Suspect in biggest bank robbery ever in Nassau to stand trial after 21 years

Suspect Claude S. Bird in 1993, and in Suspect Claude S. Bird in 1993, and in 2010. Bird faces six counts of armed robbery and has pleaded not guilty. Photo Credit: NCPD

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More than two decades after what police believe was the biggest bank heist in Nassau County history, one of the suspects is expected to go on trial Tuesday in a Mineola courtroom.

The teller and getaway driver went to prison for their roles in the $241,000 robbery at a European American Bank branch on Dakota Drive in Lake Success.

Authorities say the robbery was timed right after an armored truck delivery.

Claude Bird, a married 42- year-old father of several children who lives in the Bronx, faces six counts of armed robbery. He has pleaded not guilty. Authorities believe Bird, a Jamaican national, fled to his homeland after the March 8, 1993, robbery with a "sizable amount" of the loot. The money was not recovered, prosecutors said.

Norman Palmer, then 21, of Baldwin, whom police said was the getaway driver, and Nadine Smith, then 23, of Queens, the teller, were both convicted of first-degree robbery. Records show Palmer -- Bird's cousin -- was released in 2001; Smith was released in 1997.

Palmer and Smith gave statements to police implicating Bird, according to court records.

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Police also searched for a fourth robber but never reported finding him.

Bird -- whom authorities had in their sights in 1994 before he slipped away until his 2010 arrest in New York City -- also provided the prosecution with what could be powerful evidence at his upcoming trial.

Police in Kingston, Jamaica, notified Nassau detectives in April 1994 that they had apprehended Bird, who gave Jamaican authorities a statement admitting his involvement in the robbery, according to court records.

The detectives went to Jamaica and did their own interview with Bird, who again allegedly detailed his role in the heist.

Bird allegedly said he was part of the group that planned the robbery by casing the bank location and getting the teller's instructions about the money delivery. According to court records, he told police he was wearing a mask when he and another gunman later went into the bank, where he bounded over a counter and demanded that employees open the vault. The suspects made off with a bag of money, police said.

The government's case suffered a setback before U.S. authorities could extradite Bird. While the prosecution contends Bird escaped from a Jamaican jail, the defense claims a Jamaican judge released him after many months after getting no satisfactory answer to requests about the legality of Bird's detention.

Police said at the time of Bird's arrest that he sneaked back into the United States from Canada in 1994 or 1995. They said he later got a New York driver's license in the name of a dead man from the Midwest.

Bird was caught after he tried to get a license in his real name, according to police. They said workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles got suspicious after finding he already had a license in the dead man's name.

Court records show facial recognition software was instrumental in breaking the case and alerting authorities to Bird's arrest warrant.

He told investigators he was unemployed but had worked as a barber. When told he was under arrest for the bank heist, he said: "I thought it was taken care of in Jamaica."

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A Nassau judge dismissed Bird's indictment in 2011, finding the government violated his right to a speedy trial. But an appellate court reversed the dismissal.

A judge later found that Bird's 20-year-old statement to Nassau detectives could be used at trial, but ruled his statement to Jamaican police couldn't be used because of conditions "that shock the judicial conscience." The judge said in part that it's unclear how long Bird was in a small, dark, dirt-floored cell without access to a lawyer before local police questioned him.

Bird's attorney, Toni Marie Angeli of Garden City, and District Attorney Kathleen Rice's office declined to comment on the case. An armed robbery conviction carries up to 25 years in prison, authorities said. Bird is free while awaiting trial.

Outside legal experts said there can be multiple challenges for both sides when it comes to a trial that takes place decades after an alleged crime.

William Petrillo, a criminal defense lawyer based in Garden City and former Nassau prosecutor, said witnesses might no longer be available or cooperative and their memories could have faded.

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"The foggier the memories, the harder it is to sustain the burden of proof," Petrillo said.

Criminal defense attorney Brian Griffin, also a former Nassau prosecutor with a Garden City office, said jurors also might be somewhat uninterested in something from so long ago.

"You might imagine a jury saying, 'Why are we talking about something that happened 20 years ago?' "

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