Manager Defies Advice, Helps Hook 'Fishing Hat Bandit'
The manager of Real Financial Credit Union wasn't about to let the Fishing Hat Bandit slip off the hook a second time the elusive serial robber hit his credit union.
So Dean Wickstrom did what all the bank robbery instructors tell you not to do-he set off on foot after the thief, believed to be Minnesota's most prolific bank robber.
"I was just planning to observe him and see where he went. I wasn't trying to tackle him or anything," said Wickstrom, who added he wouldn't recommend his employees take the same course of action. But the 52-year-old credit union manager said he was confident the bandit was unarmed-the Fishing Hat Bandit was never known to use a gun-and he was angry at being robbed a second time by the same thief.
"When he ran out the door the same way I was confident it was the same guy that robbed us in September," he said.
Wickstrom's actions in chasing down the serial robber, which ended in a four-hour guns-dawn siege near the credit union, is being credited by law enforcement figures with the capture of the notorious bandit, responsible for as many as 24 robberies over the last 18 months. By the end of last week the suspect, a 56-year-old suburbanite named John Whitrock, had confessed to 19 of the robberies, almost all of them at credit unions.
"(Wickstrom) is a hero," said Edina Police Sgt. Scott Kuyper. "He made the decision to follow the bad guy out and put himself at risk and kept on watching him till police got there."
"His actions were critical, otherwise we would never have found him (the robber)," said Sgt. Kuyper.
Wickstrom said his curiosity was raised when the bandit, dressed in a large, hooded jacket and wearing a nylon stocking over his face, walked by his desk around 8:30 on Friday morning Jan. 10. What really caught his eye were the high-waders the suspicious-looking character was wearing, in most of the other robberies attributed to the Fishing Hat Bandit the thief was wearing the same waders-something that was not shared with the public, according to Wickstrom.
"I said, 'Oh, no,' and jumped up from my desk and ran over to the teller area," he said. "I almost ran into him-I may have even touched him-this guy with gloved hands picking up a wad of cash. Then he ran out. Just like he did before."
Then the credit union manager, angry from the bandit's last robbery, as well, decided to chase him. "He didn't see me. He didn't know I was behind him."
Wickstrom, who says he stays in shape by swimming laps several times a week, followed the thief outside the credit union, around the corner, and into an adjacent neighborhood where he saw the robber run into a residential garage. "All the time I was trying to keep my distance, so he couldn't see me," said Wickstrom. "As I rounded the corner of the building, that was my greatest apprehension-he could be waiting for me..."
"He went down to the first open garage door and pulled the door shut," explained Wickstrom. "As he did that he saw me speaking on my cell phone, dialing 911." Wickstrom noticed the car in the garage was the same maroon Chevy Lumina the bandit got away in after September's robbery.
Within minutes, the Edina Police Department arrived, and soon after, an FBI SWAT Team.
By then, FBI and TV helicopters were circling in the sky and a crowd had formed as police prepared a siege. Police shot tear gas into the garage through the garage doors. But the bandit wouldn't come out.
Then police broke a garage door window and reached in a camera on the end of a boom and observed that the car windows were all fogged up. "So they knew he was still in there," said Wickstrom.
Police then towed the car out of the garage and shattered all of the windows, then shot more tear gas into the car. But still no one came out of the besieged getaway car. So with rifles drawn, the SWAT Team pried open the trunk, where they found the so-called Fishing Hat Bandit cowering. Next to him they found the $4,700 just stolen from the credit union.
The getaway car had a passage carved out into the trunk where the bandit could readily hide out, according to Wickstrom.
Wickstrom said he knew what he did was dangerous and contradicts what all the robbery instructors tell credit union and bank employees, lest they increase the threat of violence. "I felt the most vulnerable when I was standing at the corner in the driveway, watching the closed garage door," he confided. "I'm thinking, 'there are several other open garage doors. Could he pop out one of those other doors or the one he's in?'"
The FBI was confident last week they had reeled in the Fishing Hat Bandit, so-called because of his choice of headgear during many of the robberies. "Based on the investigation to date evidence has been developed that allegedly ties Mr. Whitrock to multiple bank and credit union robberies in the Metropolitan area," said Paul McCabe, special agent for the FBI. "We are confident that the suspect known as the Fishing Hat Bandit is no longer a threat to the community."
Whitrock was charged with the single robbery at Real Financial Center, but more charges are expected later on, according to McCabe.
Beside Realtors CU, the bandit is believed to have robbed: Minnesota Building Trades FCU, Minnesota's CU, Highgrove Community FCU (twice), Retail Employees CU, Teacher FCU, Twin City Co-Op FCU, St. Paul Retail CU, Minnesota Building Trades FCU and City-County FCU (twice); with only two of his state-record 24 robberies of non-credit unions.