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UPDATE | Search continues for Whidbey bank robber
FREELAND - The search continued Friday for the man who robbed the Chase Bank in Freeland late Thursday afternoon.
Det. Ed Wallace of the Island County Sheriff's Office said a man wearing a white dust mask walked into the Freeland bank at 5:45 p.m. Jan. 14 and demanded money.
Wallace said the man had his hands in his pockets and indicated he had a weapon, although none was displayed.
He said no customers were in the bank at the time, but declined to say how many bank employees were present. He also declined to comment on conversations during the robbery.
Wallace said tellers put an undisclosed amount of cash into a blue bag the robber carried, and he quickly fled on foot.
"The incident took less than two minutes," Wallace said Friday. "He seemed calm and in control. He went in with authority and did what he did."
Wallace said night had fallen so employees didn't see which direction the robber went after leaving the bank.
Wallace said four sheriff's units reached the scene within minutes, and four detectives were summoned shortly after.
Motorists traveling on Highway 525 in Freeland were forced to pull over several times as law-enforcement units responded at high speed from the north end.
"It was during a shift change," Wallace said. "If it had happened a half hour later, there would have been only two deputies."
Aided by Washington State Patrol troopers and Coupeville police officers, officials searched for the robber for about an hour but came up empty.
Police units were stationed at nearby intersections, and others cruised the area in search of the man. No tracking dogs took part.
"We don't have a dog," Wallace said.
The robber, who was photographed by the bank's security cameras, was described as a 6-foot to 6-foot-2 white male of medium build, wearing a blue hooded zip-up sweatshirt with a white T-shirt underneath.
He was carrying the blue bag and also wearing blue workout pants with a white/gray/white stripe, black shoes and latex gloves.
Although the robbery was similar to one in Coupeville about two weeks ago, Wallace said he doubted there was a connection, because of the sizes of the two men.
On Monday morning, Jan. 4, a man describe as about 5-foot-7, of slight build and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and black shoes robbed the Linds Coupeville Pharmacy and escaped with an undisclosed amount of pain-killing drugs.
That investigation continues.
Wallace said sheriff's detectives were to meet with FBI officials Friday to continue the bank investigation. He said updated surveillance video of the robbery would be released soon.
Wallace said it was uncertain whether the incident indicated an upswing in armed robbery for the area, but added: "I don't think there were any in the county last year, which means there's been a 200-percent increase in armed robbery in the first 14 days of this year."
By Friday morning, things were back to normal at the bank, at 1561 Main St. in Freeland, the South End's commercial hub.
Chase employees wouldn't comment about the incident as a matter of corporate policy, and manager Jesse Long directed inquiries to the head office.
At Chase headquarters in Chicago, public affairs officer Christine Holevas said she couldn't provide specifics on the robbery.
Holevas added that any employees who were disturbed by the crime could get help.
"We do have a program in place to provide on-site counseling to any employees who need it," she said. "An employee is always welcome to that service."
Across the PayLess parking lot at Whidbey Coffee, Freeland's Glenn Jolley was surprised to hear the news.
"I've lived on the island for 30 years and this is the first bank robbery I've heard of," he said.
"Those are good people in there, doing their job, and some yahoo comes in and does this. It's scary and a sad commentary on modern life," Jolley said.
Eleanora Handegard lives near the bank on Myrtle Avenue. She didn't hear about the robbery until later, when her son dropped by.
But she recalled seeing something suspicious outside the bank just before it was robbed. Handegard said she has a habit of watching the activity at the PayLess grocery at the end of the day from her window, when people are heading home from work and the parking lot clears out.
"I look out the window a lot because I'm old," she said with a laugh. "I love to look down at the grocery store."
The big parking lot was clearing out about 5:30 p.m., and Handegard noticed a suspicious vehicle that was parked in the gravel lot next to the bank, facing the drive-through lane.
"It was a big car and it was parked aiming its lights toward the bank toward the teller window, and it was aiming its lights in that window," she said.
"And it just sat there for the longest time. And I thought. 'How come that guy is just sitting in his car that long, with his lights aiming at the bank?'"
If the driver was waiting to pick someone up, Handegard said, she thought he would not be parked there for so long.
"He just sat there for the longest time. It was over a half hour while I sat and watched him," she said.
She said it was too dark to see what kind of vehicle it was, or the color, but said it was a larger vehicle, perhaps a van or a pickup truck with a cover on the back.
People contacted at the Bluewater office building, located just south of the bank, said the businesses there had closed by the time of the robbery and no one had seen the crime.
Meanwhile, breakfast customers and staff at the Freeland Cafe up Main Street from the bank were either unaware of the robbery or had just learned about it Friday morning.
"After the tire slashings last week, this is going a little too far," said Ursula Lodell as she poured coffee. A man acting belligerently at the cafe on Friday, Jan. 8, was later apprehended after flattening tires on six vehicles outside the cafe.
"It makes you wonder if the economy has anything to do with it," Lodell said.
"How exciting!" said customer Jean Goodfellow of Clinton after learning of the bank robbery.
"This is a dumb place to pull off a bank robbery, unless you have a boat to get away," she said.
"I'll bet he's still on the island," added Jack Negus, also of Clinton.
Wallace said Whidbey Island residents are fortunate to live in an area with a relatively low crime rate.
"But this can happen anywhere," Wallace added. "To think otherwise is not being realistic."
Anyone with information about the Coupeville and Freeland robberies is asked to call the ICOM dispatch center at 360-679-9567.
Record writers Jeff VanDerford, Brian Kelly and Patricia Duff contributed to this story.