It was just before 9 a.m. on April 8 when a masked man shot his way into a Wauchula State Bank branch in Bowling Green, Fla.
The bullet blew the door open and ricocheted into the ceiling without injuring anyone. After demanding cash, the man wanted a hostage. A female teller left the building with the man at gunpoint.
The robbery-still un-solved-is one of several hundred that will occur in Florida this year. Law enforcement statistics indicate that of 887 bank robberies last year, 514 were at gunpoint. Perpetrators got away with $2.7 million.
The number of robberies has more than doubled in a decade, and Florida regularly ranks second only to California, according to the American Bankers Association. Because increases in bank robberies usually accompany growth in population, Florida, as one of the fastest growing states, is particularly vulnerable.
Now, in an effort being led by NationsBank Corp., Florida bankers are launching a reward program to try to crack down on crime.
Charlotte, N.C.-based Na-tionsBank, which is fourth largest in Florida, has contributed $25,000 to start the fund and has asked for help from other large Florida banks. It is expecting to receive responses today.
The Florida Bankers Association will administer the program, which is designed to deter robberies and speed up investigations.
"We wanted to do something to express our concern about increases in the frequency and level of violence," said David Saulter, assistant vice president of protective services for NationsBank. The company's Florida branches have been robbed 53 times so far this year, he said.
Such crimes are on the rise nationally, not just in Florida. After declining consistently from 1991 through 1994, bank robberies in the United States jumped to 6,758 in 1995 and 7,562 in 1996.
Florida bankers are hoping that higher rewards for arrests will help deter more violent incidents while also helping solve the crimes faster. Rewards under the program start at $2,500 and can be $10,000 or higher.
The Florida Bankers Association had a program that often awarded only a few hundred dollars. It proved less than successful and was discontinued several years ago.
Community banking groups have offered reward programs in the past, but many faltered when the awards turned into little more than pools of money to be exploited by informants, bankers said.
The new program will be different, supporters said. Rewards won't be offered in all cases, but will focus on repeat or violent offenders. It will also pay out quicker-rewards will be given when charges are filed instead of upon a conviction, as is typical in many programs around the country.
Bill Clark, director of security for SunTrust Banks of Florida, said it may participate in the fund even though robberies at its branches have dropped in recent years. By focusing on prevention, including installation of bulletproof teller partitions, the company has seen robberies decline 33%. In 1996, SunTrust's Florida branches had about 40 incidents, Mr. Clark said.
"There still are more than we would like," he said. For that reason, he is generally supportive of the reward program. "It can help," he said.
Officials at Florida's largest bank, Barnett Banks Inc., said it would contribute to the plan.
"The robberies are getting more aggressive," said Jerri Franz, a spokeswoman. Recently a Barnett branch in Tampa was robbed and three bank employees were taken hostage, though they were released unharmed shortly afterward.
But $230 million-asset Wauchula State Bank, the site of the robbery and hostage-taking in April, is unenthusiastic. The bank's teller escaped unharmed before the still-unapprehended gunman could drive away.
Is a reward fund "going to deter anybody from robbing? Probably not," said Wauchula State president Robert Hanchey, who was chairman of a local reward program for years until it was scrapped."