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Robbery notes

Times Staff Writer

Eddie Dodson was one of those people who came to Los Angeles to re-create himself, again and again.

In the 1970s, he owned a trendy antique shop on Melrose Avenue, befriended aspiring actresses and celebrities alike. He frequented the hottest bars and restaurants, had a townhouse in tony Hancock Park, and drove a restored 1965 black Lincoln. Dodson also had a serious and growing drug problem.

By summer 1983, he was broke, his business was failing, and he had mounting debts. By fall 1983, he was driving the FBI nuts.

He had turned to bank robbery, holding up tellers in West L.A., Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley with a polite smile and a fake gun. He was smooth, unflappable. On his best day, in November 1983, Dodson pulled off six robberies in four hours, collecting more than $13,000.

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The FBI’s bank robbery squad in Los Angeles, led by agent William J. Rehder, played cat-and-mouse in searching out Dodson. The agents, with the Los Angeles Police Department, set up stakeouts at various bank branches around town, but he always eluded them.

Finally, his luck ran out. In 1984, a bank employee followed him after a robbery and alerted police. Seven months, 64 banks, more than $280,000.

Rehder was intrigued. Who was this guy? How had he eluded capture for so long?

“I just love the back stories of these guys,” Rehder said recently. “I got hooked ... right away.”

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It was this curiosity that led Rehder, with co-author Gordon Dillow, to write the just-released “Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World,” (W.W. Norton & Company). Dodson’s story is the centerpiece of the book about the famous, the infamous and the unknown bank robbers of Los Angeles.

The book also focuses on four other subjects, though none as prolific as Dodson: the gang leader who hired his underlings for a portion of the proceeds; the tunnelers who dug their way to a Hollywood bank vault; the bank manager who helped her boyfriend, a Los Angeles police officer, steal more than $700,000; and the two heavily armed robbers who made national news when they held up a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood and then engaged police in a gun battle in which the robbers were killed.

But it was Dodson that really captured the attention of Rehder and Dillow.

He was known to the FBI as a one-on-one bandit, someone who robs a teller usually without anyone else in the bank knowing. He was polite and apologetic.

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“As a teller handed over the cash,” Rehder and Dillow wrote, “he would often say things like, ‘I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to,’ or ‘I’m sorry to have to do this.’ He was always clean and nicely dressed. As bank robbers go, he was a pretty nice guy.”

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Shortly after his release, he began using drugs again -- and robbing banks. But he looked in such poor condition that when Rehder saw the surveillance photos from a Beverly Hills robbery in January 1999, he had no idea it was Dodson. The robber had gone from being dubbed the Yankee Bandit, for the baseball cap he wore in his initial string of robberies, to being called the Down-and-Outer.

A tipster led the FBI to track him down at the Farmer’s Daughter Motel on Fairfax Avenue. In poor health, Dodson was sentenced this time to 48 months in prison; he served a little more than three years.

Rehder sent a $25 money order to the imprisoned bank robber whom he had hunted for so long. A call came from the Federal Correction Facility in Victorville. Dodson, the most prolific bank robber in modern American history, was willing to talk.

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Over the next six weeks, Rehder paid for the phone calls as the two swapped stories. In a letter Dodson wrote to Rehder, his humanity comes through as well. “I must tell you that I never perceived myself as a career criminal,” he wrote. “I accept responsibility, of course; there’s mortification and shame still in my game. I lost so much, so quickly. And here I am. However, I have less than two years remaining to serve and plenty to look forward to. I stay as positive and clear as I can, and I trudge on....”

Despite all the feature films, television movies and cop dramas about bank robberies, Rehder says nothing can top the true stories. “The far more interesting story is always the real thing,” he said.

Dillow, 52, agrees. “I only wish some of these guys were still alive so we could know more about them.”

Rehder and Dillow, a columnist for the Orange County Register, met during the Dodson case. For the book, they interviewed FBI agents, L.A. police officers and prosecutors. They read court files, transcripts and newspaper articles. When he talks about his cases, Rehder, 61, has every detail at his fingertips, as if the robberies had just occurred.

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While Rehder is undeniably proud to have caught many bank robbers in his day -- he participated in some 250 felony arrests -- he says the thrill was putting together the cases, hoping a thief would make a return trip to a branch and matching descriptions to bank jobs.

He worked bank robberies during their peak in Los Angeles -- in his 33 years with the FBI, he spent all but two in the bank robbery squad, which he headed for 18 years until his retirement in 1999. The FBI handled some 2,640 bank robberies in the Southern California region that covers five counties in 1992 -- about 10 a day. Those numbers have declined; the average is now closer to about 700 a year. It was in those earlier years that Los Angeles became known as the bank robbery capital of the world, a dubious title the city still holds.

Why Los Angeles? Rehder says first and foremost the city has a huge number of bank branches, about 3,700. The “fantastic freeway system” helps robbers get far from the scene quickly, and the rise in narcotics use and sales are factors. He also attributes the rise of street gangs to the problem.

Rehder became known for his witty and catchy nicknames for the bank robbers he pursued. Besides the Yankee Bandit and the Down-and-Outer for Dodson, there was Miss Piggy for the short, 300-pound female robber; the Benihana Bandit for the one who waved a butcher knife and shouted; the team that dressed like a biker, a cop and a construction worker was known as the Village People. He says he loved nothing more than matching their monikers to their true identities.

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In the book, he describes the motivations and methods of the criminals. He discusses the robberies by the gang leader who hired his armed minions to hold up banks. Those tended to be more violent, Rehder said, in large part because the junior gang members sometimes robbed customers -- those profits they could keep.

Another group, never captured, consisted of tunnelers who made their way through the sewer system to come up inside the vault of the First Interstate Bank in Hollywood. Net take: $172,000 in cash and the goods from several safety deposit boxes. In 1972, a similar group tunneled its way into a Laguna Niguel bank where it drilled out more than 450 safety deposit boxes with losses ranging from $2 million to $8 million in cash, bonds, gold and jewelry.

The inside jobs

Rehder also describes the robberies that are set up by bank insiders. Errolyn Ramirez, for example, was a Bank of America manager who was having an affair with David Mack, an LAPD officer. She arranged for a Brinks shipment the day Mack robbed the bank branch; she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Mack was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison and was ordered to pay Bank of America $722 per month for 1,000 months, when he is released.

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Finally, Rehder discusses the North Hollywood shootout in which two loners, who were taken with the violent bank heist film “Heat,” robbed a Bank of America and then fired at officers who responded quickly to the area. Rehder said they had committed previous robberies, killing an armored car driver in the San Fernando Valley.

They made a critical mistake in North Hollywood, he said, by taking too long inside the bank.

Still, they were prepared for a gunfight. He said that when he saw their bodies in the coroner’s office, one was wearing 42 pounds of body armor.

Of all the cases, Rehder said he understands Eddie Dodson the best.

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During their phone calls, Rehder invited him on a speaking tour upon his release. That was not to pass. After the book was sent to the publisher, Dodson was released from prison in ill health. He died a short time later.

The FBI agent gave a eulogy for the bank robber.

“This was really a guy who was a tragic figure in many ways,” Rehder said.

“Let’s face it: Everyone is worthy of redemption.”

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