Like the gangs that rode with Butch Cassidy, John Dillinger and Willie Sutton, this latest collection of bank robbers didn’t stop at one heist or even two, sources say.
No, they stuck up more than 25 local banks over eight months, according to lawyers and law enforcement officials familiar with the robberies.
Those same sources say at least eight to 10 thieves, most of them already in custody, took part in the loosely formed band of bank robbers.
“I’ve heard similar numbers,” said Lackawanna Police Chief James L. Michel when asked about the estimated 25 bank robberies and their link to a recent heist in his city. “This is part of a much bigger picture.”
One of the first indications the robberies were linked was the language used on notes handed to bank tellers, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
“Some of the words on the notes were the same or very similar,” said one source.
The crimes also share something else in common: They involve young people, including at least one young woman, who may have been manipulated into doing the robberies.
“They’re young people who don’t have a lot going for them, don’t have a lot of education,” the source said. “They also seem to be people who are easily influenced.”
Most of the 25 or so robberies took place in Buffalo, but there were a handful in Niagara Falls and Lackawanna, as well.
The total amount stolen has not been made public, but in those robberies that are currently part of the court record, the amounts range from $1,452 to $7,250 for each holdup.
The suspects involved in the robberies are not a gang, but another law enforcement source said they share a common thread: a ringleader who schooled them on how to carry out the stickups.
“He’s recruiting people to go do them,” he said.
Several sources familiar with the robberies requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation by the FBI.
One defense lawyer said he believes most of the suspects were young and naive, and were instructed by someone else on how to carry out the robberies.
Three of those suspects, sources said, have admitted taking part in several bank robberies as part of plea deals with federal prosecutors.
“My guy was no mastermind,” said one defense attorney, who agreed to speak on the condition he not be identified.
Another defense lawyer said his client clearly had help in carrying out the robbery he’s accused of committing last summer.
“I can’t believe he would do it on his own,” said the lawyer.
The FBI, which is leading the investigation, declined to comment on the robberies except to say that it is not unusual for bank robberies to involve individuals who are easily influenced by others.
“The FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force works cases of every magnitude, including criminal syndicates that force gang-affiliated or vulnerable individuals to execute daring and violent robberies,” Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, said in a statement Tuesday.
Boetig said bank robberies have been part of the FBI’s mission for decades and should not be viewed as simple victimless larcenies.
“And since successful robberies often breed confidence and lead to more frequent and brazen robbery attempts, the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force continues to leverage its resources to combat this centuries-old crime problem,” he said.
One of the first hints that the recent rash of bank robberies might be linked came in August, when three Buffalo men were indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with eight robberies in April, May, June and July.
The men were charged separately, but authorities indicated at the time that the eight robberies were similar.
In each case, prosecutors said, the defendants passed bank tellers a note threatening the use of a firearm and containing other similar language.
All three of those men have since pleaded guilty.
Jason Berg, 22, admitted last week to robbing three banks, and Jeffrey Turner, 23, pleaded guilty in December to robbing two others.
A third defendant, Donovan Devost, 20, also admitted robbing three banks last summer.
There was no mention of the three defendants’ connection to a larger group in their plea deals, but together, they account for eight robberies over a four-month period.
The banks they hit were M&T, First Niagara and KeyBank branches in Buffalo.
A spokesman for M&T declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for First Niagara would say only that the bank is cooperating with local authorities.