Blog: BUNNYpants and SIPPYcup - Eclectic Menagerie
by Aharleygyrl

To Catch A Thief, A Collective Tip Of The Cap

One bank asks customers to go bare-headed as cops try to snare Hat Bandit

Date:   6/13/2007 6:30:09 AM   ( 14 y ) ... viewed 2081 times

Tuesday, June 12, 2007
By Bll Swayze

If you want to make a transaction at Hudson City Savings Bank in Florham Park, you better take off your hat.

That's what the two signs on the bank's front door state in black letters. "Please remove all head coverings, caps, hats and hoods."

Florham Park police say that's the new rule they hope will trip up the Hat Bandit -- the notorious bank robber also known as the Mad Hatter -- who has hit at least 16 banks in northern New Jersey since September. A hat for every heist, the bandit with bright white teeth and Paul-Newman-blue eyes has made off with $75,000 in total, authorities said.

To jar the Hat Bandit or any would-be bank robber from a smooth in-and-out routine, authorities also have suggested adding extra video cameras and bank "greeters" to work the bank floor, welcoming and helping unfamiliar faces with transactions as soon as they walk in.

Some 20 police departments in Morris County met a month ago to discuss the robberies in Union, Morris and Essex counties that have taken place since September. Law enforcement officers came up with an assortment of ideas. Some banks heeded the advice; some haven't yet.

Investigators went bank to bank two weeks ago in Florham Park, asking branch managers to post the sign to get customers to take off their caps. All told, they visited 10 banks. One bank listened.

Hudson City Savings -- one of the banks the Hat hit -- did as asked and posted the sign, said police Lt. Bob Treiber.

"That's the only bank that listened to us. I wish more banks would listen," Treiber said.

Paul Chaves, who is in charge of Hudson City Savings' security for its 115 banks in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, said the bank wants to help authorities.

"We are cooperating with law enforcement. We value our customers and the communities they are in. We do what we can," he said, but declined to discuss the case -- as has Commerce Bank, hit 11 times by the Hat Bandit, and HSBC.

Chatham police Sgt. Mike Bochniak said police have taken posters of the bandit to banks for display. The description of the robber is similar in each of the heists minus what's on his head. It's always something different: a khaki-colored baseball hat, a light-blue camouflage cap, a red hunter's hat with a brim, a fisherman's hat, a blue Yankees cap, a cap with military insignia, a red knit ski cap and a white knit cap, to name a few.

Chatham police also plan to ask banks there to ask their customers to remove their hats.

Montclair's police chief, David Sabagh, said he believes Commerce Bank re-directed its cameras after a chance conversation between Deputy Chief Perry T. Mayers and Mark Charbonneau, an assistant vice president and Montclair branch manager.

The result: His attempted robbery of a Commerce Bank on June 1 in Montclair provided one of the best shots of the Hat Bandit to date, local police and the FBI said.

"Perry was lamenting all the camera angles were from the corners of the room looking down," Sabagh said. Perry suggested the camera be repositioned to eye level, just behind the teller. Now the camera looks directly into the customer's face.

"As it turns out, they did that," Sabagh said of re-positioning the cameras. "We were happy to see that angle. ... We like to think it was due to that conversation."

FBI Special Agent Sean Quinn noted new camera angles have an effect on robberies. "The crime would be committed much less if robbers knew their faces would be caught on video," he said.

Bank security experts say there are other things banks can do to make it more difficult for robbers.

David Mansfield, vice president of Griffin Bank Security in Philadelphia, noted security door entrance "man-traps" that lock robbers in a bullet-resistant entryway until police arrive. Banks also can add a cash dispensing system that eliminates a teller's access to the cash drawer. Customers would use an ATM-like device the teller can only access with a computer interface, he said.

Booby-trapped money bags also do the trick, as the Hat discovered June 1 in Montclair when he left the Commerce Bank and a red-dye pack exploded, The bandit, a white male in his late 40s or early 50s, ditched the stained money but got away.

Staff writers Phil Read and Elizabeth Moore contributed to this report. Bill Swayze may be reached at wswayze@starledger.com or (973) 539-7910.

© 2007  The Star Ledger

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