In 2001, two boys playing in the woods in Radnor, Pennsylvania, found a strange three-foot sealed PVC pipe hidden inside a concrete drain. Inside, they discovered documents relating to numerous bank robberies and instructions on how to clean a Baretta firearm.
The boys took their find to the police and when an officer returned with them to the woods, he found a three foot deep bunker filled with more PVC pipes and waterproof containers. The bunker was not just a hole in the ground. It had been carefully excavated and lined with bricks and concrete blocks. It contained books, maps, notes on 160 banks from Virginia to Connecticut, 5 guns, 500 rounds of ammunition and 8 Halloween masks.
The FBI were called. It didn’t take long before they realized who was behind this. For almost three decades, someone had been successfully robbing banks with a professionalism that had earned grudging respect from law enforcement. Nobody knew the raider's identity, but his heists had made him a legend. He was the most prolific, bank robber in U.S. history netting himself around $2 million, out-thieving John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde combined.
The modus operandi was nearly always the same. He worked alone. Armed, wearing baggy clothes and a tight-fitting mask - often Freddy Krueger, the robber would always strike on a Friday night about 10 minutes before closing. He would be referred to as the "Friday Night Bank Robber". His apparent superhuman athleticism was just as alarming as his gun and loud voice. From a standing position he would nimbly leap onto the counter, rifle the drawers, grab the cash – including the hidden stashes designed to limit robbery takes - and be out in under two minutes.
CCTV Footage of the Friday Night Bank Robber in action
The robberies typically took place between October and April when night fell early. The banks were all located near woods and forests. After the heist, the masked thief would run into the dark woods and vanish.
The raids were always meticulously planned and expertly carried out. Based on analysis of the crimes, law enforcement could estimate his age, height, and because of the way he deftly leapt over bank counters - determined he was also very fit and agile. They also surmised that he may have had a military background. But until the boys stumbled on the PVC pipe, the police had no real clues about his identity.
One of the discovered bunkers
In one of the bunkers, officers also found some martial arts training books and leaflets for martial arts schools. Finally, they had a lead. One of the flyers was for a karate school nearby. Agents contacted the owner and enquired if they had any students that were middle-aged and fit. There was one – a 55-year-old third-degree black belt named Carl Gugasian. The investigators knew they had found their man, and delved into his background.
Gugasian was often seen in the neighborhood running with a weighted backpack to build strength and endurance.
Carl Gugasian was born in Pennsylvania on October 12th, 1947, to Armenian parents Andranik and Sanassan. When he was 15, he was shot while trying to rob a candy store and was sent to a State Youth Facility for 18 months.
After finishing High School he studied for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and in 1971 enrolled in the army. While in the military, he received tactical weapons and special forces training. Afterwards, he returned to education and got a master’s degree in systems analysis, followed by doctoral work in statistics and probability.
Carl Gugasian yearbook photo, 1971
Gugasian was often seen in the neighborhood running with a weighted backpack to build strength and endurance. He was into yoga, meditation and health foods. He liked to travel - he visited Paris, Africa and Armenia. According to tax returns, he was a self-employed statistical consultant and professional gambler, which explained why he had half a million dollars in the bank.
At the time, a federal prosecutor named Linwood Wright Jr. said Gugasian may well be “the most prolific bank robber this nation has ever known.”
On February 7th, 2002, Gugasian was arrested at the Philadelphia Free Library. He had been a regular there for years, researching and photocopying topographical maps. Gugasian was stunned and originally remained tight lipped, but would later own up to his crimes. FBI agents credited Gugasian's two brothers, his 79-year-old mother and girlfriend with changing his mind. None of them had known about his secret life.
Gugasian robbed around 50 banks, stole $2 million, and shot two people – once by accident, once when startled (both survived). These crimes added up to a potential 115-year sentence. However, as he was so helpful to investigators and seemed genuinely contrite in court, he was sentenced to just 17 years. At the time, a federal prosecutor named Linwood Wright Jr. said Gugasian may well be “the most prolific bank robber this nation has ever known.”
Freddie Krueger Mask preferred by Gugasian
At his sentencing were three bank workers from among the scores he had terrorized. It was the first time he had faced a victim without wearing a mask and he did not relish the experience.
"Carl, the last time we met you were hiding behind a mask and pointing a gun at me" said Dawn Bressler, manager of a bank Gugasian had robbed in Delaware County. "How nice it is to meet you Freddie Krueger, today under these circumstances. I hope you enjoy the next 17 years in prison. I hope you have nightmares, just like I do"
Gugasian, wearing an olive green jumpsuit, stared at the floor. He had written a one-page letter apologizing for the robberies and traumatizing his victims and he choked with emotion as he read the letter out loud.
"I've always rationalized my conduct by believing that robbing banks had no victims" he said. "I don't think that now".
Part of the lesser 17 year sentence deal was that he would begin a new career as an "incarcerated consultant" to the FBI. He had since been interviewed on videotape for a training film on combating bank robbing techniques, for distribution by the bureau to police academies and law enforcement schools. He had already helped the FBI's profiler unit and led agents to 27 of his bunkers in Pennsylvania. In prison he taught calculus to other inmates.
Photo of Carl Gugasian prior to his arrest
When asked why he chose a career as a bank robber, Gugasian explained that when he was arrested and sent to a State Youth Facility for stealing from a candy store at the age of 15, he didn't know that his juvenile records would get expunged. He thought he’d never be able to get a real job and felt he had no option but to resort to a life of crime.
Gugasian told investigators that he perfected his methods after his first robbery in 1973. Using topographical maps, he would identify small-town banks that were near woods and a highway. He would wait for the months when it got dark early, then observe the banks and employees from the cover of the trees for several days to get an idea into their behavior.
He said that he chose Friday nights just before closing time as he thought this was when there would be fewer customers but more cash. The mask was worn tightly, so not even his skin color would show, and he wore baggy clothing to mask his physique. After a robbery, he’d run into the woods using a scent blocker to disguise his route and hide the evidence in a stash. Then he would jump on a dirt bike, ride through the trees to a van parked near the freeway, load the bike, and escape.
"I've never seen anything like this before in all my years with the FBI" said an agent who worked for the FBI profiler unit. "It's overwhelming. He is truly a master of his craft".
After serving 15 years Carl Gugasian was released early, on May 5th, 2017, at the age of 69, for good behavior.