A Bank Robber Does Vegas

He hit Sin City with a wad of stolen cash. He won big, even had delusions of paying back the bank. But his luck ran out.

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 1997
Dorsey Dwayne Harper, a 10th-grade dropout, was washing his truck, jet-spraying the mudflaps of his Toyota 4X4, about to do something stupid. But he was no fool. He had been in the Beta Club in middle school. He'd landed a job making 32 grand a year by the time he was 20 and running an auto-lube pit in south Georgia. So he wasn't some dimwit.

When the codgers came into the Cracker Barrel where he waited on them when he was 17, he knew enough to serve them with yes ma'ams and yes sirs and, like he did one time, charm a $55 tip out of a 25-buck tab. But he was not so smart either. For there he was, at the coin-o-matic car wash on Pio Nono Avenue, next to a Hardee's and a bank, about to do something foolish.

By then he'd blown it with his fiancee, Brandi, a brown-haired, green-eyed sweet thing of a checkout girl he'd met on a Doritos run at the Sam's Club down in Albany.

He'd had that gig running the Albany Super Lube until he quit for a construction job and then never worked a day of construction.

He'd had the $550-a-month condo with his Brandi.

But he wasn't big on commitment and Brandi left him. He moved to Macon to live with his mama.

Within two months, he found himself eating Christmas dinner alone at the Huddle House in the town of Gray. He'd been fishing that day. Caught four white bass at Lake Sinclair. Didn't want anybody around. He remembers it was overcast. He forgets it was actually sunny and 54.

That is how darkness fell.

Dorsey Dwayne Harper would rob a bank when he didn't need the money.

* * *

He sits and tells his story for one, two, three hours. It comes in a cold drizzle of detail, as if he's making it up as he goes along. Which is exactly what he'd done when he did it.

He tells only because he was asked. He was asked because his was not the career-criminal fast track. He was 17 when he duked it out in a teeny-bopper nightclub parking lot after a guy used a beer bottle to smash a window out of his 1987 Mustang. He went to jail for disorderly conduct. Then, whammo, a bank robbery at 23.

There was no directory into his descent. There were just the 57 steps from the car wash to the First Macon Bank & Trust. Steps he took.

The bank robber which is what fellow inmates call him today, Bank Robber, as in, "Yo, Bank Robber, done with that Louis L'Amour?'' talks about how it is so easy to say nothing and still rob a bank.

He knows that bank-robbery notes speak louder than words: "I have a gun. Give me the money. Be calm and everything will be OK.''

He also knows that bank robbers who lie and really don't have guns don't top the local TV news when they're sentenced to 30 months in prison. He knows that bank robbers without guns disappear from public view faster than the money they steal. Still he tells.

Of the stupidity. Of how he made a bank teller quake. Of getting his truck all dirty on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1997. Of how even the most foolish of thieves can succeed at least once.

His testimonial is a slow crawl through depression, through not caring about a thing. That is what compelled him toward a morning of mud-boggin' and then to that National Pride Car Wash next to the bank.

The jet-spray hose was in his hand, the bank in his eyes and, just like that, the idea in his head.

* * *

There were two lines inside the bank on the Thursday afternoon Dorsey Dwayne Harper went calling. Two people in one line, three in the other.

He wore sunglasses, a baseball cap. He was carrying a plastic pouch, the kind rain ponchos come in. He'd had one in his truck.

He also carried the note. He wrote it on back of a business card. He was ready. But he was still making up his mind. So he forced the issue. He stepped into the line of two. He told himself how stupid he was and he decided to walk back to the truck. But then the guy in front of him in line finished his business and stepped aside.

The "may I help you?'' from the teller startled the about-to-be bank robber. He did not reply. Bank robbery, he'd found, was a heart attack in progress. He stepped up, flipped her the note, got his money. 

The dye pack blew up when he was 10 steps away. It was ruining the money the way it was supposed to, destroying what he'd worked so little to get. The dye pack burst in a red cloud. The dye's fog gagged him. 

He needed to think. Needed to get away. Needed to slam his truck in reverse and get gone. For the first time in three months, here came a day when actions made sense: rob bank, run. Something constructive.

And, oh yeah, the money. It was dying in the poncho pouch he'd tossed in the bed of the truck. A $1,000 got stained Kool-Aid red, useless, before he could wheel across Houston Avenue and Broadway to the industrial park and the stream he knew could cleanse his dirty money.

After that, $3,900 was worth keeping. Spendable, maybe. To this day, somewhere in Rocky Creek, float $1,000 in dye-soaked fifties.

* * *

He swung by his mama's place.

She'd just finished taping his soap opera. He was hooked on "Another World.'' It was 3 p.m. His mother remembers because the VCR had just clicked off when he walked in.

He was back to help her re-wallpaper the dining room, right? He'd promised at breakfast. But instead he packed his black suitcase. He told his mama he was Tampa-bound to see a friend, not to worry. Said he'd make it up to her. Didn't elaborate. Just left.

He went to the Fountain Car Wash lube place near downtown and picked up his $285 paycheck. He'd been changing oil for a living since he'd been back in town. He cashed the check and cruised into another car wash, the Super Shine do-it-yourselfer out by Henderson Stadium to hose off the money again.

He remembers the red dye wasn't all over the president or whoever it is on the fifties, but it'd bled out the corners of the cash and made the stuff look airbrushed. No store would touch most of it.

Then he cut across Bloomfield and doubled back near the bank. He saw all the cops. He still had on the baseball cap from the holdup, the one with the embroidered golf ball and the golf tee on front. He still had on the aviator sunglasses. A policeman pulled up beside him at a stoplight. TV-news crews were at the bank. His nerves held together till the green light came and Interstate 75 invited him north.

Atlanta sounded good. But what there, a mall? OK, good. Go in, walk around, grab a Whopper. Then what? The airport? Sure. Where to? Las Vegas. Good, good. All in the same clothes from the holdup? Real smart.

It was the guilt that made him feel so visible, like Mr. Most Wanted. But nobody seemed to notice the bank robber or his $3,900. He booked a 6 o'clock flight to Vegas, but missed it. There was another one at 10 that night.

In a restroom he washed the money some more. He and his dirty money got stupid-looked by the other men in the john, but it wasn't until he began gently rubbing fifties under the warm-air hand dryer did he realize that he deserved them.

He jammed a damp clump of money thicker than five decks of cards into the side pocket of his black duffel. Then he checked the bag through to Vegas. What was he gonna do, walk through airport security, have his belt buckle or something set off the metal detector and have to dig $3,900 out of his pockets? No way. So he checked the bag and he tried to disappear. He slipped into some souvenirs-of-Georgia store. He picked up an Outdoor Life. He hoped the girl wouldn't recognize him.

But she did. She worked there, couldn't miss him. He was that Dwayne Harper she'd gone to school with down in Macon, said he has cute. He told her he was going on vacation. Before he knew it, she gave him her phone number. He promised to call her when he got back.

* * *

He'd never flown anywhere in his life. But there he was with a one-way, $450 first-class ticket. A window seat.

The bank robber's first-class seatmate was a businessman. The guy had a laptop computer, all professional. The bank robber still had on his golf cap. In the airport restroom he'd changed into a pair of Levis, a white Tommy Hilfiger shirt and his Timberland boots. His lone carry-on item: Outdoor Life.

He fell asleep after an hour in the air. Nerves. The guilt made him drowsy. He was numb. Then somebody nudged him. His neighbor. "Look out your window.'' The flashing lights were waiting. Everywhere. No, not the cops. The Vegas skyline.

Soon the bank robber was thinking again. Where did all these people come from? Who goes to Vegas in January? Where is baggage claim? What is baggage claim? Where is my luggage? Where is my money?

But the luggage would not come. Had the Feds somehow latched onto it at Hartsfield? Had some loser picked up the wrong bag? The bank robber thought he was stranded. It was 11 o'clock Vegas time.

Finally the luggage oozed past on the carousel. He checked for the money. Then he thought about where to go. He'd heard of Caesars Palace and the MGM Grand. People on the plane had been raving about them. The MGM sounded like his kind of spot.

At that hour, the only rooms left were $352-a-night suites. He forked over $250 of his own money, clean money, and slipped in the least-stained of the loot to pad it out. The desk guy said to hold on, that he wasn't sure they could take red money. The desk guy disappeared into a back room. For 10 minutes. With the bank robber's ID, his Georgia driver's license, in hand. The desk guy reappeared. No dice.

Slot machines lined the halls where the bank robber drifted with his duffel and his no-good cash. Slot machines, he saw, took fifties. Some even accepted dyed-red fifties. Before long the bank robber was feeding the machines dirty money and tapping "cash out." The slots didn't mind the stains. They became his bill changers. He took five $100 bills back into the hotel. "Thank you, sir,'' they told him.

It wasn't yet morning as the bank robber checked into Room 412, his suite. By that time, the police and the FBI in Macon had a description of the bank robber. This was most of it: 5-foot-10, 140-160 pounds, mustache, goatee, late 20s, early 30s, wearing a cap. It failed to note the Tweety Bird tattoo on the back of his right shoulder. And the scorpion on his stomach. And the Bugs Bunnies on his back and right arm.

The bank security camera had, however, zoomed in on his wiry frame. It captured enough of an image for the Macon TV news to plaster him all over the 5-, 6-, 10- and 11-o'clock reports. The image generated some calls to the cops but no one could say for sure who the clown was.

The bank robber was worried, sure someone had seen him on the news and called to rat him out.

And someone had. A woman. She'd taped the 10-o'clock news. Taped it. She watched it over and over. When she was sure, she called the cops. Yeah, she knew the guy on the TV. She could finger him. She even had a picture of him.

But the cops didn't seem interested. They told the woman who taped the 10-o'clock news "thanks."

Part Two
Bank robbers, he was learning, make great gamblers.
You don't mind losing money that isn't yours.

Room 412 was huge. The bank robber would not be needing its kitchenette, its sauna, its couch. All he would be needing was a corner to toss his travel bag while he was out working, out out turning $2,000 into $28,000.

He slipped on his loafers and khakis. He started playing blackjack. He didn't know jack about blackjack. He began betting $5 a pop. He won $30 doing that. Then the bank robber met Ben Franklin. He won $1,000 dropping hundreds. Then the $500 tables became his roost.

He'd move table to table, $500 a hand. Winning, gambling, high-rolling and drinking Bud Light, Long Island iced tea, coffee. It was all free. Just like him. He was brokering other people's money and he was doing them better than the interest rate at First Macon Bank & Trust. And, by golly, he was gonna pay them all back. Las Vegas had created a philanthropist.

He was a bank robber on a streak. Winning, winning, winning. He was just watching numbers, guessing when to hit, when to stick. Then he stuck. After a day and a half of playing, with $28,000 to his name, he sat down at a table to watch.

Some fellow, looked like a baseball player, was slinging big money, money he kept in his sock. The guy was immaculate. Groomed. Kept his hands in real good shape. Bank robbers, ones who worked lube jobs in their former lives, notice people's hands. This ballplayer guy's were pure Jergen's. His hands had a good $60,000 in hundreds in them. Steadily, he fed the house. In half an hour, the fellow blew $70,000. All the guy said was, "Ho, well, better luck next time.''

The bank robber could've puked. He hadn't slept since Macon and here some guy was blowing off blowing 70 large. The bank robber knew all he'd put himself through to get a third of that and, well, it hit him strange. He was out of his league. He went to another table. The betting there sometimes hit $10,000 a hand. He started coughing up $2,000 bets. He started sliding. He started sinking, down, down, down, down, down. He recalls all five downs. In an hour, $28,000 left him.

* * *

Sometime after, he'd gone back to Room 412 without his luck, but with his lucky blackjack dealer.

Amber was her name. Nice girl. Wild girl, he says, very wild. They used the Jacuzzi. She was from California. He'd been tipping her $100 to $200 when he'd win on the $1,000 table. She said she didn't go upstairs with the winners too much. He knew she was after his money, but what she didn't know was that there was no money to get.

Somewhere in the mist of the next few days he saw Reba McIntyre in concert. He saw Vince Gill, David Copperfield. The bank robber's money had vanished.

Room 412 was his until 10 a.m. Saturday. He'd slept in it for maybe two hours. He was down to $200. He blew it before checkout time. Busted, he wandered. The lady at the checkout counter seemed to stall him. So this was it, huh? They'd found him.

But, no, it was just the clerk giving back his room deposit, a whole $100. He blew it by noon and was adrift in Nevada. He'd become a stray now. Heading home was no option. The fool and the other people's money had parted.

* * *

The call rang in at his mama's house. It was collect. While it rang, he tried to breathe. He shook.

His mama answered and asked where he was.

Why was he in Vegas?

He said he didn't know.

His mama seemed to know he'd done something bad, told him to turn himself in. He promised he would. Up until that phone call, no one, not even the FBI, knew where the bank robber was.

It was late. It was Super Bowl Sunday. The bank robber's mama called the police when she hung up with him. She told them she'd heard from her boy and that he'd be calling back in 15 minutes wanting her to wire him some money.

Good, the FBI said, but wiring him any money was out of the question.

When the bank robber rang back he spoke to his brother. They cried. Then Dorsey Dwayne Harper turned and glanced behind himself, the pay phone to his ear. He was inside the Barbary Coast Hotel and Casino. There were people in back of him. They were not waiting to use the phone. They were seven hotel security guards needing to see his ID.

He just figured it was that he looked 15 with his mustache shaved. One look at Dorsey Dwayne Harper's ID and the head security suit was telling him to hang up the phone.

* * *

So that was how it would end. But not quite.

Because with the capture of the bank robber, the one who didn't even know bank robbery was a federal offense, would come enlightenment.

His impulse heist at the First Macon Bank & Trust branch on Pio Nono Avenue would become his long-term investment in himself. Something to grow on. Thirty months in prison to grow on. 

What he couldn't figure was how the FBI put it all together. Oh, wiretaps at his mama's house, he knew that. He knew that if he called, blip, they'd track him down. But there were unknowns. Who'd tattled?

The woman who taped the 10 o'clock news, well, turned out she knew more than the FBI first thought. They'd called back the next morning, the Friday after the holdup. Their anonymous tipster repeated what she knew, that Dorsey Dwayne Harper was the bank robber in video.

After that, they'd tapped the phones at his mama's house, and his mama was scared. Sure, OK, they could tap the phones. She just didn't want them hurting her boy. He had a bad back, you know. For all she knew the boy was in Florida somewhere.

* * *

It would be three days before the bank robber would call.

Three days before the security guards would detain him and his empty wallet.

He would then become one of three dozen or so men squeezed into a Las Vegas jailhouse holding tank for what must have been two days. But there was food and it was free. Kind of like the complimentary steak and the lobster he'd gotten on his high-rolling spree. But not like it at all.

The system he'd beaten for all of three days was now feeding him. And, then, it was flying him home.

Chained at the waist and ankles, he flew over some of the prettiest mountains he figures he'll ever see. But scenery is only so much when your seatmate is a straight-jacket-certified, satanic babbler with "666'' tattooed to his forehead.

The bank robber and the fellow did not compare tattoos. The bank robber sat silent. He was finding one can go a long way toward getting along with a shut mouth.

* * *

They repossessed his Toyota 4X4. They read his mail. All he had left was his story. And the bank robber is done telling his.

But there is more. There is the woman who taped the 10 o'clock news.

The cops hadn't known how hard it had been for her to call them. She'd dropped to her knees, buckled, when she'd seen the bank clip when it first flashed on the 5 o'clock news. She'd wailed. It couldn't be that boy.

She was so distraught she missed the 6 o'clock newscast for another glimpse. But she taped the news at 10. Then she called and the brushed her off. She stayed awake that whole night. She called her ex-husband. It couldn't be the boy they knew, he'd said.

The FBI called her after 9 the next morning. Routine. They wanted her to drop by and tell what she knew. They'd keep her name out of it and all, wouldn't tell the reporters, the bank people, the bank robber.

She went to their office. She took a picture with her, a photo of who she thought the bank robber might be. This kid, she told them, he was "a good person.''

Then she showed the FBI where he lived: up the hill from the bank, across I-75, off Rocky Creek Road, with his mama.

* * *

When the bank robber stepped off the plane at the air base in Atlanta, he was greeted by guards from a federal prison.

The bank robber was still an alleged bank robber. Didn't matter.

"Son," a guard said, "you ever been to the U.S. Pen before?''

No, sir.

"Well welcome to your worst goddamn nightmare.''

Thing was, the bank robber rested comfortably there. His cellmate was a class act doing hard time for financial fraud. They got along.

After that, while he was bouncing around the state in county jails, waiting to be sentenced, he considered sending a note to the First Macon Bank & Trust. An apology. Wanted to tell them how he'd just flipped that day at the car wash. Then he thought better of it, saved his stamp.

Reason was returning. He was liking the jailhouse peanut-butter sandwiches.

If he could, he wouldn't mind going into law enforcement himself. The folks at the Crisp County jail were real good to him. Seemed like a good place to work. They'd let him talk to his mama on the phone, let her come see him.

When the day for court came 154 days after the holdup, the bank robber had people pulling for him. The federal prosecutor, though the bank robber hadn't known it, had spoken privately of how "we all feel sorry for him.''

In court, his mama was there. His daddy and his stepdad were too.
Funny how that courtroom seemed so much like a bank. The bank robber noticed it, how it was all low-lit, smelling like leather wallets and good makeup. Behind the bench there was a seal with a big eagle on it. The thing had "E pluribus unum,'' whatever that meant. He'd seen it on the other people's money.

While he waited to face the judge, to learn his fate, some poor slob up for credit fraud had a banker stand up for him as a character reference. Then it was the bank robber's turn.

The judge spoke of his sympathy for the bank robber's family. He lectured on how even though there had been no gun there was surely terror for that teller. He told the bank robber that he was lucky nobody got hurt. He said he sure didn't know what could've motivated such a bank robber.

"Mr. Harper,'' he said, "you had an extremely bad day.''

Thirty months.

And the convict said thank you.

* * *

Dorsey Dwayne Harper called home the other night.

It was around 3 in the morning. Prison phones, you know, tied up all hours.

He was needing $70 for some prison sneakers. They make you buy that stuff up there at the minimum-security joint in Kentucky where he was headed. His mama said she'd send the money.

He told her how he'd signed up to sit with the fellows on suicide watch. Volunteer work. Him aiding the depressed. He was gonna take some courses, too, maybe learn to be an electrician.

When the bank robber's mama hung up, she sensed that her boy was finally making some sense. He sounded so eager to please, so ready to pay back the bank.

Thirty months wouldn't be so bad.

Her son was growing up.

Finally, sleep came easy for the woman who taped the 10 o'clock news.

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