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Bank robberies were up last year. So we asked a bank robber why.

"I know it sounds trite, but I wanted to get caught." - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • "I know it sounds trite, but I wanted to get caught."
From eToys to Enron, American industry has seen better days. The economy was plenty spooked before terrorist-commanded planes and anthrax-spiked envelopes scared the collective bejesus out of a nation.

But one local enterprise showed a can-do spirit. In 2001, 106 Cuyahoga County banks were robbed, up from 88 the year before.

Explaining the upsurge is a struggle. "I don't know what the heck that's all about," says Special Agent Bob Hawk, the Cleveland FBI's spokesman.

So Scene put the question to expert Christopher della Volpe, who recently returned to Cleveland after some time away: He spent four years in prison for bank robbery.

Forget looking to Alan Greenspan for any wisdom, della Volpe says; bank robbers answer to no market forces. "I am not Jean Valjean, and neither are any of the cats I ever met," he says, referring to the Les Misérables peasant who stole loaves of bread to feed his starving nephews. "They're fucked up, they're lazy, they're mentally unstable. They're looking for a shortcut."

Hollywood has trained our imaginations to see bank robbers as rebellious lovers (Bonnie and Clyde), rugged dreamboats (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and meticulous existentialists (Heat). But to listen to della Volpe, 42, is to lose any notions of bank robbery as a glamorous profession. He says he's met but one true bank robber. A "bank robber," as opposed to someone who robs banks, weighs the reward with the risks. He's cautious but forceful. He knows the bank doesn't want anyone to get hurt. He uses a weapon and barks orders. He's a craftsman.

"Everybody else," della Volpe says, "was high."

Della Volpe was strung out on heroin when he went on his spree in the summer of 1997. Prior to his descent into addiction, he led a productive and challenging life. He grew up in Cleveland Heights and earned a psychology degree from Cleveland State. After college he worked as a substitute teacher and as an ad man before settling on a career he came to love: private investigation. It satisfied his natural curiosity. "I'm nosy," della Volpe says. "I like solving problems. I like knowing things."

His life crumbled in 1993, however, when his fiancée committed suicide.

Shattered, he thought about following her path. "I think it takes a lot of strength to kill yourself. I didn't have the balls to do that, so I made the conscious decision to become a heroin addict."

He fulfilled his wish. He lost work, homes, cars, and friends. He borrowed and stole money. He wound up in a shelter. "The only thoughts you have are, I'm sick or I'm well. It's like binary language. It's either ones or zeroes."

Then he struck on the idea of robbing a bank.

For a junkie, the crime makes perfect sense. "If I get away, I have the money," della Volpe says. "If I get caught, I won't have to worry. If I get killed, I won't have to worry."

Della Volpe's only weapon was the note he passed to tellers: "No dye packs or you die now." He hit banks on the east side of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, and South Euclid. At one of the capers, a security camera captured a clean look at his face. (His disguise was a hat and sunglasses.) The image -- "It looked like my graduation picture," he says -- ran in the news, and 20 women and one jealous husband called police to identify the suspect.

"I know it sounds trite, but I wanted to get caught," della Volpe says. "Imagine where your mind is when you consider going to prison no worries."

Cleveland federal probation officer Tom Shepard says most bank robbers are like della Volpe in that the heist is as much a cry for help as it is a get-rich-quick scheme. "It's often an act of frustration," he says.

There was no manhunt for della Volpe. After a brief stay in Detroit, he turned himself in to the FBI. A judge sentenced him to 57 months for three counts of bank robbery. He served 48.

Bank robbery is "kind of a foolish crime," Hawk says. Between eyewitnesses and security tape, investigators can piece together a physical description. Countertops yield fingerprints. Tellers remember voices. "It's almost like walking into an evidence-retrieval system," Hawk says.

Authorities have closed about 70 percent of last year's cases. Some would-be robbers make it easy on police by not escaping the crime scene. In June a security guard, against his employer's agreement with Charter One Bank, wrestled a man attempting to rob an East Side branch to the ground. In December a suspect exchanged gunfire with a KeyBank guard, who happened to teach marksmanship at a private police academy. The suspect, bleeding from the abdomen, collapsed outside the front door.

Apprehended robbers face tough federal sentences. Della Volpe was convicted of bank robbery by force or violence, even though his deadliest weapon was the pen he used. It isn't uncommon for first-time offenders to receive 10 or more years. "Robbing a bank is easy," della Volpe says. "Paying for it is not."

Even the ones who evade arrest don't sail to Bermuda. The average robbery pays about $4,000, Hawk says. For the three jobs he was convicted of, della Volpe made off with a total of $6,119.

Since his release, della Volpe has toiled at menial jobs and commission sales. He hopes to be a licensed counselor someday, but it's not easy finding meaningful work. Educated and intelligent, free of drugs and prison, he is still an ex-con. "I can't bitch about it," he says. "It doesn't mean that it doesn't bother me. It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. That's just the way it is, man."

More by David W. Martin

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