By Brian Messenger
---- — It all started on a Thursday evening in February, when a masked gunman walked into TD Bank on Broadway in Methuen and showed his weapon to a female teller.
“He told her to empty the drawers out, including the drive-through drawer,” wrote Officer David Souther in a police report. “He also advised her not to trip the alarm or he would shoot.”
And so began a string of 13 robberies — six of them in Methuen and Lawrence — by a suspect the FBI has since dubbed the Merrimack Valley Bandit. In the last two weeks alone, police say the bandit has successfully held up seven banks and one convenience store.
The first robbery occurred Feb. 21. Three more followed in February and March: at TD Bank on Pleasant Valley Street and NESC Credit Union on Pleasant Street, both in Methuen; and at TD Bank on South Broadway in Lawrence.
On April 3 that same TD Bank in Lawrence was robbed again in what soon became the first of eight holdups so far this month in which the bandit is considered a suspect. Included in that stretch is five robberies committed over four days last week.
“Obviously there’s something that’s driving him,” said Paul Cavan, coordinator of the criminal justice program at Northern Essex Community College and a 26-year police veteran. “I don’t recall anybody even close to this number and this frequency.”
Police chiefs in Lawrence and Methuen agree — but also warn the bandit is getting more aggressive.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lawrence police Chief John Romero. “To be hitting as often as he’s hitting, you never see that.”
Romero said most bank robbers these days simply pass a note to tellers demanding money or suggesting they are armed. In all but one incident, the Merrimack Valley Bandit is believed to have brandished a small handgun.
“He’s just having some good luck,” said Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon. “The problem is he’s getting more and more brazen and more and more confrontational. That’s what leads to violence. We’d really like to apprehend him before something more serious occurs.”
‘He’s armed and dangerous’
Solomon said police believe the bandit may be shifting his focus westward, as the last three robberies were committed at banks in Westford, Chelmsford and Acton. But he also held up Route 110 Convenience on East Street in Methuen one week ago.
The FBI, which is heading up the investigation, will not disclose how much money the bandit has stolen. But they announced earlier this month they are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Digital billboards soliciting tips from the public have also been posted, including along Interstate 495 in Lawrence.
In each robbery, witnesses said the suspect was dressed similarly in a hooded sweatshirt with his face partially concealed.
The suspect has been described as a 150-pound man, 5 feet 6 inches or 5 feet 7 inches tall with manicured eyebrows. Solomon said several witnesses have also reported that the suspect may have an accent, though no specifics have been given.
Local police detectives formed a task force with the FBI in early April and at least 15 local departments are now working together. But Solomon noted the majority of FBI and public safety resources are now being directed to the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.
“All we know is the description we’ve put out there,” said Solomon. “We don’t have a profile from the FBI. ... With the situation in Boston I don’t see that happening soon.”
Solomon said a FBI profile typically would include a suspect’s age, ethnicity, occupation and personality traits. Other information, like what a suspect typically does after committing a robbery or whether they are drug addict, may also be provided, he said.
All such information can prove helpful as detectives work a case, Solomon said.
The FBI Bank Robbery Task Force met Monday in Lowell and Thursday in Littleton. On Monday, Solomon said officials reviewed “several different leads” and swapped information from their respective investigations.
“We’ve got some good leads that we’re following,” added Romero. “Just nothing we’ll make public at this time.”
Solomon said officials are reviewing surveillance video taken from areas surrounding banks — including from cameras at businesses and ATMs — in hopes of capturing footage of the suspect. They’ve had no such luck so far, he said.
“We’re going to continue to do it,” said Solomon. “There’s cameras everywhere.”
Solomon has urged the public to report suspicious activity outside banks and businesses.
“Do not approach the suspect,” said Solomon. “He’s armed and dangerous. We just ask that you call 911 and report it.”
Bandit strikes The Merrimack Valley is a suspect in 13 robberies. Details on the incidents are provided below (all times approximate). Area residents with tips should call the FBI at 617-742-5533, Lawrence Police at 978-794-5900, or Methuen Police at 978-983-8677. Feb. 21, TD Bank, 547 Broadway, Methuen, 6:30 p.m. March 1, TD Bank, 91 Pleasant Valley St., Methuen, 7:45 p.m. March 12, NESC Credit Union, 248 Pleasant St., Methuen, 10:30 a.m. March 28, TD Bank, 305 S. Broadway, Lawrence, 6 p.m. April 3, TD Bank, 305 S. Broadway, Lawrence, 4 p.m. April 8, TD Bank, 1255 Bridge St., Dracut, 5:30 p.m. April 9, TD Bank, 280 Main St., Groveland, 2:10 p.m. April 12, TD Bank, 2345 Main St., Tewksbury, 7:40 p.m. April 14, TD Bank, 1255 Bridge St., Dracut, 3:25 p.m. April 14, Route 110 Convenience, 196 East. St., Methuen, 9 p.m. April 15, Bank of America, 190 Littleton Road, Westford, 1:35 p.m. April 16, Eastern Bank, 291 Chelmsford St., Chelmsford, 2:10 p.m. April 17, Middlesex Bank, 577 Massachusetts Ave., Acton, 2:25 p.m.