- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Montgomery County police are reporting a sharp increase in bank robberies at neighborhood grocery stores this year.

Police said yesterday that robbers are holding up more bank branches in local supermarkets than stand-alone banks, in part because the branches are open later than regular banks. Most are open until 8 or 9 p.m.

“We don’t know exactly why this is happening, but we have seen a marked increase,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a spokesman for Montgomery County police. “You would think these banks would be less vulnerable because there are so many witnesses, and that these branches use the latest security equipment. It could be because there are so many of them and they’re open later.”

Officer Baliles said police do not have an exact count of the number of in-store bank robberies that have occurred this year.

County police believe the same robber is behind the most recent bank robberies that have occurred in supermarkets during the past week. Two banks in grocery stores in the Rockville area were robbed within three hours of each other on Saturday.

Police said a Chevy Chase Bank branch inside the Giant Food store at 625 Hungerford Drive in Rockville was robbed at about 10:15 a.m. A few hours later, at 1 p.m., a SunTrust Bank branch inside a Safeway at 13814 Outlet Drive in Burtonsville was robbed.

Police believe the same robber tried to hold up the American Bank branch inside a Super Fresh grocery store at 12028 Cherry Hill Road in Silver Spring on Friday. In that case, the robber shook the teller’s hand and walked out of the store after the teller told him the branch was closed.

Police said the robber is a black man, 35 to 40 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs between 170 and 180 pounds. At the time of the incident, he had a beard flecked with gray and he was wearing sunglasses, a gray shirt and a baseball cap.

The spree last weekend comes nearly two months after police said another robber held up four bank branches at local food stores.

Police believe the robber held up the SunTrust branch in the Burtonsville’s Safeway and the American Bank branch in the Silver Spring’s Super Fresh on May 27 and June 3, respectively.

Police also believe the same robber hit the SunTrust branch at the King Farm Safeway at 403 Redland Boulevard in Rockville and the Chevy Chase Bank branch at the Giant Food store at 12051 Rockville Pike on June 8.

Both branches were robbed within 30 minutes of each other, police said.

The robber in those cases is described as a black man between 25 and 40 years old and stands between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet tall.

Police in Prince George’s, Anne Arundel, Howard and Charles counties in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia also are reporting similar robberies in their local supermarkets.

Prince George’s County police said a Prudential Bank branch inside a Shopper’s Food Warehouse in the 2900 block of Donnell Street in Forestville was robbed Saturday. They said a man walked up to a teller, showed a gun and demanded money.

The teller gave the man an undisclosed amount of cash, and he walked out of the store. Police have footage of the man from surveillance cameras in the bank.

Fairfax County police said they charged a man on Friday with robbing a Chevy Chase Bank branch in a Giant Food store in the 5700 block of Union Mill Road in the Clifton area. They said Kevin Blakeney, 28, left the store with an undisclosed amount of money but was caught by police later that day.

Police believe Mr. Blakeney also is responsible for the Aug. 11 robbery at a free-standing First Virginia Bank in Centreville.

Despite the recent spate of robberies in the region, FBI officials said yesterday that it does not amount to a trend.

“Even though we have seen a couple in the last two weeks or so in this general metropolitan area, statistically we have not seen an uptick,” said Debra Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington field office.

Branch bank officials said they haven’t seen a rise in such robberies. They said all their grocery bank branches are secure.

Giant Food has full service banks inside 50 of its 194 stores, said Barry Scher, a spokesman for the grocery chain.

“We have had very few robberies inside these banks,” Mr. Scher said. He said the stores employ uniformed and nonuniformed security guards and have video surveillance installed at all sites. Bank branches at three Giant Food stores have been robbed since May, police said.

American Bank operates two of its four branches at Super Fresh stores. Bank officials said they wanted to open up branches at the grocery stores because they could reach more clients and the environment is more secure.

“We have more of a chance to reach more of the public if we are in a high-traffic location such as a grocery store,” said John Wright, the bank’s senior vice president. “We have been surprised because there are not many robberies [in stores]. It is a riskier business for a robber. It will only take him tripping over a little old lady’s cart on the way out, and he is caught.”

A spokesman for SunTrust, whose branches have been the hardest hit, said he doesn’t believe in-store banks are more vulnerable to robberies. Six SunTrust branches at local Safeways have been robbed since May.

“We do use the most sophisticated security measures to protect our employees and costumers,” spokesman Mike McCoy said.

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