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J.L. Hunter "Red" Rountree in prison, 2004. Photo DAN WINTERS.

J.L. Hunter “Red” Rountree in prison, 2004. Photo DAN WINTERS.

One of the Most Inept Bank Robberies in American History

At the age that most men are either dead or dozing in their La-Z-Boys, enjoying retirement, JL Hunter Rountree began his second career: Robbing Banks

Red Rountree, 92 “You want to know why I rob banks?” asked the oldest known bank robber in America in an interview..

“It’s fun. I feel good. Awful good.”

While some geriatrics spend the twilight of their lives fishing or golfing, sitting on the beach with a romance paperback or showing everyone who doesn’t care photos of their grandkids, J.L. Hunter “Red” Rountree went on a crime spree.

Born and raised in his family’s farmstead near Brownsville, TX, in what was the Golden Age of American bank-robbery, Rountree walked the straight-and-narrow life of an ordinary citizen until his 80s. Indeed, he was once a well-to-do businessman. According to a relative, Rountree made a fortune when he founded the Houston-based Rountree Machinery Co., which manufactured industrial tubing.

But then came the two things that every man should avoid: a younger woman and a bank loan. As business went south, Rountree’s payments on his refinancing loan were harder and harder to meet. A year after his first wife died, Rountree, at the age of 76, married a 31-year-old woman and then spent almost half a million dollars putting her through a drug rehabilitation program (the sum he spent on Viagra was never reported).

The bank didn’t care about substance-abuse problems; it just wanted its money. At this point, Rountree decided he didn’t like banks very much.

In 1998, at the age of 86, the short, scrawny redhead held up a South Trust Bank in Biloxi, MS. A year later he knocked over a Nations Bank in Pensacola, FL. This time he wasn’t that lucky; he was apprehended and sentenced, leniently, to three years in a state prison. In 2002 he was released on probation.

“Are you kidding?” the teller asked the bespectacled man with nearly translucent skin and wrinkled, knotted hands, on the other side of the glass.

“Hurry up and put the money in the envelope or you’ll get hurt,” Rountree told her.

As the teller complied, Rountree became the oldest known bank robber in U.S. history.

He did it for the thrill.

It was the morning of August 12, 2003, soon after the First American Bank of Abilene, Texas, had opened, and the man had walked in, crossed the floor to her station and handed her an envelope with the word ROBBERY written on it in red marker. He was tall, and he was wearing a blue baseball cap and a black long-sleeve shirt. At first the teller didn’t understand what was happening. “What do you mean?” she asked, and the man got irritated and told her to go over to her drawer and put the money in the envelope he’d given her. That’s when she asked him: “Are you kidding?

He wasn’t kidding at all. His name was JL Hunter Rountree, and he pointed to her station and demanded again that she put the money in the envelope. Still, the teller couldn’t quite believe it. She turned to another teller, who was standing nearby, and said, “I’m getting robbed. Is he kidding?” The other girl told her to go ahead and put the money in the envelope—twenties, tens, fives and ones, plus a little bait money, marked so that it could be traced back to the bank. It came to just under $2,000. As the teller tripped the silent alarm, the robber turned and walked out of the bank, got into a white Buick Century and drove away.

Here’s what made the teller balk: The scalp around his cap was bald and liver-spotted; the body under his shirt was thin and stooped. One of the other tellers would tell the police that he looked to be in his seventies or eighties; the teller he robbed thought he was about 80. They were off by at least a decade: Rountree, known as Red to almost everyone who knows him, was born in 1911—just one year after Bonnie and two years after Clyde. He was married at 20, a millionaire at 50, bankrupt at 60, widowed at 70; and only then, when most men are luxuriating in the relief of their retirement, did Red Rountree begin his second career. He began robbing banks in his eighties, he was finishing up a three-year sentence in a federal prison in Florida when he was 90, and when he walked out of the bank in Abilene with an envelope full of cash and the cops already alerted, he was a full 91 years old, and he wasn’t kidding, not at all.

“I was born in a farmhouse about seven miles south of Brownwood, Texas.” This is Red speaking, ancient history told by one who lived it. “And the doctor didn’t get there for two days—and when he showed up, he was drunk as a buggy. He spent the night, and he circumcised me the next day.” He’s sitting on a metal folding chair in a cinder-block room in the Dickens County Correctional Center in Spur, Texas, a tiny little town on the edge of the plains. He’s six feet tall and 160 pounds, and time has bleached all the color out of him; his skin is pale to the point of translucence, his beard is white, and he walks with a metal cane. He stares through thick glasses, not maliciously but with the fixed uncertainty of the aged. Even in a gray prison jumpsuit, he looks like someone’s favorite great-uncle; he looks, incongruously enough, like Pete Seeger, and he speaks with a thick East Texas accent. He’s explaining how he became, quite likely, the oldest bank robber in U.S. history, and as befits his achievement, he’s taking the long way.

J.L. HUNTER ROUNTREE, 92 Bank robber."You want to know why I rob banks?" asked the oldest known bank robber in America in an interview.. "It's fun. I feel good. Awful good." Associated Press Photo.

J.L. HUNTER ROUNTREE, 92 Bank robber.”You want to know why I rob banks?” asked the oldest known bank robber in America in an interview.. “It’s fun. I feel good. Awful good.” Associated Press Photo.

“I lived on this farm until I was 6 years old. It was the sorriest farm I have ever heard of. We had cotton, we had corn, we had turkeys in quantity. We had sheep, we had milk cows, and when I was a 3-year-old and they went to milk the cows every night and every morning, I had a tin cup and I’d follow them, and I’d get that hot milk and drink it.” He tells this story and his eyes glow, as if he can still taste it. “My long-term memory is good,” he says, and you believe him. “My short-time memory, I don’t have,” he says, and you believe that too. “No fooling. At times I can’t hardly remember my name.” But he can recall a time so distant that an automobile was an uncommon sight. “My father’s father had a drayage company—”

A what?

“That’s like a trucking company, but with horses, big horses.”

So he talks. He tells a near century’s worth of stories, and tells them as much, it seems, to keep the tales alive as to convey anything to his visitor. They might as well be legends, ballads, bedtime stories; there’s no one to confirm them, no one left in this world who knows Red Rountree well or knows very much about him. Everyone he’s ever been close to is dead: his parents, his wife, his stepson, his brothers, his in-laws, his friends. He’s been orphaned by time, and it’s as if he’s re-creating a world by remembering it out loud.

Listen: “Farmers in Brownwood had an account at the grocery store and an account at the dry-goods store. And they charged things, and at the end, when they sold the crops and got some money, they went and paid. Didn’t have a very good crop one year, so JL Hunter Rountree is my name. JL King was the dry-goods man, and Hunter was the grocer. I used to work for JL on Saturdays, when I was going through high school.”

He talks: the ‘20s, work for the Santa Fe Railroad, college, then back to the farm to wait out the Depression. In the early ‘30s, one of his brothers got him a job working in the oil fields in Duval County. It was around then that he met his first wife, Fay, a waitress with a young son named Tom. “Less than a year later, we got married. The boy was 4 years old, and he become my boy. This was 1933.” Red Rountree was a fortunate man: “It was a fifty-year love affair,” he says.

He was lucky in business too. After the war, he started Rountree Machinery Co., and soon he was wealthy. Buddy Rountree, Red’s nephew, now in his late 70’s,  remembers seeing the couple on those few occasions when they came by to visit the rest of the family. “Fay was a nice lady, a real sophisticated type person,” he says. “Red gave her everything she wanted. He had a big business and a lot of money. She came to a family reunion a time or two, but she didn’t mix very well. She was just a different kind of person; some people mix and some don’t. Rountrees, we get by and do what we have to do, but she liked nice things and fine jewellery and clothes.”

That was a good life, a good time. But Sophocles had it right: Count no man fortunate until he has died, and Red Rountree had a long time left to live. First his stepson was killed in a car accident in Galveston. Then Red sold Rountree Machinery and put a million dollars in the bank. He played a little golf, he did a little fishing, but retirement didn’t agree with him, and in time he took out a bank loan and bought a shipyard down in Corpus Christi. “I was stupid,” he says. “It cost more to build the ships than you could sell them for. We would sell them for about $750,000, and it cost about $1 million to build them. Each one. Then the damn bank pulled the note on me. I could have made the payment. I could have complied with my obligations to the bank. The lawyer for the bank, I hated him. The judge just said, ‘Pay up!’ He was cruel. And the bank called in the note, and I had to go bankrupt.”

Everyone he’s ever been close to is dead: his parents, his wife, his stepson, his brothers, his in-laws, his friends. He’s been orphaned by time, and it’s as if he’s re-creating a world by remembering it out loud.

 Bankrupt, and then his wife got lung cancer. “It was the roughest year I spent in my life. The last year she was alive, I didn’t get twenty feet from her. I didn’t try to do any business. I spent all my time with her.”

America's Oldest Bank Robber.

America’s Oldest Bank Robber.

Red was 75. Widowed, alone, restless. What’s a man to do? He leans in to tell this part, half proud of the memory. It is, after all, where the road to notoriety begins.

Never much of drinker before, Rountree says he began spending a lot of time in bars. At age 83, he says, he experimented with a few drugs.

“I tried it, marijuana mostly. I even tried some of the other stuff, cocaine. I didn’t care for it much,” he said.

Later, he married a woman he met in a bar. Red can’t remember her name.

“You know how she got me? She gave me a hug,” he says. “She was a nice woman. She had two kids, and I just loved them to death.”

Texas marriage records show Rountree married a Juanita Adams in 1989 and that they divorced in 1995.

It was some time during this period, Rountree visited his nephew, Buddy Rountree, at his home in Goldthwaite, a speck of a town on the back roads between Abilene and Austin.

“He showed up one day wearing a purple and black running suit, the kind that had baggy pants, and he had his hair in a ponytail. This old man with a ponytail,” said the 72-year-old nephew, shaking his head.

Rountree burned through his money and found himself broke, on Social Security and living in a trailer in Alabama.

“I went crazy,” he says. “I did crazy things.”. “Before I met her,” he says, “I thought the way you got drugs was you went to the doctor and got a prescription and went to the drugstore and got drugs. She taught me different. She had a baaad drug problem. After six months of being with her, I started doing drugs with her. I did marijuana. Cocaine. Rock. I’ve smoked crack. I never did do much heroin; I was afraid I’d get strung out. About a year and a half later, I divorced her.”

So there he was, broke, burned, old and ornery, with nothing, it seemed, left to lose. In 1998, at the age of 87, Red Rountree robbed his first bank.

He can’t remember where he got the idea, or what he was thinking, and he’ll be the first to tell you he was a little bit stupid about it. He just marched into a bank in Biloxi, Mississippi, and demanded some money. A customer at the drive-through window saw him, dialed the police on his cell phone, and that was that. “They caught me real quick,” says Red. “I was given a three-year sentence, and it was suspended. And I was banned from the state of Mississippi.” But while he was locked up, he learned a thing or two. “I stayed in jail before I had my trial. And one of the world’s most famous bank robbers was in that jail. He taught me how to rob banks. It’s the easiest thing in the world. I went back to Houston after I got banned from the state of Mississippi, and I found myself a girlfriend. I sent her to a teller school in Houston with a tape recorder in her purse. And one of the things that they tell the girls is that if somebody tells you that they’re robbing the bank, do exactly what they tell you to do. Don’t get hurt.”

He never even needed a gun. All he had to do was walk in and pass a note and walk out again with a few thousand dollars. So he robbed some more; he won’t say how many, or how much money he got away with, but he’s happy to share a couple of tips. “One of the things that you do to rob a bank is pick a place a long ways from where you live. When you successfully rob a bank, don’t ever go back to that town. Never! And don’t ever tell anybody that you robbed a bank.”

Still, he got caught again a year after the arrest in Biloxi, this time in Florida, and he served three years—age 87 to 90—as the oldest prisoner in the state’s system, bringing him a certain local celebrity that he seems to have enjoyed a great deal.

“You never saw anybody like me, did you?” he asks.

No, there is no one like him. So why did Red Rountree turn to felony at an age when most men spend their afternoons nodding off happily in an armchair? He told a reporter in Florida that he did it for the money. Now he says, “I didn’t necessarily need the money. I was getting over $1,000 a month from Social Security, and I can’t spend $1,000 every month.” He told the police who picked him up after the Abilene robbery that he did it out of hatred for the bank that put him out of business. Now he has a different reason. “Hey,” he says, “when I rob a bank, when I walk out the front door, I get a rush. Just like I’d taken a shot of cocaine, and it lasts a whole lot longer. It starts when I pick up my envelope, and it feels like I just had a shot of cocaine. Why? I can’t answer. I like…to rob…banks.”

As hobbies for the elderly go, this has its charm, but the reasons for it are more elaborate than that. The fact is that no one plans to live to be 90. How could you plan for such a thing? To outlast everyone you ever loved, to live into a new world, to be that deeply and irredeemably alone, and to have it go on and on and on until you’re Rip Van Winkle, a castaway in the future, a prisoner of your preposterous longevity—who among us has any idea how to prepare for such a circumstance? Most of us would doubtless feel surpassingly ancient, a stranger in a strange land. Red Rountree seems to have felt brand-new, reborn, utterly free and unfettered—beyond obligation, beyond law, outside of time.

rountree2

If it was age that liberated the old man, it was age that got him locked up again. After he was released from prison in Florida, he went up to Goldthwaite, Texas, to live near his nephew Buddy and Buddy’s wife in a trailer on some land they owned. Red seemed happy there; he talked about buying a little piece of property, said he wanted to spend the rest of his life in Goldthwaite. And then, a little more than a year later, he drove two hours up to Abilene and robbed another bank.

It was his practice to cover his license plate with packing tape so that his car couldn’t easily be identified. “I had cased this bank the evening before,” he says. “And the next morning, I had the tape in my car to put on the license plate, and the traffic was a little heavier than I thought it was around the bank. I kept looking for a place where I could put that tape on where no one would see me, but it was getting a little late in the morning, so I thought, Well, I’ll just hide the car. But I didn’t hide it successfully.”

Actually, he didn’t hide it at all. He seems to have had a brain fog—what he calls “a little spell”—and instead of taking pains to cover his tracks, he blithely parked outside the bank, went in, held the place up, walked back out to his car and drove away, his license plate in plain sight. A bulletin went out on the police radio, and he was spotted on a road leading out of town. He was going ninety miles an hour, heading south on Highway 83, when they caught up with him, and he pulled over and surrendered without a fight, quickly admitting his guilt.

Still, jail’s not so bad—“I tell you, they’ve been good to me here,” he says—and he’ll probably be moved to a special federal facility for elderly prisoners up in Fort Worth. Red Rountree: farm boy, husband, businessman, bank robber. His race is pretty much run now, but he doesn’t seem unhappy about it. When he dies, he says, “I’m going to be buried next to Fay and Tom in Houston. I’ve owned the plot for fifty years. I want the cheapest box they can buy.” What’s more, although the Baptist boy has turned into a somewhat less devout man, he still believes in heaven, and he believes he’s going there: “I can’t find a place in the Bible that tells me it’s wrong to rob banks.”

Thou shalt not steal?

“Okay, it’s stealing,” he says, and then his eyes light up again. “But it’s fun stealing.”

Red has been having a lot of fun, it’s hard not to admire him for it. The banks don’t like him, and his nephew’s a little irked at him, but even the cops who arrested him and the FBI agent who made the case against him speak of him as an interesting old guy. He says he’s had “a hell of a good life,” and it seems appropriate to ask him how. How do you live that long? What’s the trick to keeping happy?

“Be mean and contrary,” he says slowly. And then he laughs—because, after all, he’s only kidding.

Red says he’s not sure he wants to get out.

“What would I do at my age? Rob another bank?” he says, laughing.

In 2004, 92-year-old Red Rountree, was sentenced to over 12 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to robbing $1,999 from a Texas bank.

J.L. Hunter “Red” Rountree, died of natural causes at age 92, in the Springfield prison hospital, in 2004.

Other Inept Bank Robberies

  • One afternoon in 2007, Anthony Miller robbed a bankto go to jail and escape his “overbearing” wife. According to court testimony, Miller waltzed up to the teller, brandished a gun, demanded money, and asked her to call the police. He and his wife are no longer married.
  • In December, 2009 Casey Shane Printzrobbed a few Seattle-area banks while wearing a shirt with his last name printed on it in a font distinctive to a Princeton University tee shirt. Casey did not go to Princeton.
  • Two teenage ski instructors robbed a bank in Vail, CO last year and got away with over $100k. They were so stoked afterwards that they went onlineand posted photos of themselves fanning the money and pursing their lips like awesome pimp gangsters. Also, wonderfully, they wore their resort nametags during the stickup. The cops got the money back within 24 hours.

Points for style though: Knox pedaled away from the scene on a bicycle.

  • Last March, a man walked into a Chase bank on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his hands already covered in exploding inkfrom another failed bank robbery. Having the power of sight, everyone called the police.
  • In the manner of Daniel Ocean, a band of spectacularly not-bright Scottish thieves put on masks and set a plan in motion:

Step One: Blast the roof off bank and steal money.

Step Two: Realize you destroyed the roof of the wrong building.

Step Three: Proceed to next building.

Step Four: Blast roof off and steal money

Step Five: Realize you can’t blast through the roof. Because that’s how banks are designed.

Lesson: Blueprints. Or, don’t steal things.

Jim Lewis

J L Hunter ‘Red’ Rountree – Telegraph

The Story of the 92-Year-Old Bank Robber – KCBD.com

J.L. HUNTER ROUNTREE, 92 “You want to know why I …

Oldest convicted bank robber | Guinness World Records

CNN.com – Oldest U.S. bank robber gets 12 years – Jan. 23 …

Anyone can be dangerous; never let your guard down

 


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