'Burqa Bandit' is latest among small set of female bank robbers

FBI agents are hot on the trail of a woman they’ve dubbed the “Burqa Bandit” while at the height of the Burqa Bandit’s reign, another woman, Heather Lane (inset), allegedly hatched her own bank robbery.

SHE BREEZES into the bank, note in hand: a demand for money, a threat to detonate a bomb. She's done it five times in as many weeks, all over Northeast Philly.

And nobody knows what she looks like.

FBI agents are hot on the trail of a woman they've dubbed the "Burqa Bandit," who wears the traditional Muslim garb during her capers. Despite the lack of detailed description, investigators are confident they'll catch her.

Meanwhile, at the height of the Burqa Bandit's reign, another woman, Heather Lane, allegedly hatched her own bank robbery July 15. Lane, 26, wasn't as successful: Cops caught her allegedly holding the bag shortly after she fled a TD Bank on Ridge Avenue near Hermit Street in Wissahickon.

Officers responding to the robbery found Lane about a block away, secured the money she was carrying and returned it to the bank, police said.

Unlike the Burqa Bandit, Lane allegedly wielded a gun during her robbery and worked alongside an unidentified man who remains at large.

Lane, of Page Street near 30th in Strawberry Mansion, has been charged with robbery, criminal conspiracy and related offenses.

Despite these recent high-profile examples, experts say bank robbery is still mostly a man's world, with female suspects representing a tiny, unique clique in the criminal community.

Nationwide, women make up about 8 percent of bank-robbery suspects identified this year by the FBI, according to stats from the bureau.

In Philly, that breaks down to six women out of 32 suspects this year. Last year, the agency identified just two women out of the 67 robbers who hit city banks.

Figuring out what motivates these crooks can be as difficult as catching them.

'It's a myth'

"You hear stories about people robbing banks to buy formula for their kids; it's a myth," said J.J. Klaver, a supervisory special agent with the FBI's Philadelphia office. "Most of our robbers are career criminals who've found a quick way to make a quick buck."

Drugs, he said, often play a role: Pill-heads or heroin junkies hurting for a fix turn to crime to support their habits. And some robbers just can't - or won't - make money in a legitimate way.

But how does the fairer sex fit into the equation?

Robert McCrie, a professor at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has been studying bank robbers for a half-century, said women have been "appendages to robberies" since the early 20th century, serving as getaway drivers or lookouts for male colleagues.

It wasn't until fairly recently - within the last 20 years, he estimated - that women moved into more-active robbery roles.

His explanation? Modern bank robberies are "much safer, faster and much less complicated."

"The stakes have changed a lot over the years," McCrie told the Daily News. "Unlike the days of Bonnie and Clyde, there's usually no shooting involved in robberies now, and robbers understand that bank employees have been trained to provide money and get them out of the bank as soon as possible."

It's a crime to which women may be drawn, he said, because bank robbers can get the job done with a demand note instead of a handgun.

"In robbing banks, women may feel safe while getting money fast," McCrie said. "It's attractive to them because they may not want to harm themselves or others."

Special Agent John Sermons, the bank-robbery specialist in the FBI's Philadelphia office, agreed that most of the heists nowadays don't involve firearms.

"We consider every single bank robbery violent," Sermons said. "Just because a guy is using a demand note, we're not going to minimize his actions: Someone with a note is just as serious as someone with a gun."

One serial robber, Sermons said, got flustered after a few botched jobs and pulled out a previously unseen gun to prove his sincerity to a bank teller.

A burqa in Bustleton

The Burqa Bandit hasn't done anything that extreme yet, but the feds are eager to nab her all the same.

She first struck June 9 at a Santander Bank in Bustleton, Sermons said. Since then, she's targeted four other banks, most recently last Thursday at the Citizens Bank inside the Shop-Rite on Roosevelt Boulevard near Plaza Drive in Somerton.

In every case, she walks out without incident and drives away in a black Nissan SUV with silver handles, either a Murano or Rogue, Sermons said.

Given her confidence and daring, investigators believe that she's robbed before. And because her targeted area is confined to Northeast Philly, they think she likely grew up nearby.

"An astounding number of robbers hit within a mile of where they live," said Klaver, the supervisory agent. "People tend to rob where they're familiar; we're not seeing people going from North Philly to South Philly."

Wherever she's from, and wherever she's going, her choice of attire helps her disappear easily, Klaver said.

"If you put on a clown suit, people will look at you," he said, "but in Philly or any major metropolitan area today, who even notices a woman walking by in a burqa?"

There's plenty of local precedent - among men:

* Nine Philadelphia men who orchestrated a series of smash-and-grab jewelry-store robberies in Delaware and in the Philly suburbs wore burqas during some of their capers. They were indicted last year.

* Ronald Moon was wrapped in a burqa in 2012 when he robbed the Sovereign Bank on Germantown Avenue near Summit Street in Chestnut Hill, according to a criminal complaint filed in his case. He was convicted in March 2014.

* Eric Deshann Floyd and Howard Cain wore burqas when they hit a Bank of America branch in 2008. While fleeing, they were pulled over by Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, whom Cain shot to death. Cain was killed in a shoot-out with other officers. Floyd and Levon T. Warner, a third accomplice, are serving life sentences.

"Yeah, burqas are a great disguise," Sermons said, "but you'll notice that everyone who's worn them in the past has gotten caught."

Sermons stressed that cooperation from the public is essential in catching serial robbers like the Burqa Bandit.

"People want to help out; they want their neighborhoods safe," he said. "They don't want crime around their families; they just need the proper channel to help."

To that end, the FBI's Violent Crimes Task Force has set up a tip line at 215-418-4000.

A cash reward is offered for information that leads to an arrest in the Burqa Bandit case.

And Sermons is confident:

"We will catch her," he said.

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