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Harry Trombitas, FBI Agent Known For Funny Suspect Nicknames, Retires

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS 04/28/12 12:24 PM ET AP

Harry Trombitas
After almost 30 years as an FBI agent, Harry W. Trombitas retired on Monday, April 30.

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."

CHECK OUT PHOTOS OF UNCOMMON HEROES
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  • Granny Lulu Campbell

    A pair of armed were in for a surprise when they found themselves in a shoot-out with a 57-year-old grandmother. Police said that Lulu Campbell drove to her daughter's house and dropped off her grandson on April 21, 2012, when someone demanded money outside her car, threatening to shoot her. Campbell says the man fired at her, missing, and she surprised them by firing back, striking him in the chest. Her truck sustained eight bullet holes in the hood, one in the grill. Both front side windows were destroyed. A second man fled after she shot at him.

  • Pudding the Cat

    On February 8, 2012, just hours after bringing 21-pound cat Pudding home from the Humane Society, Amy Jung of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin had a diabetic seizure in her sleep. Pudding immediately sensed that Jung was in trouble, batting and biting at her face until she briefly regained consciousness. Pudding then darted into the bedroom of Jung's son, Ethan, and pounced on his bed until he awoke. Ethan called for help thanks to the hefty cat's fast thinking. Doctors agree that had it not been for Pudding's actions, Jung likely would not have survived the night.

  • Jeremy Wuitschick and Johnny Wood

    On April 9, 2012, seventh graders Jeremy Wuitschick (pictured) and Johnny Wood noticed something was clearly wrong with their bus driver. As the driver suffered a medical emergency and became unable to control the bus, The Milton, Wash. student grabbed the wheel and successfully drove the bus to safety. Meanwhile, Wood performed CPR on the unconscious driver.

  • Rita Lawlor

    7-year-old Rita Lawlor knew what she had to do when she found her mother unconscious: slap her with a piece of pizza. When that didn't work, young Rita kept her cool, called 911, and stood outside on the lawn until help arrived. Rita received an award from the Sarasota County (Fla.) Fire Department for her heroic action in January 2012.

  • Helen Collins

    On April 2, 2012, 81-year-old John Collins suffered a heart attack while flying his Cessna twin-engine plane over Wisconsin. His wife, Helen, 80, was in the passenger's seat. Helen had no pilot's license, and had only undergone basic take-off and landing training thirty years prior. But with fuel running low and the right engine out, Helen calmly landed the plane, with assistance from aviation officials. Tragically, John Collins passed away that day. Helen suffered a back injury and cracked rib, and has since gained national attention for her unbelievable poise and control.

  • Paxton Galvanek

    The next time someone tells you video games are a waste of time, tell them to talk to Paxton Galvanek. In November 2007, he witnessed an SUV roll off the highway and rushed to help. The North Carolina man not only pulled one passenger from the wreckage, but, when he found a second passenger bleeding profusely, Galvanek was able to control the bleeding using a towel. How did Galvanek know what to do in this situation? He says he got his first-aid know-how by playing the "medic" training level in <em>America's Army</em>, a video game released by the US Army as a recruitment tool.

  • Pinky the Dog

    When 9-year-old Richie Bragg was attacked in Aug. 2010 by a swarm of bees, his 18-year-old boxer puppy, Pinky, noticed her owner was in distress. Pinky leapt onto the scene to distract the bees from Richie, taking over 40 stings for the boy. While getting attacked by a swarm of bees is bad news for anyone, it turns out that Richie was in special need of protection: He not only is allergic to bees, but also has a condition preventing his blood from quickly clotting, meaning that Pinky's intervention could well have meant the difference between life and death. Pinky, coincidentally, was also allergic to bees, and suffered an anaphylactic reaction before reaching the vet. Fortunately, both boy and puppy completely recovered.

  • Harry Trombitas

    As an FBI agent, Harry Trombitas may not strike most people as an "unlikely" hero. What is unlikely, however, is the legend's tactical weapon of choice: comedy. By endowing wanted suspects with nicknames like the "Droopy-Drawers Bandit" or "Mullet Man," Trombitas not only entertained the public, but drew the public eye to important details that ultimately helped catch the crooks. Other memorable suspect nicknames include the "Enviro-Friendly Robber," who toted a reusable grocery bag to carry off stolen goods; and the "Dirty Bieber Bandit," who got his moniker after a witness described him as looking like Justin Bieber, "only dirty." Trombitas officially retired from the FBI on Monday, April 30, after almost 30 years with the agency.

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