Retired special agent shares FBI's role in investigating bank robberies

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - There have been three bank robberies in two days in East Tennessee and FBI agents are investigating.

A First Tennessee bank branch on Merchants Drive was robbed on Tuesday. The FBI says a man pulled out and fired a handgun, then demanded cash. No one was injured from the gunshot.

More: FBI releases photos of suspect in northwest Knoxville bank robbery

There were two banks in the area robbed on Monday. One was in Alcoa at BB&T Bank. The other was at the SunTrust on Andrew Johnson Highway. Agents say around the suspect handed a note to the teller at SunTrust Bank and after obtaining the cash, he ran off.

Related: FBI: Man in fake beard robs East Knox County bank

Retired FBI Special Agent John McMurtrie remembers one of his first assignments investigating bank robberies. In 1998, he was in Nashville looking into a violent case.

"It was the 10th bank robbery that they were pulling and they picked our bank that we were set up at that morning and at the end of the day, the one bank robber was dead and the other was in custody," said McMurtrie.

He says most bank robberies are done solo and fall on a spectrum, ranging from quiet notes passed to the teller all the way to aggressive take overs. McMurtrie says most investigations start inside the bank.

"I would key on the victim teller or tellers for that matter. So I would try and determine, 'Okay, who was the first person with this subject or subjects coming into the bank to rob the bank,' and then work from there," he said.

Investigators then typically work on what kind of witnesses were inside the bank, specifically what did they see.

"The old joke about, 'Why'd you rob the bank? Well that's where the money is,' it's true, but in this day and age with technology, facial identification software, I don't think it's a well thought out plan," added McMurtrie.

He says if caught suspects can face 10 years in prison but their background can determine sentences. 

"I think the average take on one is like $1,700s a number of years ago and that's not much money for, I mean it's just not worth the risk," he said.

While it is rare to witness a bank robbery, McMurtrie says there are things to keep in mind. 

"Anyone who's in there needs to make themselves as small as they possibly can, be a good witness if they can and it doesn't endanger them, but the last thing you want to do is wind up catching the attention of one or more of these bank robbers," said McMurtrie.

He says when a nearby bank is robbed, typically FBI agents will canvas other banks, asking managers if they've seen anyone suspicious, customers acting out of the ordinary or if odd things happened during the day such as cars driving through the parking lot repeatedly. McMurtrie says it's because suspects will surveil banks as a way to size them up and form a plan.

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