St. Patrick's Day bank robbers from upscale suburb

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. - Two bank robbers whose lives ended in a deadly shootout on St. Patrick's Day were college students from the upscale Nashville suburb of Brentwood whom friends described on a Facebook tribute page as creative and funny.

Ryan Skinner, the 20-year-old getaway driver, was a Western Kentucky University student and an aspiring meteorologist who had an internship at a Nashville television station last year.

David Cotton, a 21-year-old student at Columbia State Community College, is shown in a police video shooting at a police cruiser while hanging out the getaway car's window. He dressed as a Leprechaun during the robbery and has been identified as the person who robbed a Nashville bank dressed as Santa Claus in December.

Police are still searching for clues to explain why the pair would resort to crime.

"This is unusual to have two individuals of their apparent financial stature robbing banks," said Keith Moses, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Nashville. "But it goes back to the motive, and that we've yet to determine."

The seemingly cold-blooded way in which Cotton fired on police after the Wednesday robbery starkly contrasted with the fun-loving person friends described in Internet postings.

"David, you were an intelligent, funny and creative guy and a great friend," a Facebook posting from Heather Duensing reads.

Cotton made a number of silly videos and short films posted on YouTube, including one called "Spink: Attack of the Killer Ink Pens."

His parents and siblings said in a statement issued through a family friend that Cotton was a "sunshine person."

"To us he was a warm, loving and thoughtful son and brother. He was quick with a smile and a helping hand. His intelligence and creativity were wonderful and enjoyable. His friendliness made him a joy to be around."

Jill Skinner, Ryan Skinner's older sister, said the family wasn't ready to talk about his death.

"We are absolutely shocked and bewildered and we just want to leave it at that," she said on Friday.

Jordan Diaz writes on Facebook that he met both Cotton and Skinner as Freshmen at Brentwood High School.

"Ryan was quiet, but a nice dude. David had a good sense of humor. They both made doing the Christmas play fun. ... I couldn't imagine them harming a fly."

The FBI's Moses said Cotton joked with bank tellers in a similar way during both the Christmas and St. Patrick's Day robberies. He declined to reveal what was said, but a witness to the Dec. 22 heist told WTVF-TV in Nashville he was frightened by the jovial robber who pulled a gun from his Santa sack and demanded money, saying he needed it for his elves.

Police have since recovered a Santa suit from Cotton's residence.

Investigators aren't sure if Cotton acted alone in December because there was no getaway driver spotted during that robbery.

Security footage from both holdups showed what looked to be the same weapon used in both bank heists, Moses said.

Cotton used a Kimber .45 caliber semi-automatic weapon in the St. Patrick's Day robbery.

It's the same gun Cotton is holding in a YouTube video that appears to spoof police dramas, Gallatin Police Chief John Tisdale said.

It's also the gun he used to kill himself when police surrounded Cotton and Skinner in a field near a subdivision. The two were standing and appeared unharmed when Cotton said something to Skinner that police weren't close enough to hear and then shot himself, Tisdale said.

Skinner then reached down and grabbed the gun before police shot and killed him.

"Our preference would have been to capture them without hurting them," Tisdale said.

It is relatively rare for bank robberies to turn violent. Statistics compiled by the FBI indicate that in 2008 - the last year for which complete statistics are available - there were 6,849 robberies, burglaries and larcenies of banks and similar financial institutions. Only 4 percent of those involved acts of violence, and fewer than 1 percent resulted in anyone's death.

Cotton previously had a scrape with the law and was serving a three-year probation sentence for burglarizing two Brentwood schools over a three-day period.

Cotton and another man, who was not involved in the St. Patrick's Day robbery, stole more than $25,000 worth of computers, cameras and other electronic equipment from Crockett Elementary and Woodland Middle School.

Some of the more bizarre items taken in the thefts include a large, stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dog and a yellow traffic-control light, Brentwood Police Capt. Tommy Walsh said.

Police eventually discovered many of the electronic items on sale on eBay and recovered them from the homes of Cotton and his accomplice, Christopher Ververis.