More than five years after a masked gunman wearing body armor successfully held up a Chino bank, escaping after severely wounding a police officer, authorities believe they caught the so-called "AK-47 Bandit" after he allegedly shot at a Kansas state trooper who tried to pull him over last week.
Richard Lee Gathercole, 39, is being held in Nebraska after a multi-agency investigation tied him to a series of six bank robberies across five states since 2012, FBI and Chino police officials announced in a joint press conference Tuesday. He is also suspected of attempting to commit a seventh bank robbery.
After he was arrested, authorities served a warrant at Gathercole's home in Roundup, Montana, where they discovered a cache of homemade bombs, according to Chino Police Chief Karen Comstock.
The perpetrator of the robberies spanning California, Washington, Idaho, Nebraska and Iowa was dubbed the "AK-47 Bandit" by the FBI due to the assault rifle he typically carried during heists; a handgun is more commonly used in similar crimes. He was also usually seen wearing a balaclava mask.
At one point, the FBI erected billboards urging anyone with information about the bandit to come forward, and a $100,000 reward was offered for information leading to his arrest.
Though the man appeared to be laying low over the past few years — the most recent robbery he is linked to was in July 2015, in Iowa — Comstock said the case remained a priority for the Chino Police Department.
“With his increasingly brazen and extremely dangerous tendencies, we knew it was just a matter of time before he would strike again," she said during Tuesday's press briefing. "And that’s exactly what happened when he shot at a Kansas state trooper last Monday.”
The earliest robbery investigators have been able to tie Gathercole to occurred Feb. 29, 2012, at the California Bank & Trust in Chino.
When the masked gunman exited the bank, he immediately fired his assault rifle at a Chino police officer, who suffered severe injuries, though he ultimately survived, Comstock said.
Though he escaped that day and would continue to evade authorities for years, officials believe the perpetrator in that incident is the same man who opened fire on a Kansas state trooper with an assault rifle after the officer attempted to pull him over for a traffic violation on June 19, said Stephen Woolery, a special agent in charge at the FBI's Los Angeles office.
Following an exchange of gunfire, he was able to carjack a bystander and escape once again, but officials arrested Gathercole the next day in Lexington, Nebraska.
“Many of us believed he would not go down without a fight," Woolery said. "And he didn’t. But I’m happy to say that no one was seriously injured before he was taken into custody.”
Investigators immediately noticed a number of similarities that tied Gathercole to the AK-47 Bandit crimes series, including matching physical and vehicle descriptions, as well as an AK-47 assault rifle, ballistic vest and mask recovered from his vehicle, according to Comstock.
The numerous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, found in his Montana home on June 24 further supported detectives' suspicions.
“There was nothing about this bank robbery series that was average," Woolery said. "Most bank robbers stay local, within the same state, and thankfully we rarely see assault rifles and actual IEDs used during bank robberies.”
The Los Angeles Times reported investigators were tipped to search Gathercole's home after he was heard asking his mother whether she had removed "all the guns" from the residence during a call from the Nebraska jail in which he's being held. Woolery declined to comment on the report.
Charges have not yet been filed in relation to Chino incident, Comstock said, as police continue to work with the San Bernardino District Attorney's Office to ensure all evidence is processed prior to submitting charges at the state level.
District Attorney Mike Ramos said his department intends to file an attempted murder on a peace officer while using a weapon charge on Wednesday.
“There are bank robbers, and there are cop killers. This individual wanted to kill a peace officer in this county, and we’re going to hold him responsible," Ramos said. "It was intentional. He used the AK-47 to try and take one of our officers out.”
If convicted as charged, Gathercole could face 40 years to life in prison. Ramos said his priority is extraditing Gathercole back to San Bernardino County, a process that will begin Wednesday.
“I want him back here first," Ramos said, "and we’re going to work on that tomorrow with our extradition proceedings.”
State-level charges have been filed in Kansas and Nebraska, and federal bank robbery charges in relation to the Omaha FBI jurisdiction are pending.
Although Chino is where the crime series began, Comstock said investigators were still unsure what Gathercole's ties to the city are, and could not comment on whether he had ever lived there.
Gathercole does have family in the area near his Montana home, Woolery said, but he could not confirm whether anyone was living in the residence with him.
Officials emphasized that the investigation is still ongoing, and it was also uncertain whether Gathercole had committed any additional crimes over the past two years.