Spring 2013

Forensic Topology

The bank burglar as urban planner

Geoff Manaugh

“Pressure” Maxwell (Edward G. Robinson) and Jug Martin (Broderick Crawford) get to work on a bank burglary in Larceny, Inc. (1942).

In the 1990s, Los Angeles held the dubious title of “bank robbery capital of the world.” At its height, the city’s bank crime rate hit the incredible frequency of one bank robbed every forty-five minutes of every working day. As FBI Special Agent Brenda Cotton—formerly based in Los Angeles but now stationed in New York City—joked at an event hosted by Columbia University’s school of architecture in April 2012, the agency even developed its own typology of banks in the region, most notably the “stop and rob”: a bank, located at the bottom of both an exit ramp and an on-ramp of one of Southern California’s many freeways, that could be robbed as quickly and as casually as you might pull off the highway for gas.

Los Angeles banks ripe for the plundering. Thanks to Greg Stimac for assistance with images.

In his 2003 memoir Where The Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World, co-authored with Gordon Dillow, retired Special Agent William J. Rehder briefly suggests that the design of a city itself leads to and even instigates certain crimes—in Los Angeles’s case, bank robberies. Rehder points out that this sprawling metropolis of freeways and its innumerable nondescript banks is, in a sense, a bank robber’s paradise. Crime, we could say, is just another way to use the city.

Tad Friend, writing a piece on car chases in Los Angeles for the New Yorker back in 2006, implied that the high-speed chase is, in effect, a proper and even more authentic use of the city’s many freeways than the, by comparison, embarrassingly impotent daily commute—that fleeing, illegally and often at lethal speeds, from the pursuing police while being broadcast live on local television is, well, it’s sort of what the city is for. After all, Friend writes, if you build “nine hundred miles of sinuous highway and twenty-one thousand miles of tangled surface streets” in one city alone, you’re going to find at least a few people who want to really put those streets to use. Indeed, Friend, like Rehder, seems to argue that a city gets the kinds of crime appropriate to its form—or, more actively, it gets the kinds of crime its fabric calls for.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to the high incidence of bank robbery in Los Angeles, not least of which is the fact that many banks, Rehder explains in his book, make the financial calculation of money stolen per year vs. annual salary of a full-time security guard—and they come out on the side of letting the money be stolen. The money, in economic terms, is not worth protecting.

Special Agent Cotton plays a minor role in Rehder’s account of bank crimes in Los Angeles, and through her I was able to meet Rehder to discuss his book, which offers an unexpected perspective on contemporary urbanism. Often overlooked or even deliberately dismissed by architects and urban planners, this view of the built environment is how FBI special agents, counterterrorism officials, and other local law enforcement officers see the city, how it looks to someone intent on preempting, solving, or otherwise detecting criminal activities.

In literature, of course, the detective is a well-known trope for a method of obsessively close attention to the details of the built environment—the detective story as applied urban hermeneutics—and this can be seen everywhere from Paul Auster and Alain Robbe-Grillet to whatever thriller is currently topping the airport bestseller list. But in the world of architecture and urban planning, it is altogether too rare that this particular, if fictionalized, point of view on how humans take advantage of the built environment as a spatial opportunity for crimes of various types is taken seriously as a critical perspective on urban form.

It is no less true that FBI special agents and other police officials tasked with solving burglaries also have their own version of this interpretive expertise—a body of spatial knowledge through which they hope to more thoroughly and accurately understand the city than do the criminals they are trying to track. They analyze a work of architecture, for instance, not for its aesthetics or history, but for its security flaws or ability to record evidence. This is spatial knowledge in at least one specific legal sense: burglary is an explicitly spatial crime, insofar as it requires the perpetrator to enter an architectural structure illegally, thus differentiating burglary from mere theft or robbery. Put another way, burglary requires architecture—with the effect that solving certain burglaries can often take on the feel of an architectural analysis. In this regard, Rehder’s memoir, though by no means theoretical, is a compelling example of what might happen if we were to ask an FBI agent what he or she thinks of the city, and how the design of the city itself might inspire—perhaps even require—certain crimes.

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, my wife and I met Rehder for a long lunch at the Santa Monica Airport, at a restaurant he had chosen. Rehder ordered an Arnold Palmer, called the waitress “darling,” and showed us through a small stack of files holding black-and-white photographs, personal notes he’d written to himself in preparation for our meeting, and some newspaper clippings related to major cases he’d worked on. In fact, one thing I’ve come to realize over the course of many meetings with retired FBI agents is that they often arrive with files in hand, as if unable to fully leave behind the archives and documentary evidence so central to the agency’s investigations. These files are encyclopedic, full of data and references for making narrative sense of the events they describe. Our table at the restaurant was laminated with aviation charts of the skies around Southern California, giving our whole conversation an oddly diagrammatic feel, as if we were not only getting an X-ray of the city from a retired FBI agent but also somehow peering into the skies to see the flight paths and holding patterns otherwise only known to pilots and air traffic controllers.

Rehder has stayed busy in his retirement, he explained, and now runs a consulting firm called the Security Management Resource Group, “a professional firm providing effective and cost-efficient prevention solutions to robbery, violence, and other crimes at financial institutions, stores, and other corporate facilities.” His partner is a former head of security at Bank of America. Rehder’s expertise in all things bank-crime-related also led to the surreal accolade of having been tapped to serve as an outside consultant on the 1991 film Point Break, a thriller starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and directed by a young Kathryn Bigelow, although he tends to laugh when telling that particular story. Rehder’s colleagues apparently ribbed him about the movie for years afterward.

One particular story from Rehder’s book came up again and again as we talked: the story of the still-unsolved crimes of the so-called Hole in the Ground Gang from Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Rehder admitted that he had hoped his book would inspire the perpetrators (he prefers the word “bandits”) to come out and publicly identify themselves, as their crime is now well beyond the statute of limitations. As he put it, these particular bandits could strut into LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, brandishing all the maps, photos, diagrams, and tools they used that day, and not be arrested for the crime. As Rehder jokes in the book, “all we could do is take them down to the Scotch & Sirloin and buy them a no-hard-feelings beer.” Alas, the Hole in the Ground Gang has not been so forthcoming, and the mystery of the Hollywood bank tunnels seems to be a case he is still itching to solve.

In June 1986, employees at a First Interstate Bank in Hollywood, at the corner of Sunset and Spaulding in a building that now houses a talent agency, began to report strange mechanical sounds coming from the ground near the vault. However, neither police nor the bank’s security team could find any evidence of wrongdoing or attempted entry—and none of the vault’s own internal sensors had been tripped. Later, when Rehder conducted interviews with bank employees as part of his investigation, he learned that the police had simply dismissed the sounds as “just a rat running around inside the walls or something,” and so nothing was done. Another week went by and the noises continued. The power occasionally went out, as did the phones. Then the bank’s internal Muzak system abruptly kicked in late one evening, startling a manager. Bank employees started “joking about the ‘poltergeist’ that [had] taken up residence at the First Interstate,” Rehder writes, as the security company still found no breach of the vault itself and, incredibly, a supernatural haunting of the bank’s electrical system appeared more likely than someone tunneling up from below.

The sounds were not, however, caused by ghosts but by a group of three or four men at least to some degree professionally trained, the FBI now believes, in tunneling: a close-knit and highly disciplined team, perhaps from the construction industry, perhaps even a disgruntled public works crew who decided to put their knowledge of the city’s underside to more lucrative work. After all, Rehder explained, their route into the bank was as much brute-force excavation as it was a retracing of the region’s buried waterways, accessing the neighborhood by way of the city’s complicated storm-sewer network, itself built along old creek beds that no longer appear on city maps. As LAPD lieutenant Doug Collisson, one of the men present on the day of the tunnel’s discovery, explained to the Los Angeles Times back in 1987, the crew behind the burglary “would have had to require some knowledge of soil composition and technical engineering. … The way the shaft itself was constructed, it was obviously well-researched and extremely sophisticated.” Rehder actually goes further, remarking that when Detective Dennis Pagenkopp “showed crime scene photos of the core bit holes” produced by the burglars’ boring upward into the vault “to guys who were in the concrete-coring business, they whistled with professional admiration.”

Rehder opened a file titled “Tunnel Job.” Inside were a handful of glossy color photographs that seemed to have been taken quickly, under less than ideal lighting conditions, and sometimes not even in focus. They showed bewildered FBI agents looking at a ransacked vault, the doors of its safe-deposit boxes torn asunder; standing next to them were members of the LAPD Burglary Auto Theft Division (BAD), described by Rehder in his book as “an elite unit of fifteen or so detectives who specialized in high-end break-ins and property theft: purloined payrolls, jewelry store burglaries, commercial safe-crackings, fine art thefts, high-profile heists of every description.”

The photographs also revealed how impressive the scale of the tunnel really was. With its tight corridors chipped through the sandy ground of subterranean LA—a geological reminder that this whole region was once part of the Pacific seabed—it looked more like the catacombs of Rome or Cappadocia than anything you might find in Southern California. The tunnel snaked down and around and finally ended at the featureless concrete pipe of the storm sewer. The burglars had actually driven Suzuki 4-wheelers through the tunnels beneath Los Angeles, using them to haul equipment in and then haul their booty out—more than $172,000 in cash and as much as $2.5 million worth of personal belongings ripped from safe-deposit boxes.

The story of the break-in is itself astonishing, but then something even more extraordinary happened. The burglars not only succeeded; they utterly disappeared—until, that is, more than a year later, when they struck again. This time, it was at the intersection of La Cienega and Pico, where they were attempting to burglarize two banks simultaneously. But this time, things did not go so smoothly. The group actually did make it into one of the vaults—but without the preliminary false alarms and the reported poltergeists of the First Interstate in Hollywood, their tripping of the alarm was taken seriously and they were interrupted right before they could make off with their haul. They escaped—narrowly—and remain uncaught to this day.

The stakes of this second robbery were huge; Rehder writes that “they could have gotten away with a face-value take of anywhere from $10 to $25 million. It could have been the biggest bank burglary in the history of the world.” What strikes me as particularly memorable about this latter attempt at burglary—in addition to the sheer hubris of tunneling simultaneously into two banks and even more than the possible monetary take—is the disoriented, almost psychedelic, reaction of Rehder, one of the first FBI agents to arrive on the scene. The presence of two simultaneous bank tunnels, the second of which was only discovered hours after the first, led to the uneasy feeling that there might be—in fact, there probably were—yet more tunnels to be found. Rehder and his colleagues “started getting these nagging mental images of a network of tunnels under every bank in West LA, of the ground beneath us laced like a prairie dog village with holes and chambers and secret passages, of waking up one morning and finding five or ten or a hundred bank vaults simultaneously breached and stripped, and legions of bankers and boxholders screaming for vengeance and immediate compensation. Every sewer line in West LA would have to be searched, every patch job inspected.”

The FBI’s unsettling discovery of a hidden topological dimension tucked away somehow inside the city is a stunning moment—the realization that, on a different plane, point A might illicitly be connected to point B, and that, in a sense, it is the burglar’s role to make this link real, to operationalize urban topology. The burglar, in this context, is a kind of three-dimensional actor amid the two-dimensional surfaces and objects of the city, finding ways out, through, between, and around what you and I would otherwise take at face value as walls, floors, ceilings, or even simply doors. The burglar—like the FBI agent who tracks him—is thus operating by way of a different spatial sense of how architecture should work, how one room could be connected to another, and how a building can, in a sense, be stented: engineering short circuits where mere civilians, altogether less aggressive users of the city, would never expect to find them.

This is perhaps the most extreme, and interesting, example of how ways of interpreting the city borrowed from the world of crime—both from those committing it and those preventing it—belong in the architectural curriculum. The insights offered by slicing through the complex topology of the built environment can be extraordinary, despite the fact that, or perhaps precisely because, acting upon these insights is illegal. They are, we might joke, crimes against space.

Gazing in awe at the surface of Los Angeles and realizing that this surface hides holes, tunnels, routes, knots, and other unlawful passages leading from one location to another brought Rehder to a kind of federal hollow earth theory in adversarial appreciation of what lies below. Policing the city, in that moment, becomes as much about preventing new spatial connections—new and illicit diagonals leading from one point to another—from emerging as it is about watching its surfaces for crimes yet to occur. As Rehder recalled, the investigation quickly descended into a giant game of Whac-A-Mole, with federal agents and local cops popping out of manholes throughout the area as they tried to figure out exactly where they were, lost in the underside of the city, the bandits themselves by then long gone.

Geoff Manaugh is a freelance writer and blogger based in New York who publishes widely on landscape, architecture, and technology. He is the author of The BLDGBLOG Book (Chronicle Books, 2009) and a forthcoming book on the relationship between burglary and the built environment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). He is director of Studio-X NYC, an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank run by the architecture department at Columbia University.

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