“He said he had no intention of hurting anybody,” said Lahaina police Detective Jamie Becraft. “He was just trying to get the money.”
Becraft was among detectives who questioned 47-year-old James Thobe after he was arrested last Tuesday, a day after the latest robbery at 3:35 p.m. June 9 at the American Savings Bank branch on Papalaua Street.
During a preliminary hearing Monday in Lahaina District Court, Judge Rhonda
Loo ruled there was probable cause to support the eight felony charges against Thobe. He is charged with four counts each of first-degree robbery and second-degree theft.
The series of afternoon bank robberies began at the same American Savings Bank branch March 10. That robbery was followed by ones May 14 at Territorial Savings Bank and May 30 at Bank of Hawaii, both in Old Lahaina Center.
Lahaina police Detective Jayson Rego testified that police believed the same robber was involved because of similarities in the descriptions of the suspect, who was wearing a baseball hat, as well as because of what he did. In each of the robberies, a man went to a teller and produced a handwritten note with the phrase “you have 20 seconds” and displayed what the tellers believed was an explosive device, Rego said. In each case, the device was described as a small black box with red wires and electrical tape, Rego said.
After the second robbery, a bank employee reported seeing the suspect leave on a black-and-red moped, Rego said. In the minutes after the robbery last week, branch Manager Bonnie West called Rego after seeing the suspect get on a black-and-red moped and ride away. Police blocked off an area around the bank before Lahaina patrol Capt. Charles Hirata spotted the moped parked at the Lahaina Surf complex on Wainee Street, Rego said.
Worried that a bomb might be in the moped, Rego said he lifted the seat to search a storage area on the vehicle and an envelope with Thobe’s name fell out. Police conducted surveillance of the moped through the night and into the next morning, when Becraft stopped Thobe’s former girlfriend after she drove out of the complex.
Ngaire Ashford-Stephens, who has a child with Thobe, testified she met him at her Lahaina Surf apartment the afternoon of June 9, when he gave her $300 to pay for their child’s school tuition. The money was in $20 bills, which police later recovered from the school and determined had come from one of the robberies, Becraft said.
Ashford-Stephens also identified Thobe, who is known as “Schatzy” as the robber depicted in bank surveillance photos, Becraft said, and pointed out the Kaanapali Royal unit on Kekaa Drive where he was renting space.
After Thobe was seen on the lanai of the unit later in the day, police moved in to arrest him, Becraft said.
He said Thobe at first said he hadn’t robbed any banks. When Becraft told Thobe that police had tied the cash he gave his former girlfriend to a robbery, Thobe claimed the money was from work he had done in Wailuku.
Thobe was transported to the Lahaina Police Station, where he later gave police permission to search the apartment he was sharing with two or three others, Becraft said. He said he took Thobe back to the apartment and was talking with him on the lanai while other officers searched the residence.
When Becraft asked Thobe whether officers had to worry about a bomb, “he said he never had any intent to hurt anybody,” Becraft said. “I told him it was time to give it up.”
Thobe directed officers to the desk drawer where he kept a pager and showed how he attached wires to make it appear to be an explosive device, Becraft said. He said Thobe also took officers to a nearby Dumpster where he had discarded the clothes he wore in last week’s robbery.
Back at the police station, Thobe took responsibility for all four robberies, saying he was in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, which was taking nearly all of the money he earned by working, Becraft said.
“He had come on hard times,” Becraft said. “He had a lot of bills. He had child support payments. He had to keep a roof over his head.”
Thobe described how, in each robbery, he used the same modus operandi, Becraft said.
He said Thobe would go into the bank wearing a hat to hide his longer hair and hand a note to the teller. Then he would display the device, Becraft said. After getting the money, Thobe described changing his clothing and taking off his baseball hat to let his hair down as he left, Becraft said.
In each of the robberies, Rego said a teller or other employees picked out Thobe as the robber from a photo lineup.
Cedelyn Companero, a teller working at American Savings Bank during the first robbery, identified Thobe as the robber who entered the bank and asked to do a wire transfer. When she said she couldn’t do it because he didn’t have an account at the bank, he said it needed to be done today.
She testified he passed her a note saying, “Stay calm. You got 20 seconds. Fifties, twenties, hundreds. No one will get hurt.”
He displayed a 3-by-3-inch box with red wire and electrical tape, Companero said.
“I felt scared and trembling,” she said.
She said the robber took about $3,200 cash, put it in a manila envelope he had brought and took back the note before leaving.
During the preliminary hearing Monday, other tellers described similar actions by the robber, who left with $1,800, $690 and $866 in the three later robberies.
Questioned by Deputy Public Defender Adriel Menor, the tellers said they didn’t notice lights or vapors coming from the device. They also said the robber didn’t say it was a bomb.
But during the second American Savings Bank robbery, teller Gloria Galano said she saw the robber push a button on the device and heard it beep once. “I thought it’s a bomb,” she testified.
After she had given the robber some cash, she said, he looked at the money and said, “You don’t have any hundreds?” She said she opened her cash drawer again and gave him three $100 bills.
In the search of Thobe’s living quarters, Rego said police recovered $166 cash as well as clothing Thobe had used in some of the robberies.
While Menor requested that Thobe’s bail be reduced to $50,000, Deputy Prosecutor Jerrie Sheppard asked that bail continue at $500,000.
Loo kept Thobe’s bail at $500,000, ordering him to report for drug and alcohol testing if released and to stay away from the banks that were robbed.
Thobe is scheduled to be arraigned June 24 in 2nd Circuit Court.
• Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.