By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Mindful that the suspect behind a string of recent bank robberies in Methuen and Lawrence, dubbed the Merrimack Valley Bandit, could turn his attention to Greater Newburyport, local police departments have increased patrols of area banks and begun coordinating efforts to perhaps catch him in the act.
Since February, the Merrimack Valley Bandit is known to have robbed seven banks including the TD Bank North branch in Groveland earlier this week. In all but one of the robberies, the suspect brandished a weapon, demanding money from frightened tellers. Most of his robberies have occurred at TD Bank North branches.
In each of the robberies, the suspect was similarly dressed in a hooded sweatshirt with his face partially concealed. He is believed to be 18- to 24-years-old, between 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a stocky build and thin eyebrows. Law enforcement is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to his arrest.
In Georgetown, one town over from Groveland, police Chief Jim Mulligan said officers at the Central Street police station were watching the nearby TD Bank branch as well the town’s other banks very closely. Officers are given daily reminders of the suspect’s appearance and scraps of information are passed along.
“We are all on high alert,” Mulligan said.
Should the Merrimack Valley Bandit decide to target banks closer to the coast, Newburyport would prove to be a tempting target, as multiple banks are located on Storey Avenue near Interstate 95, making it easier for thieves to elude authorities. In recent years, the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank and the nearby Eastern Bank have been robbed. Closer to the downtown area, the TD Bank branch was robbed a little over two years ago. All three suspects in those robberies were caught by police.
Banks close to the highway is a fact not lost on City Marshal Thomas Howard, who said he and his detectives have taken notice.
“We’re certainly in the planning stages that he’s coming this way,” Howard said.
Another tempting target could be Seabrook, which features several banks on Route 1, again with easier access to Interstate 95. Last month, The Provident Bank branch on Provident Way was robbed and the Sovereign Bank branch on Route 1 has been targeted multiple times. The Provident Bank suspect remains on the loose with local police exploring the possibilities that he also robbed a Provident Bank branch in Hampton, N.H.
The robberies in those two banks were committed by a man wearing a sweatshirt with a hoodie. Police have not said whether they believe there is a connection to the Merrimack Valley Bandit robberies.
Thieves would have a harder time targeting banks in Salisbury and Amesbury, which feature branches close to their downtown areas, well away from interstates 495 and 95. Salisbury banks especially seem less likely to be robbed considering the town’s two banks are located in Salisbury Square, an area that would prove difficult to navigate at high speeds.
But those restrictions mean little to Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler, who said his department has to assume the worst and be ever vigilant.
“Possible? Absolutely. There’s two banks in town,” Fowler said.
Amesbury police Chief Mark Gagnon said he doesn’t expect his community to be hit but added it would be foolish not to be prepared. He also said the fact that the suspect has been pointing a firearm at tellers showed that he is capable of almost anything.
“Anyone with a bank is a potential target,” Gagnon said.
Eagle-Tribune reporter Mike LaBella contributed to this report.