With guns drawn and often blazing, the names of “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, Butch Cassidy, Bobby “One Eye,” Ma Baker, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde once filled banner headlines in newspapers like loud shrieks, serving notice that any cash locked away in banks was as safe as gumdrops.

Bad guys, villains, outlaws, cold-blooded killers — the stuff of notorious movies and cheesy True Confession articles. Yet, they were real, and these notorious bank robbers were, and still are, often seen as heroic and popular symbols of resistance, or even liberation.

They’ve been immortalized by the silver screen in stories of the romantic and sexy, with dazzling shoot-outs and unforgettable getaway scenes that have excited movie-goers for generations.

Fast-forward a century to the modern-day bank robbing capital of the world. You won’t find publicly lauded bank robbers with wicked names and renowned national legacies to boot. Chances are, you’ll find a potentially violent, petty crook with a drug habit, or short on rent money.

You’ll also find Ventura County smack in the middle of it.

The Southern California counties of Orange, San Bernadino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo have been coined “ the bank robbery capital of the world” by the FBI.

The FBI saw a total of 301 bank robberies in this region in 2010, more than half of the robberies in the state of California, which leads all other states in bank holdups. This is a 25 percent drop from the previous year and a far cry from 1992 when the region peaked at 2,600 bank heists, suggesting that perhaps the banking robbing capital moniker should be bestowed elsewhere.

In Ventura County, there were 15 bank robberies in 2010, up just two from the previous year. In 2006, there were 26 robberies, the most in the county’s past decade.

Overall, FBI officials attribute the record declines to good witnesses, technological security advancements, digital imaging and improved DNA testing. Considering all the ever-evolving factors stacked against the bank robber in 2011, one has to wonder what compels an individual to take on the federal banking institution against all odds.

“Motives are predominantly because of some habit or vice, like narcotics, gambling or other issues they’re trying to support,” said Special Agent Patrick Conley. “But it’s not as financially rewarding as people think.”

Conley didn’t want to publicize the amount of loot stolen from Ventura County banks.

Nationally, in the final quarter of 2010, FBI statistics show there were 1,183 hold-ups. Loot was taken 92 percent of the time, totaling $9.3 million. Full or partial recovery of the money taken was reported by law enforcement agencies in 21 percent of the incidents, totaling $1.9 million recovered.

Whatever the cause, the brazen act of bank robbery itself may in some cases be the only reason.

“They do say there is quite a rush to it. It’s an intense moment,” said Conley. But Conley was also quick to add that the moment is equally, if not more, intense and damaging for the victims involved.

Perhaps it’s the iconic folklore of banditry that establishes the bank robber as the underdog against the mighty corporate machine, the David and Goliath comparison, but deep inside, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of joy when the thief makes off for the clear in the getaway car.

Yet, what doesn’t get painted into the picture all too often is the lingering effect the robberies have on the victims
“It’s someone’s mom behind the counter,” Conley said. “The damage is a lot more than you could ever know. Frankly, some of these people never get over it.”

Sticking to FBI statistics from the third quarter of 2010, acts of violence were committed during 35 of the 1,183 robberies, with injuries occurring to 12 employees; 25 employees were also taken hostage. But even in the cases that didn’t yield violence, a weapon or firearm was either brandished or used to threaten in nearly half of the robberies.

There were also 55 instances where the entire bank was taken over by a robber or robbers.

“The responsiveness of banks to their employees and customers in this area seems to vary widely,” said Dr. Will Marling, executive director, National Organization for Victim Assistance, in an e-mail response. “We will get requests to provide crisis intervention services and will send in teams to do that, using a protocol that we developed for mitigating traumatic reactions.”

Marling explained that many victims just don’t “get over it.”

“It actually becomes part of a person’s story. So we use words like ‘new normal’ in trying to help victims cope with their trauma and understand how to integrate their experience into their biography,” he said.

Local law enforcement agencies assign catchy names to bank robbers so that it becomes easier for the public to recall a bandit. Ironically, often the best way to catch a crook, Conroy said, is by offering large sums of money.

“We try to reward financially because reward money leads to arrests,” he said. “In a lot of these, it’s the only way to solve them.”

Conroy urges everyone in the community to reach out to local law enforcement agencies should there be any suspicion or information leading to a bank robbery.  

2020 Questions Bandits: The most notorious bank robbers in Ventura County, the “20 Questions Bandits,” have hit four banks in the area and at least nine others throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. They are a group of at least four bandits. During the various robberies, the bandits were extremely violent and, in some cases, brandished weapons. Witnesses have described four black males, in some cases armed with guns, who have forced bank employees and customers inside the bank to comply with their demands for cash and to follow their instructions.

In some cases, the bandits also robbed victims of personal belongings. During the initial robberies linked to this group, the suspects asked several questions while inside the bank, according to witnesses, and were therefore nicknamed the “20 Questions Bandits.” Bank of America is offering a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of these robbers.

gGeezer Bandit: Yet to strike in Ventura County, the “Geezer Bandit” recently robbed a Goleta bank, believed to be his 13th heist in the region since August 2009. As in previous robberies, he wore a baseball cap, sunglasses and a gun. He also approached a teller just before the bank closed, as in the other holdups. Some witnesses, and authorities, have suggested that the bandit is wearing a mask, assuming the identity of an elderly man. The FBI and a number of banks are offering $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the “geezer bandit.” Witnesses described the robber as white, male, apparently 60-70 years old, 6 feet tall and approximately 190 pounds    
gGroomed Beard Bandit: Aptly named the “Groomed Beard Bandit,” based on witness descriptions of his facial hair, he has robbed three banks in Ventura and one in Santa Barbara last November and December. He is further described as a white male between the ages of 38 and 40; between 5 feet 8 inches and 5 feet 10 inches in height; and between 160 and 170 pounds. The suspect orally demands cash, has brandished a gun and was seen leaving one bank in an older model Buick, gold or brown in color.

lLady Bandit: “This one is particularly frustrating,” said Conley. The “Lady Bandit” has about 10 cases linked to him over the past five years. He wears a “lady” mask. His most recent activity began at a Wells Fargo Bank in Ventura where he demanded keys to a vault. When bank employees refused, he attacked two of them, police said. Witnesses said the man left on foot and robbed the Pacific Western Bank in the 400 block of South Mills Road 12 minutes later.

The man demanded money before reaching over the counter and grabbing an undisclosed amount of cash from a teller’s drawer.

eBad Elf Bandit: Last December, he robbed a Bank of the West in Thousand Oaks by passing a note to a teller and demanding cash. The man is described as an African American male in his 20s. He was clean-shaven and was approximately 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 8 inches and weighed about 165 pounds. Authorities named him the “Bad Elf Bandit” because he was wearing an orange hooded sweatshirt, baseball cap and a scarf.   

shane@vcreporter.com