“I was looking to do something where I felt like I was making a difference, and that’s how I came to do what I do today," said North Richland Hills Police Lt. Jeff Garner.
That is how Garner describes his desire to be a police officer. He’s been an officer for 20 years. “What got me into policing is the same as gets most of us into policing,” he said. “The desire to help others and make a difference in the world.”
But Garner is also a victim—a victim in one of his own department’s cold cases. “Solving crimes is a very important part of who I am,” said Det. Eric Whitlock, who’s been a detective with NRHPD for five years, but has been with the department for 12.
“I first heard about this case when I hired on in 2006,” he said. “One of the cops you work with was shot, so everyone knows about it.”
On March 3, 2003, police say a man walked into what was then a Bank One at 6624 Watauga Road in Watauga. There is video surveillance of him inside the bank. “He donned a cowboy hat,” Det. Whitlock said. He had an eye patch over his left eye…had notable acne scarring or chicken pox scars.”
He also was wearing what authorities believe to be a fake mustache. After robbing the bank, police say the man fled in a red Jeep. “March 3, 2003,” Lt. Garner recalled, “I was a motor officer at the time.
“I was working with my partner and we were working up on the north end of our city and running laser.” He had no idea a bank robbery had just occurred in neighboring Watauga. “We were just finishing up and thinking about going and getting lunch and that’s when I saw the Jeep,” he said.
Lt. Garner noticed the Jeep had a fake Lousiana buyer's tag, so he went to initiate a traffic stop. A short chase ensued. “He accelerated very rapidly and spun his tires and swung out and headed straight towards me,” he remembered.
He got off his motorcycle and ran for cover. “As I looked back, I saw him reach his hand out the window and he was holding a gun,” Garner said. “As soon as I saw that, he started firing…He shot at me five times.”
Garner was hit once in the ankle. “I was terrified, you know. I was in fear for my life.” In the 15 years since the shooting, the suspect was never caught.
“My passion is cold case crimes,” Detective Whitlock told us one day in September. Det. Whitlock's has made it his goal to find the person they've dubbed "The Cowboy Hat Bandit."
“I uncovered a lot of information that led me to believe this wasn’t the first time this individual had robbed a bank,” he told us. “We believe him to be connected to six other bank robberies.” Those robberies occurred in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Arlington and Wichita (Kansas) between 1998 and 2003.
“My idea was if I could solve any one of those cases, then I have our suspect,” Whitlock said.
There is something the department is hoping may help crack the case wide open. Using DNA evidence they collected, they’ve been able to collaborate with Parabon laboratories to create an image of what this suspect looked like at the time of the shooting. Based on his DNA, the experts believe he is of Northern European descent, had fair to very fair skin, brown or hazel eyes and dark hair.
Police are now releasing the image of the suspect in hopes someone who knows the person comes forward. “It leaves me feeling hopeful,” Garner said. “When I saw that photo that was compiled through the DNA data that Parabon did, it was amazing. I immediately recognized traits I’d locked in my mind’s eye from when I saw him drive past me in the jeep.”
“This is the person who shot not only my colleague, but my friend,” Whitlock said. Whitlock believes the suspect may be from Oklahoma. They are not sure if the person is still alive; what they do know is someone knows something about either the suspect or the crime, and they can make things right by speaking up.
“I'm hopeful that someone will come forward. Someone recognizes this person, we know likely someone knows the whole story,” Garner said.
If you have any information on this crime or the Cowboy Hat Bandit, you’re asked to call Detective Whitlock at 817-427-7017 or Crime Stoppers at 817-469-8477.