By ROBERT RECTOR
I was watching the local television news the other night, the usual rehash of murder and mayem delivered with a solemnity usually reserved for the reading of scripture, when up popped a photo of a man in a surgical mask.
But this was no doctor. In fact, this guy was sticking up a bank. The anchor person, in his best basso profundo, announced that the cops are looking for this suspect and that anyone who knew the whereabouts of the "Surgical Mask Bandit" should notify them.
As if he walked up and down the street day in and out wearing a surgical mask.
But I digress. The real question is: When and where did it become fashionable for cops to attach a clever nickname to every idiot who poked a gun in a teller's face?
It certainly isn't new. Among those in the bank robber hall of fame from the 1920s and 30s are Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and, of course, Willy the Actor Sutton who when asked why he robbed banks replied, "Because that's where the money is."
Of course, most of those names were attached by fanciful headline writers. After all, Pretty Boy isn't much of a description to go on.
So did the police put nicknames on the bad guys because it's easier to remember than case numbers? Or is it because the media gobbles it up and, who knows, maybe someone will recognize the perp in a surveillence camera shot?
Whatever, the idea of the citizenry out hunting bank robbers based on their nicknames is truly frightening.
Afer all, just recently, we have had the Dreadlock Bandit, the Fanny Pack Bandit, the Baseball Cap Bandit, the Cell Phone Bandit, the Big Nose Bandit, the Old Man Bandit (not to be confused with the Senior Citizen Bandit), the Homer Simpson Bandit, the Buddy Holly Bandit and the Uncle Fester Bandit.
There was even a Soccer Mom Bandit.
Hunting down people who fit those descriptions could land 25% of the population in jail.
Some research found one person who is at least partially responsible for the nicknaming phenomenon, or at least one who will admit to it.
William Rehder spent three decades chasing bank robbers for the FBI, almost all of it in Los Angeles. "In time I became known, if you'll pardon the professional immodesty, as America's foremost authority on the bank robbery genre." he writes in his book, "Where the Money Is."
"Nicknaming bank robbers...was part of my job. As the FBI's L.A. Bank Squad coordinator, I had to track serial bank bandits, to analyze their methods of operation... to get inside their heads and try to predict when and where they would strike next. Since at any given moment there might be thirty or forty unidentified serial bank robbers pulling jobs in L.A...I always gave them nicknames to keep them straight in my head, names based on some memorable aspect of their appearance."
That answers the why. What about the how?
"The guy who always disguised himself by wrapping surgical gauze around his head? I called him the Mummy Bandit, Rehder writes.... "Two professional armed bank robbers who wore wigs and glasses and fake mustaches were the "Marx Brothers." When we caught them, we found out they actually were brothers...The guy who wore a skeleton mask was Dr. Death...And so on.
"Miss Piggy was short and weighed about 300 pounds; Large Marge was tall and weighed about 300 pounds. The Miss America Bandit was an exceptionally attractive...she also turned out to be a former bank teller.
"A guy who yelled and waved a butcher knife during his robberies was the Benihana Bandit, like the Japanese restaurant, while the three-man takeover robbery team who dressed up like a biker, a cop, and a hard-hat construction worker naturally were immortalized as the Village People.
"The Chevy Chase Bandit was a clumsy robber who tripped over a doormat and fell face-down in the bank lobby-he turned out to be an attorney who needed some quick dough..."
That explains much of the nickname mystery.
The only remaining question: Since Los Angeles is the slam-dunk bank robbery capital of the world, how come Rehder didn't run out of names?