FOREST CITY — An armed robber’s second attempt at a bank heist evolved into a car chase and crash, then a foot pursuit before he was finally captured in a wooded area.
An attentive employee at the HomeTrust Bank, Butler Road, foiled another robbery Tuesday and helped lead to the arrest of Stephon Lovell Kerns, 32, of Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was charged with armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon. Kerns is suspected of robbing the HomeTrust branch on Dec. 21, according to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.
Around 12:04 p.m. a bank employee spotted Kerns outside the bank wearing the same hoodie and red gloves used in the December robbery.
“They saw him in the area when they were going to lunch,” Sheriff Chris Francis said. “They were able to lock their doors and call 911.”
The dispatcher alerted both the Sheriff’s Office and Forest City police at the same time, Francis said.
Shortly thereafter a Forest City police officer spotted Kerns fleeing the area in a 2006 Mercury. A chase ensued in the area behind the Tri-City Mall before eventually heading east on Oak Street. The chase continued onto Woods Drive until Kerns crashed into a vehicle at the intersection of Woods and Commercial drives.
“The crash disabled the suspect’s car,” Francis said. “The suspect then ran into a wooded area dense with pine trees.”
Meanwhile, Forest City police and the Sheriff’s Office surrounded the woods as they continued to look for Kerns. Sheriff’s Capt. J. Padgett and Sgt. B. King found Kerns and brought him into custody at 12:23 p.m., Francis said.
A search later of the apartment of Kern’s girlfriend found that the suspect had weapons stashed there. Francis said he believes a handgun recovered there was used in the earlier robbery at HomeTrust.
Kerns’ second attempt at the bank, however, proved to be unsuccessful.
“I praise the attentiveness of the bank employees and their eye for detail as well as the dispatcher for contacting both agencies at the same time,” Francis said.
Kerns is suspected of a bank robbery in Spartanburg on Dec. 22, the day after the first heist in Forest City.
After detectives found similarities of the HomeTrust robbery with crimes in Spartanburg, a joint investigation was launched between the Sheriff’s Office and South Carolina authorities, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Investigators suspect Kerns is linked to as many as 17 robberies of financial institutions and businesses in South Carolina.
Kerns, a convicted felon, has a criminal history that includes a previous conviction of robbery.
In addition to the bank employees and dispatcher, Francis lauded Forest City police for their help in the arrest of Kerns and the cooperation of the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office with compiling evidence connecting Kerns to the robbery in Rutherford County.
The investigation remains ongoing.