Articles

HOW I ROBBED A BANK

“The worst time was when the guy delivered the guns . . ." Here’s the story of a Canadian who learned crime does not pay, step by step, right up to the penitentiary gates

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN January 15 1950
Articles

HOW I ROBBED A BANK

“The worst time was when the guy delivered the guns . . ." Here’s the story of a Canadian who learned crime does not pay, step by step, right up to the penitentiary gates

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN January 15 1950

HOW I ROBBED A BANK

Articles

“The worst time was when the guy delivered the guns . . ." Here’s the story of a Canadian who learned crime does not pay, step by step, right up to the penitentiary gates

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

THE day I held up a bank I woke up with my stomach in such a knot that I sat around for an hour in my dressing gown trying to slow down my nerves by working at a jigsaw puzzle. It was called “The Last Journey.” I should have taken that title as a hint.

The journey I was going to take that day was only across six feet of Toronto’s frozen, sunlit sidewalk, between a parked car and a bank door; but it had to be retraced slowly and painfully, year by year, through the wreckage of a wasted life. Those five or six steps were going to take me right into another world, where, in five minutes of crashing gunfire, I was to see everything I knew come to an end—decency, security, peace of mind, self-respect; all the hopes and ambitions that had once been me.

But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I was out of a job in the middle of the depression, that I had some business schemes that might work out if I could get some capital; that all I needed was a few thousand bucks—fast.

I knew I was going to do something wrong—• something I’d be ashamed of. But I’d thought about it too long. You can talk yourself into anything if you think about it long enough. Finally, any kind of decision seems better than going around on a mental merry-go-round. I’ve seen men waiting to be hanged think about it so much that they finally said, “To hell with it!”—and forgot about it.

I’d reached that point. I’d decided to do it “just once. And I d decided

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I wasn’t going to get myself caught.

We’d set the time for 1.30 that afternoon. My pals—I’ll call them Morgan and Lang—wouldn’t be at my place for hours. I got shaved and dressed and fidgeted around looking out the window at the congested suburban shopping district where I had my room.

I put in half an hour fixing up a mask out of a black silk scarf I found in an old trunk. It gave me a queer feeling, rummaging around among all the stuff I’d collected during my life—even some things I’d carted around with me since I was a kid.

The worst time came when the guy delivered the guns, a skinny, scruffy little ex-con Morgan had lined up. He was to lend the guns for a small cut of the take. That’s the way the guns are obtained for most jobs.

I stuck the guns into a leather brief case of mine and tossed it under the pull-out couch like a hot potato. It was a good hour before I felt like taking the guns out and looking at them. There was a .32, a .38 and an old Western .44.

I was no thug. I’d come from a good family, had a good bringing up. I’d just drifted, partly through drink, partly through a quick-tempered reaction to tough breaks into trouble that had ended with a bad business deal and a three-month stretch. That was enough to get me having a few beers with guys like Morgan and Lang. But it was too late to change my mind now.

Morgan arrived around noon and Lang a few minutes after with the car. Morgan was a middle-sized man of around 60 with wrinkled, leatherylooking face and sad-looking brown eyes. He was the expert—an expert who’d spent about 30 years in jail!

“We Got Guns, Haven’t We?”

Lang was a taxi driver who was out on bail for holding up a coal company, a stupid-looking beefy guy, a lot younger than Morgan, with small, close-set eyes and a big jaw.

Morgan perched on the edge of the couch, still with his hat and coat on, and said to me: “Everything ready?”

“Sure. I’m ready.”

“The guns here?”

I nodded and pulled them out of the brief case.

“Okay.” He turned to Lang. “You go and get the license off the car. Take it around the lane behind here. Dave and I’ll polish up these guns.”

When we were rubbing the guns down to get rid of any finger prints Morgan said: “I still think we should have grabbed a car on the street.”

It was an argument Morgan and 1 had gone through before. But I’d figured that stealing a car would be just piling up chances of something going wrong and I'd talked him out of it. Lang had borrowed his brother-inlaw’s car on the story that he needed it to see about an out-of-town job.

The car wasn’t the only point Morgan and I had argued about. He’d wanted to lock the bank staff in the vault, but I thought they might smother and I didn’t want to pile up chances of a murder rap. I didn’t like his idea that we could phone later and tell the cops they were there. I didn’t want to give the cops any more leads than I could help.

Now I wanted to get something else cleared up—something important.

“What happens if there’s trouble? I mean, shooting.”

“We got guns, haven’t we?” Morgan answered.

“I don’t want a murder rap hanging over me.”

“Who does? Nobody’s going to put up a fight. Those guys want to live, too. It’s not their money.”

“Maybe. But we oughtn’t to use those guns if we can get out of it.”

Morgan looked at me a long time as if he was trying to figure out how some guys get so queer. Then he said, “So what do we do about it?”

“Leave the shooting to me. If there is any.”

Morgan shrugged. “Okay.”

If it was to be a choice between a bank employee or myself coming out dead I’d made up my mind that it wasn’t going to be me. But I didn’t intend anyone to get killed if I could help it. I knew that if the going got rough Morgan would start shooting at anything that moved.

When Lang got back we went over our plans again. We’d picked a small branch bank a few streets north of where I lived because Morgan had said it was so close to a police station no one would ever think anybody would be screwy enough to pull off a job there.

That was the only idea Morgan had that worked out right. Any cops reading this can make a note of it. Not that they need worry much. It takes more than one good idea to get away with holding up a bank and hold-up men are only good for about one at the outside.

“I Remembered My Grandfather”

The other reason for picking a bank so close was to make it easy for me to case. I’d been casing it for a couple of weeks, feeling so jumpy that it had been all I could do when anyone looked at me to keep from just stopping and staring back.

I’d dropped into the bank three times when it was crowded to change bills, standing at the end of the teller’s lineup and studying the layout. I’d found that the busiest time was around noonhour. The Brinks armored car came every day at 11. The bank had a staff of three, but there was always one person out to lunch between 12 and 2.

We agreed now that we wouldn’t go in if there were more than two customers in the bank. Lang was to stay outside in the car. I was to take care of the manager in his office. Morgan was to go right for the teller and make him open the vault.

We slipped the guns into our pockets, pulled on gloves, tucked our masks down under our overcoat collars and stood there for a few seconds looking at one another, all wondering how the other guy was going to take it. Then we went out to the car.

When we pulled out of the lane I had one last moment when I nearly panicked. I kept thinking of things from my boyhood, when I lived in a white colony in the Caribbean, going to boarding school. I remember thinking of my grandfather, a retired magistrate, and the way he used to sit by the coal-oil lamp after supper, cutting up his rope tobacco and telling my brother and me that the next best thing to being good was to confess your wrongs and take your licking like a man. Then we came to the bank; from then on I thought of nothing but making sure there were no mistakes.

We circled the bank three times. Twice there was someone standing near it. The third time the street was deserted. We pulled up in front of the bank. Morgan and I, our masks beneath our overcoat collars, our guns in the inside breast pocket of our coats, strolled toward the door.

There was just one customer, a stout man of about 40 with hom-rimmed glasses and a bowler hat. He looked toward the door casually and turned

back to the teller again. Morgan opened the door. I went in after him. The second we were inside the door, we pulled up our masks and drew our guns.

From then on I moved as if I were in some kind of trance. One part of me moved by instinct—the same instinct that makes you jump out of the way of a car. All my senses were focused on the job. I could see the whole bank at once, I could see Lang outside in the car, I could see a dozen things that might go wrong. I felt like a coiled-up spring.

“Get Your Hands Up!”

But in another part of me, some part down beneath my senses, my thoughts, there was a feeling I’d never known before—a feeling of being alone. I was looking at a building like any other building, at people like myself, but I was looking at them across a gulf a million miles wide. I was on the opposite side to ages of human tradition, man-made law, biblical law. I didn’t think all that then. I felt it. It was a feeling that I got to know well.

Already something had gone wrong. The manager, instead of being in his office, was behind the back counter. I saw him stare at us, a stocky, red-faced guy with grey hair, and watched him drop behind the counter. I stood there wondering what he was going to try. Morgan reached the teller’s cage in a few steps.

“Get your hands up and back away from that drawer,” I heard him yell at the teller. He was making sure the teller was out of reach of any alarms. The teller, a thin kid of about 18, turned as white as a ghost and did as he was told.

The customer stuck his hands up too. It would have been like an S O S if anyone on the street had looked in at us. Morgan ordered them to drop their hands. He jumped the gate instead of opening it and began prodding the teller toward the vault.

Then the manager came up from behind the counter over near the vault with a gun leveled at me and a funny kind of frozen grin on his face.

I knew this was it. The thing I hadn’t wanted to face. I had my own gun down low with the butt pressed into my belly.

I yelled, “Drop your gun!”

There was an explosion. I don’t know where his bullet went. I know I thought it went through me. I can see the muzzle of the gun yet, and it still looks about six inches wide to me.

I remember, too, a feeling of surprise.

He fired again. This time I heard glass crash behind me.

“Drop your gun or I’ll let you have it!” I yelled again.

He was getting set again with the same funny grin parting his lips. I stopped thinking. Something was

trying to kill me. I squeezed the

trigger. I kept squeezing it until the gun was empty. After, I^ang told me that the firing sounded like a machine gun.

I saw my bullets rip into the counter and the wall. I saw one tear into the manager’s hand, heard his gun drop and saw him go down behind the counter.

By now the place was full of Hmoke and I heard people running out on the sidewalk. I wanted to get it over with.

I wanted to get out in that car. But something kept me there, moving mechanically toward the counter where the manager had dropped.

Morgan came out of the teller's cage, saw the manager reaching for his gun again, walked over to him and shot him twice, once through his shoulder, again through his thigh.

Then another customer arrived, a woman in a brown coat and green beret. She came in the front door with her passbook in her hand, took one look at Morgan, at me, and the smoking guns, and you could hear her suck in air. Lang, who’d left the car when he saw her head for the bank, came up behind her and told her to go right inside and stand still. She did.

Morgan and I jumped for the vault. It was locked! Morgan prodded the teller over to the vault and told him to do his half of the combination. Then the manager dragged himself over to work his half, but his hand was smashed and bleeding from my bullet.

The three of us stood there watching him fumble around with his bloody fingers.

I heard Lang, back in the car, rocking it back and forth ready to take off in any direction. I figured he was losing his nerve. I went to the door with my gun in my hand and a mask over my face and yelled over the heads of half a dozen gaping people: “Stay

where you are!”

When I went back the vault was still locked. “Let’s get out of here,” I

Morgan and I ran for the teller’s cage, scooped up all the loose cash, stuffed it into our overcoat pockets, and broke for the car.

Lang was going almost before we were inside. “Anybody killed in there?” he stammered.

“No,” I said, but I wasn’t so sure. I couldn’t get the manager off my mind.

I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to get away—fast.

Lang drove us along a side street, down to the main street and doubled back to the apartment.

We parked the car in the lane and went up to my room. It was all over— 20 minutes from the time we’d left the room. I couldn’t quite believe it. I felt queer and as if I’d been dreaming. I wish I had been.

While Morgan and I divided the money three ways the best we could without counting it we sent Ding out to put the license plates back on the car. He was in a hurry, and excited. He bolted on the front plate and got one bolt in the rear plate, but he couldn’t find the other bolt. So he left it.

Morgan hopped a streetcar and started for home. Lang was to take the car back to his brother-in-law’s and return the guns. Before he left I warned him not to go near the intersection where we’d pulled the job.

The End of the Trail

“The corner will be crawling with cops,” I told him. “Keep away from it. Take a long circle around.”

Lang nodded and left.

Why I’ll never know, but he drove right past the intersection. The funny part of it is that he would have gotten away with it except for that missing bolt.

A motorcycle cop happened to notice the rear license hanging down and pulled up beside Ding to tell him to go and get it fixed before he lost it.

As soon as Ding saw the cop he tossed up his hands and said, “You’ve got me.”

That must have been one puzzled cop. But he played safe. He told Ding to drive to the station. Lang had got partly out of the car. When he got back in he knocked my brief case out on the street. The cop didn't see it. But an old Indy tapped the cop on the arm and pointed to it.

The cop picked it up, felt the weight and opened it. He whipped out his gun, tossed Ding a pair of handcuffs

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and made him handcuff himself to the steering wheel.

In the station, when the cop told his story, the sergeant, on a chance shot, said to Lang, “We’re booking you on a charge of murder.”

Lang blew then. “I didn’t do it,” he blabbed. “I wasn’t even in the bank. It was Morgan and Dave. I was out in the car all the time.”

A few minutes later while I was looking for a couple of inside pieces for “The Last Journey” my door was kicked open and I turned around to see six detectives standing in the hall, all with guns pointed at my head.

I thought I’d known what it was like to be scared. I had a lot to learn. I sat there afraid to breathe.

One of them told me to get my hands up, quick. I did. I stood up. Then another of them smashed me in the

face and knocked me right across the room onto a couch. He crossed the room, grabbed me by the collar, dragged me halfway over the table and held me there with my face plastered into the tabletop while the others went through my pockets and clapped handcuffs on me.

That was the end of my adventure in crime. I decided then and there that if this was an easy way of making a living I’d had enough of it. I’d taken everything into my own hands and I’d made a mess of it.

I laid around in jail for four months while the police pinned together the case against us. At the trial the bank manager, whom we had put in hospital for long, painful weeks, amazed me by going to bat for me in a way. He got me clear of an attempted murder charge, really, by stating he did not believe I had intended to kill him.

I was sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary for my part in the job, but I got the maximum time off for good behavior and served 12.

So I’ve learned a lot of things, things I’d like to tell the youngsters I see hanging around the street comers today. I sometimes try to give them a steer, but I can’t get what I want to say across to them.

I’d like to tell them something they’ve heard before—with a new angle that they might be able to understand. I’d like to tell them that crime doesn’t pay, even in dollars and cents.

Hold-up men, as a class, aren’t very bright at figures. Even the few that get away with it don’t do as well as if they went to work.

Or did I mention that after Morgan, Lang and I counted the money we each had a little under $300? And we had it for about 10 minutes, if