Because That's Where the Money Is

A better disguise might have helped James Decker, charged last month with robbing three Minnesota banks
Courtesy of the FBI

On August 12, a white male, roughly 40 years old and of slight build, was spotted dumping items into the Mississippi River near 13th Avenue and Water Street in northeast Minneapolis. A witness to this suspicious activity called the police. The unnamed informant also reported that the man was driving a gray, mid-sized car bearing the license plate MZE 541.

After the officers arrived at the scene, they recovered a number of strange items from the river: a yellow construction hard hat, a black briefcase, several wigs, and a single white latex glove. The tags on the car, meanwhile, indicated that it had been rented from Enterprise Leasing by 39-year-old Brett Allen Aklestad some 10 days earlier.

It didn't take long for the FBI to link Aklestad to two recent bank heists. Just a week earlier, a man wearing a yellow hard hat had entered the TCF National Bank on New Brighton Boulevard in northeast Minneapolis. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the man pulled out a handgun and told the teller: "This is a robbery. Give me all your money and everything in the second drawer. No bait and no dye pack." He made off with $1,944.

Six days after that, the TCF bank on West Lake Street in south Minneapolis was hit by a man of a similar description, although this time the perpetrator wore a dark blue baseball cap over a gray wig. He made off with $5,506.

Neither robbery was big news. Fact is, bank heists usually don't draw much notice anymore--a few seconds on the local newscasts or a small blurb on page B3. It's a symptom of their ubiquity. To date this year, there have been some 92 bank robberies in Minnesota, up from 73 for all of 2003 and just 62 in 2002. The current record for heists in a single year is 101, set in 1997. But given the frequency of holiday-season stickups, the mark may fall this year.

"We do see a spike normally at the end of the year," notes FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe. "Whether there will be this year or not it's hard to say." Both McCabe and bank officials are at a loss to explain the increase. "Has our economy changed? No," says John Shriner, director of physical security at Wells Fargo. "Has drug use increased? Not that we know of. It's unexplainable."

Shriner speculates that word of mouth might be a factor. "To be honest with you, there's a lot of communication between thieves, whether they're in jail or on the streets," he says. "If they see an easy mark, or one thief is successful and talks about it, it gives other guys ideas."

One thing is entirely clear: There have been some very successful robbers operating in Minnesota of late. The most notorious of the current crop is the so-called fishing hat bandit. Described as a white man between 5'10" and 6'2" in his mid- to late 50s, he is thought to have knocked off 20 banks and credit unions since June 2003. After a busy summer, in which he averaged two heists per month, he hasn't been heard from since the first day of October. Among the other prominent robbers still at large: a pair of gun-wielding white men in their late 20s to early 30s who wear identical flesh-colored masks. The duo is believed to have pulled off five heists in the Twin Cities suburbs since August.

In recent years, some Twin Cities financial institutions have taken extreme measures to avoid being victimized. After the Minneapolis branch of the Twin City Co-ops Federal Credit Union was robbed four times in a 13-month stretch during the mid-'90s, the bank stopped performing any cash transactions inside the branch, limiting such dealings to the drive-through lane.

Anne McGarry, director of risk management for the Federal Credit Union, observes that successful bank robbers often hit the same location more than once. "They become comfortable with certain places," she notes. Earlier this year, the Twin City Co-Op's Eagan branch was robbed by the fishing hat bandit. McGarry says that the alleged perpetrator was subsequently spotted in the bank's parking lot, but fled after he was recognized.

Bank robberies have a long, illustrious history in American criminal lore. According to the recently published book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the first known bank heist occurred in 1831 when Edward Smith snuck into a Wall Street bank and made off with $245,000. In the first half of the 20th century, the dapper felon Willie Sutton ripped off dozens of banks, earning himself the moniker "the Babe Ruth of crime."

During the 1930s, the golden age of bank robberies, Minnesota was a hotbed. Notorious gangsters such as John Dillinger and the Barker brothers utilized St. Paul as a base of operations. The Barkers pulled their first bank job in downtown Minneapolis.

Minnesota was also home to a pair of the most prolific and successful bank robbers of recent times, the so-called trench coat robbers. Over a 15-year period, the duo, known for wearing heavy coats, knocked off some 27 banks across the country, hauling in millions of dollars in their meticulously planned heists. One member of the trench coat robbers, Billy Kirkpatrick, lived in a log cabin in Hovland, some 18 miles south of the Canadian border. The trench coat robbers were ultimately apprehended in 1998 after Kirkpatrick was pulled over for speeding and the police discovered nearly $2 million in cash inside his car.

The vast majority of bank robbers are rarely so crafty or successful as the trench coat duo. Most are desperate men (very few are women) who are looking for quick cash, often to satisfy the need for a fix. According to FBI statistics, the average take for a bank robbery in 2003 was just over $10,000. Roughly half of the people known to be involved were drug users.

"It's a poor man's crime," notes defense attorney Joseph Tamburino, who currently represents a man accused of four Minnesota bank robberies. "It's a crime of desperation. It's definitely not Willie Sutton."

It is also a sucker's game. Because robbing a bank is a federal crime, offenders face longer time behind bars than if they robbed a restaurant or a bar. Under federal law, the maximum for armed bank robbery is 25 years and a $250,000 fine. Federal inmates also must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. By contrast, the maximum for armed robbery under Minnesota law is 20 years, with the possible sentence reduction of a third for good behavior.

The fate of Brett Aklestad is typical for a Minnesota bank robber. After fleeing Minnesota following the two TCF robberies, Aklestad made his way to Portland, Oregon, where he was soon picked up on a charge of unlawfully possessing a handgun. While in custody, Aklestad confessed to committing the TCF heists . He is currently awaiting sentencing. He's expected to serve at least 10 years in prison.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >