On the Campus: December 17, 1997

Past editions of On the Campus, Online

Students get a taste of crime in "idyllic" town after robbery of local bank


UNTIL RECENTLY, Princeton's campus was like a small town: students left their doors unlocked at night without a thought. When three heavily armed men entered a bank on Nassau Street and took a bank employee hostage, however, they stole more than just money. They also took away students' confidence in their security. The most dangerous and exciting event in Princeton in recent memory gave many Princetonians an intimate look at violence and crime.

Brian Rokus '99, a reporter and photographer for the Daily Princetonian, began his trip to the scene of the robbery in ignorance. He grabbed his camera and his police scanner on a hint from a student who claimed police cars had descended on Nassau Street, and headed up University Place toward the scened. Near the center of town, he saw commotion and blinking police lights. As Rokus walked by Palmer Square, a voice on his scanner talked about searching the square for a male armed with a gun."It was just crawling with police and helicopters with search lights and dogs," he said. "I was scared walking out to the scene because I didn't know what was going on."


Rokus was the first person from the media to arrive at the scene, though reporters from local newspapers such as the Trenton Times and the Trentonian soon arrived. From the number of police and paramedics he saw action, Rokus knew this story was bigger than the articles he usually wrote for the Prince, about eating clubs and the honor code. "I knew it was a major story, but I didn't know then that a guy was killed inside," he said, referring to the robber who'd been shot to death by police inside the bank.

Rokus quickly called the Prince's office for more reporters and photographers to help him cover the most important breaking news he'd seen in his years on the newspaper. "I have covered a lot of spot news in my three years here. I've never seen anything that was a threat to personal safety," he said.

Once it was clear the suspects were no longer near the bank, the focus of the police's interest spread throughout town. For the next several hours, Rokus walked around, looking for anything he could photograph. As he was about to return to the office at around 11:30 to start developing the rolls of film he had shot earlier, he passed by a parking garage on Hullfish Street, along the back side of Palmer Square. Inside, he saw the Princeton Township SWAT team searching in and under cars, poised with their guns ready for any sight of the suspects. Standing off to one side, Rokus established eye contact with one of the men to make certain his camera would not interrupt their work, then shot the picture that would grace the cover of the Prince the next morning.

By contrast, Isabelle Fisher '98 didn't go looking for the robbery; it came right to her doorstep. She lives in an apartment on Hullfish Street, upstairs from the Halo Pub ice-cream parlor and several yards from where one of the suspects hijacked a car during his escape. Returning from class at 10 that night, she found the entrance to her apartment blocked off by police tape.

"I knew there had been a robbery, but I had no idea it was so close to me," she said. "I went around the police lines and asked if I could go up to my apartment." The police told her it was safe, but still walked Fisher to her door. Once inside, Fisher locked the door, even though she felt fairly safe. Then she turned the television on to watch reports of the crime. "I was watching it on the news, and they were showing my apartment," she said. "And there I was in my apartment, watching it on the news."

Though Rokus and Fisher stepped right into the middle of the activity surrounding the robbery, other students felt its impact without going near Nassau Street. Emily Tannen '99 and her friend walked to Tannen's room in Wilson College that night under the whirring of helicopters hovering at tree-top level. They dismissed them as traffic helicopters until another friend called to tell them about the crime. They didn't believe it, until they called Public Safety, which confirmed the story and advised them to stay inside and lock their door. "For a long time, we didn't know if we were in danger," Tannen said. "Even though you know that crimes happen even in Princeton, it's different when it actually occurs." Checking out the window periodically to see if the search helicopters still hovered overhead, they did not emerge until about 11:30 when they received a message from a dean that everything was safe.

The mark of violence and danger in the usually idyllic little town did not go unnoticed; nearly all the late-night New York news programs were on the scene that evening. As reporter after reporter came on camera "Live in front of Princeton University's Nassau Hall," not one failed to mention the bank's proximity to the university. One even called the situation "Terror at Princeton" -- a term that probably prompted more than one student to get up and lock her door.

Mandy Terc is a reporter at The Daily Princetonian.

A tale by someone who wasn't there and knows nothing


PRINCETON MADE headlines for a new reason last week. In the immortal words of boxing promoter Don King, "We was robbed." At 6:10 P.M. on Thursday, November 6, three men held up Sovereign Bank on Nassau Street. None of this would be news in New Haven, but in Princeton the robbery was certified Big News. Newspapers live for this sort of thing. The Trentonian bumped the latest celebrity shots off the front page, and the Prince ran the story in a font usually reserved for NCAA basketball victories. That much is true; what follows is my version of the events, not strictly limited to the facts.

6:10 P.M. Two masked men enter Sovereign Bank and force tellers to remove an estimated $160,000 from the vault while a henchman waits in the getaway car. An ATM repairman witnesses the robbery and calls the police.
6:15 P.M. The police arrive on the scene. Two robbers escape, but the third robber is trapped in the bank and takes a hostage later identified as his ex-girlfriend. Confusing the situation with a bad soap opera, the robber threatens the hostage, and the police open fire. The hostage is OK; the robber is shot dead. (Note: if you're ever pulled over in Princeton, pay the ticket quietly and respectfully.)
6:17 P.M. In an apparently unrelated event, President Shapiro announces that alumni giving to the fund for the new stadium is lagging.
6:20 P.M. The two remaining robbers crash their getaway car and flee in opposite directions on foot.
6:22 P.M. One of the robbers stops a station wagon driven by Lucius Wilmerding, Jr. '27, a 91-year-old scholar, formerly at the Institute for Advanced Study. The robber gets in the car and orders Wilmerding to drive.
6:23 P.M. Annoyed by Wilmerding's slow driving, the robber threatens to shoot him unless he speeds up. Wilmerding instead hits the brake, turns to the robber and says, "Fire when ready, Gridley." The phrase is later explained to be a quote from Admiral Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay.


6:24 P.M. Robber's jaw drops an estimated two feet.
6:25 P.M. Lucius Wilmerding, Jr. exits the car rear-end first.
6:26 P.M. Public debate begins on Wilmerding. Is he a hero or just loopy?
6:35 P.M. Police find the abandoned station wagon. Both robbers are now loose on foot, and the suspects are considered armed and dangerous. Police advise all local residents, including students, to stay inside while the search continues.
6:59 P.M. Several freshmen find out about the robbery and bike up to Sovereign Bank, proving that the admission process is far from flawless.
7:52 P.M. This reporter walks in blissful ignorance through pitch-black Prospect Gardens, wondering where everybody is.
8:03 P.M. A member of the football team's offensive line is reportedly found hiding under his bed.
10:12 P.M. In reaction to the robbery, most of the eating clubs lock their doors.
11:12 P.M. In reaction to the robbery, most students enter the eating clubs through the windows. The usual Thursday night parties begin. Best pick-up line of the night: "Hey, ever dated a bank robber?" One student is seen wearing a ski mask until someone reminds him that the police might be shooting on sight. He removes the mask.
12:43 A.M. (estimated) The first angst-ridden editorial in the Prince is finished. The writer bemoans our "loss of innocence" yet wonders if this "wake-up call" might prove to the campus that we don't, in fact, live in a "crime-free utopia."
12:44 A.M. The editorial writer's bike is stolen. It is the 1,231,438th bike theft on campus this year. A physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study has recently calculated that the half-life of a bike at Princeton is six days.
2:01 A.M. Special agent David Duchovny '82, from TV's The X-Files, reaches the scene and immediately realizes that there must be a connection between the Sovereign Bank robbery and the 1,231,438 bike thefts. He speculates that a brilliant criminal mind is at work.
3:30 A.M. As usual, President Shapiro holds his office hours under a desk in a locked room at the E-Quad. Unbeknownst to him, the two robbers have chosen that exact desk as their hideout. A short struggle ensues.
3:35 A.M. A single, slim figure leaves the room.
POSTSCRIPT: Police later catch both robbers, but the money and bikes are still missing. According to the police report, the two robbers "look like they've been roughed up." In an apparently unrelated event, the university's struggling stadium fund receives a large, anonymous donation.

Wes Tooke was nowhere near Sovereign Bank on Thursday, November 6. Really.