KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The brazen bank robber didn't bother to hide his face as he threatened tellers with a gun in at least 10 heists from Kentucky to the Carolinas to Tennessee.
Now the FBI has named a suspect after bank surveillance photos from holdups dating to May were flashed on electronic billboards across the South. And authorities say the same man is now suspected of robbing an Indiana bank on Friday.
The most recent robbery occurred at the United Commerce Bank in Bloomington
The case is a powerful demonstration of the technological leap from the old wanted posters hanging in the post office. A four-month search using traditional investigation techniques hadn't worked, yet the suspect was identified within 24 hours of the photo popping up on wall-size electronic highway signs in eight states.
"We basically were flooded with calls and tips. Hundreds of them," said FBI Agent Kevin Keithley in Johnson City, Tenn. "And that is what we were looking for."
The FBI says a public service network of 1,000 electronic billboards in 40 states organized by major billboard companies and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America has led directly to the capture of 20 felons and fugitives and aided in arresting many others since it was created 18 months ago.
"Oh, fantastic," David Jernigan, Knoxville area manager for Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising Co., said when told that his company's billboard ads of the bank robbery had brought results.
"Obviously, one of the things about this technology is that we can very, very quickly meet the mass audience in situations like crimes or AMBER alerts with society being very mobile," he said.
The robber has traveled over 600 miles since his first holdup in Louisville, Ky., in May, down to South Carolina, then into North Carolina. Before Friday's holdup, the latest robberies were Aug. 18 in Jefferson City and Morristown, Tenn.
The suspect has been identified as Chad E. Schaffner, 36, of Indianapolis. He was released from the Indiana Department of Corrections last December after serving time for armed robbery, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Tennessee to support an arrest warrant.
The 200-pound, 6-foot-tall, white suspect has a goatee, short brown hair and tattoos on his arms. He may be driving a black 1994 GMC Jimmy pickup with a Tennessee license plate or a red 1994 Chevrolet S10 pickup with a South Carolina tag. He's considered armed and dangerous.
The N.C. Bankers Association is offering a reward up to a $5,000 for information that leads to the arrest and indictment of Schaffner. Anyone with information can give an anonymous tip by calling 800-209-2293.
In every case, the robber has entered the bank, waved a handgun and threatened to use it. He demands money, then flees. He sometimes wears a red baseball cap, but never tries to hide his face, which Keithley considers "very uncommon."
"He hasn't hurt anybody yet," the FBI agent said. "And that is why we want to get him into custody before he does."
The FBI-posted picture has been running on electronic billboards in Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Those images are now appearing on billboards in Indiana as well after a bank in Bloomington was robbed Friday by a man matching Schaffner's description. No one was injured, but the robber again got away on foot.
"Something like this where this guy is obviously dangerous, he's obviously got to be on the road because he is traveling so much. Our companies jumped at the chance to try to help bring him to justice," said Jeff Golimowski with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
Christopher Allen, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said the electronic billboards have produced some interesting arrests elsewhere in the country.
In Albuquerque, N.M., a mother traveling with her son spotted the son's face on a billboard as a robbery suspect. "She just wheeled that car around and drove straight to the police station. She apparently walked in with her hand on his ear and said, 'My son has something to confess,'" Allen said.
In Virginia, family members thought to be hiding a female relative turned her in the day her face appeared on the billboards and demanded the ad come down. "It kind of shamed them a little bit," he said.
"So it is an excellent tool for us," Allen said. "They (the billboard companies) make it available at no charge, so taxpayers don't have to foot the bill. It's a win-win for everybody."