2016 Cold Case: Urbana bank robberies

2016 Cold Case: Urbana bank robberies

The purpose of longtime C-U news reporter CAROL VOREL's new podcast series — “Cold Cases” — is to shed light on unsolved crimes.

Anyone with information about the 2016 robberies of First Mid-Illinois Bank in Urbana — three months apart and only a block from the Urbana Police Department headquarters — is urged to call Detective Betsy Alfonso in the department's investigations division at 217-384-2330 or the department's main number at 217-384-2320.

Those wishing to remain anonymous can contact Crime Stoppers by calling 217-373-8477 or going online to 373tips.com or via the free "P3 Tips" mobile app.

Do you have a Cold Case you’d like Vorel to chase? Email her at cvorel@news-gazette.media or call 217-351-5345.

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By CAROL VOREL

The panicked look on her manager's face gave it away, Tabytha Lawless said.

First Mid-Illinois Bank on Vine Street in Urbana was about to be robbed (above).

"She recognized him immediately, just by the fact he had a mask on," Lawless said.

Lawless (left) and her manager were the only two inside the bank around 11:30 a.m. July 16, 2016, when a man — covered in clothing from head to toe — entered with a gun in his hand, demanding access to the vault.

It was Lawless' first day working at the branch located a block south of Lincoln Square Village and the Urbana Police Department.

"I didn't know where the panic button was because it was my first day there," Lawless said. "I was scared, but I think the adrenaline took over."

Lawless said they did what the armed robber requested — just as they were trained. They took him to the vault.

"He had his bag and he was scooping the money as fast as he could and he left the building," Lawless said. "We ran and locked the doors and he couldn't get back in at that point."

Urbana police Detective Betsy Alfonso (above, outside the bank) said security-camera video showed the suspect lingering near a tree at the southeast corner of Oregon and Vine streets for about 10-15 minutes before the robbery, waiting for patrons to leave the bank.

"Lots of people may have seen him hanging around at that corner. It's a busy area with the farmer's market going on," Alfonso said. "If they remember seeing someone that just was sort of out of place, or just in general seeing someone at that stop, that would be important to note."

After the robbery, the suspect removed the facemask as he ran west from the bank through backyards.

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It was the second time in less than three months that a gunman had entered First Mid-Illinois Bank.

The first hold-up (right) took place at 2:47 p.m. Friday, April 29 — the weekend of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.

Alfonso said employees saw the suspect walking on the sidewalk on Vine near the bank at 11 a.m. and again at 2:30 p.m.

"He brandished his handgun and pointed it at employees right away and demanded they to take him to the vault," Alfonso said. "He leaves the bank and runs south and then west out of the area. When he did exit the bank, he took off his orange ski mask and put a camouflage baseball cap on when he was fleeing."

Dramatic security-camera video — linked above — shows the armed robber as he enters and leaves the bank with his gun drawn.

Just like the July incident.

"They were just very similar," Alfonso said. "We're pretty certain it's the same person, did the same thing both times."

The suspect's disguise has hindered police's efforts. He wore gloves, so no fingerprints were left behind either time. He also tried to disguise his voice.

This is what police know: he is a white male — age between 30 and 50 — with light-colored hair, thin-to-average build and shorter in height. He wore basically the same clothes each time: blue or dark long-sleeved shirt, black gloves and black sunglasses; and carried black shoulder bag.

Only his pants and the color of his mask were different.

In the first holdup, he wore an orange ski mask and blue jeans. In July, he arrived in a black mask and black or dark-blue athletic-type pants with a green stipe down both legs (above).

Alfonso wouldn't say how much money the robber got away with in either incident. Neither would bank officials.

Alfonso said police have pursued leads since the robberies, but they did not pan out.

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After each robbery, bank management made improvements in security.

"After the first robbery, we reviewed the position and coverage of our security cameras and made some enchancements there," said Elisha Walters, regional deposit manager for the bank's Decatur Region, which includes Champaign-Urbana, Mahomet and Bloomington. "After the second robbery, we closed the lobby for several months and did construction. Now it is a fully enclosed teller line; there's a wall and bulletproof glass. We felt like with the two robberies, we're in an area it's a higher risk. Tellers are completely blocked off from customer interaction physically."

Alfonso said no customers were in the bank either time and no one was hurt.

But "employees are victims of this crime. I don't think a lot of people realize that," she said. "It's a very scary incident, very traumatic for them, and it's not just the bank that's a victim."

Lawless volunteered to work at the Urbana branch due to short-staffing on that July morning two years ago. She was new to banking, having recently taken a part-time teller job at the branch in the Rural King store in Champaign.

She said the trauma of the robbery has not impacted her negatively, nor has it stopped her from pursuing a career in banking. She was recently promoted to assistant branch manager of the Rantoul location.

"I don't dwell on it anymore," she said. "Because if I do, it affects my job, it affects how I perform, it affects what might happen if another robbery were to happen. I don't want to perform poorly at that point due to something that has already happened."

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