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 fifteenth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: Would You Like Biscuits With That?13
My all-time favorite victims in a bank robbery case were an 88-year-old lady in Itawamba County named Euple and her 60-year-old caretaker, Earnestine. While minding their own business one early Wednesday morning in March 2006, three fleeing bank robbers broke into their home near the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The ladies had heard of a robbery on TV the night before. When the caretaker heard someone forcing open the front door, she said, “I bet it’s those bank robbers.”
She was right. Three men from Memphis had robbed the Renasant Bank in Smithville in nearby Monroe County and were fleeing back to Memphis. Going way too fast in their gold Pontiac Grand Am, they ran right off the end of an unfinished approach road into the swamp near the waterway. The men waded all night through 10 miles of marshes and mosquitoes until they saw the ladies’ house at first light and decided to take shelter there. “They were wet and dirty and smelled bad, but they were very nice and respectful and treated us well,” said the caretaker. “They were tired and hungry so we cooked them breakfast.” Although legally the ladies were hostages, their cool and caring demeanor seemed to soften the young bank robbers. The men “politely” asked for the car keys. “They said they just wanted the car and would not hurt us. They even offered to buy us gas and refill the tank. They took the car, but ran it right away into the ditch before they could even get out of the yard,” she said.
Then the ladies’ steel magnolia side came out. They saw officers hiding in the woods and figured their house was surrounded, which it was. They also figured the robbers might not continue to be so nice. Unbeknownst to them, the FBI, police and sheriff’s deputies were meeting at the nearby Ozark Baptist Church and seriously considering rushing the house with a swat team, not knowing that things inside were going so well.
The older lady finally made the robbers an offer: “I’ll get my son to come pull you out. I’ll tell him you just got stuck.” The robbers agreed. “I’ll need to explain it to him though, so he won’t be suspicious. I also need to get my morning paper. I really miss my Daily Journal each day, and you shouldn’t be going out there.” The robbers fell for it.
The older lady whispered the whole situation to her son when he got there and he pretended he could not get the car out of the mud. Then the robbers finally realized they were surrounded by officers, and a tense standoff ensued for an hour or so. Then they released first the caretaker and finally the 88-year-old lady. After a further three-hour standoff the robbers decided to surrender. The ladies’ cool courtesy under extreme stress probably contributed greatly to the happy outcome. After it was over, the president of the Renasant Bank of Smithville gave some sound advice for bank robbery victims: “A robbery is something you hope never happens, but unfortunately it does. The way our people handled it was outstanding. They just did it by the book, stayed calm. Let the professionals handle it. Nobody should try to be a hero.”
But it was the ladies, amateurs trained only in good manners, who turned out to be the real heroes – and the real professionals. The robbers were prosecuted and convicted in state court for bank robbery and kidnapping. The prosecutor was Assistant Tupelo District Attorney Clay Joiner, who has since joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford, and at the time of this writing is serving as U.S. Legal Counsel in Kirkuk, Iraq for two years.