Anatomy of Chaos

Anatomy of Chaos

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

According to the FBI, there were over 1600 bank robberies in 2022 involving over 2000 suspects, of whom about half have been identified. Of those identified 30% were narcotics users, and 39% were previously convicted of bank robbery. Many prosecutions are commenced in state court although bank robbery is a federal offense by virtue of the loss to the government due to its insurance of deposits, making a federal agency a victim.

Most bank robberies do not involve death, injury, or hostage-taking. Of the offenses categorized in the 2022 report, there were 12 times when a firearm was discharged, 3 times when explosives were involved (the report includes bank burglaries and thefts), 37 instances of assault (in which more than 1 victim might have been involved), and 6 hostage incidents. These acts of violence resulted in 1 death, 23 injuries, and 26 persons taken hostage. The average amount gained by robbers is under $5,000, compared to around $1,000 for gas stations and convenience stores.

Although the statistics show that few people are actually hurt in bank robberies, a recent bank robbery in Ft. Myers, FL illustrates the potential hazards and complexities of such incidents. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office responded to the report to discover that a man, later identified as 36-year-old previous offender Sterling Alavache, was armed with a knife and claiming to have a bomb was in the bank holding two hostages.

Imagine the decisions that supervisors on the scene had to make! If there was a bomb, what team and equipment needed to be staged? Is there an opportunity to evacuate some of the persons still in the bank? What is the layout of the bank? How can the building interior be secured to limit the suspect’s movements? Do we know if the person has confederates or lookouts who pose a threat to others? Is there audio or video surveillance that can be tapped into for real-time intelligence information? Is there an opportunity for negotiation with the hostage taker? Where can a special response (SWAT) team be deployed? How is traffic going to be blocked and diverted away from the scene? Are there bystanders gawkers or media in the area that are at risk? When and what can we release to a public anxious to know what is going on? Will we have services available to victims? How can we interview the witnesses and get them reunited with loved ones?

Fortunately, the Lee County Sheriff had resources that were fully deployed in response to the robbery. Sheriff Carmine Marceno described it as “all hands on deck. It was a chaotic scene.”. A SWAT team provided a trained sniper who took a position with the hostage taker in view. A trained negotiator engaged the suspect hoping for a peaceful surrender. A robotic “dog” was deployed to gather information along with drones and other electronic surveillance.

When Alavache became more aggressive with one of the two hostages while negotiations were attempted, he moved to put one hostage in a headlock and put a knife to her throat. At that point, the SWAT sniper fired one shot that killed the suspect. No other persons present were physically hurt.

“How you train is how you perform, and this is exactly what we trained for,” said the Sheriff.

A brother of the robber reported that Alavache was the father of three, an addict, and may have entered that bank expecting to die as his mental state was deteriorating. The brother apologized for the incident on behalf of the family, expressing regret that his brother alarmed the community. 

The investigation is ongoing, but it appears that the police response was a textbook operation. A blend of specialty operators, standardization of response, the use of technology, and the courage of responding officers resulted in success for the victims of this violent event.