COLUMBUS, Ohio – FBI agent Harry Trombitas took bank robberies seriously, but not always the people who committed them.
As a lead agent handling violent crime in the 1990s, Trombitas grew frustrated trying to figure out how to draw attention to the enormous number of bank robberies in those days — more than a 100 a year in central Ohio, and five robberies in a single day on at least two occasions.
Trying to cut through the clutter of numerous news releases and catch people's attention, Trombitas began writing his official crime notices with a bit of flair.
"Three-Eyed Bandit Robs Huntington Bank" was his release from 2009 about a robber with a tattoo of an eyeball on his neck.
"'Church Lady' Strikes Again," said a 2010 release about a woman who witnesses described as dressing "like she just came from church."
"'Droopy-Drawers Bandit' Hits Reynoldsburg Credit Union," explained a 2011 release about a man wearing low-riding trousers.
Trombitas, 56, who lives outside Columbus, retires Monday as an FBI agent just ahead of the mandatory retirement age of 57. In a career spanning almost three decades, he chased car thieves in St. Louis, organized crime bosses in New York City and several notorious criminals in Ohio, including serial killer Thomas Dillon, who shot to death five outdoorsmen from 1989 to 1993.
"It just occurred to me that if we could take a look at what happened in the robbery or how the person looked, and come up with some kind of a nickname for that robber, that would give him his own identity," Trombitas said.
His FBI supervisors never saw a problem with his approach. Other officers around town were initially uncomfortable with the practice, but they eventually came around.
"After a while they saw the value of doing that, and then it got to the point where everybody expected a nickname," Trombitas said.
Other "best of" monikers from the files of Trombitas releases, which were always accompanied by bank surveillance photos: the "Grumpy Bandit" for a robber who grunted at a teller; the "Enviro-Friendly Robber," named for bringing a reusable grocery bag for the loot; "Mullet Man," because, well, say no more; and the 2011 suspect dubbed the "Dirty Bieber Bandit" because, as Trombitas noted, a witness described the man as looking just like Justin Bieber, "only dirty."
Almost all the cases were solved with arrests within a few days or weeks.
Seeing humor in crime isn't new. Just read a community police blotter or listen to drive-time radio hosts make fun of bungling burglars. Police officers themselves have an entire vocabulary, often unprintable, to describe the activities of suspects they pursue.
But public quips of the type Trombitas is famous for are more unusual, especially for the FBI with its stereotype of straight-laced government agents, criminologists say.
"Its value is it gets attention," said Tim Apolito, a criminal justice professor at the University of Dayton. The public will remember those details "compared to if they just give a physical description of somebody," he said.
Trombitas didn't always stop at water-cooler nicknames for the robbers. He wrote this of a female suspect dubbed the "Boo-Boo Bandit" for making the mistake — don't you hate it when this happens — of standing in front of an off-duty Columbus police officer in full uniform and handing the teller the note:
"The officer quickly responded and was able to put the 'habeas grabbus' on the 'Boo-Boo Bandit' as she tried to eat the note for a snack. The robber was arrested and coughed up the note onto the sidewalk. The note was carefully recovered."
Trombitas, married for 33 years to his wife, Barb, has two grown children and a grandchild on the way. He plans to teach and consult as he figures out what comes next.
"When people's lives are totally turned upside down, to be able to come in and at least bring some resolution, that we've identified the bad guy, we're holding him accountable, to me that's been one of the most rewarding things," Trombitas said. "It's just been an incredible ride."