sedan after taking an undisclosed amount of money.

On Monday, a U.S. Bank branch in a Safeway grocery store in El Cerrito was robbed of several hundred thousand dollars by a man who passed a demand note to the teller and claimed to have a gun, according to El Cerrito police. No firearm was seen.

The suspect, whose picture was recorded on a bank camera, was black, wore a baseball hat and a gray puff jacket, and had a slight beard that may have been fake, according to the FBI.

People with information about these robberies or any others are urged to call the FBI at (415) 553-7400, the El Cerrito Police Department at (510) 215-4400, or the Campbell Police Department at (408) 866-2101.

Tips can also be submitted to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.