ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – One bank robber’s note read, “Whatever you do act normal 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s strapped and unstrapped put in an envelope and I won’t shoot I don’t want to hurt anyone.” It’s just one of the two-dozen notes handed to Albuquerque bank tellers in the last 3 months, demanding the cash in the drawer.
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Many of the robbers are hitting the same banks. This month, two different bandits held up the Western Commerce Bank on Wyoming less than 24 hours apart.
“A lot of people don’t understand how traumatic that is to a bank teller,” FBI Spokesman Frank Fisher explained. “Law enforcement, at least they’re armed and they’re ready to protect themselves. A bank teller has no protection and that’s why it’s so unfair. It’s so unjust and that’s what we need to catch these people.”
The FBI is working to catch at least 15 New Mexico bank robbers right now. Since December 1, the agency’s investigated more than 30 heists in Albuquerque. That’s more than triple their typical caseload. “In my 12 years here in New Mexico, this is the most we’ve had in one period. So it is concerning,” Fisher added.
Investigators believe four people are responsible for more than half of the robberies, according to Fisher. They’re pinning eight on one man and three each on two others. “Bank robbers — the more bank robberies they commit, they tend to become bolder, and we’re afraid somebody is going to get hurt,” Fisher said.
With the community’s help, the 4th suspected serial robber is now behind bars. Court records reveal a tip led police to Jason Smeltzer, who police said admitted to robbing five banks across Albuquerque for a grand total of $3,856.
Each time, the complaint said, Smeltzer slipped a demand note to the bank teller, calling himself “that vigilante that helps catch drug dealers.” It turns out, the unarmed 39-year-old was robbing banks to fuel his own drug habit. The FBI said that’s a common reason why someone commits the crime. “It’s just someone that’s just looking for an opportunity, really,” Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda said.
Agent Bujanda believes most of the recent bank robberies were spur of the moment. Court records show Andres Manuel Castro Aragon admitted to agents he wrote his demand note at a bus stop on his way to rob the First Convenience Bank inside a Walmart on Coors Boulevard in January. “We haven’t seen any kind of evidence that shows that it’s an organization or a planned effort by some organization to commit these bank robberies,” Agent Bujanda explained.
Seven of the banks robbed in Albuquerque over the past few months were hit more than once. Agent Bujanda said the crooks likely chose the banks based on their locations. He explained, “Because they live close by, or they pass it, or just something that they’re – that they’ve seen many times and they’re familiar with it, so they’re a little bit more emboldened to try something.”
He won’t get into detail about strategy changes the FBI is making in response. But, Agent Bujanda said the agency’s been communicating with area banks for months. The businesses are taking steps to protect themselves, too. They have security guards on hand greeting customers and signs requesting masks, sunglasses, and hats be removed when inside. Of course, surveillance cameras also help.
“We tend to think people are looking at these photos who may know this person, but are not contacting us. And, we want that person to come forward,” Fisher requested. The FBI’s website highlights wanted bank robbers nationwide. New Mexico has more featured suspects than any other state but Illinois.
When asked how confident the FBI is that recent bank robbers will be caught, Fisher said historically, the FBI solves about 70 percent of New Mexico’s bank robberies. “So that means there’s a seven out of a ten chance that we’re going to get you,” he explained, “To me, those odds aren’t very good for a bank robber when you’re looking at a possible 20 years to a 25-year prison term.”
Bank robbers can get up to 25 years per crime if they use a gun or imply they have one, even if they never show it. It’s up to 20 years per robbery if they’re unarmed.