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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cop school: Robberies take a huge toll on victims

The BB&T Bank on Backlick Road in Annandale was robbed twice in 2011
A chilling video from a check cashing store in Annandale a few months ago shows a man walking in on a Saturday morning and pulling out a handgun.

He takes a customer and her child into the manager’s office. Two women clerks, ages 19 and 27, are paralyzed with fear as the robber struggles to open the safe. Eventually, he gets it open and gets away with $89,000. Two months later, the younger clerk was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and is still too traumatized to speak to the police. Meanwhile, the robber is still on the loose.

That was one of several security camera videos shown by Det. John Vickery during a presentation to the Citizens Police Academy April  12.

“We never know how victims are going to react,” says Vickery, who works in the robbery section of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Major Crimes Division. Sometimes they seem calm, but break down later. In one case, a bank branch manager who got into a fight with a robber and ripped his mask off, later became an alcoholic and criminal himself.
Vickery investigates commercial robberies—most often involving convenience stores, bodegas, liquor stores, and check cashing stores—home invasions, car jackings, and extortion cases, as well as bank robberies.

If you come home and find your house had been broken into and things taken, that’s a burglary, not a robbery, he explains. Robbery is a crime where the victim faces a threat or intimidation with a gun, knife, or other weapon.

There were 423 robberies reported in Fairfax County in 2011, a 7.4 percent increase over the previous year, but that’s way down 2007 when there were 597. There were 73 robberies in the Mason Police District in 2010, which is more than any other police jurisdiction except Mount Vernon.

Vickery showed another video—this once showing a robbery at the Interfuel gas station and convenience on Backlick and Fullerton roads in Springfield, close to I-395. The robber had just gotten out of jail in Connecticut and had headed south on the interstate.

He was wearing sunglasses and a long jacket to avoid getting caught, but he made a fatal mistake: He picked up a bag of Cheetos, leaving fingerprints for easy identification. Because he was convicted of abduction for monetary gain, along with the use of a firearm to commit robbery, he will likely spend the rest of his life in jail, Vickery says. His take from the robbery: $66.

The victim will pay a price, too; she was severely traumatized by the experience. Being the victim of a robbery “takes an emotional toll that lasts forever,” says Vickery, who was the victim of armed street robberies twice when he was young and “still remembers everything.”
In another case, when a man robbed the manager at the Sweetwater Tavern in Centreville with what looked like a fake gun—and took $80,000 in cash—the cook wrestled him to the ground and held him there with a butcher knife. The cook was later shocked to find out it was a real Uzi.

Vickery described a home invasion that happened 17 years ago on Chowan Avenue in Lincolnia that still chills his blood. A SWAT team came to the rescue of a Vietnamese family whose home had been invaded by four men with high-powered guns. The family was tied up, and part of the grandmother’s finger was cut off as she tried to open a safe.

Between 2007 and 2010, there were six home invasions in the Annandale-Falls Church area. Vickery says Asian families are often targeted because they tend to keep large amounts of cash at home—sometimes as much as $300,000—and often don’t report the crime. In many cases, the attackers know the victims or are hired by someone who knows them.

If you want to commit a robbery and not get much money, rob a bank, Vickery says. Most people who rob banks do it for drug money and often don’t end up with very much. And they usually aren’t very smart about it. Bank robbers’ notes to tellers are often illegible and don’t make sense. He showed us one that looked like it was written by a third-grader.

The most dangerous way to rob a bank is a takeover, in which everyone in the building is abducted. In one recent example, two MS 13 members knocked off a bank on Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield to get money to front a dope deal. They herded all the employees and customers in a group inside the bank.

The bank manager, who had been robbed six times before, managed to keep everyone calm, and the assistant manager was able to get their license tag number as the robbers drove off with $80,000. One of the robbers was later arrested and the other was located in Guatemala in a coma.

If you get caught up in a bank robbery, don’t confront the robbers, Vickery advises. “These guys are afraid, too. You’re just as likely to get shot by accident,” he says.

When Vickery and his colleagues arrive at the scene of a robbery, the first thing they do is determine if the building is safe. They preserve the evidence, separate the witnesses from the victims, conduct a detailed canvass of everyone who was there, make note of the surroundings, and secure the crime scene.

Security cameras provide lots of information, even when the robber’s face is covered, he notes. The police make note of suspects’ clothing, whether they are right or left-handed, how they carry themselves, their mannerisms, and whether they have a limp. That’s often enough for neighbors and acquaintances to identify them.

The work of the cops in the robbery section isn’t all about chasing bad guys. Vickery spends a lot of time serving subpoenas, interviewing victims and witnesses, and getting search warrants for cell phones, cars, and houses. He gets a lot of information from criminals who talk about their activities on text messages, Twitter, and Facebook.

He recently spent hundreds of hours on a case involving a robbery of a BB and T Bank on Arlington Boulevard, but now one of the victims doesn’t want to go to court.

“We’re working for the victims. It’s not all about the bad guys,” Vickery says, explaining that it often takes a lot of hand holding to get traumatized victims to process their experiences and speak in court.

Hunting down a robbery suspect can be an all-consuming mission. “Sometimes we work all weekend,” Vickery says. “It’s more than a job. We’re engulfed in this.”

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