GPS Busts Bank Robbers

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Remember the old tactics relied upon by banks in order to get their money back? It started out with dye packs which would explode and cover the crook in a semi-permanent dye, making it kind of easy to determine whodunnit. However, this is assuming the crook is seen covered in dye by police. If they have no idea where the suspect was when the bag was opened, they can’t really catch the crook, can they?

ThiefA step above this is the marked bill. The idea here is that crooks will spend the cash, which is marked, alerting the bank to contact police at once. However, crooks are onto this, and some can tell which bills are marked and which are not. So how do you catch a bank robber?

Enter the GPS device. This technique is foolproof, and used by banks all over the country in the event of a robbery to recover their money quickly and easily. While a crook can hide out until the dye eventually fades away, effectively escaping apprehension, one just cannot hide from GPS location data.


The value of the GPS device in recovering money stolen in a bank robbery was recently highlighted on May 14, when the Credit Union of America in Wichita, Kansas was robbed. A man donned a black baseball hat and dark hooded sweatshirt and entered the credit union, passing a note demanding money to the teller. The teller gave him his money and then some, hiding a GPS tracking device inside the bag. It was well-hidden by the money.

A mere 15 minutes later, Wichita Police were able to apprehend the man before he had even reached his home. They pulled his car over, and 59-year-old Craig Applebee was arrested and charged with one count of bank robbery. That simple GPS device hidden inside the bag was all that was needed to get the job done, and Applebee faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prion and a fine up to $250,000.

Washington State

In another incident occurring in December of 2013, Jonathan Watson, 58, along with Earl Lee Alexander, 53, were caught using a similar tactic. Watson passed a note to the teller that said he had a gun as well as demanding the teller hand over cash. The teller obliged, filling a bag with $4,300 in cash and a hidden surprise – a GPS device.

Yet again, before the crooks had even exited their vehicle, police were led directly to the vehicle’s GPS location on Marvin Road. Alexander was found to be driving. Police brought the teller to the vehicle, and Watson was positively identified as the robber. They found the cash alongside the GPS device that gave them up inside the vehicle after obtaining a search warrant, as well as a small amount of methamphetamine in Watson’s pocket when he was searched at the time of booking.

Alexander recounted to police his displeasure with Watson’s robbery scheme, telling Watson that robbing the credit union “was a bad idea and that they would get caught.” I’m sure he didn’t expect it to be as sudden as it was, only made possible by the GPS device!

Another story out of Washington had the robber guessing he was caught due to a GPS device. He was correct, even though he only assumed it. The court document says, “Fricks assumed that he had been caught as the result of some type of GPS tracking device, which he assumed had been placed with the money.” He was heard telling the police as they arrested him, “You guys are good!”

Mum’s The Word

Of course, the authorities won’t speak as to how exactly they use these GPS devices as they feel doing so would lessen their effectiveness. “We don’t generally discuss law enforcement and security industry techniques or practices,” said FBI Cincinnati spokesman Todd Lindgren in an email to The Colombus Dispatch.

The banks are reluctant to discuss the practice for similar reasons. “The only people that it helps to have that story out there is the bad guys,” said the corporate spokesman for Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, Fred Solomon.

You can only look to news stories that make mention of the devices as the way the crook was captured.  While they’ve been referred to here and there by the FBI and technology blogs, they aren’t discussed in-depth.

“Security practitioners aren’t of a mind to speak openly about what measures they are taking to protect assets,” explains professor Robert McCrie, security management expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He indicated that not all banks seem to be using them, and those that are only started doing so about five years ago.

The West seems to rely on them the most, and big cities such as New York and Chicago don’t seem to like using GPS devices in this manner for the simple fact of interference due to buildings and the city environment that can make the location data less accurate.

“It has some advantages over the dye packs, which can explode and sometimes cause injury to third parties,” McCrie added. “If a bank gives a stack of money, [the GPS device] can be within it and not be recognized right away.”

As GPS technology improves, it is likely more banks across the country will begin to utilize GPS devices to recover their stolen cash. Until then, it’s a guessing game as to which banks already employ the tactic.

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Khristen Foss

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