VINEYARD HAVEN — Employees at the Rockland Trust branch in this island village were still opening the bank Thursday morning when three men wearing rubber masks and brandishing handguns barged in and demanded cash, police said, triggering a manhunt across the island of Martha’s Vineyard and on Cape Cod.
Yet after a chaotic day that included police swarming a hotel in Falmouth on information the robbers were inside, they were still at large as of Thursday night, and residents and schoolchildren on both sides of Vineyard Sound remained rattled.
How could bank robbers have escaped an island? residents wondered. Or if they hadn’t yet left, where are they hiding?
For a time, it appeared that the police had the suspects cornered. Midday on Thursday, Falmouth police officers, FBI agents, and state troopers had surrounded a Holiday Inn in Falmouth. Jones Road, a busy street where the Holiday Inn is located, was closed off, and at one point a black armored vehicle was seen driving down it. Meanwhile, children from a nearby school were evacuated as state troopers wearing battle fatigues and brandishing rifles prepared to enter the hotel.
But a few hours later, well over a dozen law enforcement officers left the scene apparently empty-handed, or at least without the three armed robbers.
Speaking to reporters outside the hotel’s front door, Falmouth Police Chief Ed Dunne said, “The suspects are not here.” No other locations in Falmouth were being searched, he said. “I believe the search is on the island.”
Dunne said the mobilization at the hotel was based on information received by the State Police and FBI and followed up by Falmouth police. “We know they were armed,” he added. “We’re not taking any chances.”
While police attention was focused on the hotel, the ferries between Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod kept running. Dunne said officers on the mainland were checking boats arriving from the island all day. A spokesperson for the Steamship Authority said the ferries would keep running as scheduled unless law enforcement requested they be stopped.
The heist had all the elements of a Hollywood flick. According to local police officers communicating on a radio dispatch Thursday morning, the three men wore white rubber masks and black hoodies. They tied up bank employees before making off with the cash, using a stolen car.
Tisbury police officials confirmed the details to the Martha’s Vineyard Times Thursday afternoon.
Later, Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, released a photo of one suspect in a Halloween-like mask. “All three subjects had this mask on,” the prosecutor’s office said.
The car, which belonged to a bank employee, was found a few miles away near a state forest, police told news media on the island. As for the suspects themselves, they seemed to have vanished without a trace.
The robbery stunned the Martha’s Vineyard community where residents struggled to remember any crime of that magnitude occurring in decades.
“The first thing I did was call my friend who lives behind the bank and tell her to lock her doors,” said Joe Burkett, who lives in Chilmark. “Everybody feels so insulated here. When something like this happens, they realize the vulnerability of our island and our world.”
Longtime resident Larkin Stallings said the biggest crime he recalled was a series of garage break-ins a few years ago.
In 1987, a 35-year-old man robbed a Martha’s Vineyard bank and then shot an arrow at a police officer as he fled, according to an Associated Press report from the time. Before that, perhaps the most infamous act in Martha’s Vineyard’s history was the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick after the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy drove his car off a bridge.
In Falmouth Thursday afternoon, residents gathered near the Holiday Inn were stunned to see a major police operation unfolding in their town.
Mananjo Jonahson, who lives around the corner from the hotel, said her heart was still racing after she received a voice mail from the school district telling her to pick up her son at Falmouth High School, which was under a shelter in place order.
A State Police cruiser with lights flashing drove by as she spoke. “This is probably the most eventful stuff I’ve seen here,” she said.
Aiden Cardoza, 16, said his sister had been bused from the Morse Pond School, which abuts the hotel’s property, to the high school earlier in the day. Standing beside Jones Road, which was closed to the public, he said he’d seen a State Police vehicle carrying police dogs driving toward the hotel.
Dunne, the Falmouth police chief, openly wondered about the robbers’ tactics, as he spoke outside the hotel just before 3:30 p.m.
The choice of target — a bank on a resort island in the off-season when ferries run even less frequently than during the summer — seemed ill-advised, he said. “I don’t believe it was well thought out,” he said.
John R. Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Bailey Allen contributed to this report.