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A Buffalo police officer had to make one of the toughest decisions of his life last week after he saw a television news report featuring a bank surveillance photo of a woman wanted for bank robbery.

The officer recognized the woman as a close relative -- a person who has been through emotional distress and drug problems.

He knew that she recently had come into a lot of money and that other family members were wondering whether she had robbed a bank.

Weighing devotion to family against his duty as a law enforcement officer, the policeman made a tough call -- he turned his relative's name over to the FBI.

As a result, Marlo McGee, 30, of Riley Street was arrested last week in connection with eight bank robberies. A mother of three with a $700-a-day crack cocaine habit, she appeared Monday in a detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio.

"That's a tough one," said one investigator familiar with the case. "I would not want to have to deal with that one myself."

Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Gillmeister said, "It had to be an impossible situation for the officer. It would be a terrible situation for anybody, but especially for someone in law enforcement. What if he had done nothing and she had killed someone, or if she had been killed? He made the right call."

McGee, who reportedly has admitted to robbing eight local banks of a total of more than $10,000, was put in the custody of federal marshals after a prosecutor told Foschio that he feared that she would commit more robberies if she were released on bail.

Foschio turned down a request from a federal public defender, Joseph B. Mistrett, that McGee be confined to her home until further proceedings in the case.

"She has a crack cocaine habit to the tune of $700 to $1,000 a day," Gillmeister said. "Given the extent of her habit, . . . there is a grave risk that she will go out and commit other crimes."

Foschio said, "I understand she's been through a lot. But so were the bank tellers who were threatened with a gun, and with threatening notes. I have to consider that, too."

According to the FBI, McGee robbed the following banks during a crime spree that lasted just over two months:

Fleet Bank in Depew on July 16, Fleet Bank in Niagara Falls on July 26, M&T Bank in Orchard Park on Aug. 5, HSBC Bank in Williamsville on Aug. 10, Fleet Bank in Cheektowaga on Aug. 10, Key Bank in West Seneca on Sept. 9, Key Bank in Clarence on Sept. 10, and
Fleet Bank in Tonawanda on Sept. 20.

A former nurse's assistant, McGee is likely to face at least seven years in prison, even if she takes a guilty plea in the case, prosecutors said. She is accused of brandishing a gun during one of the robberies, and of threatening on other occasions to kill bank tellers and their families.

Family members described McGee as basically a good and loving person whose life spun out of control earlier this year, after her mother and father died over a period of three weeks.

"She's not a violent person," said her stepbrother, Reid Saffron of Buffalo. "She's active in her church. She loves her children dearly. She wants to get home to them, so badly.

"These crimes are totally unlike her. She's never been in trouble with the law in her life. But her mother died on Feb. 3, and her father died three weeks later. She's also been to Roswell Park for some health problems of her own. She's been having a very hard time, under a tremendous amount of stress."

Saffron said his stepsister has two sons, ages 13 and 9, and a daughter born six months ago. The children reportedly are under the supervision of child-welfare authorities.

According to law enforcement officials, McGee left her baby waiting in her car during one of the more recent bank holdups.

The name of the officer who contacted the FBI, and his specific relationship to McGee, were not released by police. Authorities said the officer felt compelled to call the FBI after recognizing his relative in a photo that showed a bandit leaving a bank after one of the holdups.

The officer had heard from other relatives that the woman had been seen carrying a large amount of currency, and some had speculated that she had robbed a bank. The officer's information led the FBI to show photos of McGee to some of the bank tellers who had been robbed, and ultimately, to McGee's arrest on Friday.

Special Agent Paul M. Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo office of the FBI, said the large majority of bank robberies in Western New York are committed by males.

"I would estimate maybe one-tenth of the bank robberies in our area are committed by women, but we're gradually seeing more and more women charged," Moskal said.

The number of bank robberies in the Buffalo has varied sharply in recent years, ranging from 29 in 1995 to 89 in 1997. There have been approximately 35 so far this year, Moskal said.

Arrests of female bank robbers have been rare in the region, but last year, Lisa Jo Watson, 26, of Cheektowaga, was sentenced to three years and one month in prison.

Police said Watson, who was active as a church volunteer, took her two toddler sons -- ages 1 and 2 -- in her family van on Sept. 3, 1997 when she robbed a Lockport Savings Bank branch on French Road in Cheektowaga. Watson admitted that she had also robbed a West Seneca bank three months earlier.

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