Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bank Heist

I don't picture myself ever landing in federal prison for bank robbery, but Jack did.

In our early 20s, Jack and I were a lot alike. We were both US Marine guards at the American Embassy in Nassau. We both liked whiskey and coke with a squeeze of lime. We flirted with the same kind of girls on Cable Beach. 

We shot pool at 
Settler’s Pub on Bay Street. We ran together on five-milers. 

But ten years later, I was wearing a cap and gown at a college graduation and Jack was wearing khakis at a federal prison in New Jersey.
***
Jack Weldon Nealy, Jr. is a name that would fit just fine into a Cormac McCarthy novel. He was born and raised in rural Bandera County where cypress and live oak lined the streams, and buffalo grass and rye grew in the shallow alkaline soil of the South Texas hill country.

We’d each served a first Marine Security Guard tour in West Africa: Jack’s first post was at the embassy in Accra, Ghana, where he received a Navy Achievement Medal for saving a fellow Marine from drowning in the Gulf of Guinea. I'd been stationed in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and I managed to avoid drowning in bourbon.

I left Nassau and the Marine Corps in late ’84 and went back to Indiana for school. Jack completed his own 18-month rotation in the Bahamas, stayed another 5 years in the Corps, and then got married to Michelle and had two kids.

Since the age of five, Jack and his buddies wanted to be cops. He played a game where he’d pull his sister over on her bicycle and write her speeding tickets. After he took his discharge from the Marines in 1989 and went on home to South Texas, Jack signed on with the San Antonio Police Department.

He did well at the academy. He was elected president of his recruit class and graduated in the top of his unit. After a year as a patrol officer, Jack was earning the respect of his fellow cops.

By 1990 though, he had separated from Michelle. She took the car and the kids and went back to Miami. Jack is now age 28, in debt, paying child support, with credit so bad he couldn’t even get a payday loan. He took to borrowing from friends to get by. Then he met Lisa.
Photo: Texas Monthly

Jack was on patrol, a night shift in September of 1990. He got a call to investigate a domestic disturbance, and had cause to interview the complainant: 19-year-old Lisa Michelle Silvas. 


She’d been a cheerleader at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, where she’d just graduated. She’d competed in beauty pageants and her friends described her as “adorable.” She wore a white bathrobe as Jack asked her questions, and he was smitten.

Over the next months, Jack found excuses to drop by, leaving notes or small gifts by her door. He’d take her for rides in his patrol car, trying to impress her by speeding on back roads with lights and sirens blaring. She was impressed.

Lisa liked the attention. She liked the proximity to the appearance of power and liked to tell her friends she was dating a cop. By December, they were living together. That’s when Lisa, the Texas beauty, hired on as a part-time teller with the Texas Commerce Bank in San Antonio.

Lisa had what you’d call “sirloin tastes and a bologna budget.” Her overspending on clothes, nails, and hair had led to a break-up with her previous boyfriend, Bert. A thin $250, part-time bank teller paycheck was not keeping her in a style to which she’d like to become accustomed.

Who knows which of them pitched the idea first: Jack? Getting deeper into debt with every passing month of showing Lisa a good time and child support and rent? Or Lisa, with aspirations to live the high life?

Regardless the instigator, Jack and Lisa planned and pulled off what was in 1991 the biggest bank robbery in San Antonio history.


***
When the newspapers later reported on the San Antonio cop and decorated former Marine who, with his young wife as an accomplice, had robbed a Texas Commerce Bank branch of a quarter-million dollars, they said of Jack: “His father died in a plane crash.”

The NTSB crash report from 1969 had more detail. On 8 December 1969, Jack Weldon Nealy, Sr., a dentist, had been drinking all day in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuna. On the return flight to Houston, Dr. Jack was piloting his Cessna 172 with his three friends aboard. Jack was at home, and he was six.

Around 6:40 pm that December evening, Cessna N84307 crashed into a field near Bellville, Texas, killing all on board. The report noted:

  • Type of Accident: Collision with the ground; uncontrolled descent.
  • Probable Causes: Continued VFR flight into adverse weather conditions. Pilot became disoriented. 
  • Factors: Alcoholic impairment of efficiency and judgment. Blood alcohol level 0.106 percent.

The NTSB report describing “an uncontrolled descent under conditions of impaired judgment” 
could have foreshadowed the path young Jack would follow two decades later.

***
On a San Antonio Saturday morning in September 1991, Jack left his uniform at home, and donned maintenance coveralls and a rubbery Halloween mask. He’d recently taken Lisa to see the Keanu Reeves movie “Point Break,” and
these masks worked pretty good for Patrick Swayze. As Lisa and her fellow teller Kelly McGinnis opened up for the day, a masked Jack bulled his way in behind them.

He had the young tellers empty their cash drawers and one of the two vaults, stuffing $242,624 into a plastic garbage bag. Jack then walked calmly from the branch and disappeared into that San Antonio Saturday morning. So calm that the customers waiting at the drive-up had no idea anything was amiss.

Kelly hit the alarm button and Lisa dialed 911. Police were on the scene in minutes. After a round of questioning, the detectives let the two girls call their boyfriends.

Kelly’s boyfriend showed up quickly, but Lisa got Jack’s answering machine. He later claimed that he’d turned his phone ringer off to get some sleep after working the police midnight shift. He showed up at the crime scene a couple hours later after he’d “just woken up.”

Author Skip Hollandsworth recounted an irony in his 1992 article in Texas Monthly:

The chairman of the bank, who had arrived to survey the remnants of the robbery, asked Lisa to describe the robber. With Jack at her side, Lisa said that the robber was about five feet eight inches tall — to illustrate, she put her hand on top of Jack’s head — and that he weighed about 170 pounds. Then Lisa giggled, stared at Jack, and said, “Oh my God, Jack, just like you.”

Either Lisa Silvas was an ingenuous patsy — or she had ice in her veins.
http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-almost-great-bank-robbery/


In the FBI investigation that followed, a number of factors led agents to suspect an inside job:

  • The robber seemed to be familiar with the teller routines, the interior layout of the branch, and the locations of alarms. 
  • He seemed to know which vault held stacks of paper cash and which held only coins. He seemed to know that this branch did not have security cameras, nor did they use exploding dye packs to mark stolen money. 
  • The robber pointed his gun and yelled at Kelly, but not at Lisa. He used police-style plastic zip cuffs to restrain Kelly, but not Lisa. 
  • Lisa had a bank-issued parking card, which someone used to access a nearby garage 30 minutes before the robbery – even though Lisa’s car was parked around the corner in a surface lot. 

Two more facts raised suspicion: Jack had proposed to Lisa in front of The Alamo in downtown San Antonio four months prior to the bank robbery, but they got a hasty courthouse wedding just nine days before the branch was hit. While Jack claimed they wed quickly so Lisa could get on his police department health insurance, investigators believe they wanted to be officially married to establish “spousal immunity” guarding against having to testify against each other if things went sideways.

And last, a few weeks after the robbery, Jack and Lisa told friends they were going to Florida for a few days, just to get away from the pressure of the FBI’s questioning. Where they actually went – without telling anyone – was Grand Cayman Island, known for its bank secrecy laws and numbered, anonymous accounts.

Despite their suspicions, the FBI and San Antonio police had no hard evidence that Lisa and Jack had conspired to rob the Texas Commerce Bank branch. A break in their investigation came after detectives visited Jack’s mother and step-father Bill at their farm in Pipe Creek, about 25 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Several days after the police questioning, Bill was walking his property. He came on a spot of disturbed soil, so he grabbed a shovel and started digging. About a foot below ground, he turned up a blue canvas bag full of money. He called the authorities.

While the Texas Commerce Bank had not used dye packs, they did use “bait money”: $100 bills with serial numbers recorded, used to track stolen money in the aftermath of a robbery. The branch had ten of these bait bills in Kelly’s drawer, ten in Lisa’s drawer, and twenty in the vault.

In the blue canvas bag, investigators found those forty bait bills pulled out of their stacks and rolled up together with a rubber band, the top bill marked with the words "Mexico money." Handwriting analysis later showed that Lisa Silvas has written those two words. FBI and San Antonio PD investigators speculated that greed had gotten the better of them. Rather than destroy the marked bills, Jack and Lisa planned to flee and spend the money south of the border, where they thought it would be less traceable.

Investigators found a final piece of evidence at the bottom of the blue canvas bag: a “Wish Upon a Star” key chain – a souvenir from the Flour Bluff High School reunion, which Lisa had attended just a few months prior.

Jack and Lisa were arrested, stood trial, and were both convicted. Lisa was sentenced to 13 years at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Jack got 15 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, New Jersey.

Of the nearly quarter-million dollars taken in the robbery, $95,000 remains missing.

It’s the kind of story they might use for a TV movie, and they actually made one. A country singer named Charlie Robison (married for a time to one of the Dixie Chicks) wrote a song called “Desperate Times,” based on the jackpot that Lisa and Jack had got themselves into. 


*******

I can’t see that I’d ever rob a bank, but I’ve had my share of decision points. Potential turning points. We all have.

I look at pictures of him and remember us being a lot the same. Playing backgammon on the porch, doing the work you do when your job is to guard an embassy. Drinking cold beer under a boukarou on the beach. We were friends.

I look at his picture today and barely recognize him. I wonder if he were given a picture of me, would he also not recognize me without prompting?

I wonder if there’s some parallel universe where Jack is the one happily married and writing stories, and I’m the one locked up in Terre Haute or La Tuna or Lompoc.

Photo: Texas Monthly

8 comments:

Hank Nuwer said...

What a tale. Well written, too

Joe said...

Thanks, Hanker.

writeraa said...

Great story, Joe. Outstanding details bring it to life. Have you tried to reach out to your old friend?

Anyway, just goes to show our choices make us who we are.


Travis Nealy said...

That's my father.

Joe said...

Hi Travis. Thanks for saying so. Hope your dad is doing well. Have you seen him recently?

Travis Nealy said...

I haven't seen him in about 5 years. I didn't meet him until I was in my early 20's. I've been trying to get in contact with him and came across your article. First time I've seen my mom mentioned in one. Heard he was incarcerated again but can't find out where. Hoping he's out.

Joe said...

Travis, you want to send me an e-mail at joejansen1@gmail.com, and I'll tell you what I know It may not be much and may not be current, but I'm glad to do what I can. Joe

Joe said...

I have contact info if you want it, Travis.

j