Greenup Bird and his son, William, were working at their desks inside the Bank of the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty when two strangers walked in.
It was around 2 p.m. on a snowy day in February 1866, and the father and son were the bank’s lone employees, overseeing the vault — state-of-the-art and filled with gold and silver — and handling the day-to-day transactions.
But the strangers — later believed to be members of the James-Younger gang, the famed outlaw mob led by Missouri’s own Jesse James — were not interested in everyday bank business. Instead, they pulled revolvers, leaped onto the counter and ordered the teller and his son to gather the bank’s money, which they did.
During what would come to be known as the first daytime bank robbery in peacetime America, the men would make off with more than $60,000, a sum that would be worth many times more today. They concluded their heist by riding away on horses, headed heading east and, according to Greenup, “shooting off pistols” as they went.
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With the exception of the horseback exit, it’s not difficult to imagine the exact same scenario playing out in modern-day Missouri.
While the past century and a half has seen a number of new financially based offenses — money laundering, identity theft, credit card fraud — the rather dated enterprise of walking into a bank and demanding money has maintained its place in America, a country that typically sees a few thousand cases of the crime per year.
Already this fiscal year, dating back to October, there have been 19 Kansas City-area bank robberies.
But just a glance at the risk-reward assessment — the less-than-stellar chances of actually getting away with it, the stiff federal penalties for those caught, the relative lack of potential money gained — makes it clear that bank robbery is, from the start, a rather doomed venture.
The motivation, of course, isn’t difficult to figure.
As Willie Sutton is said to have stated when asked why he held up banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”
It is also an inherently simple crime. Much like in the 1800s, it requires little in the way of equipment or preparations — just a bank, a handgun or the threat of one, and someone crazy enough to try it.
And while there are other criminal endeavors likely to generate some quick cash — drug dealing, burglary, prostitution — none is quite as immediate as walking into one of the country’s estimated 90,000 bank branches and simply demanding it.
The perpetrators are a wide-ranging collection of individuals. They’re drug users looking to finance their next hit, and down-on-their-luck gamblers in search of a quick payday. They’re serial bank robbers — like the 36-year-old Kansas man who in February admitted to committing two bank robberies while on parole for another bank robbery charge — and first-time offenders.
There was the man who, finding himself broke around the holidays, made a regrettable decision and was later arrested on a public bus in Kansas City. And the female bank employees who, in an effort to cover up the more than $80,000 they’d embezzled, allegedly staged a bank robbery in Kansas to cover up their fraud.
Historically, the country’s most famous bank robbers have always held a curious place within the American psyche. Their actions, though often inherently violent, are viewed in a kind of romanticized way.
After Jesse James, who would be credited with various bank robberies during his short lifetime, came a string of Depression-era criminals who seemed to make bank robberies acceptable, if not downright fashionable.
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a participant in the Kansas City Massacre of 1933, was a famed bank robber of the times, a flashy criminal also alleged to have dabbled in murder. Bonnie and Clyde dominated headlines during the same era, as their violent, cross-country crime spree included stick-ups at various banks.
And then, of course, there was John Dillinger.
Perhaps the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters, Dillinger spent a good portion of the early 1930s leading law enforcement on a series of fruitless leads and narrow misses, until authorities got a tip — courtesy of a brothel’s madam — that Dillinger was staying in Chicago.
While leaving a movie theater on the evening of July 22, 1934, Dillinger was surrounded by federal agents and, allegedly armed and fleeing into a nearby alley, was fired upon.
He was pronounced dead later that night at a hospital.
It was a significant victory for the FBI, whose search for Dillinger had spanned multiple years and states.
It also signified the lengths federal authorities would go to combat a crime that they, unlike many Americans, did not seem to find the least bit amusing or romantic.
From inside his spacious office at the FBI’s Kansas City office on Summit Street, Marlin Ritzman spends his days going about the business of catching bad guys.
For many years, Ritzman oversaw the division’s violent-crimes squad, which investigates bank robberies, before becoming an assistant special agent in charge, and he is something of an expert on the matter.
He can tell you, for instance, that nationally, offenders like to carry out their bank robberies on Friday afternoons, while locally, they prefer Wednesday mornings. And that the majority are what authorities refer to as “note jobs” — when a perpetrator slides a written note to the teller with a demand for money — or verbal demands without displaying a weapon.
What he can also tell you is that the FBI currently boasts a 54 percent solution rate.
Over the years, where bank robberies are concerned, the gap between risk and reward seems to have steadily closed.
As perpetrator strategy has essentially remained the same, security and tracking measures have evolved significantly. At the FBI’s current disposal are databases, high-quality security footage, access to digital highway billboards onto which suspects’ pictures are plastered — all of which are used to track down today’s offenders.
Of course, in some instances, the newest security measures aren’t even needed; one alleged thief left a coat near the scene containing a pill bottle labeled with his prescription information.
Even those who, against the odds, successfully carry out a bank caper these days typically find themselves with little to show for it. According to FBI statistics for the fiscal year 2014, the average loss incurred during bank robberies in the Kansas City area was $6,000.
As Donald Lee, a supervisory special agent with the violent crime/major offenders unit of the Kansas City FBI, puts it: “They’re not going in and getting several hundred thousand dollars.”
What they are getting, however, is a heap of trouble if caught.
Today, simply walking into a bank and slipping a note to the teller demanding money can result in a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. Flash a weapon — or use even the threat of violence — and that number can jump significantly.
And that’s to say nothing of the other, more immediate risks.
Two years ago, on a Friday afternoon in March, a 34-year-old man named Michael Olivia walked into a bank in Trimble, Mo., armed with a toy gun and a plan.
His face covered by a mask, Olivia allegedly pointed his toy gun at a teller behind the counter and demanded money. What he didn’t count on was a second bank employee who, hearing the commotion up front, emerged from a back office holding a real gun, and proceeded to fire a pair of shots at Olivia, hitting him once in the jaw.
When police eventually caught up with Olivia, following a high-speed chase, they found him injured and bloody.
He asked officers whether they were going to let him die.
Despite the inherent risks, however, American banks are still robbed on a daily basis.
Ritzman fosters no illusions. He knows that, despite the bureau’s best efforts, wayward men and women will continue walking into banks and demanding money.
As long as desperation exists, in other words, so, too, will bank robberies.
“Thirty years ago, bank robberies were occurring,” says Ritzman. “And 30 years from now, they’ll still be occurring.”
Today, the Clay County Savings Association still stands, having been transformed in 1966 into a small museum on the town square in downtown Liberty.
The gift shop is filled with Jesse James books and Jesse James T-shirts, Jesse James coffee mugs and Jesse James shot glasses. A map on the wall near the front door tracks the visitors who come annually. Last year alone, the museum drew people from 50 states and 27 countries, hundreds of imaginations piqued by the stories of bank robbers and the Wild West.
On a recent afternoon — as an elderly man stood in the gift shop proudly insisting that the James clan once stopped by his great-grandmother’s house, leaving $5 gold coins under each of the plates on the dinner table before they left — Susan Jacobs walked a visitor through the standard tour.
Jacobs knows all the details of the day in question, and the few that aren’t knowable, she has used her imagination to fill in.
She points out the key aspects of the one-room display: the desks where the two bank employees were working, the counter the two robbers leapt over, the vault they were forced into.
For 20 minutes or so she describes the crime, realizing, toward the end, that what she’s saying doesn’t sound all that different from the thousands of bank robberies still taking place each year across the country.
“I guess it’s just like today,” she says at one point. “They do the exact same thing.”