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A midmorning bank robbery in downtown Missoula on Tuesday involved a leisurely suspect who - after allegedly taking cash from a Sterling Savings Bank teller - sat down and ate breakfast at Liquid Planet, called a cab, stopped for smokes and then tipped the driver $5 for the $7.50 ride that delivered him to the DoubleTree Edgewater Hotel.

And, as it turned out, straight into the arms of the law.

Deborah Stroud was playing catch with her border collie, Becky, at about 10:30 a.m. in front of the DoubleTree when a cab pulled up, followed moments later by a police car. The patrol car blipped its sirens twice and the morning erupted as police with guns drawn piled out of both the car and the lobby of the hotel - which was hosting a law enforcement training session.

"It was like watching ‘Cops' live," said Stroud, 56, a retired Ravalli County reserve sheriff's deputy. "They did a felony take-down."

Vincent John Sullivan, 64, was arrested in connection with the case, Missoula police confirmed. A Justice Court hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday for Sullivan, who is not from Montana.

The alleged robbery itself took mere moments, and Sullivan's arrest was likewise efficient.

The half-hour or so in between, though, was a different story.

***

The incident began at about 10 a.m., when an overweight man estimated to be in his 60s walked into the bank, told a female teller he had a weapon, and demanded money, Missoula Police Detective Sgt. Bob Bouchee said.

The man, who was about 6 feet tall with a birthmark on the right side of his face, wore black pants and a gray sweatshirt, according to reports from four bank employees and a lone customer, Bouchee said. After taking an unspecified amount of cash, the man headed south on Higgins Avenue, he said.

A few minutes later, a hungry man in a green New York Jets jersey came into Liquid Planet - a few stores north, and on the other side of the street, from Sterling Savings.

Liquid Planet employee Nathan Talley noted two things about the man.

"He was sweaty," Talley said. And "he wanted eggs really bad."

***

The man got a breakfast bowl with bacon and eggs, along with a mug of coffee - for a total of $7.95 - and took it to one of the cafe's back tables.

Meanwhile, police had started canvassing the neighborhood.

Kent Watson of Kent Watson & Associates landscape architects, who has a second-floor office on Higgins just up the street from the bank, decided he needed a cup of coffee from nearby Butterfly Herbs at about that time. He walked out onto the street to see a bunch of police cars with lights flashing - and, at his feet in the doorway of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography - a bunched-up gray sweatshirt with "Seattle" on it.

Police were summoned.

"Yes," said Missoula Police Detective Jamie Merifield, holding back onlookers as police took photos of the sweatshirt. "It's evidence."

***

Down the street, the man had finished his breakfast bowl at Liquid Planet. Now he wanted a cab. He asked employee Carly Tuman for a phone number for a cab company, and told her he wanted to go to the Red Lion and to the University of Montana campus.

Tuman was confused. Liquid Planet is about midway between the Red Lion Hotel on Broadway and the UM campus. (Years ago, however, the DoubleTree, just north of campus, was known as the Red Lion.)

Enter cab driver James Anderson. His fare was waiting in the back of Liquid Planet, and acting strange, he said.

"From the first look, I just sensed something about him," said Anderson. The man offered him a cup of coffee, but Anderson declined.

The man left without busing his table, Talley said.

Minutes later, police came in with photos of the bank robbery suspect.

***

In the cab, the man first asked to be taken to the UM campus, but was unable to give Anderson a specific location. Then he asked to ride to the DoubleTree - but not before asking Anderson to stop at a convenience store so he could buy two packs of cigarettes.

"He mentioned that there would be a good tip in it for me," said Anderson.

The cab fare was $7.50; the suspect handed him a $20 bill then tipped Anderson $5.

That's when the police cars pulled up.

"They all had their guns drawn," said Stroud, the onlooker who watched police surround the cab. "And they pulled this old-timer out."

Bouchee credited the quick apprehension to a combination of fast police work and helpful information from several witnesses. The arrest of the suspect involved nearly everyone on the police department's patrol shift, along with a half-dozen detectives, plus assistance from the Missoula County Sheriff's Office and the Montana Highway Patrol - as well as officers attending the law enforcement training session at the DoubleTree, he said.

"It was a good effort by all," he said.

Liquid Planet's Talley had an additional theory. The suspect may have tipped the cab driver, but he left no money at the coffee shop. Bad karma, Talley said.

"That's why he got caught."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or gwen.florio@missoulian.com. Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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