John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown: A Preacher in a Volvo

{E6DEFE01-EA61-4BE0-8C90-6B1C32E68B47}Img100As 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 seventh installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: A Preacher in a Volvo Robs An Oxford Bank5

One of my personal favorite bank robbers was Anthony Lewis, a suave and educated Seventh Day Adventist preacher from Chicago.  I’ll never forget his guilty plea.  When a bored Chief Judge Neal Biggers came to the standard question about how far he went in school, Lewis replied in clear, clipped diction:  “I have a Masters of Divinity degree Your Honor.”  The judge peered down over the top of his glasses at Lewis, briefly speechless.  Lewis was definitely not your average bank robber, who normally can barely remember what grade he was in when he dropped out.

The preacher had come to Oxford on church business and had unexpectedly fallen in love with one of the beautiful young women of Oxford.  Desperate not to lose her and to have enough money to woo her successfully, Lewis devised a bank robbery plan only a bookish man would believe in:  Using his gray, church-owned Volvo station wagon, he decided to rob a bank in the old Kroger shopping center, thinking he could make a quick getaway up nearby Highway 7 to Memphis.

Lewis’ disguise was fairly effective.  A pair of dark shades, a hat with the earflaps down like on that old Johnny Carson TV skit with a farmer from Minnesota wearing a heavy plaid jacket.  Lewis, however, looked out of place in steamy Oxford in his odd costume.  Lewis’ weapon was better – a fake bomb made of a small cardboard box wrapped in duct tape with red and green wires sticking out all over.  The fake bomb convinced the teller it was for real and she gave him her money.  Luckily for Lewis, the bank was loaded with Kroger receipts ready to be picked up by armored truck, so he netted over $30,000.  But he was not destined to keep it long.

As he drove away, Lewis’ problems began.  A nervous amateur under time pressure, Lewis had picked an Oxford rush hour for the job.  Being from Chicago, he probably thought we didn’t have rush hours.   When he drove away from the bank, he tried to turn left up Highway 7, but was blocked by a long line of cars.  Panicking, he turned right on University Avenue which funneled this stranger, who knew no back streets, downtown toward the packed Oxford Square.  Easily identified by his practical, professor-looking Volvo station wagon, he was quickly apprehended by police along with all his loot.  The fake bomb he left behind in the bank was covered with his fingerprints.

Veteran defense attorney Ron Lewis (no relation) was appointed to represent him.  Ron himself is quite a story, being a graduate of both Dartmouth and Harvard, so Judge Biggers and I faced an unusually educated defense team. Ron dutifully filed motions for mental exams, which were denied by Judge Biggers, who rightly reasoned that stupid isn’t crazy.  When we learned from the probation officer’s pre-sentence report that his motive for the robbery was to get money to please a pretty young woman, his insanity claim seemed even less believable.  When he lost his motions, Anthony Lewis tried briefly to fire Ron Lewis and bring down a Chicago lawyer, but that motion also failed, the judge taking it for just a delaying tactic.  After his guilty plea and sentence Lewis fruitlessly pursued from prison for over a decade various arcane legal technicalities and jailhouse appeals.  All failed.  In the year 2000 he was released on parole.

Of all his many pleas, one will remain with me forever.  When Judge Biggers asked him at sentencing if he had anything to say, Lewis made the usual apologies and pleas for mercy.  Then this black man from the north spontaneously gave one of the greatest compliments to the people of Oxford and our local Mississippi justice system that I’ve ever heard:  “Your Honor, I’ve been treated with more courtesy and respect by people here in Oxford as a bank robber than I was ever treated in Chicago as a minister of the Gospel.”  Case closed.

Click on the firstsecondthird fourthfifth or sixth installment of John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown to read.

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