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In Seattle, Washington, Thanksgiving is only rarely celebrated under a brilliant blue sky and against a landscape rife with autumn colors. More often than not, the holiday seems to draw memorably violent storms to the Northwest. Many a turkey has been coaxed to semidoneness on an outdoor barbeque because power lines are down. Wednesday, November 27, 1996, was the day before Thanksgiving; the weather was wildly rainy and stormy, with gusts of wind stripping the trees of their last few leaves. Whatever smothered sun there had been that day had long since set, the streets were coils of shiny black, reflecting yellow streetlights and the red, green, and silver of Christmas lights.
Late customers hurried into the Lake City Branch of Seafirst Bank only eighteen minutes before closing. More than a dozen people stood patiently in the long lines, most of them so intent on the errands they still needed to run that they were unaware of what was going on around them.
The bank's automatic cameras kept clicking away as they always did, silent, mindless and mechanical. One camera snapped everyone coming in the door,another caught the bored or impatient faces of people waiting in line for a teller, while another scanned the entire bank. A fourth was aimed away from the tellers' cages toward a central island where customers stood writing out deposit and withdrawal slips. Each frame of the film noted the camera's number, the bank's ID number and name, the date, and the time to the second.
Camera 1-06 recorded the time at 5:42:13 P.M. at the instant a figure appeared at the far right of the frame. From a distance, he seemed only slightly bizarre; he wore both a hooded rain jacket and a baseball cap. A casual observer saw a man past middle age with gray hair; a full, drooping gray moustache; and a prominent chin. His dark glasses seemed odd, considering that the sun had set more than an hour before, and his wide, garish necktie was in dubious taste. He wore cheap tennis shoes, the low black canvas type that predated Nikes and Adidas. A closer look revealed that the body beneath the bulky jacket was too toned to belong to a man in his fifties, and he moved with an almost pantherlike grace. He had to be either an athlete or a dancer.
The camera clicked off seconds and the man approached a line of people. They looked at him with startled eyes and then averted their glances as considerate people do when they realize they are looking at someone with a handicap. Although the man's stride was confident, his face wasn't normal. He appeared to have suffered serious facial burns, and he was wearing either heavy makeup to cover scars or a rubbery mask to prevent additional scarring.
Here, in this neighborhood bank, no one expected trouble. The robot lenses caught their expressions as the odd-looking man cut between customers waiting in line. One man had an embarrassed half-smile on his face, a woman's eyes shifted momentarily, and a girl covered her mouth with her hand. What they were feeling was just a tingle of alarm. Nothing overtly frightening had been said or done. It was a little rude of the scarred man to slide between people in line, but it wasn't as if he were crowding in. He moved through, toward the back of the bank.
They didn't see the gun. They didn't see the holster strapped under his shoulder nor the knife or the extra gun strapped to his ankle. They certainly didn't see the other strange-looking man. The second man was quite tall, over six feet, and close to two hundred pounds. He wore a khaki parka with a light brown hood. His skin also had a masklike appearance, and he had a bushy moustache, too. The teller closest to him saw that he wore beige gloves and lace-up allweather boots.
Eyewitnesses are far from reliable, particularly when they are stunned and frightened eyewitnesses. Human perception is skewed by so many things, and people recall height inaccurately more often than not. A man who is frightening may be remembered as being much taller than he really is. "Young" or "old" is relative to the age of the witness. These two strangers would be described as anywhere from "thirty" to "over fifty." Only their eyes were visible beneath their masks and theatrical makeup.
The first man pushed past a bank customer, walked up to a teller, and said, "Step back. Stay away from the counter. This is a robbery."
Of course. Of course it was; why else would there be two bizarre-looking men in the bank?
The middle-aged male customer must have looked terrified, because the bank robber leaned toward him and said gently, "Don't panic. Stay calm. This is a robbery."
At that point, as if to emphasize his words, he pulled a black handgun about six inches long from his parka. "I'm serious," he said. "If you're nervous, please step out of line and sit down."
The customer and his wife walked gingerly out into the central lobby area and sat down in the easy chairs there. Now, they saw the second man and, when he moved, they caught a glimpse of a gun beneath his jacket that looked like the one the first bank robber held. Although he motioned people to get in line, he didn't use the gun to threaten them.
The first man was efficiently herding everyone from the tellers' lines out into the main part of the bank. He seemed to be in charge; he had an energy field around him that was fraught with danger.
The second, taller, man was very polite, very calm. When he spoke, it was with a southern-sounding drawl. He addressed women respectfully as "Ma'am." The first man, the one in the wild tie, had physically pushed the teller away from the counter. He appeared to be working against a clock.
Neither seemed worried that someone might walk in and interrupt the bank robbery. The bank doors remained unlocked, and new customers actually walked into the bank, unaware that anything was wrong. The tall bank robber had obviously been given the job of controlling the customers and staff. He gestured courteously as he asked people to move into the middle of the bank or into lines in front of the tellers' cubicles. Everyone complied. From the outside, it would look as if business was being carried on as usual.
The smaller man's voice boomed throughout the quiet bank. "Who is the vault teller?"
He seemed to know the inner workings of a bank and the duties of the staff. The big money would surely be in the vault.
A bank employee stepped up and said, "I'm the vault teller. I'll go with you." He led the way through the gate into the tellers' area.
It seemed a very long time before the two men emerged from the vault. Some witnesses thought it was ten minutes; some thought it was half that time. When they came out, the robber who was choreographing the crime carried a shiny blue duffel bag with a rope tied tight at the opening. He tossed it over the gate, and then placed one hand on a low partition and leapt over it effortlessly. Again, his physical agility was incongruous with his gray hair and moustache.
Now, those closest could see that he carried a handheld walkie-talkie radio. He spoke into the radio, saying what sounded like, "Did you hear anything?" or "Is she here?"
And then they were gone. One customer insisted on following the two bank robbers despite the pleadings of the others. He ran out into the darkness beyond the streetlights. Inside, they waited with dread, expecting to hear shots. But none came.
No one but the vault teller suspected that they had all just been part of one of the biggest bank robberies in Northwest history. In less than fifteen minutes, the robbers had managed to carry away more money than most people make in a lifetime.
This was not the first time that these robbers had struck Northwest banks. Far from it. This was at least the twentieth bank hit. The shorter man had become the quarry and the focal point of ultimate frustration for some of the most skilled investigators in the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle FBI Office. Just when predictable patterns and a distinctive MO began to emerge, he would slip through the invisible net that had been laid out for him. He and any accomplice he brought with him were wraithlike; it was almost as if they ran from the banks and vaporized.
No one knew who they were or what they looked like without their masks. They had to live somewhere; there were probably people who loved them and worried about them. Somewhere, probably within fifty miles of Seattle, they quite likely lived outwardly normal lives.
For the moment, they were known only by the profile they had filled in with their actions and their disguises. The investigators tracking them knew more about who they weren't than who they were.
Copyright © 1999 by Ann Rule