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Still running

Police have pictures and fingerprints of an armed man who robbed five banks. But police and friends don't know why he robs, where he runs or when he'll strike next.

By LEANORA MINAI
Published June 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - It was a Friday, just before 3 p.m., as Steven Michael Aitken got in line behind three people at Wachovia Bank.

When his turn came, Aitken vaulted over the counter and stuck a .45-caliber handgun between a teller's eyes.

"Get down! Get down!" he shouted.

As Aitken stuffed cash in a paper bag, he fired rounds into a drawer and cabinet, police said. Waving the gun, he ran to a Nissan Pathfinder he stole during a test drive a half-hour earlier.

Within minutes of the May 9 holdup, 25 police cars flooded 66th Street N, searching for the blue Pathfinder. A helicopter joined the hunt from the sky.

But Aitken got away - again.

In five months, Aitken has made brazen hits on five banks, police say, taking more than $20,000. Police know his name, they have clear pictures of his pale, clean-shaven face, they know his method. They even have his thumbprint.

But Aitken is still on the run.

Once, police cornered him on a dead-end street, but he shot at an officer and vanished into the aluminum maze of a mobile home park, they said. He has been seen shooting pool at a sports bar, eating barbecue at Sonny's.

Frustrated detectives, concerned that Aitken is becoming more violent, are hoping for a lucky tip.

"It would take a crystal ball to figure out when and where he's going to strike next," said St. Petersburg Detective James Shakas, lead investigator.

Aitken, 36, is no stranger to crime, or St. Petersburg. He found trouble here 13 years ago and spent a decade in state prison.

Employers and relatives gave him a second chance when he got out in 2000. And for almost two years he made good use of it, staying out of serious trouble. But something changed last winter. Police said Aitken suddenly went on a crime tear that has baffled friends and family.

Carol Parsell, who employed Aitken as a handyman for her pool and spa business, is more disappointed than angry.

"Sometimes I could just squeeze him and say, "What the hell's the matter with you? We had work for you."'

"We had no love'

Aitken is the youngest of four boys.

Born in St. Petersburg in November 1966, he grew up in the Lake Euclid neighborhood. His mother, Judith, was a hospital clerk. His father, James, installed marble.

It was not a happy childhood. Aitken's older brother Scott Aitken said their parents smacked them with hairbrushes, vacuum cleaner cords and wooden spoons. The oldest boy, Michael, killed himself in his 20s.

"We had no love," said Scott Aitken, 40, who works at Home Depot on 22nd Avenue N.

The parents divorced, and the mother remarried and had four more children. Steven Aitken didn't get along with his stepfather, Richard Bradwell, who left in 1980 and didn't come home.

In an angry fit when he was 15, Steven Aitken set the house on fire, foreshadowing the trouble to come.

"He torched their bedroom, which I can't blame him, and he put Richard's articles in the bathtub and set that on fire, too," Scott Aitken said.

Steven Aitken has always been "secretive, private," a loner, his brother said. He never talked about girls, and never seemed to have any friends. And he never explained what happened on Feb. 27, 1990.

That day, Aitken lured an 8-year-old boy away from an elementary school in St. Petersburg by telling him he had a remote control car back at his house. Aitken drove the boy to his house, then undressed and masturbated as the boy watched, the boy told police.

Aitken denied the charges at trial, but was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. For years, Aitken protested from his cell, writing the judge.

"I would like to say I have not yielded to the ways of the subculture while in prison (ie: drug use, violence, tattoos, or the common deep seated hatred of our system," Aitken wrote in April 1998.

Released in the summer of 2000, Aitken faced a daunting challenge: Stay out of trouble for a decade or return to prison.

Gun stolen from employer

Aitken landed a job at 7-Eleven. He moved in with an aunt in St. Petersburg.

Soon, he went to work as a handyman for Parsell, owner of Supreme Pools & Spas in Largo. He dug ditches, planted hedges, hung ceiling fans. She referred Aitken to friends, who paid him $50 a day.

Parsell thought he was doing well. He stayed with her 11 months, and she liked him. "There was never any sense that you had to be concerned with him around," she said.

Last fall, police and employers say, Aitken failed a drug test.

"He vowed he would never go back" to prison, said Parsell, 55.

During two weeks last November, police say, Aitken forged his aunt's checks, pocketing more than $10,000. He did the same to Parsell, making off with $4,000. He broke into a customer's Seminole home.

The weapon police say Aitken used in the first two bank robberies was stolen from a desk at the pool company. It was a gun from World War II.

Escape from dead-end

The 2003 Cadillac Escalade was too tempting to pass up.

The owner left it running at the curb while she slipped a videotape in the Blockbuster slot. Aitken hopped in and drove away from the Northeast Shopping Center, police said.

It was 2:45 p.m. Jan. 14.

Four minutes later, Aitken was four blocks away at the SouthTrust Bank.

"Everybody get down on the floor!" he shouted, according to witnesses. "Don't anybody move! I'll kill you!"

Clutching a plastic sack of cash, Aitken jumped in the Escalade and bolted. A red dye pack exploded.

"He threw the money and the bag out in the street," said Shakas, the St. Petersburg detective.

Six minutes later, and just 20 blocks to the north, Aitken robbed the First Community Bank.

An officer saw Aitken speed away in the Escalade and chased him to a dead-end street. Then, a standoff. Aitken got out and pointed his gun. The officer accelerated and headed for Aitken.

Aitken fired, missing the officer and dropping the gun. He ran into a nearby mobile home park.

Sixty-five days passed. Not a peep.

Then, Aitken struck in March, and April, and May, each time using a car he stole during a test drive, police said. Police knew it was Aitken after the March robbery. They had his fingerprints. They were circulating fliers. But Aitken still showed his driver's license before the test drives.

Richard Shimkus, a salesman at City Motors on 34th St. N, remembers Aitken walking onto his lot in May. "He's got real, real distinctive eyes," said Shimkus, 48. "Dark and criminal looking."

Aitken bounced like a pinball from car to car before finally settling on the 1987 Nissan Pathfinder. The price was scrawled across the windshield in neon yellow. Aitken sat down with Shimkus and negotiated.

"I've got money coming this afternoon," Aitken told Shimkus.

Shimkus made a photocopy of Aitken's driver's license, and Aitken slipped behind the wheel of the Pathfinder.

His destination: Wachovia Bank.

Motive remains mystery

Everyone's searching for Aitken, even a local bounty hunter nicknamed Bulldog.

Police don't know why Aitken is robbing banks. They don't believe he's feeding a vicious drug habit. A heroin or crack addict would strike more often.

Is gambling Aitken's vice?

Is he lashing out?

Is he living the high life?

Does he want to die in a gunfight?

"Personally," said Shakas, the detective, "I think he's fed up with existing and decided to go for the big money."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Leanora Minai can be reached at minai@sptimes.com or 727 893-8406.

How you can help

A $9,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of Steven Michael Aitken. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to call the St. Petersburg Police Department at (727) 893-7780. The lead detective, James Shakas, may be reached at (727) 893-4911.

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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