Johannesburg – For two-and-a-half years the Incognito Bandit kept one step ahead of the law as he single-handedly robbed US bank after US bank, his face hidden by a disguise.
Now the FBI say they have their man, a Zimbabwean by the name of Albert Taderera who they nabbed as he was about to board a flight to South Africa.
But friends of the 36-year-old Zimbabwean believe the Feds have the wrong man; that the church-going engineer who loves rugby is the victim of mistaken identify.
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Taderera is currently in a Boston jail and his family, according to a friend, have travelled to the US to try to get him released.
There is even a GoFundme campaign set up to raise money for him online, so he can return to Zimbabwe.
“This would be extremely out of character for him,” says a childhood friend who didn’t want to be named.
The serial robber that Taderera is accused of being hit at least 16 banks in the greater Boston area between February 2015 and March 2017.
The FBI were so desperate to catch him that in early March they upped the reward money for his capture from $10 000 to $20 000.
The bank robber was dubbed the Incognito Bandit because of the disguise he wore during his crimes, which included a dark, hooded sweatshirt with gloves and a dark mask and sunglasses that covered his face.
The bandit’s modus operandi was to approach the tellers and demand money, this while armed with a black semi-automatic handgun.
“All of the robberies occurred in suburban settings where banks were free-standing and featured adjacent wooded areas or foliage. In many of the robberies, witnesses observed the robber leaving the bank following the robbery and entering the wooded areas,” a statement from the FBI reads.
The robber was also seen leaving in a black BMW, and it was this, according to the FBI, that gave them the breakthrough they so desperately needed.
According to an affidavit filed by an FBI special agent who was part of a task team formed to apprehend the Incognito Bandit, police in the area where they suspected the robber would next strike were tasked to look out for a black BMW sedan.
On March 16, police spotted a vehicle matching the description of the getaway car in Concord, Massachusetts. The driver also fitted the physical profile of the Incognito Bandit. Police stopped the vehicle and found Taderera driving the car.
It was discovered that the registration on the BMW had been revoked and police had the car towed and impounded.
Taderera was allowed to go.
Then on March 23, the FBI discovered that Taderera had booked a flight scheduled to leave the following day, from Dulles International Airport to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Later, according to an FBI statement, Taderera rebooked his flight to Johannesburg.
Taderera was arrested at the airport.
“I think that this is all a bit far-fetched, this is someone who travels regularly,” says Taderera’s childhood friend. “I think they (the FBI) rushed this because they thought that he was about to leave.”
In December, Taderera had apparently visited Zimbabwe and South Africa. According to the friend, Taderera is a technical engineer who had travelled to the US on a student visa. He loved rugby and had travelled in March, just before his arrest, with friends to Las Vegas to watch the Rugby 7s.
The trip to Addis Adaba could also be explained, according to the friend. Zimbabwean expats in the US, he says, often fly Ethiopian Airways to Addis Adaba, before catching a flight to South Africa. It is not a ruse that was designed to throw off the FBI, but a cheap flight, says the friend.
Others on Facebook have also said they believe Taderera is innocent.
Last year, Taderera was detained by US immigration officials and his then fiancée set up an online petition to get him released.
“Albert is a man of great character, doting, loving, and nurturing,” the petition reads.
Taderera was later released.
Unisa criminologist Dr Hennie Lochner has studied bank and cash-in-transit robbers in South Africa. He has found that bank robbers usually evolve, moving from petty to more violent crimes. It doesn’t fit Taderera’s profile, says the friend.
But ultimately it might be a piece of technology that could prove if Taderera is innocent or guilty of robbing banks in Boston. In the black BMW the FBI discovered a built-in GPS. A search warrant was issued and the device is currently being forensically analysed.
The GPS could be the smoking gun that might place the BMW at the scene of those 16 robberies.
If Taderera is the Incognito Bandit, Lochner believes he might have cut his teeth closer to home.
“If I was the SAPS, I would look closely at this person’s profile,” he says.