As a federal prosecutor in Mississippi for over thirty years, John Hailman worked with federal agents, lawyers, judges, and criminals of every stripe. In From Midnight to Guntown, he recounts amazing trials and bad guy antics from the darkly humorous to the needlessly tragic.
In addition to bank robbers–generally the dumbest criminals–Hailman describes scam artists, hit men, protected witnesses, colorful informants, corrupt officials, bad guys with funny nicknames, over-the-top investigators, and those defendants who had a certain roguish charm. Several of his defendants and victims have since had whole books written about them: Dickie Scruggs, Emmett Till, Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, and Paddy Mitchell, leader of the most successful bank robbery gang of the twentieth century. But Hailman delivers the inside story no one else can. He also recounts his scary experiences after 9/11 when he prosecuted terrorism cases.
John Hailman was a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford for thirty-three years, was an inaugural Overby Fellow in journalism, and is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Thomas Jefferson on Wine from University Press of Mississippi.
Here is the first installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman
We once took an informal poll in my office for our favorite crime to prosecute. The result was unanimous: Bank robbery. Why? Well, a bank robbery is fast-moving and exciting, and even though there is an element of force and violence, physical injury is pretty rare although there is often emotional trauma to the tellers and other victims. There is also no confusion about whether a crime was committed. In a white collar case there is usually no doubt who did it, the only question is whether what the accused did was a crime and whether he knew it was a crime. With bank robbery the issue is the opposite: it’s clearly a crime, the only issue is identity. Was the defendant the one who did it?
A bank robbery is also a kind of set piece, almost like a play with well-known roles and actors. There may be a getaway driver, a lookout, tellers trying to memorize the robber’s appearance or tag number, and occasionally a pursuing posse. The robber usually has a disguise, whether a ski mask, a lady’s stocking with eyeholes, even a Halloween mask. Normally there is a weapon, whether a pistol, bomb (real or fake), or a concealed sawed-off shotgun (that’s why it’s sawed off). Many robbers use some sort of demand note; others foolishly use their own voices, which can later be used to identify them.
Then there is the getaway vehicle or vehicles, usually a car, but occasionally a bicycle or even a scooter, which moves more easily through modern urban traffic. I have even experienced occasional old-time bank robbers who rely on foot-speed. Others pick a rural bank near a swamp or a drainage ditch and hide their getaway car on the other side to fool old-fashioned tracking dogs.
Most bank-robbers use what is known as a “switch-car,” i.e. a second car parked in a secluded spot not too far from the bank where they can ditch the first getaway car, whose tag number might have been recorded by an eyewitness. Bank robbers often steal a car just before the robbery to use for the immediate getaway, then ditch it and drive away in their own (hopefully unobserved) car. I am always amazed how often amateur bank robbers borrow a car from a family member, which results in the family member being an unwilling but crucial witness against them at trial.
One challenge which amateurs never seem to think of is how to safely spend the robbery proceeds, referred to in the trade as “the loot.” Tellers keep stacks of “marked” bills to give to robbers. They are not really marked; the serial numbers are just recorded at each teller’s counter. Those large-denomination bills are then fairly easy to trace. Nearly every bank now has surveillance cameras and dye pack devices which look like stacks of bills, but are actually trick bags with real bills on the outside concealing a pack of red dye and tear gas hidden inside along with a minor explosive which is set off by an electric charge hidden in the door frame of the bank. The dye pack soaks the robber and loot with dye just after he exits. Look through your wallet or purse and you will usually find a bill or two with small red splotches on the edges from a dye pack that went off.
Variations on the above scenarios are endless. In Oxford we once had a repeat offender who always used the same M.O. (modus operandi) and same disguise: he would “case” or surveil a local bank, hide behind the back door where he knew the first employee entered, rob the bank and bind the employee with a pair of toy handcuffs from a store that sold actors’ supplies. His disguise was always the same: he covered his face with band-aids, leading to our name for him, the “Band-aid Bandit.” Researching old cases to see if anyone else had used the band-aid m.o., I found a New York robber with horrible acne who got the nickname “The Clearasil Bandit.” When finally caught, he sued the police and media for emotional distress, claiming it was cruel to stigmatize him by his zits. He lost.
Another unusual disguise was used by a lady bank robber I prosecuted who circled her eyes and cheeks with bright red lipstick. When caught, her car trunk was filled with Halloween masks which she said she never used because she “couldn’t see out good enough,” a dilemma with which most trick-or-treaters could identify. My favorite lady bank robber stuck up a bank down the road in Batesville in what became known in our office as the “boob job” bank robbery. The day before she robbed the bank she made an appointment to have breast enhancement surgery. She had the surgery, but was caught soon afterward. Who knows maybe it was worth it to her.
A law review article I read many years ago said that of all federal prisoners, bank robbers had the lowest average IQs. The bank robbers I’ve known tend to support the statistics. Though since that law review article was written, I suspect drug dealers have surpassed bank robbers as the lowest IQ inmates, but I’m sure it was true at the time. One bank robber in Holly Springs handed the teller a demand note that said “I want money. Big bills. No exploding rubber bands. None of that shit.” The teller, understanding what he meant, did not give him the dye pack, but as the robber exited, she turned over the note, which was written on the back of a check. The robber had “cleverly” obliterated the name on the check with black magic marker. He had forgotten, however, the account number at the bottom of the check. The teller gave the sheriff the name of the account holder, the robber’s mother. When the robber arrived on foot, at his mother’s porch, the sheriff was sitting in a rocker waiting on him. That story made it all the way to the New York Times.
In a robbery in Senatobia, one robber accidentally shot his partner, then shot out the bank surveillance cameras after first smiling into it. The film, which was not damaged, clearly identified him and resulted in his conviction. His partner was caught while seeking medical treatment. One deputy sheriff in Tallahatchie County wasn’t razor-sharp either. After a bank robber got away, the deputy found what he thought were $20 bills outside the bank. Thinking he’d recovered loot, carried it back into the bank. Unfortunately, it was an unexploded dye pack which blew up inside and covered the deputy and the bank’s interior with red dye and tear gas.
Another robber, eager to get going, grabbed a lady customer who was standing in front of him in line to push her out of his way. The lady, attractive and apparently accustomed to unwanted advances from strange men, thought she was being molested. She threw the man to the ground, knocking him out. A teller called the police who arrested the robber before he woke up. Even more incompetent was a fat robber who fell down outside the bank and couldn’t get up because his pants were too tight. He thought he “looked good” though.
There was one bank robber I felt sorry for. At arraignment Magistrate Norman Gillespie asked if he had money to make bond. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. Gillespie, strict but sympathetic, said “What do you mean it doesn’t matter?” The defendant replied, “I don’t want to make bond. I’m too ashamed to go home.” He stayed locked up and pleaded guilty, but got a shorter sentence due to his genuine remorse.
A bank robber from Clarksdale walked into a bank there one day looking distracted. He handed a bag to a teller and said “Fill it up with hundreds.” She told him she would get some from the back. Once in back she told the manager what was happening. He went out and asked if he could “help.” The robber reiterated his demand. The manager, seeing the man looked disturbed, asked what the would-be robber would give the bank in return. He said “ I have the keys to the city.” The manager asked if he had a gun or a bomb. “No,” he replied. The manager then told the man “Just leave then.” He did, but turned around and came right back in, cursing loudly. The manager turned stern saying, “We don’t allow profanity in this bank. Now stand over by the door.” The man went out the door cursing loudly where he ran into Clarksdale police, who arrested him. In a quick patdown they found he had a loaded .38 revolver in his pocket. He was sent to a Federal Prison Medical Center for mental evaluation, found incompetent, civilly committed, and we have not heard of him since.
One incident several people claim to have witnessed involved FBI jargon. When a crime participant gets away without being recognized, he is called an “Unknown Subject,” or UNSUB. If a subject is known only by his first name, say “Joe,” he is referred to as Joe LNU, for “Last Name Unknown.” Some say this case involved the late Joe Ray Langston, the prominent defense attorney from Booneville, although I’ve heard the story attributed to others. Joe Ray, a colorful trial lawyer with many colorful clients, was cross-examining a Chinese-American FBI agent from California about a suspect. “So you say you only know the first name of this man, is that correct?” The agent replied in the affirmative. “How can you say that when your report says this man is an oriental, just like you?” The agent replied calmly: “I never said anything like that.” Joe Ray continued: “Your report says the suspect’s name is Joe LNU, does it not?” When the witness stopped laughing, the trial judge let the agent explain to the jurors and Joe Ray that LNU was not an “oriental” name but an acronym for LAST NAME UNKNOWN. The incident became the stuff of local legend.
One bank robber had a really bad day. During the robbery he forgot to pull his ski mask down over his face. Then, like many bank robbers, he stopped for a six-pack during the getaway to relieve the stress. Police followed his trail of empty beer cans and found him sitting beside a lake. When he saw the police, he tried to throw his sawed-off shotgun in the lake, but it went off in mid-air, so he just gave up. Sawed-off shotguns are easy to conceal and effective for intimidation. With their short barrels they can spray the whole inside of a small bank if fired. One robber I prosecuted had successfully robbed a bank near Tupelo and never been caught. A year later he robbed the same bank with another sawed-off shotgun. As he ran out he tossed the shotgun behind some shrubs by the bank’s front door. This time he was caught. When the FBI searched the bushes they found not only the second gun, but also the first, still lying there badly rusted from the robbery the same robber had done a year before.
One creepy bank robber from Alcorn County at least had a neat name: Melvis Calvary. Trying something new in good luck charms, Calvary performed an amateur black mass, sacrificing a goat to ensure success, something he’d read about in a book. It didn’t work. He was caught and convicted anyway. One case gave me a chill. It involved FBI agent Wayne Tichenor and former Marshall County Sheriff Osborne Bell. As the first black sheriff of Marshall County, Bell was doing well. One day he and Wayne were sitting in my office preparing to testify in one of my bank robbery trials. Wayne told us about searching a defendant and not finding a small gun he had hidden in his boot. Luckily the defendant decided to cooperate and told Wayne where to find it. The very next afternoon Sheriff Bell came upon a long-haired white drug user shooting up in his car along a rural Marshall County road. After deputies searched the man, Bell put him in the back of his squad car. The man had a tiny single-shot .22 derringer concealed in the palm of his hand with which he shot Bell in the head at point blank range. Bell died of the wound.
On the lighter side was a remark I heard defense attorney Rob McDuff make to a client about a stiff sentence he’d just received: “Well, you see, it’s just that this judge takes bank robbery so seriously.” A student reporter heard the remark and it made the Ole Miss paper, The Daily Mississippian, the following day.
Mississippi is now known as much for our casinos as for our magnolias and casinos are robbed as often as banks since they have nearly as much money. But casinos are not good targets because their security is usually better than banks. One robber went to a casino and announced a hold-up. Despite his mask, the casino clerk recognized him as a regular customer, because of his powerful, distinctive cologne “Vegas Nights.” The clerk even called him by name. The man laughed, took off his mask and started playing the slots, pretending it was all a joke. He was later arrested when guards noticed someone had cut all the phone lines to the casino. A search of his truck found wire cutters, the mask and a gun hidden together. He received seven years.
Bulletproof bank windows are something else, and so are the tellers behind them. The sister of Judge L.T. Senter of Aberdeen was confronted one day at her drive-thru window, which was bulletproof and had no opening. “Give me some Goddamn money or I’ll shoot,” he said. “Give it your best shot,” she replied. He did, and after several whistling ricochets nearly hit him, he drove away. Al Moreton had a robber once, whose name he has forgotten, who whispered to a teller “this is a robbery,” so no one else could hear him. The teller was a veteran of other robberies and was sitting behind a bulletproof window. She whispered back, “Show me your gun.” When he shook his head “No,” she yelled out, “You little snot, get out of here.” He did.
Another hapless bank robber was a man named Edward Earl Moore, who robbed a bank to get enough money to buy a bus ticket to meet his probation officer up north. He was caught and his probation revoked. Another hapless one robbed a bank to get money to pay for the drug treatment which was a condition of his probation. He didn’t learn until too late that his probation officer had already paid the bill. A robber from the town of Independence carefully covered his license plate with cloth, but forgot to remove the For Sale sign from the back window of his getaway pickup which gave his home telephone number.
AUSA Bob Norman had a robber once who used a carved tree limb painted black as a fake gun. Bob told the judge it was a “real stick-up.” Another of our robbers, when identified by a teller eyewitness to the jury, whispered too loudly to his attorney: “She can’t tell it was me. She couldn’t see anything but my eyes.” Another got bad news from a juror when he testified in a strong voice: “I did not rob that bank.” A lady juror in the box blurted out even louder: “Yes, you did too.” A group of robbers from the Gulf coast came to our district to rob a bank far from their area so they wouldn’t be recognized. They did fine till one dawdled and got left behind. His only way home was by Greyhound bus. He used a pay phone across from the bank to call his family collect. A witness recalled seeing a robber using the pay phone. We subpoenaed the pay phone records for the day and the robbers were all eventually identified and convicted.
A bank at Verona was once robbed by two “gentlemen” who got scared and tossed the loot out the window of their car. Two old ladies picked up the money and flagged the men down and gave it back to them. As they sat in their car a police car came up with blue lights flashing. They raised their hands and prepared to surrender, but the police car drove on by, being on another call. The ladies, noticing the men’s demeanor, wrote down their tag number and when they learned there’d been a bank robbery, called police and gave them the number. The police quickly found the robbers, who surrendered quietly. In 2000 defendant left behind a bank robbery note on an envelope. In the envelope was a certificate with his name indicating he had successfully completed a Department of Corrections Anger Management Course. A robber in Kansas City, where my daughter was going to medical school, made a classic error. After robbing six banks, he finally left enough clues that police had enough evidence to search his house. They found a “To Do” list, one of whose entries was “rob bank.” He got ten years in federal prison.
When a defendant wanted in one district is caught in another, the court holds a Rule 40 “probable cause” hearing before he is “removed” or extradited to the prosecuting district. One day I had such a hearing in Greenville on Michael George Malone, who was wanted for a bank robbery in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma FBI agent testified that this robber had used a truly unique way to keep tellers and customers from notifying police. Just before he went out the door he made them gather in three groups and sing a round of “Row, row, row your boat…gently down the stream.” He forgot you could push alarms with your finger while singing. Last I saw of him, he was headed for Oklahoma in custody.
To read the second installment From Midnight to Guntown click here.