It’s a tough way to make a million.
Just ask Whitey Bulger. Or the famed Brink’s robbers from 1950. Or the crew who, in 1980, drilled through the wall of a Medford medical office to reach the vault of a neighboring bank and liberate some $10 million in cash and valuables.
All of them went to prison for bank robbery, despite meticulous plans that sometimes took years to hatch. Massachusetts has a reputation as a hotbed for ambitious and carefully crafted bank heists — bolstered, no doubt, by the 2010 Ben Affleck film “The Town,” about a band of professional robbers in Charlestown. But bank robbery is a notoriously difficult crime to get away with; even the most carefully laid plans often go awry.
That’s what makes the Nov. 17 robbery of the Rockland Trust bank on Martha’s Vineyard so striking. The crime has seemed to some analysts as amateurish — the thieves robbed a bank on a sparsely populated island with few escape routes and one alleged accomplice was a church-going former Jamaican soccer player with no criminal record. When questioned by investigators, Miquel A. Jones volunteered seemingly incriminating information and turned over his cell phone with no lawyer present.
Jones’s lawyer, Casey Dobel, has promised to fight what she called “a very weak case” against him.
On Saturday, more than a week after the crime, authorities announced the arrest of a second suspect, Omar Johnson, of Canterbury, N.H. Johnson was arrested late Friday evening during a car stop in New Haven, Conn., and charged with masked armed robbery with a firearm as well as conspiracy to commit armed robbery with a firearm, according to a joint statement by the Cape and Islands district attorney’s office and Tisbury Police.
However, one or more of the masked men who held staff members at gunpoint remains at large.
“It’s a little surprising” that all of the alleged robbers have not yet been arrested, said Jeff Danik, a retired FBI supervisor who worked bank robberies in multiple states. “Maybe the [island] law enforcement resources are a bit taxed because of the offseason. Then you have the holiday. And if the three bad guys did a hasty, hasty exit on one of the ferries, they’re ... in the wind,” and long gone.
The brazen Vineyard Haven robbery has captured the imagination of an island better known as a swanky sandbox for the rich and powerful. Wearing cartoonish Halloween masks, the thieves entered the bank early on a weekday morning, tying up bank workers and fleeing in a bank employee’s SUV with an undisclosed sum. Two suspects were later seen on surveillance video boarding the ferry for the mainland.
The crime is also a reminder of a larger tradition in Massachusetts, site of some of the most notorious bank robberies in recent US history. But the business of bank robbing ain’t what it used to be.
Harsh sentencing guidelines, coupled with increased security measures and fewer dollars in the vault, has made bank robbery a less appealing crime, leading to a sharp decline in recent decades, experts say. What’s more, says Jerry Clark, a retired FBI special agent who now teaches at Gannon University in Pennsylvania, the Internet’s rise has provided a much more attractive option for would-be thieves seeking a quick payday.
“You can sit in your mom’s basement, and you can rob many people at one time,” Clark says.
Massachusetts has followed the national trend; according to FBI data, bank robbery totals in the state have dwindled from 307 in 2003 to just 58 last year — less than half the number carried out in places such as Colorado, Arizona, and California.
Still, the idea of Massachusetts as a haven for elaborate bank robberies has remained deeply lodged in the local zeitgeist.
Bulger, the region’s most notorious criminal, initially dabbled in bank robbery before he was arrested in 1956 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, eventually landing at dreaded Alcatraz in California. When Bulger was finally released, he made a career pivot into extortion, drug trafficking, and murder, while acting as an FBI informant on the side.
In 1950, the Brink’s robbery in Boston’s North End made national headlines as what was then the largest bank heist in American history, the thieves making away with more than $2.6 million in cash, checks, and securities. But it was the planning of the job that stood out: The thieves spent two years casing the place, going so far as to replace the building’s locks to facilitate their entry.
The Brink’s robbers initially appeared to pull off the elaborate heist, as the robbery became known as “the crime of the century.” But after years of fruitless investigation, a dispute between the thieves led to a confession and charges against 11 participants, just days before the statute of limitations was set to expire.
Three decades later, another group of local schemers brought an impressive artistry to the crime. Over Memorial Day weekend in 1980, a group of men — including three who’d worked in law enforcement — entered the Depositors Trust Co. in Medford through a neighboring optician’s office, drilling through 4 inches of concrete wall and another 18 inches of concrete and steel to enter the vault and take more than $10 million in money and valuables. They, too, were eventually caught.
The ‘80s and ‘90s brought what former Boston Police commissioner Ed Davis calls a “Wild West” of local bank robberies, as the area saw a series of increasingly bold heists carried out by organized crews.
As a lieutenant in the Lowell Police Department, Davis recalls, he once responded to a bank robbery that led to a rolling gun battle down Interstate 495.
“It was an interesting time,” as Davis put it.
Hollywood, too, has helped solidify the region’s reputation as a kind of depot for bank robbers.
“Let me first say, for the record, I was not [on] Martha’s Vineyard that last week,” joked state Representative Dan Ryan, who was born and raised in Charlestown, which served as the setting for Affleck’s “The Town.” “I have a perfect alibi.”
Still, the notoriety has some basis in truth; three Charlestown natives were sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for a string of holdups in New England and Florida that left two guards dead.
“I don’t think any community wants to be portrayed by its dirty laundry,” Ryan said. “But I think ... there has to be some honesty here that some of these things did happen here.”
Today, experts say, bank robberies fall into two main categories: crimes of desperation, often carried out by those in the throes of addiction hoping to get away with whatever they can; and more carefully plotted heists aimed at larger hauls.
Experts differ in their analysis of the Martha’s Vineyard robbery.
On one hand, the thieves clearly came prepared. They used duct tape and plastic ties to detain bank employees. They wore Halloween masks and bulky clothing to disguise themselves, fleeing in a bank employee’s vehicle. According to authorities, they also had the help of a getaway car.
“These guys actually took steps to make me believe that they had either done it before or had put some thought and effort into this one,” said Clark, the retired FBI agent.
What’s more, the thieves might have gotten away more cleanly without some simple bad luck. If not for a passing bus that happened to capture video of a Hyundai Elantra that police tied to Jones leaving the state park shortly after the robbery, it’s unclear whether authorities would have so quickly found their way to Jones.
But there are signs, too, of amateurism. Shortly after the robbery, a confidential informant told authorities that less than two weeks earlier, he’d been approached by an acquaintance who spoke of assembling a team to rob a Rockland Trust bank branch, suggesting a planning time far shorter than other elaborate heists.
And if the goal was to walk away with a significant payday, says Jay Zagorsky, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business who has studied bank robberies, they likely fell short.
Traditionally, Zagorsky says, the best times to rob a bank are Mondays and Fridays, or toward the end of the month, when banks are likely to have the most cash on hand. By contrast, the Vineyard thieves chose a Thursday morning, well into an island offseason in which the local population — and, theoretically, the amount of cash on-hand — had dwindled.
“Why not do it ... Labor Day weekend? It’s the last hurrah for the island, a lot of businesses are bringing in a fair amount of money,” says Zagorsky. “I shake my head a little bit.”
And while at least one suspect has so far eluded capture despite an investigation that has included local, state, and federal agencies, the odds they’ll eventually join the state’s long list of thwarted thieves remains sizable, experts contend.
“As much as I would’ve expected it already to be solved, I even more fully expect that all defendants will be apprehended,” said Danik, the former FBI supervisor, citing the various technologies available to law enforcement and the thieves’ use of guns, which would likely make it a high priority for federal agents.
“And it won’t take that much longer.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.