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FEDERAL RESERVE BRANCH IS LOW KEY AMID $10.8 MILLION HEIST, ROUTINE OPERATIONS CONTINUE

The three-story, stone facade of the Federal Reserve Bank on Delaware Avenue is imposing but inconspicuous.

The hedges are trimmed.

Marigolds are blooming.

It's hardly Fort Knox. No rifle-toting, uniformed guards stand at attention at the front double glass doors.

In fact, the security turret encased in bulletproof glass and overlooking the entrance to the branch at 160 Delaware Ave. is empty.

In sum, there is little, if anything, to catch the eye of a passing pedestrian or motorist.

Only when robbers lift $10.8 million from an armored car headed for this Buffalo branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York do people wake up and notice what's in their backyard.

"This is the worst thing that could possibly happen," said Gary Weintraub, who oversees the branch's cash division. "We run a big operation here, and we try to keep a low profile."

The last thing bank officials want to do is attract attention.

Investigators are continuing to interview witnesses who either saw the armored vehicle Tuesday morning outside Rochester or the gray custom van crammed with empty Federal Bank money trays that was discovered Wednesday.

The intense publicity is especially frustrating, Weintraub said, because the heist has not affected branch operations.

The Federal Reserve is not responsible for transporting money from local lending institutions to the facility. "That's between the individual bank and the armored truck company," he said.

As a banker's bank, the Federal Reserve takes in billions of dollars in cash and checks from lending institutions each year. The Buffalo facility alone handles transactions for more than 400 bank branches in more than 30 counties in the state.

The daily flow of dollars into Buffalo is "in the tens of millions," Weintraub said.

Weintraub declined to comment on reports that at least a billion dollars is housed in the building. It's not that he doesn't know, however.

"We better be able to account for every penny," he said, noting that federal bank examiners could drop in at any moment.

With the help of more than 80 video cameras, bank auditors can track a bill from the loading dock to the vault.

"We know where the currency is and who's handled it at every step of the way," said Daniel Sikorski, assistant chief of the cash division.

The missing $10.8 million, if delivered as scheduled Tuesday, would have been unloaded in blue plastic containers marked "NYFRB."

Plastic money holders replaced the old canvas bags about five years ago. Though the new containers look flimsy, it's much easier to detect whether one has been tampered with, Weintraub said.

Once in the building, employees must not only count the funds, but sort it by denomination, chuck torn and old bills, and fish out counterfeit currency.

Huge sorting machines tackle the processing at a rate of 70,000 bills an hour -- or $1.4 million worth of $20 bills.

Ripped and crumpled bills unfit for circulation are shredded twice and then dumped into the garbage.

Workers are paired off to ensure no one is left alone with the crisp green bundles. Each potential staff member is carefully screened, and those in the cash division are tested almost every month.

For instance, management alters the bundle counts to make sure employees are alert and are recording discrepancies in their cash piles.

Despite all these security measures, few employees seem fazed by the millions of dollars passing through their fingertips each day.

"It's like carrying two packages of groceries," said a 32-year branch veteran, who stacks $100,000 bundles in one of the facility's vaults. "It's just paper to us.

"Just tell me how many to lift, so I can get it done and get home," he added.

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