John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown: Presidential Mask Bank Robber

{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 ninth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: At Last a Professional: Presidential Mask Bank Robber Paddy Mitchell Is Caught in Our District7

In 1992 Canadian Broadcasting did a prime-time special on a fugitive said to be the most “professional” bank robber of the 20th century, a Canadian named Patrick Michael Mitchell.  A book about his robberies, The Stopwatch Gang, was already a best-seller, and the gang’s m.o. of wearing presidential masks was featured in the movie Point Break with Patrick Swayze.

Born in a poor Irish neighborhood in Ottawa, Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell was an unusual fellow: A bank robber competent in his chosen “profession.”  Although he remained all his life basically a thief, he managed to give bank robbers a brief aura of glamour, at least until he was caught in 1994 by Southaven Chief of Police Tom Long and his officers and sent to prison for the rest of his life by federal prosecutors Charlie Spillers and Chad Lamar of our office.

Mitchell began quietly enough.  He went straight to work from high school, married, had a son and drove a soft-drink truck.  But he also kept bad company, hanging out in Ottawa bars.  Using his natural ability for scheming, Mitchell began his “career” planning heists for other people in exchange for a cut of the loot.  Soon he wanted more of the profits for himself.  Finally, when he netted more from hijacking one liquor truck than he would have made in a year delivering soft drinks, he turned to robbery full-time.  In 1973 he formed a three-man gang with Stephen Reid, a hippie, and Lionel Wright, a reclusive newspaper clerk.  The strange fact that his partners were named “Reid” and “Wright” should have been an omen this was not an average group.  Reid later became a published writer of novels about bank robbers.  What are the odds of that?

The trio began robbing banks in unusual ways.  They always called attention to themselves, which is usually unwise however gratifying it is to the ego.  Mitchell carried a large stopwatch around his neck during robberies.  He insisted his jobs be so well-planned that his gang could be in and out of the bank in 100 seconds, less than 2 minutes.  For a few years Mitchell robbed for a living while telling his wife he was going to his humdrum job every day.  Eventually, however, there were too many absences and too much to explain and he simply abandoned her and his young son and went on the road for good.

With Reid and Wright he went on a robbery spree across Canada which reached its height in 1974 with the “Great Gold Heist” in which the trio stole $1.8 million in gold bars from an armored truck at the Ottawa airport.  Errors in this flamboyant caper finally resulted in their arrests and convictions.  Reid got 10 years, Wright 17 and mastermind Paddy Mitchell 20 years to serve.  Within two years, however, all three had escaped from prison.  Wright went first, simply walking away through a hole in a prison-yard fence.  Reid’s prison break required more planning, but he finally got away while on a field trip for “rehab” training in woodworking.

Shortly thereafter Mitchell made a much more challenging escape that is still a legend among prison inmates across the U.S. and Canada.  Learning you could fake a heart attack by swallowing liquid nicotine leached from cigarette butts soaked in water overnight, Mitchell overdid it.  Instead of one cigarette, Mitchell soaked a whole pack in a big glass of water, then ran 3 miles around the prison exercise yard before drinking the nicotine solution.  It nearly killed him.  His heart attack symptoms were so real that guards rushed him to a nearby hospital where his old partners Reid and Wright were waiting for him, posing as emergency-room workers.  All three got away and hid out for days in a nearby basement while Mitchell recovered from his near-death experience.  His heart had nearly exploded.

Mitchell and his Stopwatch Gang decided to move operations to the U.S., believing they were “too hot” in Canada.  South of the border they began a spectacular spree of bank robberies, and glorying in their m.o. as the “stopwatch gang.”  They enjoyed women, drugs, and life on the beach, not to mention fine cigars and the best champagne.  But most of all they loved the adrenaline rush of the robberies themselves, which Mitchell compared to a long cocaine high.  Over the next 20 years they robbed, by Mitchell’s count, over 140 banks, netting over $8 million, all of it soon spent on riotous living.

Their favorite region was the American Southwest.  In 1980 they successfully robbed a series of banks in San Diego, the “high point” being a Bank of America branch where they got $280,000 but were caught on a surveillance video wearing their presidents’ masks and using their stopwatch. The FBI put the pieces together and found them at their favorite hideaway, the beautiful little city of Sedona, Arizona, a sort of New Age party town where Mitchell was known as a generous millionaire businessman.  On Halloween 1980 Reid and Wright were arrested for the San Diego robbery, but Mitchell slipped away and kept on robbing, both solo and with new partners.  In 1983, robbing solo, he was caught robbing a business in Arizona. The Stopwatch Gang was no more.

Wright served his time and went to work as a reclusive accountant for the Canadian prison system, which took him back.  Reid did his time, married and moved to Vancouver, where he began writing novels, including a gritty, lightly fictionalized version of the gang and their escapes:  Jackrabbit Parole (Toronto 1986).  Looking much older and with neatly-trimmed facial hair, he built a career doing TV interviews about his life of crime.  Later he was caught again, this time in a drug deal, and went back to prison for good.  Mitchell soldiered on.  Sentenced to 17 years for the Arizona robbery, he promptly conned another team of prison guards.  Mitchell got a job cleaning inmate visiting rooms and gained the trust of the guards.  In later TV interviews they still seemed captivated by his Irish charm which caused them to forget about his previous prison escapes and his years as a successful fugitive.  By 1986 Mitchell had determined the weak point of the prison, a duct system which opened out near the back fence.  He talked his way into a job cleaning the area beside the warden’s office where a large duct was exposed and was able to cut into it with homemade tools fashioned from his cleaning equipment.  One night he crawled out the duct, climbed the fence and walked away.

It was 1986 and time to consider a new career path, without of course giving up bank robbery.  He moved to the French Quarter in New Orleans, adding the French-sounding alias “Richard Landry.”  to his existing list.   By 1988, after a long string of successful bank robberies, some alone, some with a partner, Mitchell had saved enough money to retire.  Because he was on wanted posters around the country, he had plastic surgery done “so my own mother would not have known me.”

He boarded a plane in Seattle and flew to the Philippines, where he met beautiful but poor Imelda in the Manila shoe store where she was working.  She believed his story that he was “Gary Weber,” a rich American insurance executive.  He moved her to a mansion on a hill overlooking the beautiful and secluded Trinidad Valley, 150 miles north of Manila.  They married and Mitchell fathered another son in November 1989.  Imelda trusted him completely.  Mitchell put Imelda’s brothers through college and set her father up in business.  He became a local philanthropist, helping earthquake victims.  Mitchell exercised and even became a vegetarian.  But he could not stop robbing banks.  On his yearly “business trips” to America he kept on robbing.

Mitchell at first seemed unable or unwilling to tell me in an interview why he could not retire as he’d planned.  He also could not decide why he kept leaving his beautiful young Filipina wife, their son, and his “Garden of Eden on the island” as he called it, but he did.  Finally he admitted it was probably a mixture of his spendthrift way of always blowing his loot on flamboyant gestures and his love of the score, the addictive adrenalin excitement of the robberies themselves.  Whatever the reason, he headed back yearly to the U.S. in the Philippine rainy season to rob a bank or two for thrills and cash.  By 1990 he was Number 3 on the FBI’s fugitive list.  His face was on “Most Wanted” posters all over the U.S.

In 1994 his notoriety finally caught up with him.  After he was featured on a segment of “America’s Most Wanted,” someone in the Philippines recognized Paddy Mitchell as the same person as “Gary Weber.”  He heard they were coming for him.  He told Imelda who he really was and kissed her and their son goodbye forever.  With $11,000 in hand he planned to fly to Vancouver and on to Juarez, Mexico, knowing as an Anglo he could easily enter the U.S. among the hordes of returning American tourists while the border guards looked for illegal Mexicans.  But there was one problem:  He discovered his U.S. passport had expired.  No problem for Paddy.  He simply stopped by the U.S. consulate in Manila on his way to the airport, got his passport renewed, and flew away.  When he got to Vancouver, there was another problem.  While waiting for his flight to Mexico City, a voice announced that Gary Weber should report to the Canadian immigration desk.  Rather than fleeing as anyone else would have, Mitchell headed straight for the desk and calmly answered all their questions.  He told them he was visiting his sister in Mexico City before going home to the U.S.  After 20 nervous minutes, Canadian immigration officials bought the story and Mitchell had escaped again.

When he reached Juarez, Mitchell simply walked across the border back into the U.S.  But he had only $6,000 left.  As he said later “Money doesn’t last long when you’re on the run.”  His shortage of cash led to a career-ending decision when he skipped his usual careful planning and “rushed into this thing looking for some fast cash.”  But he did not act entirely without planning.  Just inside Texas he retrieved his old .32 caliber pistol, which he’d stashed there awaiting his next job, knowing he would return.  He paid $700 in back rent for an old Ford LTD he’d left at the El Paso airport, knowing he’d need it for his next job.  From there he drove straight to Southaven, Mississippi, a booming suburb of Memphis with 13 banks.

Mitchell had cased a likely bank in Southaven the previous year while gambling at the dog-racing tracks across the Mississippi River in Arkansas.  He knew when several large stores, including Wal-Mart and Kroger, had large cash receipts delivered to the bank by armored car.  He also had a plan to fool the police, which proved to be fatally flawed.  From a pay phone he called the local hospital and said “some people I kidnapped last night are in the trunk of a green car in your parking lot.  They may be dead.”  He then called City Hall and said in a crazed voice “I just put a bomb in your building and its gonna blow you all to bits, you s.o.b.s.”  Then he overdid it.  Using an Irish brogue which in a later interview I heard him use several times, Mitchell called Trustmark Bank and said “You’re about to get robbed.  There’s two guys coming in two minutes.  They’re going to kill everybody in the bank.”

Little did Mitchell know what he had blundered into.  The Southaven Police Department was no amateur outfit.  It was located in a luxurious suite of offices with leather chairs and plush carpets which had formerly belonged to a wealthy medical practice forfeited to the city after narcotics were illegally dispensed there.  Chief of Police Tom Long was a long-time friend and ally of our office.  His department was probably the most sophisticated and well-staffed police department in the state and was accustomed to being challenged by big-city criminals from Memphis, a large city with a crime rate equal to that of Detroit.

There was another fact that Paddy Mitchell could never have suspected: a decade earlier another robber had called in bomb threats to two local stores to lure police away from the bank they planned to rob.  I remember that robbery well because I handled it. One of the robbers bore a striking resemblance to former Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen.  Chief Tom Long remembered it too.  Mitchell’s phone calls sounded like a diversion.  He immediately sent an officer to every bank in town.  Long personally headed for the Deposit Guaranty, which had the most money and was the best target.

It was a rainy Tuesday.  Flamboyant as ever, Mitchell was outside the bank wearing a blond wig and dark sunglasses festooned with distracting green and pink ribbons.  He waited for the lunchtime crowd of customers to disperse and walked into the bank alone carrying his old .32 pistol loaded with four rounds and a fake bomb concealed in a green shaving kit.  He had followed a Loomis armored truck from business to business and knew the bank was flush with cash.  Still, as he later admitted to us, he almost backed away.  Experience had honed his instincts.  Something didn’t feel right.  A voice in his head kept saying “Something is wrong.  Get the hell out of here.”  He started to leave, then thought of how badly he needed the money and of how he’d never have a better opportunity for a big, quick kill.  He’d be broke before he could plan another such lucrative job.

Mitchell pulled his green turtleneck over the bottom of his face, walked into the large, beige bank and pointed his gun at the first teller’s head.  He screamed to intimidate her.  “Don’t set the alarms or I’ll kill every one of you.  Where’s the bags?”  She motioned him to the vault.  “Open the door or I’ll kill you.”  A teller opened it and he ran in and filled his blue duffel bag with as many hard-to-trace tens and twenties as it would hold.  He took no conspicuous hundreds, and there was no time for tellers to slip in bait bills or a dye pack.  The job was going perfectly.  For a moment Paddy thought his premonitions were wrong and he was on his way back to New Orleans and the French Quarter.

As he exited, he laid the green shaving kit in the middle of the lobby and told everyone “This is a bomb.  If you come after me, it will go off.”  He cleared the bank safely, in less than 90 seconds by his stopwatch, and was backing out in his old Ford LTD when two police cars rammed him from the back and side, knocking him across the seat.  When he raised his head he was looking into the face of a burly cop and down the barrel of his gun.  Chief Tom Long was on the other side, blocking his escape.  Mitchell later said he was suddenly so depressed that he thought of reaching for his own gun to provoke the cops into killing him.  But that was with the benefit of time and hindsight, and also made a better story.  At the time he simply said “I give up.  Please don’t kill me.”  Paddy Mitchell, perhaps the most famous bank robber of the twentieth century, was caught, most people thought for good.  But he had not given up.  He still had one more trick in store.

The following day, Greg Weston, the Ottawa reporter who helped make Mitchell famous with his book The Stopwatch Gang, managed to get a quick telephone interview with Mitchell and on February 25, ran a 4-column story on him and his latest job.  For me 1994 promised to be a busy year.  We had just indicted the warden and a dozen other officers at the Parchman penitentiary for beating a handcuffed inmate almost to death.  I was to try that case and was also on a DOJ team scheduled to fly to Haiti to give training to Haitian prosecutors, hoping to help quell the unrest there.  Nevertheless, I could not resist the Paddy Mitchell case.  As Criminal Chief for the office I assigned all cases and selfishly assigned Mitchell to myself and a talented and gung-ho young assistant named Chad Lamar to try it with me.  Ron Lewis, the former Wyoming cowboy with a B.A. from Dartmouth and a master’s in French from Harvard was appointed to represent Mitchell, now a pauper entitled to free counsel at taxpayer expense.

To the surprise of us all, Mitchell insisted on pleading guilty.  He said he always pled guilty.  That put us on alert, reminding us that he also always escaped.  Lafayette County Sheriff Buddy East had been a friend of mine since the 1960s when I was a law student.  We talked with Deputy Marshal Eddie Rambo about the likelihood that Mitchell’s “defense” to the charge would be to escape again.  The FBI notified us that Mitchell was also under indictment in the Northern District of Florida for an armed bank robbery there in 1987.  When Mitchell was informed, he told Ron Lewis he wanted to plead guilty to that one too.  Under Federal Rule 20 a defendant can waive his right to be tried where the crime was committed and plead guilty in the district where he is arrested.  A second guilty plea made us even more suspicious.  Nevertheless, Mitchell entered guilty pleas to both bank robberies, and to using guns in both robberies.  His maximum punishment was 35 years on each robbery.  That made us even more sure he would try to escape.

He did, of course, and he might have made it. He began his scheme in typical fashion, sending a note through the prison grapevine with an article about him as an escape artist to inmate Horace Colonel.  Together they recruited a colorful team of would-be escapists: Colonel, who was in for drug-trafficking; Thomas Dwayne Combs, a state inmate awaiting transport to Parchman to serve a 40-year sentence from Circuit Judge Henry Lackey on 8 counts of sexual battery; James Carpenter, an unemployed professional wrestler who went by the name “Handsome Jimmy” Valentine.  I had just convicted him for a violent extortion in which he poured gasoline on a gambler in Greenville, which he blithely called “Exxoning him,” and offering to “light him up” with a match if the victim did not pay his gambling debts.  Instead the victim whipped the overweight wrestler, who ended up in jail when the victim called local police. All of Mitchell’s accomplices faced long sentences and had plenty of motive to escape from the ultra-modern, high-tech 300-bed jail in Oxford that inmates called “The Buddy East Hotel.”

Despite the heightened security, Mitchell managed to coordinate an escape plan that got way too far along.  He got a friend of Combs to smuggle in hacksaw blades which he used to saw through the heavy cell bars covering the heating duct in Cell 304 on the top tier just below the prison roof.  From there Mitchell planned for them to climb down on ropes made from prison sheets, just like in the movies.  To cover the sounds of the sawing, Mitchell played his TV loud, which was not uncommon.  Hanging sheets over the front of his cell was more suspicious, but other inmates and trusties figured there was sexual activity going on and didn’t want to watch. To solve their biggest security problem, the absence of bars over the mouth of the duct, Mitchell showed them a trick he’d learned in the pen in Arizona.  He mixed dried toothpaste with black cigarette ash and made a paste to hold the sawed-out bars back in place.  For awhile it worked well.

Then Horace Colonel became impatient fearing he’d be shipped off before the escape plan got a chance to work.  Colonel suggested a far more vicious approach:  Mitchell would fake another heart attack and as accomplices helped him toward the ambulance, they would kill the marshals who guarded him and all get away.  Colonel knew the marshals’ procedures because they had taken him to the hospital when he got particles of steel in his eye while sawing with the hacksaw blade.  Apparently nobody realized at the time where the metal particles came from.  Mitchell nixed the shooting plan, not because he opposed violence, but because the marshals were “too professional and sophisticated” to fall for it and the inmates would never pull it off.  “Those marshals are hardcore,” Mitchell insisted.

Informants inside the jail eventually ratted them all out and Sheriff East and the marshals searched Mitchell’s cell and found the cut bars and hollowed-out air duct.  This time Mitchell did not plead guilty; he went to trial.  Colonel’s lawyer offered us his client’s testimony in return for some leniency on his drug sentence.  Much as I wanted to try this historic bank robber with Chad Lamar, I was out of the country on a DOJ mission at the time and could not be there.  To take my place I chose veteran AUSA Charlie Spillers, who had prosecuted Colonel and had rapport with him and could handle him as a witness.  As Charlie and Chad recall it, the trial was a hoot.  “Handsome Jimmy” testified for us and made a good witness.  Combined with Colonel, some photos, and the marshals’ testimony, it made an overwhelming case.

Mitchell of course had total confidence he could talk his way out of it so he took the stand, allowed Charlie Spillers to cross-examine him about his previous escapes to prove his criminal intent.  Mitchell had a novel story: Yes, this escape plan sounded like what he told the testifying inmates about his prior escapes.  But his version was that this time it was only to protect himself from violent inmates, especially Horace Colonel.  He said it was obvious the other inmates had simply copied his old escape plans from the newspaper articles.  He testified he personally knew nothing of their plan to escape, this time.

As Mitchell himself admitted in later interviews, Charlie Spillers destroyed him on cross-examination.  Playing to Mitchell’s monstrous ego, Charlie got Mitchell to start boasting of his earlier escapes.  Charlie was even able to show the jury the Canadian Broadcasting video about Mitchell’s robbery “career” and get him to brag about it too.  The colorful Mitchell had such a unique way of thinking that the jury had to know he was behind the escape.  The others were not smart enough to have done it without him and convicted him in short order.  Judge Biggers sentenced Mitchell to another 5 years in prison, the maximum for escape, to be “stacked” or served after all his other sentences in all courts.  That sentence guaranteed Mitchell would die in prison.  As Mitchell said later, “I’ll be 123 years old when I get out.”

On June 30, 1995, when all possibility of appeals had run out, and Mitchell was about to be shipped to a permanent maximum security prison to serve his time, he and his attorney agreed to an interview.  Present were several marshals, the prosecuting and defense attorneys and reporter Jonny Miles from The Oxford Eagle, who later did a fine feature story on Mitchell for GQ Magazine.  We all satisfied our curiosity, asking Mitchell all the questions we’d wanted to ask but could not ask in court.  He was quite a story-teller.  We asked him for insider tips on bank robbery.  I naively asked if he ever got ideas from other bank robbers he met in prison.  Adopting his Irish brogue, he said “Those aren’t bank robbers, God bless ’em.  Anyone who hands a teller a note is not a bank robber, he’s an amateur.  The only real American bank robbers are in Atlanta, and I haven’t been there yet.”  He said he was afraid of guns and never had one except to use as bluff in a bank robbery.  He told of one job where an accomplice accidentally fired his gun while drawing it and shot himself through the arm and Mitchell in the buttocks with a single bullet.

Mitchell reflected with considerable insight but no remorse on his life of crime.  “I’m not smart.  I can’t spell, I can’t do math.  I have no skills.  In a way I had no choice.  And I’d rather be in prison than work in a car wash.”  He talked of the other inmates in the Oxford jail.  “Carpenter trusted me.  He told me he was a snitch and trusted me not to tell.  I didn’t tell on him and he didn’t tell on me.  He only testified because he had to.”  He ruminated on the others also: “Colonel, now he was scary.  He told me about all the people he’d killed.  I didn’t like to look him in the eye.  He had a very cold look straight on.”  U.S. Marshal David Crews gave a fair assessment of Mitchell that agreed with mine:  “He has no moral underpinnings.  He is sinister, but he does have a certain style.”  Chad Lamar put it subtly: “There are so many conflicts in Paddy’s character and philosophy.  He’s a walking conflict.  Paddy is really a party boy who just happens to be damn good at robbing banks.”

Once in federal prison, Mitchell continued to try to manipulate the system.  For years he petitioned to be sent back to Canada to serve his time and even conned the U.S. State Department into supporting him under a U.S.-Canadian treaty.  But our office opposed it vehemently to the end.  His claim of wanting to be closer to his first family rang hollow to us.  After all, he said the same thing about his first wife and young son he did about his second wife and young son: “I missed them alright… for awhile.”  We figured what he really missed was his freedom and that he planned to get it back by escaping from whatever Canadian prison he went to.

Over the years Mitchell found a new avocation in prison as a blogger.  With his usual pizzazz he pontificated online on everything from prison conditions and chemotherapy to war in the Middle East and “The Bank Robber’s Life.”  But he never robbed another bank.  Patrick Michael Mitchell died in the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Butner, North Carolina, at 8:43 a.m. on Sunday, January 14, 2007, of lung cancer metastasized to the brain, which caused heart failure.  As the official notice from the Bureau of Prisons stated in standard bureaucrat speak: “His projected release date was December 21, 2033.”  It was a commonplace end for an uncommon man.

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

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