Photo: flickr / Viva La Marx
When ex-convict Henry Bata passed a note demanding money from a Houston bank teller, he threatened the woman, claimed to be part of a violent bank-robbing gang and walked away with close to $5,000.Bata, a 42-year-old Conroe resident, pleaded guilty to the robbery and is now headed to prison for a 30-year sentence — which means he’ll spend one year behind bars for each $166 chunk of cash he nabbed.
Not only are Houston bank robberies taking place at a faster pace than last year and on track to surpass the record of 171 holdups in 2010, but culprits are getting hard prison time, sometimes for stealing even less than Bata, said the FBI.
“More often than not, they are walking away with considerably less than what Crime Stoppers offers,” in their standard $5,000 reward, noted FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap. “So it pays more to turn in a bank robber than robbing a bank, and we’re seeing that a lot.”
Through the end of July, there were 97 bank robberies in the Houston area, a 137 per cent increase over 41 for the same period last year. Nationwide, bank robberies of federally insured banks are declining, with 5,014 robberies in 2011 compared to 6,700 in 2008. Over those four years, $188 million was stolen, according to the FBI.
“A couple of weeks ago, we had an individual walk out with $40 — he got two twenties — and this past weekend we had one make a demand and walk out with nothing,” said Dunlap of two recent Houston holdups.
And as bank branches become more ubiquitous, open for longer hours and on weekends, there is more opportunity to rob them, noted FBI Special Agent Randy Mondor, who is assigned to the Houston Bank Robbery Taskforce.
The most popular day to rob a bank last year was Friday, and most robberies occurred between 9 and 11 a.m, according to the FBI.
“A lot of people try to put their finger on it (increased robberies) and say it’s the economy. But there are a lot more banks open now, and they are open for a lot more hours,” Mondor said. “We’ve been called in early on Saturdays and Sundays. And in some banks in Houston, they are open 24 hours a day. We’ve had four robberies back-to-back on a Saturday.”
As bank robberies increase, Texas banks have heightened security measures and employee training at thousands of branches around the state, said Olivia Solis, vice president of the 600-member Texas Bankers Association.
“We’re definitely aware that with the economy this type of crime is escalating, and we’re making sure our bankers are trained in the latest technologies and techniques and are aware of what the trends are,” Solis said.
In addition, Texas banks are kicking in rewards of up to $25,000 for information that leads to arrests in unsolved or violent bank jobs. “We’ve been pretty fortunate. And in many cases it’s the girlfriend or a friend who turns them in,” she said.
Dye packets, GPS
Solis said banks are continually upgrading security features, including installing more surveillance cameras, as they bring in outside experts to train employees to deal with robbers while keeping workers and customers safe. That includes deciding when to hand over cash containing an exploding dye packet or a GPS tracker, as well as limiting the money in cash drawers.
“Obviously, they (robbers) go to banks because that’s where the money is, but there is so much technology out there to catch them,” Solis said. “I don’t think they’re that successful and the rate of catching them is very high.”
Mondor, the FBI agent, said most bank jobs in Houston are pulled off by robbers who don’t brandish guns, but instead pass tellers notes or ask for cash.
“The average bank robber wants to get in and out of the bank with money that doesn’t belong to them, without the other customers and employees knowing he is robbing the bank,” the agent said. “When a teller does a proper job and gives a little bit of money out, it’s not uncommon for us to go to the bank and find the person could have robbed a grocery store, or a person on the street, and got more money than robbing a bank.”
In Bata’s case, Mondor said he had several calls identifying him a day after surveillance photos were shared with the media.
Bata claimed he robbed the bank because he owed a large amount of money to a drug dealer who threatened to hurt him, Mondor said.
“Most of the guys we interview say they consume drugs or alcohol prior to robbing a bank, just to get their courage up,” Mondor said. “I’ve had people tell me they smoke marijuana soaked in formaldehyde (embalming fluid). We have lots of folks who rob banks and are involved in taking drugs.”
Court records show Beta has been to the penitentiary twice, once for slugging a peace officer in 2000 and a second trip after an 2010 conviction for burglarizing a home. He has other convictions for beating a girlfriend in 2006 and family members in 2003, records show. His sentence for the Sept. 16, 2011 bank robbery was enhanced because earlier convictions made him a habitual offender.
Bata declined an interview request, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said.
His court-appointed lawyer, Deborah Summers, said criminals don’t equate robbing a bank with a federal crime.
“In general, what my clients don’t understand is this isn’t like robbing a convenience store; they can be picked up by the FBI,” Summers said. “But it’s being treated by a lot of criminals like it’s a convenience store because some (banks) are in grocery stores.”
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