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Authorities warn banks after van is stolen

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office issued a bulletin to banks Wednesday, warning that the recent theft of a white van in Homosassa could be a sign that area banks will be robbed.

For the past eight months, authorities in central and east Florida have tracked the activities of a gang suspected in a rash of bank robberies from Melbourne to the Tampa-St.Petersburg-Clearwater area, said sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney. All the robberies involved a stolen light-colored van being used as the getaway vehicle.

Between 5:30 p.m. Monday and 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, a white, red-striped 1986 Ford van was reported stolen from Linda's Produce Stand on U.S. 19 in Homosassa.

Coincidence? Authorities hope so, but they're not taking any chances.

"It's really unknown if the theft of that white van is connected in any way at all," Tierney said. "But we're playing it on the conservative side by alerting the banks. It's a preventive measure on our part."

The gang has not reached the double-digit mark in robberies, Tierney said, and it has been operating since about April. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has joined the hunt as the robbers have crisscrossed jurisdictions.

The two suspects are described as white men, each 5 feet 8 to 6 feet tall, weighing between 150 and 170 pounds. The robbers traditionally dress in camouflage or black outfits and always wear masks and gloves.

They carry assault rifles and wear bulletproof vests, authorities said.

"They have been very successful," Tierney said. "They have stolen a significant amount of cash."

Rarely have the robberies been violent. In only one robbery did the suspects fire a gun, Tierney said, but no one was injured.

After stealing their getaway van, Tierney said, the suspects usually remove seats and paint over logos, emblems and other distinguishing marks. The van stolen this week in Homosassa has a red stripe at the top of the cargo box and the remnants of the letters "TV/VCR" painted on the sides.

Tierney asked anyone who sees the van to alert deputies immediately using the sheriff's anonymous tip line, (888) ANY-TIPS (269-8477), or by dialing 911.