DUMB CRIME

by Craig W. Turner (“Like” Craig W. Turner on Facebook)

I always wondered how anyone could want me to write about them.

Truth be told, if you ended up in my column, it was usually to debase you, ridicule you, and basically tell the world through your story just how stupid mankind can be. But for some reason, many reveled in the fact that they were now “famous.” I guess that saying about there not being any such thing as bad publicity has some merit. Though I think a lack of personal pride has something to do with it.

I’m Jack Warsaw. I write a weekly, nationally-syndicated column called “Dumb Crime.” At least, I used to. You’ve probably seen it. If you haven’t, you’ve undoubtedly read stories similar to the ones that I tell — tales of the dregs of society who try to take advantage of the system, but so miserably fail to think their actions through. Like the guy who attempted to rob the donut shop while his daughter was working the counter. Or the woman who slipped the bank teller a note instructing her to fill a bag with $50s and $100s – through the drive-thru tube. “I have a gun,” she warned from her Datsun.

The American public writes these people off as lunatics. I spent years of my life interviewing them.

I’d determined several years ago, struggling with a “Main Street” column for a local daily, that there was more to life than trying to impress upon readers that the “talk about town” was really that. That was when I met Frank Milliford. A public school teacher in Wichita, Kansas, Frank had attempted a “gas-and-run,” — fill up your vehicle and take off before paying. Unfortunately, Frank, in his haste, forgot to remove the nozzle from his car before speeding away, and ripped the gas pump clear from its foundation, dragging it at least a quarter mile down the road before giving up. I met him in the county holding center the next morning, gave him the floor to tell everyone what in God’s name he was thinking, and the rest is history.

After seven years of writing and thousands of air miles, it is still incomprehensible to me the things people actually do. But the biggest shock is that these miscreants would welcome me, as if their bout of idiocy was an audition, and their inadequacy as a criminal a ticket to fame. Needless to say, I was not dealing with intellectuals.

Which is why I was exceptionally surprised at the uniqueness of Bartlett Reed, a Buffalo-based accountant, and his story of ineptness. Reed was not wealthy, but made a decent buck. He was good-looking, congenial, and had a strong, charismatic personality. Not your typical “Dumb Crime” interviewee.

Bartlett Reed decided one day that he was going to rob the First Bank of New York branch located smack in the middle of downtown Buffalo. He determined that the best time to do this was in the middle of the day, when business traffic was highest. He wore no mask. He carried no weapon. He did nothing to hide his identity.

And he almost got away with it.

That’s not the shocking part, however. The shocking part is that Bartlett Reed, in either his brilliance or his nervousness, made perhaps the most avoidable gaffe that my column had ever seen.

From the top…Bartlett left his downtown office, three blocks from the bank, at11:50 a.m. A brisk walker, he made the trek along the above-ground portion of the subway in seven minutes. He entered the bank, and dutifully waited for one of the tellers to go on her lunch break, leaving four tellers available – the lowest number of the day, with the part-timers beginning at12:30 p.m.

So far, so good.

After fiddling with some paperwork at the communal business table, he approached the teller, calmly warned her that he had a weapon – which, of course, he did not – and told her to fill a deposit bag with $100 bills. The woman, a 20-something with a nose ring, did as she was told, and Bartlett left quietly. Just as he reached the door to the bank, however, he tripped over the decorative “mud” carpet lying beneath the door. The teller, noticing the stumble, screamed that she’d just been robbed, and all hell broke loose. Security guards and managers stormed to the scene, the woman’s fellow tellers shrieked, and the patrons scurried in fear. Bartlett, meanwhile, scampered out the front door, and eventually lost himself in the lunchtime business crowd. Within ten minutes, he was back at his desk with an envelope full of cash.

Two hours later, Bartlett Reed was led from his office in handcuffs.

When the Buffalo Police Department contacted me, it became the first story I’d ever done where I made the trip on blind faith. The investigators simply would not tell me what had happened. They wanted me to see for myself.

As I sat watching the security tapes from the bank, I was rewarded for the cost of the flight. As it turns out, Bartlett’s heroic dash through the crowd was insignificant for the simple fact that he’d left a calling card behind.

Literally. He’d left his calling card behind.

On the public business table at First New York was a fishbowl advertisement for a local restaurant, offering a “Free Pizza” each month to a random business person whose name was selected from business cards dropped in the collection. It was an effective way to build a mailing list of clients, and apparently a widely-used strategy among restaurant owners throughoutBuffalo. Bartlett Reed must have thought the idea of a free pizza was an attractive one, and tossed his card into the fishbowl while he waited. The BPD handed me this card after I’d watched Bartlett’s debacle on video, twice. I asked them if I could keep it.

They said no.

When I interviewed Bartlett Reed in the ErieCounty Holding Center the next morning, he was not a proud man. He was neither happy with himself for even attempting the robbery in the first place, nor for his error. He attributed the entire situation to boredom, and the need for something exciting in his life. He knew without a weapon that there really was no possibility of anyone getting hurt, and the couple thousand dollars he’d pulled he’d planned to use for hockey season tickets.

Strangely, as the interview was coming to a close, Bartlett asked me for a seemingly ridiculous favor. He said that his actions had quickly lost him friends, and asked if I would be so kind as to pick up his fiancée, Juliana, from the airport. The request caught me by such great surprise that I actually laughed at him. But he seemed sincere. He went on to explain that she’d been out-of-town for a week-long occupational therapists conference. He’d used his one phone call to leave her a voice-mail at her hotel to let her know what had happened, but hadn’t had the chance to arrange transportation from the airport.

I like to believe that dealing with the Ignorant of the Earth has hardened me from empathizing with these tales of woe, but wouldn’t you know that two hours after leaving the prison, I found myself looking for a parking spot in the Buffalo Niagara International Airport’s short-term lot. I was too intrigued. My willingness to help Bartlett Reed out was due far less to my altruism than to my desire to continue to ride this roller coaster of absurdity. I actually ended up bringing Juliana to the prison to see her intended, and then gave her a ride home. While the conversation was of little substance, the anecdotal addition of her flight home and their reunion was priceless to my column.

In the end, Bartlett Reed was extremely convincing, and I knew immediately that he would not be spending much time in prison. By the time the story printed in media outlets across the country, he’d already served half of his 15-day sentence. Most likely, he suffered more from embarrassment and injury to his reputation than from the actual incarceration, but the story that ran received some of the best reviews I’ve gotten.

One of the benefits of having a following is that many times, the stories, such as the one of Bartlett Reed, come to you. One of the drawbacks of having a themed column, however, was finding things to write when nothing is happening. Much of my workload included scanning police reports and documents from all over the country in the hopes of finding the next big blunder. While every once in a while I would land a gem, it was tedious and tiresome work.

It was while I was researching about six months later that I came across the name First Bank of New York again, specifically the downtown Buffalo location. The report was of a grand larceny, in which a diamond necklace valued at nearly $200,000 had been stolen from a security deposit box within the bank’s vault. The owner of the necklace, a 93-year-old widow of one of the top names from Buffalo’s industrial glory years, had passed away, and her family was recovering the item. When they’d entered the box, they found it empty.

My first thought was that Buffalo’s criminals seemed to have gotten a little bit smarter.

My second thought was that the story of Bartlett Reed should be my first column ever to have a “follow-up.”

Accessing my internet, I searched the Buffalo daily newspaper for a story related to the theft of the necklace. It had been printed two days earlier – one day following the crime itself and the accompanying police report. It stated that the family was distraught over the missing necklace, and one of the woman’s relatives was quoted as saying, “The monetary value of the necklace pales in comparison to the sentimental value it brings to all of us.”

I did a quick double-take when I read the quote – not for what it meant, which was clearly setting the tone for the family to take legal action against First New York – but for the person who actually said it.

Her name was Juliana Bryson.

Now, while I often have to remind myself that I am a journalist and not a private investigator, the notion that this “Juliana” could possibly be the Juliana that I’d chauffeured around Buffal owas too good to ignore. Within an hour, I’d booked tickets for the morning back to Buffalo.

En route to Western New York, I’d reached out to my contact in the Buffalo Police Department, and inquired whether I could see the Bartlett Reed tape again for my follow-up column. He informed me that the tape had been filed as “Evidence,” and he’d have to do some searching to find it, then sign it out. I suggested that I go to the bank for the original, to save him the trouble, but he told me that they’d turned it over to the police.

I saw exactly where this was going.

Heading immediately from the airport to the court building, I had the opportunity to inspect the tape, which contained approximately twenty minutes before Bartlett Reed’s display, and close to fifteen minutes following. Sure enough, moments before Reed entered, as the digital camera switched from angle to angle, I saw a long-haired, petite woman enter the bank’s main-floor vault with a manager.

I watched closely as Bartlett Reed entered, fidgeted, and then approached the teller. He began to leave, tripped, and as the bedlam began, my eyes fixated on the vault entrance. As expected, out came the manager, rushing to the scene of the crime and leaving the woman alone inside the vault. He ran to the door as Bartlett Reed exited, then turned and headed back to his customer, who had now emerged, peeking out at the excitement.

Plenty of time to dip into one of the other security deposit boxes, I thought.

Dutifully, I re-wrapped the video and returned it to the desk clerk, who threw it into a basket to be filed later. The irreverence that was shown to the evidence made me smile. Bartlett Reed knew that his “15 minutes of fame” would be long-forgotten and disregarded, and when the search began for the missing necklace, the only evidence available would be buried in a file closet somewhere.

So, my next stop, of course, was the accounting firm of Schuster, Fleming and Roe, the name that had been featured so prominently on Bartlett Reed’s misplaced business card. The pretty administrative assistant revealed to me that Reed had been dismissed from his job for the embarrassment he’d brought the company, but I used my celebrity to get her to disclose his home address.

After waiting the better part of two hours in my rental car curbside in front of Reed’s house, I noticed a beaten-up Ford pick-up rambling toward me. It pulled into the driveway, and Bartlett, in-the-flesh, stepped out of the driver’s side. I exited my car, and as he saw me he smiled, and waved me inside.

Without a word, he motioned for me to sit on the sofa, and disappeared into another room. The house was in decent shape and nice enough, but not quite as obsessive-compulsively laid out as accountants’ homes generally seemed to be. I scanned the room looking for any focal point I could use either in the conversation or in a column, but most everything was nondescript. A bookshelf. A television sitting on an entertainment stand. Fairly humble for a big-time bank robber.

Reed appeared, carrying a suitcase, and set it on the coffee table, covering up a slew of magazines that I’d noticed just before he’d returned.

“What’s this?” I asked.

He motioned that I should open it. I did, and found layer after layer of $100 bills. Quietly, I closed the case, latched it and sat back on the soft cushions.

“I don’t understand,” I told him.

“I know why you’re here,” he said. “I’m paying you off. A hundred thousand.” Blunt, and to the point.

“You’re offering me half the value of the necklace?” I asked, incredulous. I didn’t understand why it mattered. Why steal a $200,000 piece of jewelry if you were going to give away half of it?

“It’s easier this way.”

I hadn’t even considered the fact that the man was trying to bribe me with a suitcase full of money. I was too busy psychoanalyzing him.

“I can’t take this.”

“It’s payment,” he said.

“For what?”

“For the column you’re going to write, talking about interviewing one of your former subjects, and how he’s paid his price for his crime, and is trying work his way back into his life.” He’d thought this all out. How could he have predicted that I’d come back toBuffalo?

I was beginning to feel very used.

I must have had a confused look on my face, because he continued, “You’re a good journalist. You made the trip here to cover a story. You’re going to get that story, but you’re just going to make out a little bit better.”

“All this for a hundred grand?”

Reed laughed. “Yeah. Pretty crazy, huh?”

“Why did you need me?” I asked, still trying to figure everything out. “You could’ve walked out of that bank and no one would’ve been the wiser.”

“Well, yes, I could’ve,” he agreed. “But Juliana couldn’t have.”

I must’ve smiled broadly when I realized that I’d printed Juliana’s alibi in newspapers all across the country, because when I looked up, he was grinning at me.

“You’re so humble, Jack,” he said, addressing me by name for the first time. “You’re a big shot. The way you captured the emotion of a tired accountant just looking for something more in his life… Perfect. It made sure that one, I wouldn’t spend too many days locked up, and two, that what I did would be pushed to the back burner once the hoopla died.”

“And three, that everyone would know that your lovely fiancée was nowhere near First New York Bank while you were robbing it.”

“Exactly.”

“But the tape…”

He laughed again. “Do you know that when we threatened the lawsuit, the bank scoured every tape possible to see when someone might have gone into the vault and taken the necklace.”

“But the other tape is downtown,” I pointed out.

Reed continued, “There’s only one person who knows that Juliana was in the vault at that exact moment, and that’s the bank manager. You think he’s going to give up his $60,000 a year job by pointing out to everyone that he knowingly left someone alone in the bank’s vault? No.”

“But I figured it out,” I noted.

“Yes,” he said, nodding his head, “all by yourself.”

All I could do was shake my head, but Bartlett interrupted my disbelief.

“I have to get going,” he said, abruptly. “I look forward to the column.”

Like a trained puppy, I stood and headed for the door. He stopped me and motioned toward the suitcase, which I obediently took. For a moment, I really didn’t understand myself because I was acting purely on confusion and haste.

I didn’t want the money, yet I found myself putting the suitcase into the trunk of my car. He was doing to me the same thing that he’d done to the poor bank manager – putting me into a position where I couldn’t win if I did the right thing. If I went to the police, my journalism career was over: A journalist reports the news – he doesn’t make the news. Over time, I’d lost my credibility as a “serious” journalist to tell Bartlett Reed’s story in total. My only option was to write the story as he had dictated it to me, and then try for the rest of my life to outlive the guilt.

This mild-mannered accountant was a dirty guy.

As I started to pull away, Reed flagged me down. “I forgot to give you these,” he said, handing me a stack of papers that looked like legal documents. “Try to get that column in next week’s papers, so that we can file these.” I knew what the papers would say, but he explained them anyway. “See, the necklace was worth $200,000 back in 1961 when it was put into the safety deposit box. Each of those diamonds is about three carats each. Perfectly cut. We estimate that the necklace is worth about $4 million, which, of course, is what we’re asking the bank for in the lawsuit. With a few million tacked on for the pain and suffering.”

“Don’t you mean Juliana?” I asked, rubbing the bridge of my nose to alleviate stress.

“Well, yes, naturally,” he said, laughing. “She’ll get it, too.”

“Oh, I bet she will.”

With that, I handed the unread papers back to him and drove off. Bartlett Reed, the “dumb criminal,” was smarter than us all.

Tormented on many levels, I found myself trying to ascertain how I could get a suitcase full of cash through the scanner at the airport and home. Forget the shame I felt even possessing the case – I actually imagined pitching the whole thing into a bonfire when I got home – I became so troubled by the idea that I stuck it in a box and shipped it.

By the time I reached home, I was so overcome with emotion that I was confident the column I wrote for Bartlett Reed would be the worst I’d ever done. I felt trapped, and blamed Reed. I saw two options – be a good boy and follow my instructions for which I’d received payment, or risk it all, and tell the true story.

Amazing even myself, I chose the latter.

The next day, I retired from journalism.

As the national news media focused in on the theft, to the credit of Bartlett Reed’s acting ability, he persistently denied any involvement. According to the stories, he and Juliana had split months before, his home was searched without finding a trace of the necklace, and no evidence beyond my two columns could prove that he was involved. Even the now-famous videotape, pulled from storage, contained no proof against him. Still, Bartlett Reed was convicted by a jury of his peers, and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Juliana, I later read, as the named heir to the necklace – naturally – won her lawsuit for a cool $7.5 million.

With writing behind me, I became obsessed with the pursuit of the stolen necklace – an item which, of course, I’d never seen. Knowing that it would have to turn up somewhere, I delved into collecting and the study of antiquities. Perhaps to justify my actions throughout the situation, I basically left all behind to take on the pilgrimage.

It took a full five years, but I was finally rewarded when I read a major New York auction house would be auctioning off a recently recovered necklace that had disappeared in a nationally-renown theft years earlier. In the internet listing, the column I’d written in my former life was even mentioned, with news that the piece had been found somehow in a small jewelry shop in Toms River, New Jersey. It had been returned to Juliana and her family, and was, subsequently, in spite of her “sentimental value,” put up for auction.

After flying to New York, I made sure to secure a front row seat for the bidding. The necklace had become the sole focus of my life, and I had to see it in person, in detail.

It was magnificent. The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

When the auction opened, I proudly raised my hand to place the first bid – $100,000. I knew it wouldn’t last – in fact, it was short in the end by $6.3 million – but in case by fluke I’d come out on top, I had a suitcase full of $100 bills in the trunk of my rental car.

After the item was sold to a suave Armenian from North Jersey, I spent a few moments mingling – enjoying the fact that I’d completed my quest, but strangely wary of an emptiness in my life going forward.

As I pondered, I was approached by a bearded man, who I immediately recognized – and only I would know – as a shadow of what was once Bartlett Reed. He’d put on weight – maybe fifty pounds, sported reddish hair, and even carried himself differently.

“I thought I’d see you here,” he said, extending his hand for a shake.

I grasped it, and pulled out a piece of paper he’d been concealing. “What’s this?” I said, holding up what was obviously a check. I didn’t look at it.

“Call it commission,” Reed said, with a confidence that overshadowed even the smugness he’d shown last time I’d seen him. “You’d be surprised how the value of an item increases once everyone knows it’s been stolen. People always pay more for something that comes with a story.”

I laughed. “I was almost going to apologize to you.”

Reed shook his head. “Don’t.” He turned and walked away.

“What am I supposed to do with a check?” I called after him.

He turned and smiled. “You’ll figure something out.”

That was the last I’d ever see of Bartlett Reed. On the flight home, I added the numbers – $7.5 million in the lawsuit and $6.3 million in the auction. Minus, of course, the $100,000 I was paid for the story, and whatever was in the check he’d given me – which, to this day, rests, folded and unseen, behind a framed copy of the original Bartlett Reed “Dumb Crime” column hanging in my den.

Not too dumb, from what I can see. But who am I to judge?


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