Bank robbing is no easy money

James Bergeron

Bank robbery in real life is a far cry from what you see on television and in the movies.

The bandits don’t dress in suits and wear plastic Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon masks. There isn’t a band of men jumping out of a van armed with high-powered automatic weapons. And most important, the thief or thieves aren’t carrying duffel bags and emptying out vaults with hundreds of thousands of dollars as the take.

Think more along the lines of the “Tall, Dark and Handsome” bandit, John Steven Stark, the Liberty County native who had been in and out of prison most of his life and had less than $4,000 on him when he was caught by Beaumont police outside of Parkdale Mall back in February.

Stark, 46, has since pleaded guilty to two counts bank robbery and is awaiting sentencing. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

“Bank robbery is not a crime you want to commit,” said Ann Figueiras, a long-time FBI agent who is based out of the Beaumont FBI office. “No crime is worth committing, but the penalty for robbing a bank is severe.”

It’s a federal crime, for starters, but that hasn’t stopped people like Stark or Sulphur, La., native James Bergeron from robbing banks in the area this year. This year alone, there have been eight bank robberies: five in Beaumont, two in Orange and the most recent occurring in Nederland on Monday.

According to Figueiras and law enforcement officials from across Southeast Texas, this year’s surge in bank robberies hasn’t been seen in some time, and there are a number of different reasons as to why people rob banks, and the time of year certainly plays a part.

“Following the trends nationwide, typically we see an uptick in crimes like bank robberies in the summertime and around the holidays,” said Figueiras. “People are out there committing these crimes, maybe not in places like Beaumont so much, but especially in the bigger cities.”

At this time last year, there had been one bank robbery in this area, which normally sees about four a year, according to Figueiras, and she added that while an increase in crime is normal this time of year, the sagging economy finally affecting Beaumont and the surrounding area has certainly played a part in people getting desperate and resorting to crime.

“I think a lot of it is the economy,” she said, “a slowdown in jobs, things like that.”

Pat Barton, a sergeant with the Beaumont Police Department who oversees the Family Violence Division, is a 30-plus year veteran of the department, and he said it’s been a while since he can remember Beaumont getting hit this hard on bank robberies. But he added this year has been different across the board.

“Depending on how you count it, we’ve had an unusually high number of homicides this year,” said Barton, explaining that 14 people have been killed this year, and that number includes an unborn baby. While Beaumont PD typically investigates all homicides in the city, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is actually investigating the death of Minnie Ray Seabolt, who was killed by courthouse shooter Bartholomew Granger, Barton said.

“Point being, you just don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said when it comes to crime. “We may have a homicide tomorrow, and then not have another one for six months.”

Barton said the economy doesn’t also affect just people’s pocketbooks, but it affects their emotions as well, and that can lead to other problems down the road.

“The economy doesn’t affect just people going out and stealing stuff, but it can affect people being violent towards each other because they’re frustrated because they don’t have a job, they don’t have any money. And that causes people to do a lot of crimes, not just a crime where you’re stealing money or other stuff.

“Fortunately, it’s not as bad here as it is in other parts.”

Capt. Cliff Hargrave with the Orange Police Department, a 27-year law enforcement veteran, said he can’t remember a time when Orange had two bank robberies in such a short span as has been the case this year with Bergeron robbing the Capitol One Bank in Orange in July and Elizabeth Hardin, 54, robbing the same Capital One Bank a month earlier.

Hardin had also robbed a convenience store and liquor store in Orange before the bank robbery, Hargrave said. He’s not so sure the economy has played as big a part in neophyte bank robbers as much as drugs and nefarious behavior have.

“Both of our people suffered from substance abuse problems,” said Hargrave, referring to Hardin and Bergeron. Neither was considered violent criminals, and Hargrave said in the case of Bergeron, he admitted that he was driving down the street, was behind on his truck payments and when he drove past the bank, decided at that moment he was going to rob it.

He was caught a couple days later.

And that’s the other aspect of bank robbery that most don’t consider – there’s a great chance you’re going to get caught.

“This is not something you’re going to get away with,” said Figueiras. “The solution rate for this area is 100 percent.” That means a federal indictment has been brought on anyone who’s robbed a bank in this area in the last decade. But it’s not just around here you’ll get caught; nationally, the solution rate is considerably high, as well, at 85-90 percent. And of course bank robbers that are shot and killed are also taken into account.

Because of the number of cameras that banks have, there’s a good chance the camera is going to capture at least some part of a bank robber, maybe their face, an identifying mark, something. And then once law enforcement gets that image, they turn it over to the media who then beams it over the Internet and on television, and more often than not, someone who recognizes the thief calls police and gives valuable information.

“We had someone who recognized him when they saw him on TV and called us and told where he might be,” Hargrave said of a tip that helped lead them to Bergeron in Louisiana.

In Nederland, Chief Darrell Bush said he and his group of officers have some promising leads based on the footage they’ve released to the media after a man robbed a Community Bank in Nederland on Monday, Aug. 13. Barton said of the five bank robberies in Beaumont, three have been solved, and the two most recent, the robbery of the 11th Street location of Safe Credit Union on July 25 and the Capital One Bank robbery on Stagg Drive on June 18, are still both unsolved, but the department has good information and both are “very solvable.”

A bank can also puts a tracking device in a bank bag as well to help law enforcement track the robber. Those can be removed from the bag and thrown out, but it can still help put police in the right direction immediately following a robbery.

Ultimately, as everyone has pointed out, the amount of money robbers get – usually $3,500 to $4,000 – versus the amount of federal prison time they’re going to get once they get caught – anywhere from five years on up depending on criminal records and whether or not a firearm was used – makes bank robbery a crime that isn’t as rewarding as it might appear on television.

“That’s why I’m saying robbing a bank is not a good idea,” said Figueiras.

Fred Davis can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 227, or by e-mail at fred [at] theexaminer [dot] com.