Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bank Heist: An Inside Job


I don't picture myself ever landing in federal prison for bank robbery, but I have an old friend who did. 

Jack and I were much alike in our early 20s. We were both US

Marine guards at the American Embassy in Nassau. We both liked
bourbon and coke with a squeeze of lime. We chased the same kind of girls on Cable Beach. We shot pool together at Settler’s Pub on Bay Street. We paced each other on five-mile runs. 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 the kind of name that would fit just fine in a Larry McMurtry story or a Cormac McCarthy novel. Jack was born and raised in rural Bandera County where cypress, live oak, and pecan trees lined the streams, and buffalo grass and rye grew in the shallow alkaline soil of the South Texas hill country.

We each served our first Marine Security Guard posts in West Africa: me in Yaounde, Cameroon, where I managed to avoid drowning in bourbon. Jack served his first MSG tour 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. At the post in Nassau, Bahamas, we were as tight as any of the Marines in our six-man detachment. We were a lot alike, and we were friends.

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

Since the age of five, Jack and his buddies had always wanted to be cops. As a kid, Jack played a game where he’d pull his sister over on her bicycle and write her speeding tickets. After Jack took his discharge from the Marines in 1989 and returned home to South Texas, he signed on with the San Antonio Police Department. He did well at the academy, was elected president of his recruit class, and graduated in the top quarter of his unit. After a year as a patrol officer, Jack was earning the respect of his bosses and his fellow cops.

By 1990, Jack had separated from Michelle, who took the car and the kids and went back to Miami. At age 28, in debt, paying child support, and with credit so bad he was unable to get any kind of loan, Jack took to borrowing from friends just to get by. Then he met Lisa Silvas.

Jack was working 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. Lisa was a former
Photo: Texas Monthly
cheerleader at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, where she’d just graduated. She’d been a beauty pageant contestant. She was wearing a white bathrobe and was described as “adorable.” Jack was smitten.

Over the next several months, Jack found excuses to drop by, leaving notes on her door, small gifts, or offers of a ride in his patrol car, speeding down back roads with lights and sirens blaring. Dinners, movies, gifts. Lisa liked the attention, the proximity to the appearance of power, and enjoyed telling her friends she was dating a cop. By December, they were living together.

Lisa wasn’t only a Texas beauty and high school graduate, she’d also been recently hired as a part-time teller with the Texas Commerce Bank in San Antonio. Her thin $250 per month paycheck was not helping her circumstances. Lisa had what you might call “sirloin tastes on a baloney budget.” Her excessive spending on hair and nails precipitated the break-up with her previous boyfriend, Bert. Lisa had spent so much on clothing that her wardrobe filled every closet in their small apartment, and even one closet at Bert’s father’s house.

Who knows which one of them pitched the idea first: Jack, getting deeper into debt with every passing month of child support and rent? Or Lisa, with aspirations to live high and with plenty of money? Regardless of who instigated the plan, Jack and Lisa pulled off what was then the biggest bank robbery in San Antonio history, taking nearly $250,000 from a drive-up “motor branch” of the Texas Commerce Bank.

On a Saturday morning in September 1991, Jack donned maintenance coveralls and put on a rubbery Halloween mask – like the ones worn in the movie “Point Break,” which he had recently taken Lisa to see. As Lisa and her fellow teller, Kelly McGinnis, let themselves into the branch, a masked Jack bulled his way in behind

them. Within minutes, he had Lisa and Kelly stuff $242,624 from their cash drawers and the vault into a plastic garbage bag. Jack walked calmly from the branch, and disappeared into a San Antonio Saturday morning. Even the customer waiting at the drive-up had no idea anything was amiss.

Kelly then hit the alarm button and Lisa dialed 911. Police were on the scene in minutes. After the initial round of questioning, the two girls were allowed to do what 19-year-old girls are likely to do in a situation like this: they called their boyfriends.

Kelly’s boyfriend showed up quickly, but all Lisa got was Jack’s answering machine. He later claimed that he’d turned his phone’s ringer off to get some sleep after working midwatch the previous night. Jack showed up a couple hours later after he’d “awakened.”

In the FBI investigation that followed, a number of factors led the 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 had paper cash and which held only coin. He knew 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 was used to access a nearby parking garage 30 minutes before the robbery – even though Lisa had parked in another nearby lot that did not require use of the card.

And author Skip Hollandsworth recounted this 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/

Two more facts raised the investigators’ suspicions: Jack had gotten down on a knee in front of the Alamo and proposed to Lisa four months prior to the bank robbery. But the two of them got a courthouse wedding certificate just nine days before the branch was hit. While Jack claimed they wed quickly so Lisa could get on his SAPD 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 FUBAR.

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

Despite all their suspicions, the FBI and San Antonio police had no hard evidence that Lisa and Jack had actually robbed the Texas Commerce Bank branch. Their break came after visiting Jack’s mother and step-father Bill at their farm in Pipe Creek, about 25 miles northwest of San Antonio. Several days after the investigators’ visit, Bill was walking his property and came upon an area of disturbed soil. He started digging, and about a foot below the surface, found a blue canvas bag full of money.

While the Texas Commerce Bank had not used dye packs with their money, they had used “bait money”: stacks of $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 numbered bills rolled up 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 Lisa and Jack, and rather than destroy the marked bills, they planned to flee to Mexico and spend that part of the loot south of the border, where they thought it would be less traceable.

As a final piece to the puzzle, investigators found at the bottom of that blue canvas bag a “Wish Upon a Star” key chain: a souvenir from the high-school reunion at Flour Bluff High School, 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 did. A country singer named Charlie Robison (married for a time to one of the Dixie Chicks) wrote a song based on Jack and Lisa’s heist, called “Desperate Times.” 



*******

Jack didn’t have it easy growing up. His dentist father, Jack Weldon Nealy, Sr., died in a plane crash when Jack was six. That’s how the newspapers put it when they reported on the decorated former Marine and standout San Antonio cop who, with his wife as an accomplice, had robbed a Texas Commerce Bank branch of close to a quarter million dollars. The papers reported the background, “His father died in a plane crash.”

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

Around 6:40 pm, 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.

Low cloud cover and bad visibility aside, “an uncontrolled descent under conditions of impaired judgment” might have foreshadowed the path his son, my friend, Jack was destined to also follow two decades later.

*******

The English preacher John Bradford (c.1510–1555), upon seeing

criminals being led to the scaffold, is said to have uttered something like, "There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford."

I can’t see where I’d ever rob a bank. But I’ve surely done some stupid things and used bad judgment at points along the road. I look at Jack and remember being friends. Playing backgammon or chess, running bomb threat or intruder drills at the embassy, or washing down some cracked conch with iced bottles of Guinness under a boukarou on the beach. We were a group of friends and fellow Marines who were in many ways the same.

I can’t help wondering if there’s some parallel universe where Jack is the one married for nine years and working and writing stories on the side, and I’m the one locked up in Terre Haute or Lompoc or La Tuna. I look at who my friend is today and where he is, and I think of all the choices I didn’t make and I get a chill that goes with the thought, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

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