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Band-Aid bust

An air-conditioning company's tip puts a chill on his string of robberies.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published July 21, 2006


[Times illustration: Desiree Perry]
These are some of the faces of the Band-Aid Bandit.

TAMPA - For six years, the Band-Aid Bandit eluded investigators, stealing more than a half million dollars from 39 banks throughout west-central Florida.

With a protruding belly, a ragged dark wig and a tiny white bandage stuck to his cheek, the bandit struck in plain view of security cameras.

Puzzled investigators tossed out lots of theories about who he might be, where he might live. Maybe he lived out of the area, perhaps even out of the country, they said.

Turns out, Rafael Rondon, 50, the man accused of the robberies, lived a peaceful, ordinary life in a suburb west of Orlando.

His two-story house on Vale Drive in Clermont had the prettiest lawn on the block. His three children often played basketball with friends. The Rondon family's trampoline was a popular neighborhood hangout.

Those glory days are over, investigators say.

Rondon was arrested Thursday on federal charges of armed bank robbery, as was the man accused of helping him, Emeregildo Roman, 54, of Davenport.

The men are accused of robbing three banks. Other charges are expected to follow.

If convicted of the three robberies, they could face 20 years in prison and an additional 57 years for the firearms charges.

At a press conference at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Tampa office, investigators wouldn't say much about what led to the arrests.

They credited good police work.

But the crucial break may have come from Victor Distributing, an air conditioning supply wholesaler in Pinellas Park.

The company has an office across the street from the Fifth Third Bank the bandit robbed July 13th. Victor Distributing's multicamera security system can capture images of license plates, and a computer network can store six weeks of footage.

Kevin Barnum, the company's vice president, never dreamed the system would help to catch a bank robber.

In looking at old footage, he and investigators determined the bandit had parked in the company's lot the morning of the robbery. Barnum searched parking lot footage.

He discovered the bandit had been studying the bank for weeks.

The big news came Friday when Barnum learned one of the cameras had captured the original license plate of the SUV - before the bandit affixed a stolen tag to it. He immediately called Pinellas Park police and could hear their excitement.

"I believe one of the detectives spilled juice on another one," Barnum said.

He said employees from Fifth Third Bank came over Thursday and thanked him.

He could be the leading candidate for the $50,000 reward: "We supplied them with two cars and three license plates," Barnum said. "It's exciting. We're pretty pumped."

About 6 a.m. Thursday morning, investigators served search warrants at the homes of Rondon and Roman, seeking guns, disguises, money and, of course, Band-Aids.

The men were taken into federal custody without any trouble, investigators said.

Rondon's neighbors in the Skyridge Valley subdivision learned about his arrest when investigators went door to door Thursday.

Laurie Maguire, 39, had never heard of the Band-Aid Bandit until then. She has lived on the same block as the Rondon family for three years. She saw them pruning their trees, mowing the lawns, washing cars.

They always waved.

Once, Rondon offered to fix her son's bike when the chain broke. Her daughter rode the school bus with his older son, Rafael Jr.

After Rondon was arrested, she went into the house and turned on the television. She saw a close-up of the Band-Aid Bandit.

Then, it clicked.

She realized she had seen a reward poster with a photo of the suspect sporting the ubiquitous Band-Aid. "I thought he was a mechanic," Maguire said of her neighbor.

Rondon never flashed wealth, she said. Other neighbors agreed. They had noticed different cars in the family's driveway but not all of them were new. She wished she had paid more attention to the reward poster.

Nothes Sertyl, 46, a cook at a nursing home, thought the Rondons were a modest family. His son had been over to the family's house, but the father had never wondered how it looked inside. Until Thursday.

"I asked my son, 'What's in there? What does the house look like? Are they rich?' He told me they have a normal life, like us."

From the surface, the lives of both men don't look unusual. They are connected through marriage. Janeza J. Rondon, Roman's wife, is Rafael Rondon's sister.

Records show both grew up in Puerto Rico and have been in Florida for years. In arrest records, Rondon lists his occupation as a laborer; Roman, a truck driver.

Investigators say state records show no employment history for Roman, but he somehow managed to pay $1,300 a month in rent for the house on Madina Circle in the central Florida community of Davenport. In 2002, he bought a 1997 International semi-tractor trailer, valued between $18,000 and $21,000.

Before Thursday, Roman was just another resident in the tidy gated subdivision carved from the citrus groves just off Interstate 4.

It's the kind of street where neighbors keep to themselves and enjoy the suburban peace and quiet - neither of which they had Thursday morning.

Rob Denardo, a pest control specialist who lives two doors from Roman, was in his driveway about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, getting his Orkin truck ready for work. He saw a SWAT vehicle round the corner. A tactical team member, posted behind a neighbor's house 20 feet away, warned Denardo, "You might want to go inside for a couple minutes."

"I was like, 'Man, this is crazy,' " said Denardo, 30, who said he had never spoken to Roman.

Denardo said authorities soon raided the house, shouting for occupants to come out with their hands up. He said a young girl emerged and officers took her around the side of the house to question her.

Most neighbors on the street said they knew nothing of the Band-Aid Bandit - "I haven't heard anything about it," Denardo said.

Both suspects have criminal records, but nothing as serious as bank robbery, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In November 1997, Rondon was charged with driving with a suspended license and fraud by the Lake County Sheriff's Office. His sentence was suspended.

Orange County records show that in October 1996, SunTrust sued him for breach of contract. The case finally was dismissed in January 2004. Details of the suit were not available on Thursday.

Rondon's alleged accomplice, Roman, has been arrested four times since 1999, records show.

In June 1999, Lake County deputies charged him with battery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill. That month, Clermont police accused him of domestic battery. All charges were dropped. In August 1999, Haines City police accused him of drunken driving.

Both men appeared before a federal judge Thursday afternoon in Tampa.

A chain ringed Rondon's belly like a belt. He wore a bewildered expression, an inside-out white T-shirt and eyeglasses slung low on his nose. His ash-colored hair was disheveled.

A mole dotted his left cheek, where the robber usually wore a bandage. His eyes flitted between his feet and Magistrate Thomas Wilson.

Headphones, translating the judge's words, dangled from Roman's ears as he leaned back in his chair. Barbed-wire tattoos wrapped both arms.

Both men said "no sir" when asked if they could afford an attorney. Records show that Roman has $8,000 in the bank, Wilson said. But a prosecutor quickly told the magistrate that authorities were in the process of freezing those assets.

Wilson postponed a bond hearing to 2:30 p.m. today after attorneys asked for more time.

In the back of the courtroom, a small woman in a red shirt wrung her hands.

"That's my brother and my husband," she said in the hallway after the hearing.

The woman, Janeza Rondon, sat on a bench with her daughter as Roman's lawyer spoke to them. They declined further comment.

Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writers Brady Dennis, Justin George, Colleen Jenkins, Moises Mendoza, Abhi Raghunathan and Eddy Ramirez contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813-226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

ON THE WEB

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's bank robbery task force operates a Band-Aid Bandit Web page at www.bandaidbandit.com.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 13:49:45]


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