Mark Hedden lives in Key West and writes narrative nonfiction, primarily ornithology-oriented natural history, which most people refer to as “stuff about birds.” Along with the strange business of bank robbery in Key West, he has written about necrovoyeurism, his love of the Tour de France, his aversion to pirates, his hatred of clowns, the inappropriate use of firearms during photo shoots, and music. His work has been published in the Bone Island Sun, the Key West Citizen, Solares Hill newspaper, the Miami Herald, Tropic magazine, Miami Metro magazine and the Washington Post.
The song you heard in this story was “Dawn Dub” by The Hobies.
Letter from Key West: Bank Robbers with Sardines, Bicycles and Pitchforks
There aren’t a lot of places in the world where the dastardly act of bank robbing is viewed as a form of local entertainment. But in Key West, we tend to appreciate humor that comes from odd vectors.
Also, we have a wealth of consistently dumb-ass bank robbers.
Last year’s highlight of dumb-assery came in July when Jeffrey Carl Meyers walked into the local Keys Federal Credit Union to rob it.
He had taped a soup can to a sardine can and handed the teller a note written in all caps. The note said he had a bomb and a gun, and that she should give him money. He had covered his fingertips with Band Aids to conceal his identity.
Despite the Band Aids, the police immediately recognized him on the security footage.
Meyers was a former Key West cop.
He had been voluntarily separated from the department after a double-dipping scandal.
Police caught him four hours later—two shopping centers over—at an internet gambling parlor. A fact that made a lot of Key Westers say:
Wait, there’s an internet gambling parlor on the island?
I don’t think the Key West Police Department exactly likes this kind of crime. But I think they appreciate doing police work that doesn’t involve arresting drunk people on Duval Street.
The unfunny part of this story is the fear the teller must have felt. The guy was probably a big nothing-burger as a bank-robber, but you can never be sure.
This is not a hard and fast statistic, but I’m pretty sure every Key West bank has been robbed at least once over the 20 years I’ve lived here. I can’t recall anyone ever getting hurt. And almost everyone gets caught.
Key West is a small island at the end of a hundred-mile-long, two-lane road. There’s nowhere to run. The only crime here more dimwitted than bank robbery is car theft.
Most of these bank robbers flee on foot, bicycle, or scooter—popular modes of transportation here in Key West. One guy was armed with a pitchfork.
A lot of us in town have a favorite bank robbery story. Mine’s from back in the mid-nineties. This guy robbed the Barnett Bank on Kennedy Drive, then escaped by bike. He pedaled to the airport, caught a flight home to Colorado, paid some bills, had a fight with his wife, and caught another flight—back to Key West.
Two weeks later, he robbed the same bank wearing the same clothes. That time he escaped by taxi to a nearby drug store. He paid cash for a razor and shaving cream. Police caught him in the store?s bathroom. He shaved the right side of his beard clean off –but never got to the left side.
It was an excellent mug shot.
After you stop laughing about how the last bank robbery was just too Elmore Leonard for words, you start to anticipate the next one.
In December a man armed with a note and a ski mask robbed the First State Bank on Stock Island and got away with it. Suddenly we were confronted with the specter of competent stick-up artists.
But a few weeks later the universe righted itself.
A man with a pair of athletic shorts on his head walked into the same bank. He handed the teller a note that said, “Give me what are 20s and 50s.”
The understandably confused teller asked, “What do you want?”
The grammar-challenged alleged bandit said, “Never mind,” and walked out.
A few minutes later, a deputy spotted him around the corner, taking his pants off. After a brief bicycle chase, the suspect was arrested and currently remains in the county jail on burglary charges.
The thing about Key West is that it is ultimately a fragile place. Low and small and flat and just sitting there, unprotected, in the middle of all that ocean. One big hurricane, a foot or two of sea level rise, and we could be wiped off the map.
Every day you live here, there’s a sense that, unlike the bank robbers, you’re getting away with something.
But these would-be heists are kind of analogous. Each one could go wrong in a million different ways. People could get hurt or shot. People could get killed.
So far that hasn’t happened.
So we’re living in a state of grace—albeit a weird and kind of funny one.