The Perfect Crime? Three years later, Cottonwood police, FBI stymied on $350,000 Cottonwood Bank of America burglary

Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell was in his first week on the job when the Cottonwood branch of the Bank of America was burglarized. About $350,000 was stolen in the heist. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell was in his first week on the job when the Cottonwood branch of the Bank of America was burglarized. About $350,000 was stolen in the heist. VVN/Vyto Starinskas


Police only have one photo of a suspect from the burglary, taken when the person left the bank at 4 a.m. in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt, walking toward Safeway. Courtesy photo Cottonwood PD

Cottonwood police describe it as the largest “bank burglary” in Arizona history.

The burglary of the local Bank of America has remained the perfect crime for the past three years, yielding no arrests.

The bank was burglarized – not robbed -- Sept. 27, 2016, with the thieves looting the bank of some $350,000.

Police still don’t know how many people were involved, or even it was a man or woman, but they now say the person had keys to the bank, according to Cottonwood Police Sgt. Monica Kuhlt.

That in itself narrows down the pool of suspects. But even with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the hundreds of man-hours invested in the case has yielded no arrests.

Kuhlt said investigators wrote numerous warrants throughout the process, searched residences and vehicles, did analysis reviews of bank records and still came up empty handed. Even a $40,000 reward issued by police hasn’t helped.

Kuhlt confirmed Thursday that Cottonwood detectives have had suspects.

“Some stood out more than others, but there certainly wasn’t enough to establish probable cause or evidence to support an arrest or charges from it,” she said.

The burglar or burglars who did this “have a working knowledge of the banking system in there in terms of how things work and where equipment was located,” she said.

The person had a key, knew how the cameras worked, and how they were positioned.

“It appears it would be an inside job,” she said.

Even fingerprint analyses from inside the bank have not helped investigators, she said.

Leads dried up a year ago

Kuhlt said the burglary is now a “cold case.”

“It’s still an active and ongoing investigation, but we have run out of leads and evidence,” she said.


Embry-Riddle University’s College of Security and Intelligence professor Steve Hooper will have a class study the 2016 Cottonwood Bank of American burglary. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

Cottonwood Police have been approached by the College of Security and Intelligence at Embry-Riddle University in Prescott to work on the burglary as part of a Capstone senior project. Graduates from Embry-Riddle go on to work at the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and other law enforcement, according to Embry-Riddle professor Steve Hooper.

Police believe there was more than one person involved because of the complexity of the crime, but there is no specific information to confirm that, she said.

Police only have one photo of a suspect from the burglary, taken when the person left the bank at 4 a.m. in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt, walking toward Safeway. Kuhlt pointed out that the person’s jacket looked padded, but police could not determine a sex, height or weight of the suspect from the photo, she said.

How it happened

Kuhlt has a personal investment in the case. She was the patrol sergeant working the graveyard shift who responded to the two bank alarms at the bank, one at around 1 a.m. and another at around 4 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2016.

“We respond, check the perimeter, walk around, nothing suspicious, no sign of forced entry,” Kuhlt said referring to the initial alarm that went off as the burglars entered the Bank of America.

Kuhlt said police responded to alarms at the bank in the past that did not result in anything. A representative from the bank was asked to respond, but did not respond, so police cleared the scene.

Kuhlt said the burglar had the knowledge to manipulate the cameras or knew where to stand so they were not videotaped during the break in.

Kuhlt said after alarm went off, the security firm for the bank accessed the Bank of America interior cameras with a live feed, looked around with remote cameras, and did not see the burglars; leading the officer to believe the cameras were manipulated again.

“There is such a thing as a perfect crime,” Kuhlt said.

The burglar had a intimate knowledge of the bank’s day-to-day operations and security, and it was someone who had access to a key, she said.

The keys of former employers at Bank of America were not always turned in, so that increased the size of the pool of suspects, she said. “We had a large pool of leads,” which included bank employees and others.

At about 4 a.m., a second alarm came to the police department, and Kuhlt said police responded to the bank again.

Once again, the building was secure and there was no sign of forced entry, Kuhlt said, adding that they searched from the outside looking in, as the bank keyholder did not respond to the agency’s calls.

“Nothing suspicious,” she said.

When bank employees arrived to work the next morning, they discovered the vault was open, drawers were open and about $350,000 was stolen.

“Everything worked in their favor,” Kuhlt said of the heist. “Obviously it was pretty detailed planning and I would be surprised if it only involved one person.”

Kuhlt said Cottonwood has an ordinance in place that requires a keyholder to respond to alarms at their businesses in the city or face a civil fine, but she does not know if Bank of America was fined in this case. Things may have turned out differently if a bank keyholder had responded that night, she said.

Initially after the burglary, Kuhlt said police received many tips, but those dwindled down.

Extra set of eyes

The local branch that was burglarized three years ago was closed last May and now only offers ATM services.

Kuhlt said as time goes on, cold cases become more difficult to solve, so when Embry-Riddle reached out to Cottonwood Police for a cold case to study for their Capstone senior project, police immediately suggested the bank burglary.

Kuhlt said a different set of eyes and a different perspective by the class will allow the evidence to be seen in a new light.

“I’ve got 15 ready and willing students to use the knowledge and experience they have developed and put it into a practical application,” said Hooper. “It’s about fresh eyes.”

Hooper praised Cottonwood Police for allowing the students to join in on the investigation. He called it a “groundbreaking” partnership.

No doubt, if the students solve this crime, they are assured of getting an “A” in the class.

“If they do what they are supposed to do, yes, they will get an ‘A’ in the class,” said Hooper.


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