URBANA — A police sergeant patroling in Urbana is believed to have given authorities in four states the break they needed to solve more than a dozen bank robberies allegedly committed by an Urbana man.
On Jan. 2, Urbana police Sgt. Adam Chacon spotted a car that had been linked to a Dec. 20 bank robbery in Manteno and about 13 other bank robberies in three other states in the last month or so.
The man who got in the yellow 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier was identified as Willie B. Franklin, 37, of the 1400 block of West Beech Street. He was arrested on traffic-related charges Jan. 2, posted bond and was released.
On Wednesday morning, he was arrested in Florida on robbery charges for a Dec. 20 holdup in Manteno.
Manteno police Lt. Joel Whalen said FBI agents and U.S. marshals arrested Franklin in Tampa on a warrant issued last week by a Kankakee County judge charging him with the Dec. 20 robbery of the Homestar Bank and Financial Services in Manteno.
But Whalen said Franklin is a suspect in up to 14 bank robberies in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana.
Those cases are being reviewed by the U.S. attorney's office in Urbana for possible federal charges. Whalen said he's not sure how soon Franklin will be returned to Illinois.
It was Chacon's identification of the car that linked Franklin to the robberies.
Urbana police detective Dave Smysor said that in late December, Manteno police had put out a pretty specific description of the car, including that it had silver wheels, a sun roof and black side-view mirrors. While police had surveillance video from several of the banks, they had no idea who the man was in the photos.
The robber, who never used or implied a weapon, did nothing to obscure his face during the holdups, Whalen said.
As Chacon was on patrol on Jan. 2, he spotted a car matching the description and watched it awhile. When a man got in and drove away, Chacon stopped the car and identified the driver as Franklin. Franklin was driving on a suspended license; he was arrested for that as well as a traffic warrant from another county.
Urbana police Sgt. Dan Morgan said Franklin was taken into custody and questioned about the robberies. His name was relayed to other police agencies, but it wasn't until Jan. 3 — after Franklin had already been released from the Urbana jail — that Urbana police received a response that Franklin appeared to be the man in at least one bank's surveillance video and that a teller had picked him from a photo lineup.
Manteno police obtained their arrest warrant that same day.
Morgan said Franklin has not been linked to any Champaign County bank robberies that happened in 2012.
Whalen said Urbana police helped with court-ordered searches of Franklin's car and home, which turned up evidence that "tie him to some of the robberies." The car has been impounded in Urbana since Franklin's arrest Jan. 2.
Smysor, who questioned Franklin last week, said he's not sure what his possible motivation for the robberies could have been. Champaign County court records show his most serious convictions locally were both for possession of a stolen vehicle from 1995 and 1999. Franklin also has prior federal convictions for which he served prison time, the detective said.
"My personal opinion is he just likes having money in his pocket," said Smysor.