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METH USE FUELS RISE IN HEISTS EXPERT: BANKS ARE TARGETS OF ADDICTS AFTER QUICK CASH.

Byline: ERIC LEACH Staff Writer

SIMI VALLEY -- A 60 percent increase in Ventura County bank robberies this year and a rash of car burglaries in Thousand Oaks could have one common thread -- methamphetamine use.

There were at least 26 bank robberies in Ventura County this year, compared with 16 in both 2005 and 2004, according to FBI statistics. In Simi Valley, there was one bank robbery this year. There was none in 2005.

Capt. Ron Nelson, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, said the numbers might be low compared with some other communities, but the increase is of serious concern and points to a rise in meth use. There were 10 bank robberies in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, which include Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Camarillo.

Like other drugs, meth lowers inhibitions and leads addicts to commit robberies and burglaries to buy more drugs, Nelson said. A man recently arrested on suspicion of holding up banks in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo was addicted to meth.

The Ventura County Combined Agency Task Force, which includes the Sheriff's Department, has been awarded $350,000 to combat meth use as part of a $29 million grant to California counties from the state Office of Emergency Services.

In November, the task force discovered two illegal meth labs and seized more than 10 pounds of crystal meth in Oxnard. And two days after Christmas, sheriff's deputies found seven female inmates at the Ventura County Jail under the influence of meth. Deputies found two grams of meth that had been smuggled into the jail by one of the inmates.

As for the county's increasing car burglaries and thefts, sheriff's deputies who serve as the Thousand Oaks Police Department recorded more than 70 vehicle thefts during three weeks in December.

Investigators said items taken from cars included purses, wallets, laptop computers, briefcases and backpacks, and some of these cases evolved into forgery, use of stolen credit cards and identity theft.

While the number of bank robberies has increased in Ventura County, it has gone down in neighboring Los Angeles County, from 326 in 2004 to 259 in 2005 and to 204 as of mid-December this year.

In the seven-county area served by the FBI's L.A. office -- L.A., Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties -- there were 445 bank robberies in 2005 and 444 as of last week for 2006.

William Rehder, a retired FBI agent who specialized in bank robbery investigations and co-wrote the 2003 book ``Where the Money Is,'' said he was not completely familiar with the recent Ventura County cases, but noted that local spikes in heists can be caused by a few serial bandits, including drug users.

``These numbers can vary dramatically on how many serial bandits are operating in an area,'' said Rehder, who worked on the FBI's L.A. bank robbery squad for more than 30 years and coordinated the investigation of every bank robbery in the seven-county L.A. division for the past 18 years.

He estimated that about 85 percent of the one-robber, one-teller type robberies are done by hard-core addicts, not only drug addicts but even gambling addicts.

``Folks who are addicted are involved in the majority of these bank robberies,'' he said.

Although the numbers of bank robberies declined in Los Angeles this year, the region could still be called the bank robbery capital of the world. Since 1978, there have been more bank robberies in the seven-county Los Angeles jurisdiction than any other FBI jurisdiction in the United States, he said.

``We've got a population of about 17 million and a huge number of bank branches for targets,'' he said. ``There is a tremendous competition here among companies that try to make their banks as customer-friendly as they possibly can. They also make them bandit-friendly. We also have a hard-core population of narcotics addicts.''

The Simi Valley area has been relatively safe when it comes to bank robberies, which Simi Valley police Sgt. Dave Livingstone attributed in part to a close relationship between the police and bank managers.

``Some of the banks have security guards standing out front, which acts as a deterrent,'' he said. ``We work with the managers on crime-prevention efforts, particularly if we see an increase in bank robberies in the area.''

eric.leach@dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 31, 2006
Words:724
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