By Jim Salter
The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — A bald, heavyset man who has robbed 21 banks in the eastern and central U.S. is proving to be so elusive that the FBI has given him a name - the "Granddad Bandit" - and the agency announced plans Tuesday to post a digital picture of him on billboards in several states in hopes of catching him.
The man, who is believed to be 50 to 60 years old, is suspected in 21 bank robberies in 12 states, the most recent on May 18 at a Regions Bank branch in St. Louis County, the FBI said.
To catch him, the FBI has partnered with outdoor advertisers on a digital billboard campaign displaying a surveillance picture of the robber.
The FBI describes the suspect as about 6 feet tall, white, bald and heavy. Along with Missouri, he is wanted in: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.
"It's not that the individual can't be caught," agent Zack Lowe said of the robber who has so far escaped capture for a year-and-a-half. "The right person hasn't seen this picture yet. He has to sleep somewhere. He has to eat somewhere. He has family somewhere."
The suspected robber began his crime spree with a robbery in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 16, 2009, the FBI said. The agency believes he has struck three times in Atlanta and twice in Mobile. Officials say he has robbed four banks overall in Alabama, four in Georgia, three in Texas, two in Arkansas and one each in the other states.
Sometimes, the man claims to be armed. Other times, such as in the St. Louis County robbery, he doesn't show or imply a weapon. Agents say his holdups are calm and deliberate, apparently aimed at not attracting attention to himself. He tends to wear nondescript clothing such as a ballcap and a polo-type shirt.
In the St. Louis County robbery, the bandit walked into the bank late in the afternoon, approached a teller and pulled a holdup note from his black billfold.
Though the man has been dubbed the "Granddad Bandit," not much information is known about him including if he has grandchildren. Lowe said the FBI typically assigns a name to serial bank robbers, in this case the "Granddad Bandit," to help other law enforcement officers and the public have a reference point when talking about a specific criminal.
"It helps in communication," he said.
Lamar Outdoor Advertising General Manager Chris Kirn said the man's picture will be displayed on 25 billboards in Missouri along with billboards in several other states where robberies have occurred.
The digital billboard effort has worked before in Missouri. In September, a retired state trooper recognized Chad Schaffner from billboard photos. Schaffner, who was wanted in at least 10 bank robberies in four states, was arrested at a Kingdom City, Mo., hotel.
The FBI began the digital billboard effort in December 2007 after the advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor approached the FBI with an offer to provide the billboard space as a public service. Since then, other billboard companies have joined the effort.
In addition to Schaffner, the FBI said digital billboards have helped lead to the arrest of 35 suspects, including:
-Richard Franklin Wiggins Jr., who turned himself in after billboards showed him image in the Norfolk, Va., area. He is accused of money laundering and ties to a drug trafficking organization.
-Walter Haskell, arrested in Minnesota for an armed robbery in New Jersey several months earlier.
-Christopher Ellis, arrested for a multistate crime spree that included a bank robbery in Kentucky, a kidnapping and carjacking in Georgia and a home invasion in Tennessee. Digital billboards displayed photos of Ellis and his truck, leading to the tip that led to his arrest.
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The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for the tip leading to the arrest and conviction of the "Granddad Bandit." The anti-crime group CrimeStoppers also is offering up to $1,000 for information leading to a felony arrest.