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Small-town banks now the prey of new criminals

Published Sep. 2, 2005

The last time a pair of armed men robbed the Pilsen State Bank, Kurt Spachek, the fifth-generation president of the family-owned bank, was unaware, absorbed in a newspaper and a sandwich behind the closed door of the board room.

But when the bank was robbed again Wednesday morning, Spachek was herded into a back room with four of his employees. As soon as he heard the door click behind the departing robber, Spachek, 33, hightailed it into his pickup and gave chase for 8 miles along dirt roads.

"That's the cowboy way," he said after he lost the robber's car, having forgotten to bring a cell phone to call for help. "It hurts just like everything else. You live with it and you go on."

The twin incidents in this tiny town of 225 people are part of a spate of robberies of small-town banks _ not only here in the empty expanse of central Kansas, but also nationwide _ reminiscent of the days of Jesse James and John Dillinger.

While bank robberies rose 17 percent from 1995 to 2001, FBI statistics show they jumped 82 percent over the same period in small towns and 27 percent in unincorporated rural areas. Nearly a third of the nation's 8,259 bank robberies last year were in small towns, up from less than 1 in 5 six years ago.

Bankers, law enforcement officials and sociologists offer several explanations. Small-town crime has generally increased, especially drug traffic. Roads are better, making sleepy towns more accessible and familiar. And spiraling suburban sprawl has brought city problems closer to the countryside.

Like their Depression-era predecessors, the modern robbers seem to be counting on some simple facts of life in small towns, where metal detectors, cameras and security guards are not ubiquitous and the sheriff might be clear across the county when the call comes. Some robbers are locals; others roam the highways terrorizing a region.

Barred from time-locked safes, they generally get away only with the marked bait money in teller drawers _ usually $2,000 or $3,000, but as much as $10,000 and $30,000 in two recent cases.

"It's easier to hit and run," said professor Ralph Weisheit of Illinois State University, who studies rural crime. "As you get communities that are growing and you get more anonymity, you're going to have a greater likelihood of this happening."

From 1995 to 2000, bank robberies decreased in New York and California, while they more than doubled in Iowa and Nebraska. A bank on the outskirts of Lincoln, Neb., robbed three times last year, recently joined several others in shuttering its lobby, leaving just a drive-through teller newly enclosed in bulletproof glass.

"You could come off the interstate, rob them, get back on the interstate going in the other direction _ the whole thing would take about 10 minutes," said George Beattie, executive vice president of the Nebraska Bankers' Association. "It was a little too much in the way of convenience."

The rise in holdups has exacerbated the disappearance of small, independent banks from the heartland. There were 5,466 banks with less than $100-million in assets in 2000, down from 9,962 in 1991. In Kansas, 554 banks in 1990 have dwindled to 375 today; about 70 percent are in towns of fewer than 5,000 people, 20 percent in towns of fewer than 500.

In Plevna, a wide spot in the road 71 miles northwest of Wichita, the Alden State Bank, after being robbed twice in as many months, canceled its Friday afternoon hours, locked its door and hired an armed guard to check identification of anyone the tellers do not recognize. As it marks 100 years in business, the first 99 robbery-free, the bank will close in June, leaving Plevna, population 117, without so much as an ATM.

"They got more than money," said Chuck Rowland, the bank president. "They got our freedom to exist here in Plevna. There's no way we can guarantee the safety."

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, bankers from throughout Kansas gathered at Fort Riley for target practice, giving awards for the best shot from the running boards of cars. Each town with a bank also had a vigilante group responsible for responding to robberies. "In those days," said Jim Maag, president of the Kansas Bankers' Association, "the best robber was a dead robber."

The strategy is different now, even as bank robberies in Kansas have jumped from 32 in 1995 to 68 last year. "Give them what they want, get them out the door," said Spachek of the Lincolnville bank.

Big-city banks have security cameras, exploding dye-packs that taint the stolen money and automatic alarms that bring the police within minutes. In Plevna and Lincolnville, where tellers match account numbers to the sound of customers' voices over the phone or their mufflers on Main Street, employees are left scanning sidewalks for unfamiliar faces.

Spachek thought about installing cameras last year, but the wireless ones seemed too expensive, others too clunky for his high-ceilinged bank, where the original cannonball safe, vintage 1916 and in use until 12 years ago, graces the lobby. After the first robbery, Spachek bought a $1,200 video system and installed it himself; Wednesday morning's intruder, in red hat and green hooded jacket, was caught on tape striding toward the door.

Law enforcement officials see connections between the robberies in Lincolnville and Plevna and one in Buhler, Kan., a town of 1,300 between the two. In each case, one or two men in their 30s wore hoods and sunglasses, led employees to vaults or back rooms at gunpoint, and said they were putting a device on the door.

"Bank robbers, they're generally recidivist; they consider themselves a little more skilled," said Andreas Stephens, the chief of the FBI's violent crimes and major offenders section. "There's a perception that there's money to be had there with little risk. They generally rob banks until they get caught."

The Cottonwood Valley Bank branch in Burns, Kan., a town of 268 about 30 miles south of here, was robbed twice, a year apart. A man who lived a half-block away pleaded no contest to the first holdup; a woman who had been in the Brownie troop of the bank president's wife was convicted in the second.

In Plevna, when the robbers walked in Dec. 6, the bank's two employees thought it was a local pulling a prank. As they stood locked in the vault the second time, on Feb. 26, they knew they had become a target.

"Kind of like getting hit with a cattle prod, if you know what that's like," said LuAnn Conrad, the loan officer. "We didn't see him coming. He was just in here."

Teller Christine Poole put her hands up and faced the wall, as told. "I thought, "He's going to kill us,' " she recalled. "I just folded my hands and started praying."

Poole no longer bakes cupcakes and cookies to bring to work; customers are afraid to linger and visit in the lobby. She used to change the decorations in the windows each month _ this year she made a red, white and blue tree for Christmas _ but said it was not worth changing the St. Patrick's Day display of jars of green marbles and painted wooden hearts, now that the bank's days are numbered. Between the green-clover stickers on the front door is a sign written with a felt-tipped pen: "Knock and door will be opened by an Armed Guard."

Weisheit, co-author of a 1999 book on crime and policing in small-town America, said that in 1990, the robbery rate in the nation's largest cities was 54 times that of rural areas; in 2000, it was 27 times as high. Just 1.4 percent of robberies in big cities were of banks, compared with 3.5 percent in cities with fewer than 10,000 people.

Wendell and Mary Deane Peterson's families have banked in Lincolnville for four generations. Pilsen State lent them the money in 1948 to open a gas station in nearby Burdick, then financed their house two years later. The Petersons put three sons through college with the bank's help; the boys, now men, bank here, too.

"It's like they were robbing our own family," Peterson said. "You just feel so violated, because this just doesn't happen to us out here. But it did."

Spachek was 5 when the bank was last robbed, in 1973; his father chased the getaway car in his pickup. After the October robbery, employees figured it was a once-a-generation kind of thing, that they would be retired by the next time.

The next time happened at 10:05 Wednesday morning.