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July 12, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Thaddeus Thompson, in desperate need of money, walked through the two sets of glass double doors at Regions Bank on South Providence Road at 9:31 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011. Only a manager, teller and customer were inside. A fourth person was outside at the bank’s drive-thru window.
According to a police report and his own recollections, Thaddeus saw the lone teller helping the customer. He pulled out his cell phone and pretended to talk to somebody. A note was hidden in his right hand. Written in big capital letters with a black marker, it read: “I HAVE A GUN. GIVE ME ALL YOUR 20s, 50s, 100s.”
“I can help you over here,” the teller said.
“Sorry,” Thaddeus mumbled nervously, trying to be polite so as to not scare her. The teller thought he was apologizing for being on the phone. Thaddeus flashed the note to her, but she only saw one word. She asked herself, “Did I really just see the word gun?”
“Can I help you?” the teller said.
“Well,” Thaddeus replied as he pulled out the note again while never fully relinquishing it from his right hand. She read it and understood this time.
To witnesses, Thaddeus looked between 30 and 35 years old, between 150 and 160 pounds and approximately 5 feet 6 inches tall with a thin face and high cheekbones. He was wearing a gray T-shirt, jeans and black-and-white Converse sneakers. The first time Thaddeus robbed a bank, the teller described Thaddeus similarly, except he made note of his receding strawberry blond hairline and swollen red eyes.
The Regions Bank teller complied as all bank tellers are supposed to do. Between two and three minutes after arriving, Thaddeus walked out the main doors with $1,530.
Bank robberies in Columbia tend to unfold almost identically, and they’re nothing like the movies suggest: A solitary middle-aged male walks calmly into a bank. If there’s a line, he’ll wait. He won’t wear a disguise or a mask. He won’t disable security or brandish a gun. He’ll be polite. He’ll slip the teller a note without mentioning dye packs or security alarms and leave with a few thousand dollars.
Famously, John Dillinger walked out of banks with lots of cash, time and time again. Like many bank robbers during the Depression, he was glamorized. So were Bonnie and Clyde and Willie Sutton. Banks were, and often still are, sometimes seen as oppressors and swindlers of people’s hard-earned money.
More recently, on Feb. 10, 1997, Missourian Ray Bowman and Minnesotan Billy Kirkpatrick stole the largest sum for a single bank robbery in U.S. history, $4,461,681 in Lakewood, Wash. Consummate professionals, they robbed 27 banks the FBI knows about. They were so detail-oriented they mapped escape routes using only right-hand turns to avoid stopping at traffic lights.
But such professionals are the exception, not the rule. That’s especially true in Columbia, where professionals don’t seem to exist at all. The people who are robbing local banks are almost always amateurs.
This year alone Columbia has seen six bank robberies, all similar in nature. There were two notable deviations from the norm — one man displayed a gun; another struck a teller before leaving — but they are all strikingly similar in execution: One man without a disguise walks in, demands cash, gets it and leaves.
Deborah Lamm Weisel is an assistant professor and the director of police research at North Carolina State University. She noted the differences between professional and amateur bank robbers in a 2007 report for the Justice Department.
According to Lamm Weisel, professional bank robbers tend to be career criminals. They case the bank, wear disguises, use weapons, disband security systems and net the highest sums of money. The most recent professional robbery in Columbia was in 2001. Amateur robbers often pick a bank at random, use a note or verbalize a demand and don’t use a weapon. They rob one teller. Amateurs act out of desperation. For Thaddeus, it was his addiction to heroin.
Thaddeus, 31, was born in Unionville and has lived all over Missouri. He began using drugs as a teenager. It started with marijuana. “My dad was super, super, super abusive physically and mentally, which gave me a huge complex,” Thaddeus says. “Drugs are how I would escape those negative feelings because I had no self-esteem or self-worth growing up.”
Escaping escalated with the death of his older brother. “That was when I just stopped caring about everything,” he says. “I gave up, sort of, because life is futile. You’re just going to die. ”
Eventually weed gave way to pills, which evolved into heroin. Thaddeus doesn’t remember exactly when he first started using, but he’ll never forget the feeling when he first injected heroin. “It’s like getting a hug from God,” he says.
He was addicted within a week. Thaddeus entered rehab in December 2010 but wasn’t ready to quit. He met his girlfriend, Jessica Thompson, the following January, and together their lives fell apart. They spent all of Jessica’s college savings and her money from working at the library on heroin. Thaddeus started stealing money from work. The more money they got, the more drugs they bought.
Thaddeus was $500 to $600 in debt with his dealer, without heroin and puking from the withdrawal when he started thinking: “What’s the easiest way I could get money where nobody would get hurt? Where I wouldn’t have to do anything dangerous or violent?”
To Thaddeus, the answer to those two questions was robbing a bank. It seemed like an easy job.
Banks have nearly identical layouts: main doors, spacious lobbies, tellers greeting customers at recognizable stations. Transactions move quickly. And during a heist, the teller’s job is to exhaustively comply. Banks are federally insured, and the goal during a robbery is to get the robber out as safely and quickly as possible.
It’s easy money. That’s what Thaddeus thought on July 27, 2011, the first time he robbed a bank.
But he was so nervous that he had to work up courage in the Gerbes next door before entering Martinsburg Bank and Trust on Nifong Boulevard. When he finally entered, he tried to be nice by making note of the weather to the teller.
Thaddeus then flashed a note, got the money and ran to his green Toyota Yaris. He drove directly to his dealer, paid off his debt and bought $2,500 worth of heroin. Times were good, and Thaddeus and Jessica didn’t care if excess heroin spilled onto the floor. They were rolling in money — literally, at times — and getting higher than ever.
At one point, they went to see Cowboys & Aliens at Goodrich Forum 8. A girl was raising money for a youth ministry trip outside the theater. Thaddeus walked up and handed her four $100 bills.
Yet for as high as they got, when their reserve of heroin ran out a little more than two weeks later, Thaddeus and Jessica were on their hands and knees scavenging for any fallen droplet.
Thaddeus considered robbing another bank for a quick fix, but Jessica begged him to check into rehab instead — she’d take on more loans; they’d get sober and work. But for him and many amateur bank robbers who experience success, the choice was clear because robbing a bank had worked so well the first time.
On Aug. 13, officers were dispatched to Regions Bank at 9:35 a.m., four minutes after Thaddeus arrived. One officer took fingerprints of the outer and inner door handles and the countertop at the teller window. They found prints on the inner door handle.
Another officer canvassed the area and asked local businesses if they had seen anything or if their cameras recorded any activity. The Shell Station down the street had captured Thaddeus on tape.
Police officers also interviewed witnesses including the teller, the bank manager and the woman in the bank during the heist. The customer recognized Thaddeus as someone from her neighborhood. The landlord, she offered, would undoubtedly know who and where he was.
Dillinger, Sutton and Bonnie and Clyde didn’t get away with their crime sprees. Neither did the lucrative Bowman and Kirkpatrick. Today, the average sentence for convicted bank robbers — bank robberies are solved more than almost any other — is 137 months, more than 11 years.
Police and FBI swarmed Thaddeus’s backyard on Aug. 15. Thaddeus was in his basement bedroom watching a horror movie. At first, he didn’t hear the four pit bulls barking upstairs. The dogs might have been barking for 15 minutes before he eventually noticed. He was too high.
Thaddeus had been preparing for his arrest. He had seen his face on the news and knew it was only a matter of time. But he wasn’t expecting the FBI to come.
Thaddeus shot up the last of his heroin, about a gram’s worth. He grabbed cigarettes and a razor blade before squeezing into a space behind a dresser to hide. Sheet rock covered the opening and acted as a false wall. Thaddeus thought he couldn’t handle prison, so he chain-smoked while cutting his left wrist.
As police came through the back door of his apartment, Thaddeus continued to smoke and cut his wrist. He heard them searching the house. The officers found his room and kicked down the door. He continued smoking while they were in the room. Officers finally saw him, perhaps even his cigarette smoke, and kicked the wall down. Fifteen to 20 guns were pointed at Thaddeus. He was yanked out, thrown to the floor and handcuffed.
The police took him to the hospital to treat the deep cuts on his wrist. While in a hospital bed, he admitted his involvement in both robberies. He had $170 stashed in a safe, and his heroin supply was depleted.
Fifteen days after his arrest, Jessica died from a heroin overdose. Thaddeus says he is glad he wasn’t there because he would’ve intentionally overdosed from grief. “It’s good that I found out while I was locked up and couldn’t hurt myself,” he says. “Everything happens for the better, once you put your head around it.” He’s also glad the razor blade he used was dull.
In fact, Thaddeus is glad about a lot of things these days but mostly that he’s sober. It’s the best he’s felt in years.
He is at the Jefferson City Correctional Center and faces two consecutive 10-year sentences. With good behavior, there’s a chance he’ll be out in six, although it’s unlikely.
Thaddeus is worried about rehabilitation. He never felt like a criminal but rather a drug addict. In prison, he sticks mainly to himself, and although he shares the prison yard with murderers and rapists, he tries to remain positive. He has goals now: He says he wants to work, pursue music and writing, and be a good dad to his 4-year-old son.
A callus the size and shape of a jellybean has formed on the inner part of his right middle finger. He writes for himself and to a pen pal for several hours every day. He’s reading about a book a day, too. The selection isn’t great, he says, but he’s been reading Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and his favorite book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Thaddeus also started drinking iced coffee, a simple pleasure he enjoys. He says it’s like two drinks in one because when the ice melts, it’s sort of like iced tea. “I just have this new appreciation for everything,” he says. “I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when I get out of here. It’ll be like going to Disneyland every day.”
He doesn’t care to be hugged by God anymore, either. Instead, he longs for the little things: the privacy of a personal bathroom and shopping at Walmart.