A June 20 robbery at American Bank & Trust on Fairview Avenue was the start of an “unnerving” trend for local banks, and the tally of bank robberies in Bowling Green now stands at eight in eight months.

“That’s what started the spree,” Bowling Green Police Department spokesman Officer Ronnie Ward said about the June 20 robbery.

Bowling Green police have made arrests in four of those robberies.

With three bank robberies reported already this year, the city is on track to break the five-year record number of robberies set last year when five banks were robbed. In 2008, three robberies were recorded. There was one recorded in 2009, two in 2010 and three in 2011.

A Warren County grand jury indicted Steven Paul Harston, 47, on two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of possession of a handgun by a convicted felon. He is accused of the June 20 robbery and a Jan. 3 robbery at First Security Bank on Chestnut Street.

In another robbery arrest, police received several leads, which they say linked Carlos Garcia-Hernandez, 31, of Bowling Green, to the Aug. 3 robbery of BB&T bank at 2750 Nashville Road, Ward said.

He was arrested Aug. 31 and charged with second-degree robbery. He is scheduled to appear in Warren Circuit Court on Wednesday.

Bowling Green police arrested James L. Russell, 43, address unknown, on Dec. 18 and charged him with first-degree robbery in connection with the Dec. 17 bank robbery of South Central Bank at 2710 Nashville Road.

Russell was arrested on an outstanding warrant from another police agency during a traffic stop and was then charged in the South Central Bank robbery after police received an anonymous tip linking Russell to the incident, Ward said.

Other bank robberies in Bowling Green include U.S. Bank, 810 Lain Ave., that took place Aug. 8; Hancock Bank, 2501 Crossings Blvd., robbed Sept. 18; PBI Bank on Fairview was robbed Feb. 6; and Service One Credit Union on U.S. 31-W By-pass was robbed Jan. 18, Ward said.

Reward outweighs penalty

A small percentage of robbery offenders strategically plan their offenses, and in most cases the bank robbers are opportunistic offenders – those who see an opportunity as it presents itself and go through with the crime without much planning, WKU associate professor of sociology Jerry Daday said.

There are a number of factors that could drive bank robberies, including economic strains where the robber has experienced a sudden change in financial income, Daday said.

“If you look at the economic situation, there’s still many people unemployed,” said Garth Griese, Service One Credit Union president. “They’re desperate to continue living the life they’re accustomed to.”

Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron said the motivation behind bank robberies could also stem from sheer greed or a need for money to support drug usage.

What may be considered irrational behavior to most people, bank robbers may perceive as rational, Daday said. “The rewards outweigh the potential of getting caught,” he said.

Those engaging in such high-risk behavior could have thrill-seeking personalities, which influence their decisions, Daday said. “We know based on research that a risk factor for committing a crime is low self-control, which is the inability to delay gratification,” he said.

Penalties assessed

Bank robbers can be prosecuted at the state or federal level, and a decision on the venue of prosecution is made by officials from the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in Louisville and the local commonwealth’s attorney after reviewing a robbery suspect’s prior criminal history and the nature of the offense, Cohron said.

In federal court as well as state court, previous felony convictions can subject a defendant to greater penalties, Cohron said.

Once a defendant is charged in a robbery case, each count carries a 10- to 20-year sentence in state court, he said.

“With robbery first degree, a defendant must serve 85 percent of the time (sentenced) before they are eligible for parole,” he said.

Bank robberies prosecuted in federal court here in the Western District of Kentucky usually meet two criteria: a gun was used during the commission of the robbery and the defendant is accused of multiple robberies in various jurisdictions.

“(Bank robberies) are federal offenses, but it doesn’t mean that every bank robbery is going to be prosecuted federally,” said Mary Troutman, chief division counsel of Federal Bureau of Investigation in Louisville. “With armed bank robberies, they will more than likely be prosecuted federally.”

Safety measures

While banks and other financial institutions in Bowling Green provide safety training so employees know what to do in case of a robbery, most don’t plan on hiring armed guards as a result of the recent spate of robberies in Bowling Green.

“I guess it’s always an option,” said Tommy Ross, president of South Central Bank about hiring armed guards for extra safety.

Ross said he didn’t know of any banks in Bowling Green that have armed guards and said it’s more prevalent in larger cities. “I would hate to get to that honestly, because if you’ve got guns and stuff in the bank, it could make the situation even more dangerous,” he said. “You don’t want a shootout going on in your bank.”

While the option of armed guards does not appear in the near future for many Bowling Green banks, some such as South Central Bank do have magnetic doors that were installed about five years ago at the South Central Bank Bowling Green branches after a bank robbery, Ross said.

“If someone comes to our door with a mask or something on, we’re obviously not going to let them in,” he said.

Other bank officials said they don’t have plans to implement additional safety procedures at this point. “I’ve been involved in a couple myself,” said Brad Howard, Independence Bank president.

Bank officials have been more alert of their surroundings after the string of robberies here that has left them unnerved, Howard said.

The main goal when dealing with bank robbers is to get them out of the bank as quickly as possible to help keep the employees out of danger, Ross said.

“We constantly train (employees) on what to do, what not to do – how to handle a robbery,” Ross said.

Bowling Green police have also increased patrols of banks in Bowling Green since the robberies began last year, Ward said.

The police department provides robbery safety training to banks to help employees prepare, he said.

“Obviously we’ve had more requests for it in light of recent events,” Ward said.

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