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Man accused of robbing Anchorage bank arrested with stolen minivan, gas can in hand

Kyle Hopkins
A man who robbed an East Anchorage bank on Aug. 13, 2014 presented a note demanding money and stating he was armed. Authorities have charged 43-year-old James Surrells with the robbery, after he was picked up with what troopers said was a stolen vehicle near Wasilla. FBI

An accused bank robber’s run from the FBI ended recently when, charges say, his stolen minivan ran out of gas outside of Wasilla.

Prosecutors on Wednesday charged Anchorage resident James D. Surrells, 43, with holding up a First National Bank Alaska branch Aug. 13 in East Anchorage. The FBI says Surrells was wearing a wig beneath his cap and carrying a gun when he stole $1,210 from a teller.  

An Alaska state trooper, unaware that relatives of Surrells had already identified him as a potential suspect in the bank robbery, happened upon him three days later carrying a gas can on a quiet Valley road, according to troopers.

Surrells faces charges of bank robbery, vehicle theft, improper use of a license plate and giving false information to a police officer. He was expected to make a court appearance on the federal charge Tuesday in Anchorage.

Here’s what happened the day of the robbery and how Surrells was caught, according to state and federal investigators.

'I have a gun'

Already wanted by troopers on an unrelated escape charge, Surrells first appeared outside the bank at 10:12 a.m. holding a piece of paper in his hand, FBI special agent Daryl Allison wrote in an affidavit. Surveillance cameras captured the scene.

Wearing a dark jacket and a hat with “Portland” written across the front, the man later identified as Surrells could be seen peering through the glass of the bank’s outer doors, pacing and apparently hesitating to come inside.

Surrells waited for 10 minutes, the FBI agent wrote. When the bank emptied of customers he walked inside and approached a teller with his note. “I have a gun, give me 100s, 50s and 20s,” it read.

The teller saw that the man appeared to be wearing a wig of long, curly hair to his shoulders. He was clean shaven but with dirt smeared on his face, she told authorities.

Surrells fled to the northeast, in the direction of a neighboring Value Village. He was gone by the time Anchorage police and the FBI arrived, the affidavit says.

Police searched a dumpster outside the thrift store, finding the “Portland” hat and wig.

That night the FBI gave surveillance camera footage of the accused robber to Alaska media. At least one person recognized the face in the photos.

Stolen van, fake name

Seventy-two hours later, on a Saturday morning, state trooper Chris Green was driving on Hollywood Road west of Wasilla when he saw a silver minivan partially blocking the street.

A couple walking along a bike path told the trooper they had seen a man standing in front of the van holding a gas can, Green wrote in a report filed in court. The couple saw the man, eventually identified by troopers as Surrells, walk to the driveway of a vacant house.

The trooper checked the license plate on the minivan. It didn’t match the 2000 Dodge Caravan and instead belonged to a red Chevy Tahoe pickup. A search of the van’s vehicle identification number revealed it had been reported stolen in Anchorage.

As another trooper arrived, Surrells reappeared on Hollywood Drive carrying the gas can. In the same hand he held a knife, Trooper Green wrote.

Green said he took the knife and arrested Surrells, who at first gave a fake name. In the minivan, troopers said they found heroin stashed inside a soda can.

Meanwhile, on the same day, a tipster not identified in court records called police to name Surrells as the man seen in the Anchorage bank robbery photos.

Days later, Surrells’ relatives also said he appeared to be the man wearing a wig in the surveillance photos.  

On Wednesday, a state grand jury indicted Surrells on the state charges while the FBI accused him of the robbery in federal court. He is being held at the Anchorage jail.