Monday, October 19, 2020

The Case of the Balky Banker

An FBI Story
GOODLAND LIFE

This is the bottom half of the author’s FBI credentials, issued in 1974 (about the time of the extortion), and carried with him until his 1995 retirement.

This is the bottom half of the author’s FBI credentials, issued in 1974 (about the time of the extortion), and carried with him until his 1995 retirement.

In February 1974 an alarming midmorning call came into the Phoenix FBI field office. It originated from the bank manager’s office in one of the First National Bank’s numerous Phoenix branch offices. Within an hour, the entire field office had been called in. As the case agent gave us the details, it was evident that large scale extortion was underway against the bank. There was even a threat of death if the bank did not comply. This was a code red type case, which had to be dealt with immediately and with full force. It was the kind of case we lived for. Big cases like this were rare. They were welcome and challenging interruptions to our interminable ongoing assigned investigations (I worked mainly white collar crime), but I had never heard anything like this.

This is close to what a southwest view of downtown Phoenix looked like in 1981, when the author left. Note how abruptly the business district ends and the residences begin.

This is close to what a southwest view of downtown Phoenix looked like in 1981, when the author left. Note how abruptly the business district ends and the residences begin.

After reporting to work that morning, the bank manager received an anonymous call from a man claiming to have kidnapped his wife. The wife was put on the phone and verified this. The manager was told that if he wanted to see his wife alive again, he would have to pay a ransom in the amount of $500K. Instructions as to how, when, and where to deliver the money would be forthcoming the man said. The manager was told to wait beside his work phone for these instructions. He was further advised that, on threat of death to his wife, he was not to contact the FBI. He would be watched throughout the day, the man told him.

Downtown Phoenix circa 1975. The extortion drop site was only 16 blocks east of here.

Downtown Phoenix circa 1975. The extortion drop site was only 16 blocks east of here.

So far, so good, we could visualize how the day would play out. We prided ourselves when it came to extortions and kidnappings. Then from out in left field, came an unexpected revelation. The manager had said he was not willing to pay anywhere near this amount for the return of his wife. In fact, he was not willing to pay anything. He felt that the kidnappers would soon tire of his wife no matter what the bank’s response was. And if they didn’t…The manager’s cavalier approach signified big trouble at home but brought guffaws and grins from the assembled agents. Here was the penultimate glass half full guy, sensing opportunity where others saw only disaster.

Downtown Phoenix circa 1954. This is how it looked when Gwinn arrived in 1969. First National Bank of Arizona Headquarters is at middle left.

Downtown Phoenix circa 1954. This is how it looked when Gwinn arrived in 1969. First National Bank of Arizona Headquarters is at middle left.

A recalcitrant bank manager notwithstanding, it was agreed that something had to be done to get the kidnappers behind bars. It would be easy enough to swoop in when the money changed hands. We had done this before. The security department in the FNB’s downtown headquarters agreed to pay the ransom. It was agreed that only $50,000 in cash would be put in the ransom package. As expected, the manager was OK with this. Underneath the $1,000 packs of $20 bills, would be identically wrapped packs of plain paper, with a crisp new bill on top.

Stores on the 1600 block of E. McDowell Road (2017). Except for the updated storefronts, the neighborhood has not changed. The extortion drop site was behind the store marked by arrow. As in 1974, the store remains vacant.

Stores on the 1600 block of E. McDowell Road (2017). Except for the updated storefronts, the neighborhood has not changed. The extortion drop site was behind the store marked by arrow. As in 1974, the store remains vacant.

Once the bank and manager were on board, things began to move at a frenetic pace. An agent and technician were dispatched to the manager’s office to monitor and hopefully trace incoming calls. They were not long in coming. The first call instructed the manager to go to a designated pay phone in Scottsdale and wait for further instructions. The call was too short to be traced as it was occurring. It was later found to have originated from a pay phone, as were all future incoming calls.

Inset: Close-up of vacant store used by the kidnappers to embarrass the FBI.

Inset: Close-up of vacant store used by the kidnappers to embarrass the FBI.

The manager was given the ransom package and drove his own car out to Scottsdale. A team of agents was assigned to follow him and others were dispatched to the site of the pay phone. No suspicious persons were seen following the manager or at the pay phone site. The agents were communicating freely among themselves and with the office by means of a secure radio channel. The manager was given a portable unit which had access to this channel. Although most of us had older model, unmarked cars, they could be easily be identified by discerning criminal types. Director Hoover had forbidden the installation of AC units in any Bureau car. The theory was that they were for work – not pleasure. You could always tell one of our cars by the fact that the windows were almost always open – even in 110 degree heat. When on surveillance, we had to roll them up (to blend in) and suffer the consequences. Phoenix was the hottest field office in the FBI.

Rear of stores looking south (2017). Vacant store marked by arrow, Author’s surveillance position marked with asterisk. The area behind the stores was crawling with agents, who anticipated arresting the kidnappers at a dumpster behind the store. Submitted Photos

Rear of stores looking south (2017). Vacant store marked by arrow, Author’s surveillance position marked with asterisk. The area behind the stores was crawling with agents, who anticipated arresting the kidnappers at a dumpster behind the store. Submitted Photos

Side view looking east shows numerous exits from the store’s rear, carefully picked by the kidnappers. Agents in squad cars waited at every exit – but no one was watching the store.

Side view looking east shows numerous exits from the store’s rear, carefully picked by the kidnappers. Agents in squad cars waited at every exit – but no one was watching the store.

There followed a series of instructions to proceed to at least three other phone booths, for still further instructions. The kidnappers were obviously trying to determine whether the bank manager was clean. The pay phone locations were now within Phoenix city limits. Finally they felt confident enough to announce the drop site. It was to be in rear of a vacant store in the 1600 block of East Mc- Dowell Road, one of Phoenix’s main eastwest arteries. That block is still the same today – a strip of four one-story buildings opening onto McDowell Road. By happenstance, the store used by the kidnappers is also vacant today.

There was an alley behind the stores with a dumpster against the wall of one of them. It was the only dumpster for the four buildings on the block. The manager was instructed to drive to this dumpster, drop the package inside, and quickly leave. It was a site ideally suited for a quick getaway through any one of more than six exit points. About 12 of us took up positions on the rooftops of the stores and residences overlooking the site. Some of us were within feet of the dumpster. Others were waiting close by in their squad cars. Unless you were in a helicopter and knew where to look, you would never notice us.

We watched as the manager drove up, opened the dumpster lid, and dropped the ransom package inside. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel.

But nothing happened. As the afternoon wore on, the site remained peaceful and undisturbed. The kidnappers made no more attempts to contact the bank. They must have gotten cold feet we thought. Disappointment and then boredom set in. After about two and a half hours, the special agent in charge called it off. It was a gut wrenching decision considering the perceived peril that the manager’s wife was in. Special Agent Lou Fain was sent to retrieve the money from the dumpster.

We watched as he opened the dumpster lid and looked in. Backing off, he shrugged and shook his head. Without further ado, Fain climbed into the dumpster and disappeared from view. A few minutes later, he reappeared and climbed back out. His clothes were streaked with dirt; he did not have the ransom package. 12 pairs of eyes had remained focused on that dumpster (all of us less than 50 feet away) ever since the manager had dropped off the money. No one had come near it. How could this happen?

It turned out that a hole had been cut in the bottom of the dumpster, then covered with plywood and newspapers. Discovering the hole, Fain crawled into it and though a tunnel which emerged inside the back room of the vacant store, a distance of no more than 15 feet. The kidnappers had made a neat pile of the excavated dirt at the store end of the tunnel. Stuck into the pile was a 4×4,on top of which was a mailbox with the flag up. Inscribed neatly on the mailbox were the words “B. Bunny.” There were no fingerprints, footprints or evidence of any kind. We had been played. While we were waiting to pounce at the rear of the store, the kidnappers were blithely exiting the front with the money. You can’t make this stuff up.

The kidnappers were never identified. The manager’s wife threw in her lot with them, and traveled with them for a while. A few weeks later they dumped her in Seattle, as her husband had forecast. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when (or if) they reunited. She refused to give evidence against the kidnappers, of whom she had grown quite fond. I was transferred out of Phoenix in 1985. The mailbox was still in the evidence room when I left.

Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is presently the Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *