- By Alexis Stevens The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
She didn’t have a car or a known address. But the “Freedom Fighter Bandit” still became a serial bank robber, stealing for “the streets” and “for the movement,” according to investigators.
Now, her latest cause may be her own defense team.
The FBI believes it has caught the bandit who allegedly robbed eight Atlanta-area banks. She was arrested after targeting a credit union 200 miles away in Crossville, Tenn., the FBI said Monday. Nilsa Marie Urena, of Philadelphia, was spotted in a parking lot calling for a driver and was later arrested, thanks to old-fashioned police work.
“They were able to get video from cameras around the bank,” Kevin Rowson, FBI spokesman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “From the video, officers were able to get a tag number.”
With that tag number, investigators located the owner of the vehicle, who runs a transportation service, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in middle Tennessee. That driver, whose name was not released, apparently didn’t realize he had been hired as a getaway driver, but he helped lead investigators to his client.
“It was determined that the rider’s destination was the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Nashville and the driver continued to send text message updates to the officers, updating them with the destination and estimated time of arrival,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
After Urena was dropped off at the bus station, she was arrested at a market across the street, investigators said.
The Freedom Fighter Bandit has been credited with eight bank robberies since Oct. 30, when investigators say she attempted to rob banks in Ellenwood and Stone Mountain, according to investigators. She was only successful at the Associated Credit Union in Ellenwood on that day. But investigators believe the same woman is responsible for other robberies, ranging from Loganville to Douglasville and Comer, about 20 miles northeast of Athens.
In the Ellenwood robbery, the suspect was dressed in all black and wearing black sunglasses when she gave a teller a paper note demanding money “for the streets” and “for the movement” and claimed to have a bomb, according to Sgt. Ashanti Marbury with the Clayton County police department. Later crimes followed a similar pattern, investigators said, with the suspect threatening to use explosives.
Her last-known Georgia crime was on Jan. 25, when the “Freedom Fighter” robbed the Hamilton State Bank on Hardee Street in Dallas, the FBI said. The agency again asked for the public’s help in finding Urena, whose address is unknown, along with various male accomplices who have served as getaway drivers.
Nine days later, Urena allegedly struck again, this time in Tennessee, about an hour north of Knoxville, police said.
“We’re wondering how she got up there,” Rowson said. “We don’t believe she has a car.”
On Saturday at 11:19 a.m., Crossville officers and Cumberland County deputies were called to a bank robbery at the Upper Cumberland Federal Credit Union, Crossville police Lt. Brian Eckelson said.
Inside the bank, the robbery suspect handed a teller a note which read, “Bomb; 20 minutes; no cops; Allah,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. The suspect was given $1,000 in $100 bills, then she left and walked toward a nearby apartment complex, where another bank employee observed her changing clothes, investigators said.
“Officers arrived within minutes, however the suspect was gone upon their arrival,” Eckelson said in a press release.
Saturday’s bank robbery is believed to be the first in Cumberland County in about eight years, according to Chief Deputy Bill Ashley with the Sheriff’s Office. Investigators aren’t sure why a would-be robber would target the Upper Cumberland Federal Credit Union. From a nearby apartment complex, Urena allegedly walked to a Food City store, where she called for a driver to pick her up, Ashley said.
“You would have to have known where this credit union was,” Ashley said. “This is not on any main street.”
About two hours later, the suspect was found, along with the driver she allegedly hired to help pull off the heist, the FBI said. Investigators tracked down Urena through the driver’s tag number, Rowson said.
“We believe she was driven to the bank by someone who had no idea she was robbing the bank,” Rowson said.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol, the FBI and the Nashville Metropolitan Police assisted with apprehending Urena, Eckelson said. Saturday night, she was booked into the Nashville Metro jail, where she remained Monday afternoon.
Urena has been charged with the Tennessee bank robbery. If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. She is scheduled to appear Thursday afternoon in federal court in Nashville.
“As soon as we indict her in the robberies here, she will be brought back to federal court in Atlanta,” Rowson said.