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`STOPWATCH' BANDIT KNOWS WHAT TIME IT IS

By many accounts, including his own, Patrick Michael Mitchell was the country's best bank robber.

His finely tuned "Stopwatch Gang" snatched millions from banks across the United States and Canada. He estimates he took part in more than 100 heists from 1980 until his most recent capture early last year.He takes pride in the precision with which gang members carried out the crime in less than two minutes. The three bandits also were known as the "presidential robbers," because they often wore masks of ex-presidents.

"We wouldn't rob a bank for $10,000," Mitchell said during an interview with The Associated Press. "We always shot for anything over $100,000, and if we thought it would be less, we didn't go."

Neither he nor prosecutors would estimate how much he stole over the years, but agreed the tally was several million dollars.

The money went fast: for cars, planes, gambling trips to Las Vegas and frequent changes of address. Mitchell, born in Ottawa, Canada, even claims to have given away $300,000 in two years.

"You can spend it in a year. Isn't that terrible?" said Mitchell. "But when you're on the run . . . You pay $3,000 or $4,000 a month for an apartment. You eat in restaurants. You buy two or three cars a year because you're always leaving cars behind."

Tucked among his fast-paced heists were two jail terms in Arizona and Canada - both interrupted by escape. His exploits have been the subject of a book called "The Stopwatch Gang" and a number of television documentaries.

Mitchell's Stopwatch cohorts have finished serving their sentences. While they were behind bars, he continued to rob and travel around the world.

But the man once on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list now faces more than a half-century behind bars.

His cycle of rob, party, capture and escape abruptly ended Feb. 22, 1994, because of an alert police chief in Southaven, a quiet northeast Mississippi suburb of Memphis, Tenn.

Mitchell had spent weeks preparing to rob a bank there. "This bank my sister could have robbed," he said. "It was an easy, easy bank. There was nothing to it, but I was too much in a hurry."

He had to move his plans up after being featured on the "America's Most Wanted" television program, and he also hadn't counted on local lawmen being wise to an old trick.

Mitchell telephoned police and threatened to blow up City Hall, certain this would divert attention while he robbed the bank. The ploy had worked before.

"There's only nine banks in the whole town and the police chief sent a police car to every one of them," Mitchell said. "I was in and out in about 45 seconds. I scooped up the money bags and left, but they (police) were waiting."

Already facing jail time for earlier bank heists in Arizona and Canada, Mitchell was sentenced on Oct. 13, 1994, to an additional 30 years for the Mississippi holdup. And on July 6, an additional five years were tacked on for an unsuccessful jail escape on Oct. 24, 1994.