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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Famous Bank Robbers - Willie Sutton

William "Willie" Sutton (June 30, 1901 - November 2, 1980) was a prolific U.S. bank robber. For his talent at executing robberies in disguises, he gained two nicknames, "Willie the Actor" and "Slick Willie." When not disguised, he was an immaculate dresser.

Early life

Sutton was born into an Irish family, in an Irish-American district of Brooklyn, New York. He was the fourth of five children. He did not go beyond the 8th grade of school.

He married in 1929; his wife later divorced him after he was imprisoned. He married again in 1933. His longest period of (legal) employment lasted for only 18 months.

He preferred the name Bill, but usually the police gave him the name Willie.

His criminal activities began when he was young. He robbed about 100 banks from the late 1920s to his final arrest in 1952—with several prison terms in between; he was also a master at breaking out of prisons.

Career in crime

Sutton was an accomplished bank robber. He usually carried a gun like a pistol or a Thompson submachine gun. "You can't rob a bank on charm and personality," he once observed. In an interview published shortly before his death in the Reader's Digest he was asked if the guns that he used in roberies were loaded. He responded that he never carried a loaded gun because somebody might get hurt. He stole from the rich and kept it, though public opinion later turned him into a perverse type of a Robin Hood figure.

He was captured, and recommitted in June, 1931, charged with assault and robbery. He did not complete his 30 years sentence, escaping on December 11, 1932, using a smuggled in gun and holding a prison guard hostage. Using him as leverage, he aquired a 45 foot ladder to scale the 30 foot wall of the jail grounds.

On February 15, 1933, Sutton attempted to rob the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He came in disguised as a mailman, but an alert passerby foiled the crime: Sutton escaped. On January 15, 1934, he and two companions broke into the same bank through a skylight.

The FBI record observes:

Sutton also executed a Broadway jewelry store robbery in broad daylight, impersonating a postal telegraph messenger. Sutton's other disguises included a policeman, messenger and maintenance man. He usually arrived at the banks or stores slightly before they opened for the day.

On March 20, 1950, Sutton gained one of the first ten spots on the FBI's brand new list (created only a week earlier, on March 14) of the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

In 1952, Sutton was captured by the police after having been recognized on a subway. The man who noticed and followed him, Arnold Schuster, notified the police. After Sutton's arrest, Schuster appeared on television and described how he helped in the arrest. Albert Anastasia, Mafia boss of the Gambino Crime Family, took a dislike to Schuster because he was an informant. Anastasia ordered the murder of Schuster, who was shot four times on a New York City street.

Final years

It is estimated that he stole perhaps $2 million in his career, and spent more than half of his adult life in jail.

A series of decisions by the United States Supreme Court in the 1960s led to his release on Christmas Eve, 1969, from Attica State Prison. He was in ill health at the time, suffering from emphysema and in need of an operation on the arteries of his legs. For a while after his release he was forced to live on payments from welfare.

Once a free man, he spoke about prison reform and consulted with banks on anti-robbery techniques. In an ironic display of pure chutzpah, he made a television commercial for New Britain Bank and Trust Co. in Connecticut.

Sutton died in 1980 at the age of 79; before this he had spent his last years with his sister in Spring Hill, Florida. After his death his family arranged a quiet burial in Brooklyn in their family plot.

An urban legend

Sutton is famously (and probably falsely) known for answering a reporter who asked why he robbed banks by saying "because that's where the money is." The quote formed the basis of Sutton's law, often taught to medical students.

In his partly ghostwritten autobiography Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (Viking Press, New York, 1976), he dismissed this story, saying:

"The irony of using a bank robber's maxim as an instrument for teaching medicine is compounded, I will now confess, by the fact that I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy...

"If anybody had asked me, I'd have probably said it. That's what almost anybody would say. couldn't be more obvious.

"Or could it?

"Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all."

Nevertheless, the legend has resulted in the "Willie Sutton rule", used in Activity-based costing (ABC) of Management accounting. The law stipulates that ABC should be applied "where the money is", meaning where the highest costs are incurred, and thus the highest potential of over-all firm cost reduction is.

Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber


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