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Brave Driver Helps Mahwah PD Nab Fleeing Route 17 Bank Robbers

Joel Robbins, Wanda Soel Photo Credit: MUGSHOTS: Courtesy Bergen County Sheriff, Mahwah PD
The crashed getaway car. Photo Credit: Boyd A. Loving

MAHWAH, N.J. -- As his girlfriend waited behind the wheel of their getaway car, a Tenafly native who robbed a Mahwah bank on Sunday warned a teller not to "make me have to kill you," the FBI said Monday.

Wanda Soel, a 52-year-old teacher's assistant from Hasbrouck Heights, waited outside as Joel L. Robbins, 47, entered the TD Bank on northbound Route 17 just before 1 p.m. with his face covered and carrying a replica handgun, authorities said.

The 5-foot-6-inch, 145-pound Robbins, currently of Oradell, was wearing gray pants, a black jacket, sunglasses, a dark skull cap and light-colored latex gloves," Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said.

"As he entered the bank, Robbins pulled a bandana over his face," Fitzpatrick said.


NOTE: Robbins is suspected in other area bank robberies, Daily Voice has learned. These include an April holdup in Englewood.

SEE: Englewood Bank Bandit Might Be Local, Police Say


"Robbins pulled a black handgun (later determined to be fake) from his waistband and pointed it at two bank tellers, who said Robbins demanded money from them and warned them not to 'make me have to kill you',” the U.S. attorney said.

"The tellers complied and handed Robbins money," Fitzpatrick said. "Robbins took the money and walked out of the bank, dropping several bills as he departed."

He then hopped into the passenger seat of the Toyota Corolla, with Soel driving, he said.

The FBI is investigating the pair for other Bergen County bank robberies in recent weeks, Daily Voice has learned.

Robbins, a former property manager who studied psychology at the University of Hartford and has had recent addresses in several towns, boasts the proverbial arm-long rap sheet, records show:

  • arrested in Fort Lee in 2010 on cocaine and heroin distribution charges;
  • arrested in Oradell in 2009 on aggravated assault charges;
  • probation violations in 2008;
  • arrested in Tenafly in 2007 on assault charges;
  • arrested in Ridgefield Park in 2006 on charges of aggravated assault with a weapon, weapons possession and drug offenses -- which also brought a probation violation;
  • arrested in Park Ridge on drug and theft charges in 2006.

Seeing what was happening, a teller at the drive-up window told a customer to call police, Mahwah Police Chief James N. Batelli said.

The driver then began following the silver sedan up Route 17 toward the New York State Thruway and remained on the phone with the Mahwah 911 dispatcher -- who advised turning on the car's flashers for responding officers, Batelli said.

Officer Sean Hayes spotted the cars and went after the getaway vehicle, backed up by other officers, he said.

"The vehicle exited Route 17 and came to a stop near the entrance of the Sheraton Crossroads," Batelli said. "Officers exited their vehicle and the female driver began to get out of driver's seat.

"At that time officers were unsure if she was involved in the incident or possibly the vehicle had been hijacked and she was a victim," he said.

"As she attempted to exit the vehicle her arm became entangled in the seatbelt and the vehicle accelerated, with [her]being thrown to the ground," the chief said.

Grabbed in the hotel parking lot, Soel told the officers that Robbins, who tried to speed off, was her boyfriend, the chief said. She was taken in to custody.

The car with Robbins now behind the wheel hit a curb pulling out of the parking lot, blew a tire and went down a small embankment.

Sgt. O'Hara and Officers Jonathan Weber, John Rodriguez and William Hunt converged on the car and arrested Robbins without incident, the chief said.

"They recovered U.S. currency sticking out of Robbins’s pants and other cash bills strewn inside the Corolla, along with a fake black handgun," Fitzpatrick, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey said.

"Officers also recovered sunglasses, a bandana, a dark knit cap, and latex gloves from the Corolla resembling the items Robbins was seen wearing when he robbed the bank," he said.

Batelli commended his officers, as well as the dispatcher and good Samaritan who helped lead them to the suspects.

Fitzpatrick also praised the Mahwah officers, as well as the FBI agents who interrogated the suspects as part of their investigation.



MAHWAH, N.J. -- A courageous customer followed a Mahwah bank robber up Route 17, helping police grab him and his getaway driver after they crashed Sunday afternoon, authorities said.

The robber entered the TD Bank on the northbound highway just before 1 p.m. "with what turned out to be a replica handgun and either a mask or shirt pulled up over his face and demanded money," Police Chief James N. Batelli said.

Seeing what was happening, a teller at the drive-up window told a customer to call police, Batelli said.

The driver then began following the car while her passenger dialed 911.

The dispatcher, who formerly worked for the New Jersey State Police, told the driver to activate her flashers so responding officers would know which car the robbers were in, the chief said.

"The officers were there in seconds," he said.

The getaway car was headed north toward the Route 287 interchange -- "and could have been gone from there," Batelli said.

Officers were on the getaway driver's tail, however, when she stopped the car.

They drew their guns and were approaching the car when the robber got behind the wheel and hit the accelerator, the chief said.

He immediately missed a turn near Amazing Savings and the Sharp building, where the car when down an embankment and crashed, he said.

Both he and the woman he was with were taken into custody, Batelli said, adding that the money and the replica gun were recovered.

The FBI responded and was interviewing the suspects at township police headquarters, he said.

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