During the 1980s and mid-90s, Los Angeles was the bank robbery capital of the world. Between 1985 and 1995 over 3,500 retail bank branches were robbed. In the worst year, 1992, there were 2,641 total heists. That’s a heist for every 40 minutes of a banking day. The trend had more than a few robbers getting away unpunished, and often with thousands of dollars at a time. There had been a problem before but it was nothing like the epidemic sweeping through during the 80s, and the seemingly impossible escalation during the 90s.
What Started It All?
Changes To Bank Security
We often get this image in our heads about what bank security is and how it works. We think of thick glass, hard surfaces, guards everywhere, and maybe even a giant round vault door ten inches thick. That was not the case in Los Angeles when these robberies started to ramp up, and wouldn’t be the case until we started getting closer to the end of the epidemic.
Instead of that image of security, what you saw were the branches having to compete for business. They wanted customers to enjoy coming inside the bank. This would lead to less security, often even no guards, and carpet in some locations. They wanted the location to feel more inviting and security was not inviting. This trend created soft targets, and in a city as large as Los Angeles, there were a lot of soft targets.
Convenience Was King
One thing became clear, the people wanted convenience, and bank branches were going to give it to them. New branches were popping up all over the place to give the people the convenience that they would get from everything else in life. They saw the booming fast-food business and sought to emulate it that regard. So, when new branches were built they were often constructed just off the free-way. This, so that anyone who wanted to go to the bank and leave quickly could. This move had a side effect that would make banks easy targets for people looking to make fast money. They were right next to the freeway. Bank robbers saw the opportunity. They could hit the bank and be back on the freeway faster than ever, driving anonymously in the traffic before the police could even be called. Even if someone managed to get their license plate number, they could just swap out the illegal/stolen plates for legal ones, making a clean getaway.
California, and especially Los Angeles, loves cars. San Bernardino is a hotbed for custom builds, muscle cars were common in the 80s and 90s, and all of that was combined with a group of people that had to spend hours on the road every day. Los Angeles traffic is legendary, even back then. The sheer number of cars helped make it easy for bank robbers to disappear into the crowded freeways after a heist.
For the first time, cocaine was available to the American everyman. South American drug cartels had found a way to make the drug affordable and Los Angeles was particularly vulnerable. The city is well known for its laid back attitude, and that more than extends to drugs. Combine that with the celebrity culture and it’s easy to see why the new cheap drug spread like wildfire. Everyone had access and it was affordable like it had never been before. There was a bank robbery problem before, combine that problem with addicts needing money to support a habit, and you have an epidemic.
The Yankee – Eddie Dodson
Eddie Dodson was a business owner in California who had previously fled a drug charge in North Carolina. He owned a successful antique shop in West Hollywood that was often frequented by celebrities and many others. He was deep in the hipster scene and with a history of drug use, it was easy to see why he’d try cocaine. Supporting his new addiction would be what lead this otherwise successful individual to rob banks, even with his previous drug charge in North Carolina having been dropped.
Dodson was not a violent person, and was even what one FBI agent would call an “Apology bandit” as he would always say something to the effect of “I’m sorry I have to do this.” His method was simple, walk-in calmly, go up to the teller and demand the cash. It worked. The policy at the time was to do what the robber said and get them out as quickly as possible. He would get his nickname “The Yankee” because of his baseball cap, which was his trademark. In a 9 month spree, all funding a habit that was getting worse, Dodson would hit 64 banks. Sometimes he would even hit multiple branches in a single day.
Ultimately he would be caught for the same reason so many addicts, to drugs and bank robbery, would be caught. His luck finally ran out. He was arrested and sentenced to 15 years, although he only served 10 of them. His drug use would drive him back to bank robbing and he was arrested and jailed again. He died in 2003 as a result of Hepatitis C.
Against The “Luciferians” – Gilbert Micheals and James McGrath
September 5th, 1991 was the day Gilbert Micheals and James McGrath entered the Wells Fargo Bank on Ventura Boulevard. They were heavily armed while wearing wigs, and fake mustaches. They gathered the customers and tellers in the middle of the room. The victims would remark on how polite the two men were. The West Hills Bandits, as they would eventually be called, told everyone to stay calm and “Enjoy the show.” They moved in a whirlwind and cleaned out the bank in two minutes. They got all of the cash, the teller lines, and the reserves. The pair exited the branch with a cheerful “Thanks Everyone!” They got in a getaway car and vanished in the hundreds of other cars on the freeway. Thanks to a teller during an interview afterward, word would get out that the pair stole around $437,000. This news would reach a Crip by the name of “Casper”. We’ll get back to him later.
The police did eventually catch up to Micheals and McGrath. The police discovered that the two were deeply religious, even crazy. They believed themselves to be “Prophets of God” who were meant to do battle against the evil “Luciferians” among us that were trying to bring about the end of the world. The two also believed that there was a massive conspiracy involving banks and a jealous candy maker that was trying to destroy Micheals’ fudge business. Rose Ann, Micheals’s wife, said during an interview that the robbery was not for the money, but rather to get the word out about the two men’s conspiracy. McGrath had written a 300 Page document about Micheals’ life and the belief of both men in this conspiracy.
More disturbing than the conspiracy theory, and their belief that they were commissioned by God, was what was under their house. After their arrest, the FBI found a cache of weapons. According to the Los Angeles Times, 119 guns and over 27,000 rounds of ammunition were recovered from a doomsday military-style bunker under their luxury home. The bunker was complete with a shooting range and thick fire doors, all to protect the two from biblical Armageddon.
Baby Bandits – “Casper”
As an almost direct result of a bank teller saying in an interview that the West Hills Bandits made out with over $470,000, the Baby Bandits would be formed. An original gangster from the Rolling Sixties Crips named “Casper” heard about the heist. He then decided that bank robbing was a lucrative business to be involved in at the time. A few weeks later he was sending out groups of young teens and junior gang members to rob various banks all over Los Angeles.
While they were inspired by the West Hills Bandits, they lacked any of their skill in bank robbing. The baby bandits were violent, sloppy, and slow. They busted dozens of banks around the area and their age would be the reason behind the FBI dubbing them, The Baby Bandits. They often would burst in and announce their presence with gunfire. Many times there were more than just threats, and unprovoked violence became commonly associated with them. They were bad at their jobs, to say the least, although that didn’t make them any less dangerous. They often shot others or even themselves while on the job. Dye packs would explode on them and police helicopters found their getaway cars easily from trackers hidden in the money during the heist. These are all things more experienced criminals could have avoided.
The Baby Bandits would be responsible for a massive uptick in the number of bank robberies in Los Angeles. In the first 9 months of 1991, there were forty takeover style bank heists. In the last three months, after the Baby Bandits were formed, that number would soar to over 100. The next year 2 years these types of robberies would spread from 4% of all banks to 30% of all banks. This was almost entirely because of the Baby Bandits.
Many of the groups were caught but new groups of Baby Bandits would take their place. The activity would die out as the bank robberies also started to die out. The type of robberies that the Baby Bandits would carry out was the type that gets FBI attention. This is because of their violent nature. Many were caught, but there would be more every time until they died out as bank robberies became less and less common.
Impending Apocalypse – George Wayne Smith and Christopher Harven
What would become one of the most violent days in law enforcement history was the work of one George Wayne Smith. He had served as an artilleryman, a member of the US armed forces in Germany. Christopher Harven, a highschool friend, had been discharged after only two months, but they both saw nothing but the impending nuclear war for years. When Smith returned to Orange County he would find himself caught up in the Jesus Movement. There he became convinced of the impending apocalypse. His friend Christopher Harven, would come to the same conclusion through different means, seemingly a hodgepodge of varying pseudoscientific beliefs. The two men would marry their beliefs together. Preparing for the apocalypse would cost them everything, jobs, homes, wives, and girlfriends. The two men were desperate, and they needed money to ride out the impending disasters. That’s when they hatched a plan.
They would add 3 other men to their plan, and perform a takeover robbery of the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, a small town in Riverside County. Once underway, almost everything would go wrong. The police would arrive much faster than the group had anticipated, the diversion bomb they planted a mile away would not detonate, and they would crash the getaway car.
After they came out of the bank they fired at the single officer who had responded. The officer would return fire, killing the driver as they made their escape in the van they brought. The group careened off the road and crashed the van as a result. From there the 4 remaining men returned fire (over 200 rounds) striking the officer 5 times. The men would hijack a truck and the chase would go to the freeway.
During the chase, they would fire shoot back at the cops and even throw homemade bombs out of the truck. In the process, they even managed to force a police helicopter to land. They damaged 33 police vehicles and the chase went on for 25 miles, up into the mountains above Los Angeles. The police would chase them into the canyons. The pursuit of the group would continue until the next day when one of the gunmen was killed and the other 3 were arrested. All told, 8 officers were wounded and one of them was killed. It remains one of the most violent days in law enforcement history for the United States.
Why It Stopped
Nothing stops overnight, and people don’t stop without a good reason. The fact of the matter is that there was no incentive for banks to enhance the security of bank branches. Even when over $400,000 was stolen (Like in the case of Gilbert Micheals and James McGrath) it wasn’t enough. Banks would often lose more than that on a bad loan. The robberies would stop though, in a fashion almost as spectacular as their rise. Before the Baby Bandits security wasn’t a concern as the employees were told not to resist. There still would have been no correction had it not been for the violence of the Baby Bandits. While the robberies didn’t hurt the bottom line of the banks, the high turnover, workers’ compensation, and lawsuits from customers were plenty. The banks and federal agents would work together to implement better security for banks across Los Angeles.
Modern Security in 2020
Security has advanced dramatically since the 80s and 90s and with it, the number of robberies has also dropped.
Just like everything else, the digital revolution has brought higher quality video, smarter security measures, and a safer environment for customers and workers alike. Still, it might not be enough. Banks will always be a target for criminals looking for fast cash. That’s why you need someone to take care of your security needs. You need a security guard company in the Bay Area or a security guard company in Los Angeles. This way you can be sure that your branch is as protected as possible. Be sure to get your security guard services in Los Angeles and San Francisco from a reputable security guard company like Securelion Security, so that you can be protected at all times.
Categorised in: BlogFebruary 12, 2020 5:55 pm