Over the years, FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas has learned that one of the most important questions to ask a witness to a crime is: What question didn't I ask?

Over the years, FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas has learned that one of the most important questions to ask a witness to a crime is: What question didn't I ask?

So in speaking with a bank teller following a robbery four years ago, Trombitas asked if there was anything else the victim could recall about the perpetrator.

"Yeah, she looked like she just came from church."

The Church Lady Bandit was born.

Trombitas, who has gifted other bank robbers with equally colorful monikers, was the guest speaker last week at a meeting of Block Watch captains from throughout the Northland area. A veteran of 27 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Trombitas talked about his career, bank robbery in general, other bank robbers he has nicknamed and in particular the Church Lady Bandit, who has pulled off eight stickups in Columbus since 2006, a majority in the Northland area.

The special agent began his remarks by praising the "fantastic working relationship" that exists among the various law enforcement agencies throughout central Ohio, and cautioned his audience not to put too much credence into the infighting and rivalries depicted on television and in the movies.

"I can assure you, the reality is we get along very well," Trombitas said.

He began his career as a police officer on the campus of Ohio State University, his alma mater and that of his and his wife's family for some generations back. From there Trombitas moved to the police force in Evanston, Ill., and then did a stint as chief of the campus police at Creighton University in Nebraska before joining the FBI.

His very first case, out of the Omaha field office, involved the serial murder of three young boys. In the nearly three decades since, Trombitas said, he's found himself involved in many big cases, including a major car theft ring in St. Louis, mob figure John Gotti in New York City and, closer to home, the I-270 Shootings in 2003, which ended in the arrest and conviction of paranoid schizophrenic Charles A. McCoy Jr.

Following the "big city time" FBI officials want for their agents in the field, Trombitas said that he and his wife of 31 years were allowed to choose their next location, and settled back in Columbus where he investigates violent crimes, such as bank robberies, kidnappings and extortion.

Contrary to popular opinion, bank robbery is neither very lucrative nor especially on the rise, according to Trombitas.

"When you rob a bank, you don't get much money," he said.

The average is between $1,000 and $2,000, according to Trombitas, and an average of 80 percent of robbers are apprehended. Those who used a gun in committing the crime face some serious time, he added.

Although the troubled economy might seem to lead more desperate people to such desperate actions as stickups, Trombitas said that central Ohio averaged 130 bank robberies a year back in the 1990s.

Last year saw a total of 42.

The agent said that most bank robbers are drug abusers who couldn't hold a job even in a good economy. In fact, Trombitas said, when captured after a bank heist and asked what they did with the money they got, many admit to having spent it in a crack house right after the crime.

"They don't even make it home," he said.

They also are committing crimes of violence, the FBI agent emphasized.

"The people who get robbed think they were going to die," Trombitas said. "This is not a victimless crime; these are real people getting robbed. This is someone's mom, someone's daughter, someone's son, someone's husband.

"We take bank robberies very seriously."

Although the nicknames he's given robbers over the years, including the Bad Breath Bandit and the Two-Hat Bandit (hoodie over a ball cap) might seem somewhat whimsical, the ones taken from some obvious physical characteristic help to differentiate them quickly, in the minds of the public and law enforcement officials, according to Trombitas.

"That's just an easy way for us to keep the robbers straight," he said.

The Church Lady Bandit, who falls into a distinct minority of the 7 percent of bank robbers who are women, was wearing a black hat and coat, as if she'd just attended services, the first time she struck in 2006. She held up one bank that year, three in 2008 and four so far in 2010, according to Trombitas.

No explanation has yet been found for the gaps.

The Church Lady Bandit is an African American woman in her 30s or 40s, 5 feet, 4 inches to 5 feet, 7 inches, and of medium to heavy build. She's worn a hat or baseball cap in seven of the eight holdups.

"We'll find her," Trombitas vowed. "We'll catch her."

He predicted that some day a police officer will be in the right place at the right time to catch the Church Lady in the act, or that, since she now spends time in the lobby pretending to speak on a cell phone before approaching a teller, an alarm will be sounded in time to arrest her as she prepares to leave.

"It's just a matter of time," Trombitas said.

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In advance of his appearance at last week's monthly Block Watch gathering, FBI Agent Harry Trombitas provided Northland Community Council president Dave Paul with an appeal to area residents for helping in capturing this particular criminal:

"It may have been obvious to the authorities even earlier, but it should now be obvious to almost anyone that this 'lady' is making a specialty of robbing banks in the Northland area, especially those along East Dublin Granville Road where 5 of the 8 robberies attributed to her have occurred," the special agent wrote in an e-mail Paul distributed.

"Though she has not actually displayed a weapon at any of these robberies, any time and any place a bank robbery occurs the public is in danger due to the potential for unexpected, even unintended, violence triggered by the actions of the robber, victims, bystanders or even police officers. Now that she has seemingly made the move from conventional bank locations to grocery store branches, and even the Ohio Union at OSU, this potential is even greater.

"It's time for all of us as neighbors here in Northland to start being on the lookout for this 'lady' and help put a stop to her escalating 'career' of robbing Northland area banks, before someone actually does get hurt."

Just before Trombitas took questions from the Block Watch captains and others who assembled at the Division of Police Strategic Response Bureau on Morse Road last week, Community Liaison Officer Scott Clinger arose to point out that the tips that broke some of the cases the FBI agent had discussed came from people just like those in the conference room.

It was a theme to which the meeting's featured speaker warmed.

"You have no idea how important you are to us," Trombitas said. "You are our eyes and ears. You know what's going on in your community better than anyone else."

Untold numbers of crimes have been solved, the special agent added, by calls to law enforcement agencies from ordinary citizens that began, "I don't know if this is important, but ..."

"We can't be everywhere at once," Trombitas told his audience. "You cannot count on just us to keep you safe. The reality is we need your help, we need your observations.

"We get tired of seeing these idiots out there who take advantage of people and don't get with the program."

In addition to the public's help, Trombitas said that law enforcement officials could use some assistance from potential victims of violent crimes, including and especially financial institutions.

He predicted that the "no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses policy" in place in banks along both the East and West Coasts will become the norm, rather than the exception. Such a policy targets 90 percent of bank robbers, who wear something to hide their features and who don't want anything, such as a refusal to comply with such a policy, to draw attention to them, Trombitas said.

"It's catching on all over the place," the FBI agent added. "I'm sure it's going to be coming to Ohio."

- Kevin Parks