Arrest In Abduction-Robberies Is Made

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A suspect in the most recent credit union abduction-robbery has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of abduction, robbery and brandishing a deadly weapon. A multi-jurisdictional task force continues to seek a second suspect in the case.

The string of 10 abduction robberies in Columbus-which have targeted check-cashing outlets as well as several credit unions and one bank-share striking similarities to earlier cases in Toledo and Milwaukee: two masked, armed men burst into the home of an employee at the financial services provider, tie up the employee and family members and then take either just the employee or the whole family to the branch, forcing the employee to hand over whatever money is at the branch.

In most, if not all, of these cases, the employee has been female, and the perpetrators have clearly taken the time to learn the employees' habits, the layout of the home, etc.

It is unclear whether Erik K. Watkins, who has been indicted in the Western CU abduction robbery case, was also involved in 10 other similar crimes in the Columbus area, as well as one at Jeep Country FCU in Toledo, Ohio, and Educators FCU in Milwaukee, Wis., but neither Fred Alverson of the U.S. Attorney's Office nor Patrick Berarducci of the ATF ruled out that possibility.

"In an ongoing investigation, as this is, additional charges are frequently filed, either stemming from the same case or from other cases," Alverson told The Credit Union Journal. "One advantage that the FBI (or ATF) has, and one reason to go Federal instead of staying local is that it makes it easier to share information across jurisdictions. It's part of this investigation to look into similar crimes for potential connections."

The ATF has been the lead agency in the Western CU case because it has developed a task force with the Columbus Police Department to look into serial robberies, according to Berarducci.

"It became apparent to our local agents a couple of years ago that they were starting to notice a large number of business-related robberies in the Columbus area," he said. "They formed a task force to concentrate on serial robbers in that area."

One of the advantages of going with federal charges in such cases is that federal sentencing guidelines include a mandatory five-year sentence any time a firearm is used in the course of a crime, and a mandatory seven years for brandishing a firearm, both of which can be tacked on to whatever other sentence is handed down for the robbery itself. "The sentences can really start to add up," Berarducci commented. "It becomes a very effective tool. The task force has cleared more than 100 robberies in Columbus."

Because the investigation is ongoing, details about what lead investigators to Watkins are being kept close to the vest, but Alverson said, "It's just darn good investigative work by the credit union's security and the local police. The use of surveillance tapes and the victims' cooperation and ability to recall detail is very key in getting an indictment."

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