|By Chris Rodell
The robber worked as he lived, all alone. Three days and two nights spent bivouacked in the chilly southeastern Pennsylvania woods dutifully staring at the small bank had built to this moment.
He pushes the wristwatch display button to illuminate the time in the twilight. It’s 6:47 p.m. on January 24, 1997.
In 13 minutes, the PNC Bank branch in Lima, Pennsylvania, will be closing. Inside, branch manager Dawn Bressler and her tellers are glancing at the time, too. Work weary customers are cashing paychecks and, T.G.I.F., distractedly daydreaming of weekends of relaxation and revelry.
Those dreams are about to ghoulishly morph into nightmares. The Friday Night Bank Robber is about to go to work.
"Don’t anybody look at me!" He screams as he bursts through the glass doors. It’s an order that, even at gunpoint, most feel compelled to disobey. They can’t help but gawk.
The bandit is draped in dark, bulky clothes, gloves and a customized Freddie Krueger mask painstakingly self tailored to fit so precisely that many witnesses can’t identify the bandit’s skin color. Garish neon scars have been splashed on the mask to ratchet up the menace.
He scuttles across the carpet to the teller bays in a crab-like crouch. The maneuver is intended to conceal his actual height. Is he 5-foot-2? Maybe 5-8? Jangled witness accounts will invariably differ.
A routine visit to the bank has just become the most singularly dramatic moment in their lives, one they will recount with morbid survivor pride until their dying days.
And then it gets suddenly more incredible.
From a standing position, the robber vaults over the counter in a single bound. He lands like an artillery shell inches from a terrified teller.
The whomp reverberates like a thunder clap. There are gasps of fear and amazement. Frightened victims think they are under siege by a superhuman villain.
There is no chit-chat, no threats. He is all business as he deftly rifles the drawers -- even the secondary ones where cash is concealed to limit robbery takes. In 90 seconds he is dashing out the door with a bloated black bag slung over his shoulder. Inside is $26,004 in cash.
Breathing in short quick gasps like exhausted mice, the carpet-clinging witnesses say small, fast prayers that’ll they’ll soon hear the relief-inspiring squeal of a getaway car’s tires. Those prayers will go unanswered. There will be no car and no one around to do any sort of squealing. It is as if he’s vanished into thin air.
The Friday Night Bandit has struck again. The most prolific and successful bank robber in American history has added to his staggering haul.
By the year 2000, he’ll have robbed more than 50 banks -- it may be as high as 70 -- over an astonishing 30-year run that will have netted him more than $2 million.
The totals are more than legendary outlaws like Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde and more even than the famous bank robber Willie Sutton who, when asked why he robbed dozens of banks, replied, "Because that’s where the money is."
It would be years later that the far case file slammed on the desk of veteran F.B.I. agent Ray Carr. When factual details about the suspect are unearthed, Carr’s eventual profile will seem to have been divined by psychic sources, but that seemed far from certain in 1997.
Based on dozens of similar robberies, Carr surmised that the robber was a mysterious lone believed to be between 48 and 52, very athletic, 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-8, a white male with martial arts and military backgrounds. His signature move is the dramatic over-the-counter vault. This is no crack addict in need of quick fix. He is a physical fitness fanatic who enjoys both the outdoors and weapons. He is generally uncommunicative about his personal life.
"I thought I had a pretty good feel for who the guy was," Carr says, "but without a break, I knew this guy could rob banks the rest of his life and that people could get hurt in the process. I wanted to find him and put him away."
A U.S. bank is robbed once every 52 minutes. F.B.I. statistics indicate the 2001 haul totaled $70 million. Crime connoisseurs say there is a rush and a romance to robbing banks. And, thanks to Hollywood, bank robbery seems positively victimless.
Heck, even John Wayne as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn good-naturedly admits to dabbling in bank robbery in his younger days. When confronted with puritanical condemnation to his aw-shucks confession, the Rooster gets his hackles up and says defensively, "It’s not like I stole a man’s watch!"
Bill Rehder is the world’s leading authority on bank robbers. In all, the retired F.B.I. agent’s fingerprints are on more than 25,000 Los Angeles-area bank robbery investigation from 1968 through 1999. He and Gordon Dillon co-authored, "Where the Money Is: True Tales from The Bank Robbery Capital of the World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003)." The book describes every single category of bank robber that’s ever lived. All but one.
"The Friday Night Bank Robber is absolutely unique in the history of bank robbing," says Rehder of the man who was still at-large when his book was written. "Most bank robbers either have a $1,000-a-day heroin habit to start with or are going through a divorce or lost a job and need money to get them through a desperate time. The Friday Night Robber is a completely different animal."
The sheer longevity of the culprit’s career was an asset working against transient law enforcers. The national avalanche of bank robberies means unsolved cases are closed after five years and the files destroyed when staute of limitations expires. There’s no need to keep cold case files simmering on already over-crowded stoves.
The typical day of an F.B.I. agent in a field office like New Town Square, Pennsylvania, where Carr, 47, works is a ceaseless barrage of desperate acts by violent felons. Cases range from narcotics to kidnapping to serial killers running amok. When black-hearted terrorists crash planes into red, white & blue landmarks, agents on pivotal stake outs are understandably pulled to man the battle stations.
It’s not like that for single-minded felons. They don’t get re-assigned, promoted, transferred out of state, or distracted by sensational news events. And in a blood-drenched crime world where shootouts and slain hostages grab the headlines, a bank robber who does not rely on cold blooded violence is not going to get priority treatment.
The two incidents of violence by the Friday Night Bank Robber were anomalies. A 1992 shooting when a luckless teller suffered a non-fatal belly wound seemed wholly accidental. A separate beating incident occurred when another employee foolishly acted on a heroic impulse. He was pistol whipped by a bandit who seemed to spill blood only as a last resort.
Even the name, The Friday Night Bank Robber, is about as generic a handle a career criminal could ever hope to have. It’s blandly descriptive and too clunky for headline writer to slap over a small, back page story about a small-town stickup where no one got hurt.
And the name described about all the police knew: He struck on Friday nights between October and April, always about 10 minutes before closing time. Police assumed he opportunistically scouted banks during summer daylight-saving time, but mostly robbed them from October through April when crime-friendly darkness cloaked his escapes.
"It was all so methodical, so meticulous," Rehder says, "that police had nothing to go on. The Friday Night Bank Robber didn’t fit any of the existing profiles."
That meant agent Carr and police were going to need to construct a new profile. For that they would need case-breaking evidence. They were going to need the world’s most fastidious bank robber to make a careless mistake, something that hadn’t happened in more than 30 years, or they were going to need some dumb, blind luck.
The latter occurred on, of all days, April Fool’s Day, 2001. That’s when Shawn Kavanagh and Tim Flores, both 13, were frolicking in the woods near their Radnor, Pennsylvania, homes. The timing was no joke to The Friday Night Bank Robber. Three weeks later and the telltale concrete drainage pipe would have been obscured by bursts of sneeze-triggering greenery. Inside were several sections of PVC piping, each carefully capped and freighted with mysterious bounty. Could it be buried treasure, the boys wondered?
It was to Agent Carr. There were newspaper stories about area bank robberies, some successful and some not, clipped, perhaps by a cerebral student of the trade. There were topographical maps of rural locations, five guns, 500 rounds of ammunition, survivor rations, two ski masks and eight Halloween masks.
And then there was this: a detailed list of 160 banks and their addresses from small towns stretching from Albany, N.Y., to southern Virginia to as far west as Pittsburgh. Beside each bank were designations like, "F-7." To Carr, "F-7" could only mean one thing: The bank closed on Fridays at 7 p.m.
Carr’s gleeful reaction to the "Eureka!" moment will never be memorialized in the bureau’s historical literature so here’s an exclusive: "I said, "I’ll be a son of a bitch, I know who this asshole is!’" he recalls with a chuckle. "Everybody there said I was an asshole, there was no way I knew who he was. I said I was gonna prove it."
He added some depth the profile and, assuming the criminal was into martial arts, went to the Dillman Karate School in nearby Drexel Hill and asked the owner if anyone fit the profile. The owner gave several names.
One was that of third degree black belt Carl Gugasian. It didn’t take long for police to discover that Gugasian, 56, wore many masks, only one of them being a dead ringer for Freddie Kruegger.
To his parents, Armenian immigrants, Gugasian was a loyal and accomplished son, an Ivy League graduate, an Army veteran who received special forces training. To the I.R.S. bureaucrats who read his income tax returns, he was a self-employed statistical consultant who earned $7,000 a month as a professional gambler. He drove a $2,000 car, a $1,000 van and had two bank accounts totaling $500,000.
Neighbors at the small Radnor Crossing Apartments saw him running with a fully loaded backpack and suspected the secretive loner was either C.I.A. or involved in the witness protection program.
A bachelor who dated, but never married, Gugasian was a health food fanatic and a devotee of yoga and meditation. People at the karate school respected him as superbly conditioned, muscular and taut as a thoroughbred poised at the starting gate. Rehder said Gugasian sacrificed every aspect of his life to his profession.
"To me the most remarkable thing about Carl Gugasian he was able to fend off every instinct of human nature and not tell a single soul that his life’s work was robbing banks. He is the King of Bank Robbers."
The zipper-lipped achievement is rendered less remarkable when it is revealed that Gugasian was a king without a kingdom. Confiding friendships and intimate lovers were occupational hazards an over-achiever wouldn’t dare risk.
Raised in Broomall, Pennsylvania, by a family Carr describes as dysfunctional, Gugasian began dabbling in crime as a teenager and was shot at the age of 15 while robbing a candy store. Why would a teenager rob a candy store? To paraphrase Willie Sutton, "because that’s where the candy is."
The incident would have a profound impact on the young Gugasian. He didn’t get scared straight. He got scared crooked.
He was sent to the State Youth Facility in Camp Hill for 18 months and released three days before Christmas 1964. The councilors at Haverford High School sternly warned the boy that he needed to excel or he’d never out run his juvenile record. He got into crime by choice, but he opted to excel through a misunderstanding, Carr says. "He didn’t know that juvenile records get expunged. He thought he’d never be able to get a real job."
He enrolled in ROTC while earning a 1971 bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University. Upon graduating, he received special-forces and tactical weapons training while serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg. After the military he earned a master’s degree in systems analysis from the University of Pennsylvania and began doctoral studies in statistics and probabilities at Penn State University.
Despite that accomplished resume, he’d never earn a single honest dollar in his adult life. He flew to North Carolina and used a stolen car to rob his first bank, his heart pounding so fiercely he chickened out eight times before summoning the cockeyed courage he needed to pull it off.
A squad of armed agents arrested The Friday Night Bank Robber on a Tuesday morning outside the Philadelphia Free Library where Gugasian was on his way to work. Only later did police learn he was a frequent library patron who spent hours tediously photocopying and memorizing detailed topographical maps he used to plan bank surveillance and escape routes.
Only later did Gugasian reveal he’d spend two or three days at a time in the woods outside those banks carefully monitoring the routines of the bankers and their customers. Doused in scent-deflecting fragrances to confuse police dogs, he’d flee into the well-scouted woods. He’d run for several miles in the dark to a waiting bike. He’d ride that for another few miles to his van for a clean getaway.
It’s easy to sneer at, but people who are paid to professionally sneer at such sentiments say they believe Gugasian was genuinely contrite on February 10, 2003, when he heard face-to-face of the unrelenting terrors caused by his "victimless" crimes.
Bitterly sarcastic branch manager Dawn Bressler said, "Carl the last time we met, you were hiding behind a mask and pointing a gun at me. How nice it is to see you under these circumstances. I hope you enjoy (your time) in prison. I hope you have nightmares just like I do."
Prosecutor Bradford L. Geyer said he believes Gugasian is "extraordinarily contrite" and determined to "salvage some good out of a promising life that went terribly wrong." In fact, Carr, Geyer and fellow prosecutor L.C. Wright convinced U.S. District Judge Anita Brody that Gugasian had earned leniency.
He’d led police to 27 carefully constructed bunkers and is taping videos that will help law enforcers foil future bank robberies. So instead of a possible 115-year sentence, Gugasian is supposed to emerge the next time Brood X cicadas do: the summer of 2021. One man who may be there to greet him will be the one most responsible for putting him there.
Carr sounds somewhat sheepish when he says, "I got to know him. We’ve become friends. He’s quite an individual. He knows he can call me if he needs anything and I’ll take care of it. For a serial bank robber, he’s not a bad guy."
If he completes his 17-year sentence, the greatest bank robber who ever lived will be 73 years old and liberated to a vastly different world. He will have no job, no adoring grandchildren, no cushiony pension and no money. Or will he? Wouldn’t someone as careful as Gugasian likely have kept a cash-stuffed bunker somewhere in the Pennsylvania woods just waiting for some precocious young lads to plunder?
Wright isn’t ruling it out. "Could be. He was a meticulous planner. He may have planned for a day when he’d get caught, and for a day when he got released."
Truly, he is a calculating man, something inmate no. 56053-066 proves like clockwork every working day behind the imposing, razor-wire topped walls of the Federal Correctional Institution at Fairton, N.J.
"He teaches calculus to inmates," Carr says.
Now when someone asks the routine question, "Hey, how was your day?" Carl Gugasian doesn’t need to construct an elaborate lie. The elaborate lie that was his entire adult life is gone for good. He’s in prison for 17 years, but Carr believes federal incarceration set a part of him free.
"Maybe getting caught was the best thing that ever happened to him," Carr says. "Today, he has an opportunity to give something back and help people, to reach out and have real friendships and a real human life."
Sure, teaching advanced mathematics to fellow felons for about 20 cents an hour isn’t as glamorous as robbing banks, but in some ways it is so much better.
At an age when many other professionals are nearing retirement, Carl Gugasian has finally found some honest work in the real world.