Stepping out of the drugstore in April with a handgun and a wad of stolen cash, Kyle Hammaker probably hoped he would slip into obscurity: one lowly robber among hundreds who strike in Mesa each year.
But obscurity would not be his. After at least two more heists in the next few weeks, netting him hundreds of dollars, local law enforcement dubbed Hammaker the “Baseball Cap Bandit.”
The name came from the black-and-white hats he wore during the robberies.
In giving him the nickname, police put Hammaker among a handful of other mid- and high-level criminals from the East Valley given similar monikers in recent years.
The Baseline Killer, Serial Shooters and Chandler Rapist are in that group.
But so are many lesser-known criminals, such as the Zip Tie Robbers and YouTube Bandit in Mesa, the Salon Bandit in Scottsdale, and the Oxycontin Outlaw in Tempe.
Almost always, the nicknames are given when police don’t know the identity of the criminal but have enough evidence to say the crimes are connected.
Such flashy names can catch the public’s attention when splashed across the evening TV news or morning paper, and some in law enforcement say the publicity is an important tool in helping them catch criminals.
But others say the nicknames risk turning bad guys into folk heroes.
“We certainly don’t want to add any fame to someone who’s doing a crime spree by giving them a catchy nickname,” said Scottsdale police Detective Mark Clark.
As the lead spokesman for the Scottsdale Police Department, Clark said the agency tries to avoid turning criminals into household names. They don’t want to give them “undue fame,” he said.
One exception to the rule was the case of the infamous Rock Burglar, a serial criminal who broke into hundreds of luxury homes in the Scotts-dale area, often by throwing rocks through windows.
The burglaries went on for more than a decade, then mysteriously stopped in early 2005. No suspect was ever named, but somewhere along the way, the case picked up the nickname.
“That is pretty easy,” Clark said, calling it the longest-lasting case in Scottsdale history. “That’s one that was coined by the detectives.”
Most often, it’s the detectives or investigators who come up with the nicknames as a way to keep track of linked cases, several East Valley police spokesmen said.
For Hammaker’s nickname, police records show he was probably given the Baseball Cap Bandit title sometime in early May after an investigator noticed several recent armed robberies were similar and the suspect always wore a ball cap.
Police didn’t know Hammaker’s real name at the time, so they created the nickname to tie the cases together, said Tempe police spokesman Sgt. Mike Horn.
“It’s more a mechanism for us internally to keep track of a certain suspect,” Horn said. “It’s just usually something to identify a set of trends.”
If the suspect becomes a threat to public safety or if police believe the public can help find the suspect, Horn said investigators will sometimes make that nickname public. It can bring more attention to the crimes.
“You’re looking for ways to better spread the word,” he said.
From a marketing standpoint, Jason Rose, president of Rose & Allyn public relations in Scottsdale, said the titles become brand names for criminals — but that’s exactly the point.
“Is there a short-term possibility that they become a disgusting, despicable quasi-celebrity?” Rose said. “Yes.”
But, he added, if it leads to an arrest and conviction, it’s worth it.
The history of criminals with nicknames goes back to at least the days of the Wild West in the mid to late 1800s, when thieves and killers such as Billy the Kid, Three-Fingered Jack McDowell and Dynamite Dick Clifton, robbed banks and evaded the law.
Then in 1888, serial killers started receiving the names, too. That was the year a London man was killing prostitutes on the city’s East End.
British newsrooms received hundreds of letters about the slayings during that period. Nearly lost among them was one from a man who claimed to be the killer.
“Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal,” he wrote in a two-page manifesto. “How can they catch me now?”
The signature read: “Jack the Ripper.”
“Don’t mind me giving the trade name,” he wrote.
In the 120 years since then, the “trade name” of Jack the Ripper has become a historical milestone of sorts. Serial killers throughout the world have claimed their own nicknames or been given one by police or the media since then.
The Zodiac, Green River, and BTK (for Bind, Torture, Kill) killers have made headlines all their own in the United States.
Many of the cases point to the role media play in the nicknames, too. Tempe police spokesman Horn said he often sees cases of the media creating its own nicknames for criminals, just to add excitement to a story.
“Clearly, the media is a business, and sometimes they’ve got to find ways to promote whatever they’re covering,” Horn said.
Otherwise, evidence of how well the nicknames work in catching suspects is hard to come by.
In the cases of the Chandler Rapist and Baseline Killer, DNA and other forensic evidence were the big breaks that led to arrests of suspects. For the Serial Shooters, the suspects were arrested after one of their drinking buddies became a police informant.
In the case of the Baseball Cap Bandit, police connected Hammaker, who could not be reached for comment on this story, to the robberies by using forensic evidence found on a hat he dropped in the parking lot of a Mesa drugstore.
He has since pleaded guilty to three of the robberies and is scheduled to be sentenced in Maricopa County Superior Court this week.
Nicknamed suspects in Valley crimes:
Reason for name: Incidents often took place close to Baseline Road
Suspect: Mark Goudeau
Arrested: Aug. 6, 2006
Reason for name: Random shootings of numerous people, killing six, over several months
Suspects: Dale Hausner and Sam Dieteman
Arrested: Aug. 3, 2006
Reason for name: Sexual assaults of five young girls in Chandler
Suspect: Santana Batiz-Aceves
Arrested: Jan. 11
Reason for name: Thefts of painkiller OxyContin from several drug stores
Suspect: Brian Spinks
Arrested: Oct. 13, 2007
Baseball Cap Bandit
Reason for name: Wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses during heists
Suspect: Kyle Hammaker
Arrested: May 12, 2007
Reason for name: Surveillance video of the crime was posted on YouTube.com by robbery victim
Suspect: Michael L. Adams
Arrested: Dec. 26, 2007
Reason for name: Several robberies were at beauty salons.
Suspect: Joe Watson
Arrested: March 30, 2007
Reason for name: Threw rocks through windows to break into houses
No suspect identified
Reason for name: Skipped out on a bill for $1,400 in Botox facial treatments
Suspect: Sandra Foster
Arrested: March 31, 2006
Zip Tie Robbers
Reason for name: Plastic “zip-tie” cables used to restrain victims during robberies
Suspects: Kalib Andrade-Mondragon, Juan José Mendez, Humberto Ochoa-Alvarado, Juan Felipe Torres-Torres and Javier Robledo-Rodriguez
Arrested: October 2007