A HOODED raider wearing gloves, a face mask and dark glasses was allowed to rob a bank because the manager was worried about offending him in case he had a skin condition.
Simon Jones, 38, queued behind other customers in Bishop Auckland for 15 minutes wearing blue latex gloves, a hooded top pulled up, a face mask and dark glasses. He was also carrying a bottle of Febreze and a hold-all.
Not surprisingly customers and some of the staff strongly suspected he was up to no good and another person in the line was so concerned he took a photograph of Jones.
However, Durham crown Court heard that manager Gemma Hughes only asked whether she could help him as he stood in line and was worried about causing offence in case his strange attire was needed for a skin condition.
Jones was able to continue waiting until he reached the front of the line where he handed over a note to cashier Victoria Smith telling her he had acid and a bomb.
Terrified Miss Smith bundled £370 into Jones’ hold-all and he was able to escape.
Despite being petrified she had the presence of mind to hand over a decoy £1,000 bundle which contained a Nat West-approved tracking device.
But the bank’s humiliation was complete when the device failed to work and if it had not been for members of the public reporting Jones’ car he may never have been caught.
Prosecutor Jane Waugh told the court that Jones had researched how to rob a bank online and took his girlfriend’s red Ford Fiesta when she went to walk her dog on May 17 this year.
He drove to the Nat West but instead of bursting in and going to the desk he chose to stand in line.
Miss Waugh said: “Suspicions were aroused because of the appearance of the defendant and the fact he was rather obviously trying to avoid the security cameras.
“One customer said he “didn’t look quite right” and the police were called because of their suspicions.
“The manager approached the defendant as he waited in the queue and asked if she could help him. He replied no.”
Judge Christopher Prince questioned Miss Waugh about the manager’s actions.
He asked: “So it was a hot day, he was wearing a coat with the hood up, carrying a big bottle of Febreze, wearing sunglasses, a face mask, blue plastic gloves and yet he was just observed as he made his way to the front of the queue where Victoria Smith was left to be threatened by a man who said he had a bomb and acid?”
After taking advice, Miss Waugh explained: “The manager was concerned he might have had a skin condition because he waited patiently in the queue.
“She went to speak to him to find out if everything was alright.
“She tread a careful line between upsetting someone who might have had to wear such things to protect their skin or have a nasty motive for wearing such a disguise.”
Jones, from West Auckland, County Durham, admitted robbery and taking his girlfriend’s car without consent.
He was jailed for 40 months by Judge Prince who described the robbery as planned but unsophisticated.
The judge said that he did not want to criticise anyone in the bank for their actions that day.
But he added: “Whilst it might be understandable not to want to offend someone with a skin condition, such were the circumstances here it is perhaps only due to time constraints on staff in the bank that a lot more was not done to spare Victoria Smith from the situation that arose.
“She was left to face him one to one over the counter and was left in fear as to what might happen.”
The court heard that Victoria had spent months off work and was only now in the process of returning to duty.
In a statement she said she relived the moment she faced Jones in nightmares which kept her awake.
She said: “I felt like I was in a parallel universe where this was not happening to me. There were children in the bank in pushchairs, other staff and numerous customers. We all could have been hurt by the actions of this person.”
Gemma Hughes also made a statement after the robbery, saying: “My staff were terrified. I feel nervous for the staff and nervous opening up the branch tomorrow.”
Christoper Baker, for Jones, said he’d suffered a brain injury three years ago which had caused him “cognitive difficulties” and the Febreze bottle had actually contained Febreze and not acid as he’d said.
Jones, he said, had addictions to gambling and alcohol but had written letters for the staff to say that he was “genuinely sorry” for what he had done.
PC Andy Denham, from South Durham CID, said afterwards: “This was a planned and thought-out offence which terrified the bank staff and customers and has had a long-term effect on those who witnessed it.
“Fortunately, due to the vigilance of the local community who were in and around the bank that day, along with the help of the community in Coundon, the vehicle used by Jones was identified that same day, along with the clothing worn by Jones and the Febreze bottle.
“We were then able to swiftly identify, locate and arrest him and minimise the long-term effects of the robbery on the bank staff by placing Jones in custody at the earliest opportunity.”