Suspected 'Transaction Bandit' charged in heists

Gregory Paul Hess hadn't worked in months, and he had rent to pay and groceries to buy, federal prosecutors say in court documents filed yesterday charging Hess with bank robbery.

The 58-year-old Seattle man had quit his job steaming lattes at a Starbucks in Madison Park before Christmas, and he was sure his unemployment benefits would dry up any day, according to charges filed against Hess in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Last week, after a string of heists in Seattle and the Eastside, the FBI arrested Hess — the man they say is the "Transaction Bandit," so called for the robber's habit of asking tellers for small change before demanding all the cash in their drawers. He used an air pistol that looked like a real gun, prosecutors say.

Hess was held in federal detention yesterday facing one count of armed bank robbery.

FBI agents said they caught Hess last Thursday on Capitol Hill after former Starbucks co-workers said they recognized him from a bank-surveillance photo published in The Seattle Times.

Hess faces one robbery charge — for a May 29 holdup of a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Bellevue.

But in the charging papers filed yesterday, FBI agents say they are convinced he is responsible for five other holdups.

Hess' public defender was unavailable to comment yesterday.

For three years, Hess poured espressos at the Starbucks in Madison Park. But in mid-December he quit the $1,600-a-month job because he "became dissatisfied with the direction the company was going," according to charging papers filed by federal prosecutors.

Federal authorities allege that the bandit held up a Blockbuster Video store on Crown Hill in mid-April but came away with less than $200. The bandit's next try netted him more than $2,000, when he walked into a HomeStreet Bank branch on 15th Avenue Northwest in Ballard on April 15, showed a fake gun and drained the teller's cash drawer, the charging papers say.

The bandit also is suspected of robbing the Bellevue branch of HomeStreet Bank on Southeast Eighth Street on April 23 for $2,300. And he hit the Wedgwood branch on 35th Avenue Northeast in Seattle on May 2, making off with $2,400, the charging papers say.

By then, the slender robber with graying, well-combed hair had earned a nickname at the local FBI office. And he had rarely made any attempts to disguise himself for bank cameras.

When the bandit hit two banks in one day — a Banner Bank branch in Redmond for $2,600 and the Wells Fargo in Bellevue for $767 — FBI agents stepped up their hunt, issuing clear images of the robber to the media.

Thursday, two Starbucks workers saw Hess at a store on Broadway and remembered having seen his picture in the newspaper, documents say. They called 911, and Seattle police put the man in cuffs before handing him over to the FBI.

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or