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07/16/2009

By Lizzy Hewitt, contributing reporter/editor

Masked bandits, car chases, and bags of cash -- the Howard Bank in Waitsfield, now TD Banknorth, was an unexpected target of bank robbery at 11:30 a.m. on July 24, 1979.

Dorothy Peck of Waitsfield was working as a teller 30 years ago when three men wearing ski masks and armed with shotguns entered the bank.

"They shouted, 'This is a bank robbery, get on the floor!' And on the floor we went," Peck recalled. The men jumped over the counter and took the cash out of the teller drawers. "I can remember money flying all over the place and landing on our backs," she said.

GET ON THE FLOOR

From teller training, Peck knew what to do in a robbery. "You do exactly what they tell you to do. When they said get on the floor, you get on the floor."

"I was pretty traumatized myself," said Peck. "Not that anyone was hurt, but it was scary."

Swiping a total of $9,000, the men fled. Gert Martens, owner of The Owl's Basket wine and cheese shop in Waitsfield at the time, was at the drive-through window. When the robbers took off in their getaway car, Martens followed in hot pursuit.

THIS IS NOT JOKE

"I passed them coming into the bank with their masks and guns, and I thought to myself, 'This must be a joke!' Then I said to myself, 'Wait a minute this is no joke,'" Martens told The Valley Reporter after the event.

Martens, joined by Gallagher's chef Kirk Macedo, followed the men up Bragg Hill. The getaway car stopped three times, the thieves threatening their pursuers with sawed off shotguns. Each time, Martens ducked down out of sight and then resumed the chase. The robbers did not fire a single shot. Peck recalls some later speculation that their weapons were not real.

When the road got rough, the criminals abandoned their car and took off into the woods. Martens withdrew and phoned the police. State Police, with the help of bloodhounds, a fixed wing aircraft, and a helicopter borrowed from the New York State Police, swept the area.

POLICE ROAD BLOCKS

The culprits were apprehended. Peck recalls, "It turned out to be three, what I call 'teenage punks' from Barre."

Most Valley residents found out about the robbery when they encountered the many police road blocks. People gathered in clumps around police cars, desperate to hear updates over the radios.

Police presence was immense.  State police from four areas, the Washington County Sheriff, the Waitsfield Police, and the FBI responded immediately to the robbery. Said one bystander, "I didn't know there were this many state police cars in the whole state."

Two months earlier, between $42,000 and $45,000 was stolen from a Howard Bank in Orleans County. The robbers in Waitsfield did not get into the vault, so their spoils were limited.

As for Peck, six months later she was in another robbery working in a bank out west. She laughed, "I don't spend a whole lot of time in banks now."

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