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Catchy nicknames help FBI snare bank robbers
Seattle Times staff reporter
Long before Seattle-area banks were robbed by the likes of "Pillowcase," "Dueling Banjo" and "Attila the Bun," there was Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.
Through the Gold Rush, Prohibition and even into today, bestowing nicknames upon criminals has been a law-enforcement ploy designed to help enlist the media's aid in publicizing America's most wanted. In modern-day Seattle and elsewhere, that tradition is carried on by FBI agents who pride themselves on their ability to attach colorful, catchy nicknames to the region's most prolific bank robbers.
And while it's doubtful Seattle-area bank robbers like "Miss Piggy," "Bag Lady" and "Grumpy" will ever achieve the lasting notoriety of "Pretty Boy" Floyd and his contemporaries, the FBI said the practice often has the desired effect of getting the word out on wanted criminals.
When a heavy-set woman dressed in baggy clothes and sunglasses began robbing banks in Seattle in June, Seattle-based FBI Special Agent Larry Carr gazed at bank surveillance photos wondering how to come up with a catchy name that would resonate with the media. In a state that averages about 300 bank robberies a year, the FBI often has a difficult time getting media to bite on stories about robberies.
Carr found his inspiration in the messy hair bun worn by the robber. Thus, "Attila the Bun" was born into a pseudo-celebrity status.
"When we named her, The [Associated Press] picked it up and it was run in stories across the nation," said Carr, who runs a team of bank-robbery agents based in Seattle.
What's in a name?
GROUNDHOG DAY BANDIT
His nickname refers to the movie "Groundhog Day," in which a character wakes up to the same day over and over. The robber is believed to have robbed the same Renton bank branch three times. The FBI says he robbed four banks in Seattle and Renton between August 2005 and April 2006.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW BANDIT
Montory Caldwell often held a cellphone to his ear while robbing 11 Seattle-area banks from October 2005 through April 2006. His nickname comes from the catch-phrase from a series of commercials for Verizon Wireless. He was convicted of robbing 11 banks and is scheduled for sentencing Sept. 8.
William Scott Scurlock earned the nickname because of the elaborate disguises he wore while committing more than a dozen bank robberies in Seattle and Portland between 1992 and 1996. Scurlock fatally shot himself as police surrounded a backyard trailer where he had hidden after his final bank heist in North Seattle in November 1996.
A woman believed to be Attila the Bun, identified by the FBI as Shelley Cuddeback, 42, was arrested July 11 after allegedly robbing a gas station on West Valley Highway in Tukwila. Cuddeback has been charged with robbery.
The FBI doesn't give nicknames to just any bank robber. Carr said only those who rob at least three banks get a bureau moniker. Agents tend to only use them for bank-robbery suspects whose identities are unknown.
FBI offices nationwide use nicknames not only when publicizing bank robbers and criminals whose identities aren't known, but also when publicizing the alleged deeds of people involved in organized crime. Rex Tomb, a national spokesman for the FBI, said criminal monikers have been used since the days of wanted posters for Wild West criminals like "Billy the Kid."
"It's a marketing tool," Carr added. "We look at something we can do to make a caricature of the person from pop culture."
Because robbers move so quickly, typically spending less than 20 seconds inside a bank, it's not uncommon for the FBI to receive shoddy surveillance video, vague descriptions and little physical evidence, Carr said. By having nicknames, he hopes descriptive details will stick with people so that, if they see an alleged bank robber, they can identify them.
Jack Levin, director of The Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, said there is no evidence the monikers help authorities catch criminals, but they do help create a high-profile case that generates public interest. In the 1920s and '30s, colorful nicknames helped make criminals like "Machine Gun" Kelly (so dubbed by his proud wife) and "Baby Face Nelson" (fellow gang members' tribute to his youthful appearance) into household names.
While Carr gravitates toward memorable names with pop-culture ties, he doesn't have the final say on what names are selected. That distinction falls to Special Agent Robbie Burroughs, spokeswoman for the Seattle FBI office.
Naming a bank robber isn't always a cut-and-dried case.
For example, earlier this year Carr started calling one robber the "Cheesy Mustache" bandit because of his thick, heavy "1970s-esque" mustache. Burroughs considered the nickname too silly and thus he was rechristened the "Upscale" bandit, a nod to his dressy attire while robbing banks.
"We don't want it to be too funny," said Burroughs. "It's a serious issue."
Most names given to bank robbers have something to do with their dress, appearance or their manner while holding up tellers.
When a prolific bank robber hit 24 Southern California banks in 19 months in 2000 and 2001, he was dubbed the "Kangaroo Bandit" because of the knapsack he wore dangling in front of his body.
Among the 15 or so nicknames he gives every year, Carr includes the "Don't I Know You From Somewhere" bandit, "Dueling Banjo" bandit and the "Uncle Fester" bandit among his favorites.
"Don't I Know You From Somewhere" earned his name because every time another Seattle FBI agent saw his surveillance photo, he said he knew the man from somewhere, Carr said.
"Dueling Banjo" resembled an actor in the dueling-banjos scene in the 1972 Burt Reynolds/Jon Voight film "Deliverance," Carr said.
"Uncle Fester" owes his nickname to his resemblance to the character played by actor Jackie Coogan in the 1960s television show the "The Addams Family."
Uncle Fester notwithstanding, Carr concedes that he walks a fine line when doling out nicknames.
"You don't want to come down on the guy. He might seek retribution on bank employees because he got a bad name."
Seattle FBI agents have no shortage of opportunities to name bank robbers. So far this year there have been 94 bank robberies in King County; 165 statewide, Burroughs said.
Among the most prolific bank robbers in recent years has been the "Button-Up" bandit, who has struck at 17 area banks since September 2004 — five of which were in Seattle in June. The robber favors button-up shirts.
After being sought by the FBI for nearly two years, the man believed to be "Button-Up" was caught July 24 while riding in a taxi near Portland. He had apparently just robbed a bank in Gresham and had hopped in the taxi to make his escape, Burroughs said.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company