Failing Spanish builder used TV tips to rob banks and pay debts

One-man raids modelled on series about notorious outlaw called El Solitario
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When Spain's decade-long construction boom collapsed last year, builders called for desperate measures. They announced layoffs. They slashed prices. They clamoured for government aid. But one builder in Catalonia found a quick solution for his failing business: he started robbing banks.

And, for months, he got away with it, foiling police with the techniques he learned from a television series about Spain's most notorious armed robber, known as El Solitario ("The Loner").

The builder-turned-bandit managed to rob four banks before police cornered him at the weekend as he tried to strike at an isolated branch in the province of Tarragona, on the Costa Dorada, which now teems with holiday homes. By then, he had scurried off with a total of €80,000 (£71,500), all of which he used to pay his creditors, police say.

Officers would not release the builder's name (they identify him only by the initials ACG) but they describe him as a married, 52-year-old businessman with school-aged children from the northern town of Lleida. His company specialised in home restorations, a once-vibrant industry as Spaniards and foreigners eagerly fixed up charming old properties and turned them into hotels, restaurants and second homes. But as the economic crisis worsened, his clients defaulted on payments, and banks would not give him new loans. Soon, he could no longer pay his employees.

"He had an ordinary life, with a stable family," said Roberic Moreno, the police inspector who led the hunt. "He was in good shape but they stopped paying him and his debts mounted. Without a doubt, he led a double life and probably not even his family knew about his criminal activities."

The construction industry was Spain's first victim of the worldwide crisis. Until last year, hundreds of thousands of homes were built each year. The boom was propelled by foreign buyers (especially British), easy loans to businesses, cheap immigrant labour and a consumption spree by nouveau riche Spaniards. Now, facing a weak pound, frozen credit and the highest unemployment rate in Europe, Spain's builders are floundering. A million new homes remain unsold. Prices are plunging. Cranes sit immobile, and half-erected properties litter the landscape from the glitzy Costa del Sol to the dusty central plains of Don Quixote's La Mancha.

Against this bleak backdrop, nearly 3,000 businesses and family filed for bankruptcy in the last year, double the number in 2007. But when the Lleida builder's company folded, the budding rogue seemed determined to become more than another statistic. He seized a pistol, slapped on a disguise and headed for the bank, with the help of El Solitario's televised tricks.

El Solitario, whose real name is Jaime Giménez Arbe, was Spain's most wanted man for more than a decade. He was arrested in July of 2007, suspected of robbing 31 banks and killing three men over 14 years by using crude disguises that managed to outsmart security cameras.

Like El Solitario, the bankrupt businessmen covered his fingertips with sticky tape to avoid leaving prints. He also used his mentor's disguise: a reflective jacket, a knit hat and sunglasses. (El Solitario eventually added a metal crutch to the uniform to distract attention when he went through metal detectors, but the builder bandit did not get that far.)

Thanks to this indirect tutelage, the amateur armed robber was able to pull off his first four stick-ups with the brio of a professional. He would study his target for days before striking, surveying the area with binoculars and taking notes on the sly. He preyed only on banks near highway exits, for a quicker getaway. And he would wait until only one employee, preferably a woman, remained in the bank.

"He didn't want complications," Inspector Moreno said. "Armed with a revolver, he would intimidate the girl and leave her tied up in a room to gain time in his getaway." At first, police were slow to hone in on the failed builder. He did not have a police record, after all, and because he spent the loot on repaying his debts, his bank account showed no evidence of sudden wealth.

Spain's economy: Hardest hit in the EU

*Spain entered its first recession in 15 years, after the economy contracted1 per cent in the fourth quarter. After a debt-fuelled construction boom, the economy is predicted to slump 2 per cent in 2009. The country has been one of the hardest hit by the collapse of the housing market. Cement sales, for example, fell 52 per cent in January compared with a year earlier.

*Nearly 1.3 million Spanish workers lost their jobs during 2008, bringing the total number of jobless to 3.2 million. Spain now has the highest unemployment rate in the EU at 13.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008. The government expects it will rise to 15.9 per cent this year.

*Almost 3,000 businesses and family filed for bankruptcy in 2008, double the number in 2007.

*The government has announced an €11bn infrastructure plan to create more thanr 300,000 jobs. Most of those new positions are expected to come from 31,000 public works projects planned for across the country.