Although bank robberies across Southern California have steadily declined since 2008, San Luis Obispo County is bucking that trend with nine robberies so far this year — three times last year’s total.
The local peak can be attributed mostly to one woman, dubbed the “Central Coast Bandit,” who has robbed locations in Atascadero, Nipomo, Paso Robles and Monterey. She is described on “wanted” posters as a 5-foot 6-inch heavy-set Hispanic female who appears to be between 35 and 40 years old.
In most surveillance photos, she is smiling.
“If you get one serial bandit that likes one area, then you have this big spike,” said Stephen May, special agent and bank robbery coordinator for the Los Angeles field office of the FBI.
“I would not be surprised if she’s from the Central Coast,” May said. “Usually, robbers at one point have had some familiarity with an area. … There is a theory that no one will rob in their own neighborhood, but I have seen that proved wrong.”
May oversees bank robbery investigations in San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties, an area the FBI has nicknamed the “Bank Robbery Capital of the World.”
In 1992, there were more than 2,600 robberies across that area, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.
By 2012, that number had dropped to 279 robberies.
Considering the area has approximately 19 million residents, “I think, per capita, that’s very low,” May said.
The dramatic drop in robberies since the ’90s can be attributed to better cooperation between local and federal law enforcement, legislation that adds five years of jail time when a weapon is used in a bank robbery, and better technology for taking and sharing surveillance photos, Eimiller said.
“Just the fact that I don’t have to drive to pick up the film and have it developed,” May said. “Now the photo is out within minutes. It stops one person from getting to 10, 15, 20 robberies.”
But bandits can still cause lots of problems.
Take, for example, the “AK-47 Bandit,” who has robbed in Chino, Sacramento and Vacaville. He carries an assault rifle, and shot and wounded a Chino police officer last year.
“That person is a huge problem,” May said.
But how dangerous is the “Central Coast Bandit?”
“I don’t want to guess,” May said. “I consider them all armed and dangerous. … Sometimes they hand over a note, but we find out later that they also had a handgun.”
The average take for a robbery is less than $1,000.
“It’s not a smart crime,” Eimiller said.
As for bank robbery trends, each year is different. Some years, it’s brazen takeover robberies with weapons; some years, it’s female robbers, whose numbers are small enough that any variation looks big.
But one thing is always the same, May said: You cannot predict who will rob a bank.
“They’re all human beings. They could be any race, gender or age,” May said.
“The bottom line is, the thing people ultimately need is money. What differs is why they need the money: The majority usually are addicted to drugs or gambling. A small percent are trying to supplement their income to maintain a standard of living. You also get the thrill-seeker, or robbery crews of gang members.”
In 14 years with the FBI, May has seen robberies committed by an air traffic controller, a chief executive officer of a tech company, a defense attorney and a former law enforcement officer.
In 2012, 175 of the region’s 279 area robberies were solved.
What the FBI calls its “solution rate,” when a robber is identified and apprehended, is typically 60 percent.
The best tool for law enforcement is good witnesses, May said. The FBI recommends that you don’t go after a suspect but instead try to stay calm and remember their salient features.
The FBI maintains the website www.labankrobbers.org, which features pictures of bandits at large in Southern California.
As for the “Central Coast Bandit,” to be caught, “it just takes one person to see her picture and say, ‘I know that lady,’ ” May said.
In less than six months, nine bank robberies in SLO County
Here’s a look at the nine incidents that have occurred in SLO County this year:
Feb. 14: Pacific Western Bank, 7035 El Camino Real, Atascadero. Suspect: “Central Coast Bandit” (on Feb. 14, the “Central Coast Bandit” also cased Citibank, 6955 El Camino Real, Atascadero. She left without taking any money but then went on to rob Pacific Western Bank, according to the FBI.)
May 25: Chase Bank, 445 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo. Suspect: Steven Daniel Celaya, 32, who turned himself in to police on June 11, saying he committed the robbery.
June 7: Bank of America, 6905 Capistrano Ave., Atascadero. Suspect: Steven Daniel Celaya, 32, who turned himself in to police on June 11, saying he committed the robbery.
June 18: Wells Fargo, 546 Spring St., Paso Robles. Suspect: Unidentified and at large. Surveillance photos show an armed man with a blue bandana.
June 27: CoastHills Federal Credit Union, 532 W Tefft St., Nipomo. Suspect: “Central Coast Bandit.”
June 25: Citibank, 6955 El Camino Real, Atascadero. Suspect: Unidentified and at large.
July 16: Golden 1 Federal Credit Union, 128 Niblick Road, Paso Robles. Suspect: “Central Coast Bandit”
July 24: Bank of America, 1105 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo. Suspect: Andrew Gilbertson, 38, of Paso Robles, who was arrested a few hours later in connection with the heist.
Aug. 8: CoastHills Federal Credit Union, Atascadero. Suspect: Unidentified and at large.