on January 16, 2014 - 1:46 PM
, updated January 16, 2014 at 6:08 PM
To hear prosecutors talk, it’s one of the biggest bank robbery rings ever.
Not even John Dillinger did as many robberies.
Twenty-five holdups, 12 different bank robbers and a ringleader who orchestrated each of the heists.
Those are the allegations the FBI makes in a criminal complaint charging Michael “Max” Mitchell with being at the center of a bank robbery spree that started in April and ended with his arrest in Buffalo this week.
“If the allegations are true, this would certainly represent one of the largest bank robbery rings anywhere,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Thursday.
Mitchell, 21, of Buffalo, is accused of overseeing a loosely formed organization of bank robbers, most of them young people, some of them women, who carried out the lion’s share of the robberies.
The complaint says he instructed the others on how to carry out the robberies – he’s accused of doing three himself – and sometimes waited in the getaway car outside.
The court papers also make mention of a chrome .45-caliber pistol that Mitchell is accused of using to intimidate people. “There have been threats of violence to several individuals,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Catherine Baumgarten told a judge Thursday.
Baumgarten declined to comment when asked if Mitchell used threats against members of his own organization.
In at least one instance, though, a bank robber Mitchell recruited asked a teller to call police because he did not want to face Mitchell, who was waiting for him in a car outside the bank, according to the complaint.
The court papers also claim Mitchell strip-searched another fellow bank robber because he thought he had stolen some of the proceeds from a robbery earlier that day.
The allegations are consistent with how law enforcement officials have characterized many of the defendants Mitchell is accused of recruiting: young, naive and easily influenced.
“He would intimidate many of them into committing the bank robberies,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa M. Marangola. “They were easily manipulated and were in fear of him.”
Marangola said Mitchell went so far as to recruit young men and women without criminal records because they would be harder for police to identify.
Mitchell said very little during his arraignment Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy but indicated he was unemployed, had only $24 and needed a court-appointed attorney.
Later in the day, a 13th defendant and a 26th bank robbery were added to the case when Sheila L. Cassata, of Amherst, appeared in court for the first time.
Cassata is accused of working with an accomplice as part of a robbery at a KeyBank on Amherst Street two days after Christmas.
Baumgarten would not comment on whether Mitchell was the accomplice, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott told Cassata her case was related to one currently before McCarthy, who had arraigned Mitchell earlier in the day.
For the first time, the FBI made public why it thinks Mitchell is the man behind the 25 or more robberies.
The agency, in its complaint, claims each of the 11 other defendants has a relationship with other defendants that directly or indirectly lead to Mitchell.
The complaint, the work of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, also details why investigators think the robberies are connected.
First and foremost, it mentions the similarities in the language used in notes handed to bank tellers.
“The modus operandi of offenders is often so unique, so exacting and so ritualistic that it becomes their crime’s own fingerprint,” said Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.
The notes often described a specific caliber of weapon in the robber’s possession, as well as instructions on how much money to hand over.
They also contained warnings advising the tellers not to look at the robber and not to activate bank security devices or hand out dye packs.
“The FBI has investigated thousands of bank robberies,” Boetig said, “and to observe such specific similarities within an isolated geographic area is a major investigative clue, that, supported by other facts, helps lead investigators to solving crimes.”
Most of the 26 robberies took place in Buffalo, but there were a handful in Niagara Falls and Lackawanna, as well. FBI officials say 25 of the 26 have been solved.
Mitchell, who faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the three robberies he’s accused of doing, remains in custody and is scheduled to appear in court again Tuesday.