Without a trace: Armed bank robber escapes intense law enforcement search, remains at large
Law enforcement personnel speak with a motorist who was driving down an alley in the residential area near Sterling Savings Bank on Monday. -- Photo by Chris Tucker/Peninsula Daily News
By Paige Dickerson
Peninsula Daily News
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A small brigade of law officers on land and in the air couldn't find him -- even as the region's main hospital was locked down for an hour.
Several blocks of the neighborhood around Olympic Medical Center were closed to traffic for hours Monday afternoon as law officers -- many carrying large semiautomatic weapons -- searched alleys, yards and streets for the bandit, who entered Sterling Savings Bank, 1033 E. First St., around 12:20 p.m. and forced a teller to empty her cash drawer at gunpoint.
The hospital and many of its affiliates in separate buildings in a five-block area were locked down after witnesses said they saw the robber head north from the bank on foot.
Two helicopters -- one from Coast Guard Group/Air Station Port Angeles and the other from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, both agencies of the Department of Homeland Security -- hovered low over the neighborhood, calling attention to the scene from a wider area of Port Angeles.
Traffic on Front and First streets -- the west and east directions of U.S. Highway 101 -- crawled through the area between Race and Ennis streets.
The bank is located at First and Chambers streets in the commercial block between the two U.S. 101 traffic directions.
Deputy Police Chief Brian Smith described the bandit as an older white man with gray hair.
He was wearing gray sweatpants, a gray hooded sweatshirt, wrap-around eyeglasses and black shoes, standing about 5 feet 5 inches and of average weight.
Witnesses told police that two deep vertical wrinkle lines mark the cheeks of his face.
The lines are visible in a bank video camera image distributed to the news media about 2 p.m.
Anyone seeing someone matching the description of the robber is asked to call 9-1-1 or the Port Angeles Police Department at 360-452-4545.
Fled on foot
The bandit fled the bank on foot with an undisclosed amount of money from one teller's drawer stuffed in his pockets after specifically asking for $100 and $50 denominations, Smith said.
The man was initially reported to be carrying a blue bag, according to dispatchers.
After about four hours of searching streets and back alleys in the medical and residential area north of the bank, the area was reopened -- although the hospital had reopened to the public earlier while keeping an eye out for anyone matching the robber's description.
"Unfortunately the K-9 did not pick up on his scent," Smith said of the Port Angeles Police Department's police dog.
"Probably he is hiding in plain sight; we just need to find where that is."
Law enforcement officers carrying semiautomatic weapons scoured the neighborhood, knocking on the doors of each home and searching in bushes, in parked cars and trash bins and in every backyard and down to the Waterfront Trail along the harbor shore.
"In addition to looking for the suspect, they also wanted to do welfare checks on anyone who might have had contact with him," Smith said.
Smith said a witness saw a man fitting the bandit's description on foot northbound on Chambers Street, and another witness said he was going east on Georgiana Street roughly a block from the hospital.
"We haven't been able to find the man described by witnesses or the suspect," Smith said at the scene Monday afternoon.
"We believe they are the same person, but we don't know for sure."
He said a "reverse 9-1-1" telephone system was used.
Reverse 9-1-1 allows police to call all residents in a certain area to let them know that an emergency is happening.
All of the area businesses, including several along U.S. 101, were also put on temporary lockdown, Smith said.
"We went into a voluntary lockdown for the safety of our staff and patients," Olympic Medical Center spokeswoman Rhonda Curry said
The hospital lockdown lasted from about 12:50 p.m. to 1:50 p.m.
Port Angeles police were assisted by the U.S. Border Patrol, Sequim Police Department, Clallam County Sheriff's Department, the Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, State Patrol and Coast Guard.
Photos taken from video surveillance cameras at the bank were sent to the National Crime Information Center, which sends out photos to area law enforcement agencies, Smith said.
It's not known whether the suspect can be connected to any unsolved bank robberies, Smith said.
"We will be going through all of our old files to determine if there are any connections," he said.
"Several of our detectives have been here for a long time and have been working during some of those [old bank robberies], so they are already familiar with those old cases."
Among those cases were two robberies in 2006 -- of Kitsap Bank branches in Port Angeles and Sequim -- in which fuzzy video surveillance photos showed the bandit to be wearing sunglasses, a plaid shirt and baseball cap.
Like Monday's robber, the "ballcap bandit" also was a middle-aged or older man.
Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: September 02. 2009 2:35PM