(Note: Although I have changed the names, the bank robbery and subsequent events are not fiction.)
Three of them held up the bank in downtown Seattle a little before noon on a Tuesday in November of 1968. They were in the bank less than ten minutes.
My partner Nick and I, a couple of newly minted FBI agents with a combined experience of less than six months, quickly found out the three bank robbers had left about fifteen minutes before we arrived a few minutes after noon.
It was my first bank robbery case.
Since we had arrived at the bank before any other agents, and since I lost the coin toss, I was the case agent, and following the protocol for investigation of bank robberies, I handed out assignments as additional agents arrived on the scene. As more experienced agents arrived, they helped me with the details, but the 91, FBI-speak for a bank robbery, was my case.
My partner and I interviewed the victim teller and the branch bank manager. We learned there were three robbers, each armed with what was described as “big guns,” and that one of them did all the talking while the others scurried around collecting money from the teller windows.
The guy who did all the talking was described as about five ten, thin, wearing all black and a black knit cap. The victim teller said he had black, stringy hair that stuck out from under his cap, a dark complexion, what appeared to her to be pock-marked skin on his face, along with a dime-sized mole almost touching the left side of his lips.
We left the bank after a couple of hours of interviewing and making assignments to canvas the immediate area for witnesses. When we returned to the office I started on the paperwork. The ASAC (Assistant Agent in Charge) stopped by to tell me that the boss wanted my report on his desk when he arrived the following morning at the latest. “Even better if you can get it to him before you leave,” he added.
I was drowning in 302’s, FBI-speak for the standard form agents used to describe the results of their assignments. There was a growing stack of 302’s on the corner of my desk. I sat pounding on an ancient manual typewriter (parents and grandparents, be sure to tell the young ones what a manual typewriter is – or was). Clearly I would not be home for dinner, so I called home to let wife and kids know I’d be late.
A couple of hours after everybody went home except me, my desk phone rang. When I answered I recognized the voice of the night desk clerk, who asked whether I caught the bank robbery. I told him I did, and he said he was transferring a call to me.
The call was from John R., a guy who drove a delivery truck and had just seen the bank robbery story on TV while eating his dinner. He was near the bank that very day and saw a red Ford convertible with a California license plate blast through a stoplight, almost hitting his truck. He said there were three guys in the car and they were in a big hurry.
I asked him if he got the license plate number and what time it was when he saw the car.
John said: “No plate number. Happened too fast. It was about 2:30.”
I took his name and phone number, thanked him for calling, and went back to my typewriter. I thought that a car busting a red light a little over two and half hours after the robbers had left the bank was a bit too late for my robbers, but then again, what if…….?
A half hour later the phone rang again.
“That guy’s calling again,” said the night desk clerk. “I’m transferring.”
I waited for the ring.
The excitement in John’s voice was palpable. Without pausing to say hello, he said he had just returned from a short errand and had seen the red Ford convertible in the parking lot at a motel on North Aurora Boulevard.
I thanked him again. But again I thought: what if? I used North Aurora Boulevard to go home.
By the time I left the office. It was dark out and I was tired. But thoughts about John R., his calls, and my bank robbery case kept nagging at me. As I drove up North Aurora Boulevard on one of the Seattle hills on my way home, there was the bright neon sign in front of the Ranier Motor Hotel flashing at me, And it was on the right hand side; I didn’t even have to make a left turn.
I turned in, parked, and made my way to the office, noticing the red Ford several cars away. As a new agent, I still looked forward to displaying my credentials and watching the viewer’s eyes widen just a tiny bit. This desk clerk, however, wasn’t impressed.
“How can I help you,” he said, with a manner and tone that told me he didn’t really care if he would be helpful or not.
“Who belongs to the red Ford convertible?” I said, pointing to the car, visible through a grimy window.
“Three guys. Three guys in one room,” he groused.
“Can you describe them?” I said.
“Only the one that comes in here to use that pay phone,” he said.
“He’s a bit shorter than you. Dark skin, but not real dark. Some kind of skin problem on his face. And a problem with his hair – long a stringy. Got a mole by his lips.”
I contained my excitement and asked if I could use his phone. He slid the phone to me. I dialed the office and was patched into the SAC’s (Special Agent in Charge) home phone.
I wanted to say “I cracked the case,” but convinced myself the SAC probably didn’t share my weird sense of humor, so I just asked him to get some agents to the Ranier Motor Hotel as soon as possible, that I thought I might have located today’s bank robbers on a phone tip.
It was them.
Within twenty minutes six agents had arrived and began making sure I might live another day. The three robbers were in their room divvying up the day’s take on a bed.
It was quite the experience. Handshakes and backslaps all around after we delivered the desperadoes to the marshal’s office.
Next morning my first call was to John R.
“I was just going to call you,” he said.
“You were? Why?” I said.
“To tell you I think I had the time wrong. When my wife and I were talking about it this morning, she said I’d told her yesterday that I had to deliver earlier today to the stores by that bank.” John said. “I think I saw that convertible a couple of hours earlier than what I told you.”
I told him he was probably right, that we had arrested the robbers because he had called, and that there was a bunch of FBI agents that wanted to shake his hand and say thanks. Later I found out the SAC put John in for a cash reward.
Turned out those three had hit banks in northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and others in the State of Washington.
John R. and I had cracked a whole bunch of cases…..