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Banks hit often by robbers this year

A brief lull in bank holdups has Pinellas County sheriff's robbery detectives counting their cases and finding some eye-opening statistics.

As of mid-September, bank robberies have nearly doubled this year in areas patrolled by Pinellas County sheriff's deputies.

Eleven banks were held up in 1996. So far this year, there have been 21 bank robberies. One bank, a SouthTrust in the Oldsmar area, was held up three times in 10 days.

"The increase is not just a phenomenon in Pinellas, it's the same all over," said sheriff's robbery squad Sgt. Brian Anderson. "There's just a lot more bank robberies. There are no hard and fast answers about why, although there is a possibility or two."

Nationally, he said, 80 percent of people arrested for bank robberies have some type of chemical or drug dependency. Anderson believes it is possible that crack cocaine plays a role.

Because the drug creates a psychological and physical addiction noted for immediate need and gratification, crack users want cash and look for it at banks.

"It used to be they were stealing things to sell for cash," Anderson said. "Now they need cash and don't want to have to steal something and sell it to get cash."

The trend of younger and more violent robbers has continued, he said, but people arrested this year have ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. Some have drug addictions; others have gambling problems.

"I'm sure there are plenty of robbers with drug and substance abuse problems, but I don't know if that's the majority here," said Clearwater police acting Sgt. Dick Howard. "A large part of it is nothing more than criminal enterprise. People want money; they steal it."

"Some people get into gambling trouble and have big debts," he said. "Some people have social trouble, and some have to support extra-marital affairs. Some steal so they can drink."

Anderson said arrests were made in 18 of this year's 21 bank robberies. Some of the people arrested have been charged with multiple bank robberies.

Some robbers used military-type weapons. One robber _ later caught by a bank official who knocked him off a bicycle _ left what was supposed to be a bomb but was not.

There was the man detectives dubbed the "Fedora Bandit" because of the distinctive hat he wore during bank heists. Roderick R. Childers, 46, of St. Petersburg, was arrested after someone saw a photograph taken during one of the robberies and called police.

The man authorities identified as the "I-4 Robber" was arrested this summer. David Ratcliff, 31, is a suspect in 19 bank robberies in Florida and has been charged with three in Pinellas.

A college student was among the suspected robbers. Joseph Gullo, 26, of Palm Harbor, was charged with two Oldsmar bank robberies. He was a criminology major at Florida State University.

"It's been a really weird year in bank robberies," Anderson said. "You just can't do a profile of a typical robber."

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