Suspect in bank holdups caught after I-75 chase

A bank robbery suspect who may be linked to recent holdups in Florida, south Georgia and the midstate, including three this week, was chased down by Lamar County sheriff’s deputies Wednesday on Interstate 75 in Henry County.

Leonard William Willis, 44, of Jacksonville, Fla., was thought to have robbed banks in Monroe and Lamar counties within about an hour of each other Wednesday morning.

He also is suspected of sticking up a Laurens County location Monday, according to Dublin police.

The BB&T branch on North Lee Street in Forsyth was held up shortly after 9 a.m. Not long after that, the United Bank, up U.S. 41 in Barnesville, was hit.

Authorities say deputies spotted Willis and sped after him, reaching more than 110 mph and using spike strips to stop his white Chevy pickup truck near the Tanger Outlets exit in Locust Grove.

Monroe sheriff’s Lt. Brad Freeman said the truck matches the description of one local and federal authorities have been searching for in connection with the recent bank heists.

Willis is being held at the Lamar County jail without bond. Charges are pending in at least five jurisdictions.

Authorities are calling him a serial robber who for the last several days had been making his way north from Florida, hitting banks along the way.

He is suspected of robbing four banks in the Sunshine State and one in Tifton last Friday.

In Forsyth, Freeman said, it is believed Willis entered the BB&T wearing a black baseball cap and a black jacket, clothing also worn by the person who robbed the branch in Dublin at Hillcrest Parkway and Shamrock Drive about 9:30 a.m. Monday.

He walked up to a teller Wednesday, claimed to have a weapon but did not display one, and demanded money from the woman behind the glass, authorities said. He then left the bank on foot.

People inside the bank and in the parking lot never caught a glimpse of his truck, Freeman said. But witnesses blocks away, who police interviewed after responding to the robbery within roughly 30 seconds, did.

An alert went out to the neighboring counties. As Willis was conducting his next hit, authorities said, they were drawing nearer, following a trail of clues left across the southern borderline, and on and off various interstate exits.

“We felt very confident that he would be apprehended soon because he was not making any attempt to disguise himself or conceal his identity,” said Dublin police Lt. Greg Dominy. “From what we have learned from agencies in Florida, this gentleman has a real bad drug problem and obviously was committing these robberies to support his habit.”

Dublin Police Chief Wayne Cain said Willis entered the city bank Monday through the back door and demanded money from a clerk. He allegedly threatened her by mentioning a gun, took an undisclosed sum of money and left through the same door, disappearing into nearby woods.

Dominy said there were few variations in how the robberies were performed — the time of day, the similar outfit and the use of a hidden, or possibly nonexistent, weapon.

“He kept one of his hands in his pocket at all times,” Dominy said. “He did that at every robbery.”

No injuries were reported in any of the incidents.

Authorities have not confirmed how much cash was seized at the time of Willis’ arrest.

Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick said officials also seized a quantity of drugs after searching a Henry County motel room where it is believed Willis was staying.

Freeman said he had never worked a case like this one.

“This is the first time in my recollection that we have had a serial bank robbery suspect in Monroe County,” he said. “I also don’t know how common it is for them to happen so close together.”


In other news, Dublin police have released the name of a man arrested Tuesday on Interstate 16 in connection with an unrelated bank robbery downtown.

Nathaniel Smith, 37, remains in custody at the Laurens County jail without bond, according to police. He is charged with armed robbery.

About 3:15 p.m., Dominy said, Smith approached a clerk inside the Bank of Dudley on West Jackson Street and slipped her an “intimidating note demanding money.”

He fled the scene in a gold-colored Chevy Venture, authorities said. Less than 15 minutes later, based on vehicle description provided by bank witnesses, Laurens County sheriff’s deputies stopped Smith’s sedan on I-16.

“The subject was arrested and the money was recovered,” Dominy said.

FBI agents out of Eastman are assisting Dublin police with the case. Smith reportedly has stopped cooperating with authorities.

“He refuses to give us any information. We have no idea how he wound up in Dublin,” he said.

On the back-to-back robberies, he said, “It’s a strange one. I think it just happened to be bad timing for us.”

Staff writer Joe Kovac Jr. contributed to this report. Information from The Telegraph’s archives also was used.