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Columnist muses about the anonymous bank teller

By Staff | Jul 17, 2009

The recent news about the retirement of Elaine Smith, the long respected customer service representative of Bank of the Islands in Sanibel, prompted me to recall the experience of another respected bank employee who had a once in a lifetime experience. She, too, was nearing retirement and her banking life to that point had been unadventurous and routine. This story may or may not be true but it comes out of the archives of Sanibel folklore. You be the judge.

To protect her reputation and that of her family we will call her Sally, which is not her real name. About 50 years ago, a notorious bank robber by the name of Willie Sutton was on a bank robbing spree throughout the country. Although he got caught now and then and did prison time, his exploits in robbing banks made him a kind of folk hero. When asked why he robbed banks, he allegedly responded “because that’s where the money is.”

Sutton succeeded in his line of work because he was the consummate professional. His modus operandi was to observe a bank very closely for weeks at a time so that he could develop his plan to deprive the bank of its hard cash without breaking a sweat. He decided that one bank in Sanibel, which shall be nameless, would be his next target and based on his observations of the bank’s patterns, security and flow of customers he believed that this caper would be a piece of cake.

And that was what he was thinking as he waited on line in front of Sally’s window.

“No, no, no, a thousand times no,” Sally said to Sutton by the time he got to the head of the line. The pistol he had pointed at her didn’t seem to generate the usual fear and anxiety. Sally had more important things on her mind, such as her imminent retirement. Sutton pretended that he was depositing funds into the bank but his goal was to make a speedy withdrawal instead. He warned Sally to hand over the cash in her desk drawers.

“This cash belongs to hard working businesses and families here in Sanibel,” she exclaimed. “Go rob some other bank. You’re getting nothing from me.” And with that pronouncement she folded her arms across her chest in total defiance. Sutton couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing. No other bank teller had ever dared to defy his demand for a bank’s cash. His bank robbing was always C.O.D. – Cash on delivery and be quick about it.

Sutton had picked Sanibel because he had researched upscale communities with accessible banks. After casing the joint, he had determined that this bank would be a cinch. Sanibel was such a laid-back community that he believed that the entire bank job would take no more than 15 minutes. He had even planned to grab a quick bite at Timbers to satisfy his appetite for blackened fish.

Never in his wildest imagination would it ever have occurred to him that a bank teller would just refuse to hand over the bank’s cash. A master of disguises, Sutton had ambled into this Sanibel bank dressed as an exterminator. Given the range of bank customers that day who dressed in a variety of island outfits Sutton fit right in. No one suspected him as he stood on line to approach the teller.

He was astounded. “What do you mean you won’t hand over the money? Do you know who I am? I’m Willie Sutton, the most famous bank robber in the world. I’ve robbed maybe 50 banks during my illustrious career. My photo has been on the walls of post offices throughout the country. I’m slick and slippery and I’ve never failed. Do you think I will allow you to ruin my record as the best bank robber in the country? Who do you think you are anyway?”

Sally never flinched. “First of all, I never heard of you. The only Sutton I know is Sutton Place in New York and I doubt that you’re from that lineage. If you must know, I’m retiring from this bank in just two weeks and I’ve never been robbed before. I’m very proud of that record. This bank is safe and our customers know that. Now you come along expecting me to agree to be robbed. Mr. Sutton, or whatever your name is, I’m not going to break my 30-year record with this bank. I will not be robbed. You’re going to walk out that door and work your magic with some other bank teller who’s not close to retirement age.”

Sutton was getting itchy. This bank robbery was taking much too long and wasn’t going according to plan. His modus operandi was to get in and out quickly. He thought about the time that he had robbed a bank in three and a half minutes. That was his personal record and he was always looking to break it-but not this day.

“Look, lady, don’t you realize that I can just shoot you and take the money? If I do that you won’t be around to enjoy your retirement. Why don’t you just be nice and cooperate? Give me the money and tell your bosses that there was a gun aimed at your head and that you had no choice. Just hand over that money and let us both finish up here. And keep your voice down. I don’t want those bank guards to get suspicious,” he said.

“Listen, hot shot,” Sally replied, “read my lips. No moolah for you today. Go to Fort Myers. There are lots of banks there that will be much more cooperative. I will even give you names, addresses and driving directions. They probably have much more cash on hand than I do.”

There were several people behind Sutton on line and although they had no idea what was taking place they began to clear their throats to demonstrate their impatience. They couldn’t imagine why this exterminator was taking so long. Sutton turned around and said to the woman behind him that he’d be done in a minute.

Sutton turned back to Sally and said, “Look lady. Something’s got to give here. Just hand over all your money and you can retire knowing that the great Willie Sutton put his stamp on your bank.”

Sally said, “No way, no how, Mr. Sutton, not on my watch. You’re not robbing this bank.” The two glared at each other. Would Sutton resort to violence and force the situation? Would Sally give in to a notorious bank robber?

It was Sally who broke the ice. “Look, Mr. Sutton, let’s work this thing out. I want to retire with no blemishes on my record. How much cash do you have in your pocket?”

Sutton was confused. “How much cash do I have? It’s the bank’s cash I’m interested in.”

Sally persisted. “Just tell me how much cash you have on you.” Sutton put his hand in his pocket and took out a large wad of bills. “I have about a thousand dollars here.”

Sally said “If you open an account I’ll give you a toaster. And then you can just walk away and head to your next bank heist. And I promise that I will never tell another living soul that Willie Sutton failed to rob this bank.”

The caper was taking far too much time and Sutton was getting fidgety, nervous and superstitious. He felt a strong sense of impending doom if he didn’t get out of this bank as soon as possible. “Okay, here’s the cash. Give me the toaster.”

Sutton put his gun back under his jacket and took the toaster. He was almost at the door when Sally yelled after him.

“Just one moment, Mr. Sutton, don’t you want the names and addresses of those Fort Myers banks?”