Home for the holiday season Alison Houston held onto the hope of making her family proud by starring in a Hollywood film, given her recent experience as a bank robber on the run.
On Thanksgiving Day after turkey dinner and all the trimmings, she mused how she had gotten to a nearby town, stole an unlocked sedan at a shopping mall, and made off with a large amount of a bank’s cash—all without a fuss. Not bad for a 30-year-old female actress, she thought. Beats waitress work while waiting for an audition call.
Imagining a role like Faye Dunaway played in the Bonnie and Clyde movie, she lit the same brand of Camel cigarette that the true-life fugitive Bonnie Parker smoked. While checking outside through drawn curtains of her old attic apartment, she drew satisfaction that everyone in town saw her growing-up. A family holiday visit meant a big deal in the mountains but not much happened in an isolated village of 686 folks, where even the post office stood vacant due to budget cuts.
She grabbed a cigar box from the closet. Of two thousand dollars from the recent bank job, she counted eight hundred left after buying necessities. Heavens knew—I needed clothes for Hollywood, and Granny Sue and my cousins couldn’t go without winter clothes, neither.
Allison took her good time figuring her next spree. Her Christmas list included ball caps, two hats and scarves for covering her gray eyes and pointed chin. She added a full-length winter coat for her five-nine frame, sneakers for running and a red wig.
Checking maps, she drew a line between targets on a circular route of back roads that she knew well. Her father had called from prison, giving advice on her plan: stay off the interstates. With practice using GPS, she chose towns where local police would be raising money for Gifts-for-Kids, and caught up in the holiday spirit.
A red circle contained the first stop: a university town, population under 30,000 with college students away on holiday.
Ready. Hollywood’s waiting.
On a long, winding east-west Route 50, Alison had time dealing with anxiety, worried that Hollywood folks might reject her again for lack of drama experience. Growing up poor, and practically a peasant, she had only bit roles on her resume. She imagined rehearsing for the part of fugitive bank robber Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde—if anyone ever decided remaking the film. Tried community theaters but never made the cut, she thought. Not much training. Had taken Vo-Tech classes learning lock-smith skills, and basic carpentry.
Alison recalled building a cabinet for Granny Sue.
“Just needs shellack and polish,” Granny Sue told her back then.
“I’ll put my miniature bear collection on those shelves.””
“Your photo albums, too,” Alison said.
“So’s, how’s work?”
“Lots of travel”
On a cold snowless Monday, a week before Christmas, Alison drove to the college town where she once studied and volunteered for the local Food Pantry. Arriving on Fayette Street across from a local bank, she parked in a metered lot and kept the car engine running. She drank a hot coffee and nibbled a banana nut muffin. Never took a liking to classes that year, she thought—listening to white-haired men talking in a cramped classroom. Never fit in with cliques, neither.
Putting on a blue college ball cap, pulled down over her forehead, she wrapped a thick scarf around her neck. At the bank’s glass door entrance, she pulled the fuzzy jacket collar up to her ears. Warm air struck her as she moved next in line. She subdued her L.A. waitress smile and acted tough like Bonnie Parker might have done before slapping a note in front of a female teller.
The hand-written note read, hand over your cash, right now.
The teller’s face turned whiter. Taken aback, the woman stared out the window, and back at her customer.
“What’s going on?”
Alison reminded her, “this is a bank robbery.” Her right hand pressed the burner phone in her pocket against the coat’s edge, feigning a threat.
The teller placed a pile of bills on the counter; she actually counted out the cash, three hundred fifty dollars.
“What the heck,” Alison said. “That’s all?”
The bank teller shrugged, “that’s all that’s in the drawer”, and rested her palms on the counter.
“Well, have a good day.”
Alison felt her heart pounding in her temple as she saddled up in the driver’s seat. Making her getaway, she took a round-about to a bypass loop, and made a right through old farm property, then pulled onto old Route 19 headed north.
Her heart rate slowed at a level pace on a road she knew well for its relentless curves.
Forty five minutes later after crossing the Pennsylvania state border, Alison entered the next town on her route; she checked into a cheap motel, where motorcyclists always stayed and desk clerks asked no questions. She paid cash upfront. That evening she chose her bank target in a strip mall.
At the motel, she ate fast-food take-out, watched the holiday movies on television, and kept an eye on the parking lot. A shower soothed her anxiety until she startled at the burner phone’s shrill ring.
“You okay, your trip go well?”
“Yes, daddy, thanks for checking.”
“That’s my girl, luv-ya.”
Three days later on the Friday before Christmas, Alison parted her brunette hair down the middle, like the real Bonnie Parker, and put on the red wig. She added a multi-colored plaid scarf and a large cashmere cap.
At the bank she pulled out the wrinkled note and gave a stoic stare.
The bank teller palmed out a stack of bills and stood back.
“Can you count that—for the record,” she said. “In case anyone asks.”
“Four hundred twenty dollars.”
She got in the sedan, engine running, and rode off. Hunger prompted a drive-through for a take-out meal. She bought two whoppers, large fries, a chocolate chip cookie, and a large plastic cup of Splash, good for refills later at no charge.
Sirens at a distance forced her eating while she steered the wheel on the road out of town.
Alison headed west toward an old steel town where she knew blue collar workers had lost jobs, causing a steady migration to southern states like in the depression days. She kept to two-lane roads. In need of gas, she stopped at a shop-and-gas shop near an obsolete prison. The iconic landmark raised her concern of getting caught and joining her daddy in prison.
Her cell phone’s ringing brought Granny Sue’s calm voice.
“Hi honey, hope work’s not getting you all tired out.”
“I’m alright Granny. Lots of back roads, curves and all.”
“I know—I used to drive with your daddy.”
“Young-ins been asking me,” Granny Sue said. “When you’ll come over?”
“Soon—be there soon.”
After that call, she buried thoughts of jail time.
She kept driving southward following the Ohio River between West Virginia and Ohio, where roads criss-crossed state lines. Under a cover of darkness, she returned home a day before Christmas. Tired from last-minute discount shopping, she flopped in her old lounge chair and fell off asleep.
Nobody bothered her much. She ate meals at Granny Sue’s home. Coming home to family meant she enjoyed bright young eyes when she handed gifts to cousins.
While she planned on laying low, she gained renewed confidence from success on the road. Figuring police authorities had sent out alerts looking for a bank robber on the run, she ditched the stolen car’s orange license plates, and added Wild Wonderful plates.
She got a red paint job for the sedan at little cost from a mechanic she had dated in high school. She revved the car’s engine after Christmas for one more banking trip.
Ready. Hollywood’s calling.
The city in nearby Ohio took an hour driving back roads but gave Alison time to confirm her plans. She found a wayward motel where she once stayed for a Grateful Dead concert while in high school, back when police slapped her teenage wrist for smoking marijuana.
She checked banks in town and figured a ‘peoples’ bank might be a good target for people like her.
On a frigid Tuesday, December 27, no one paid much attention to a female wearing an Ohio Buckeye ball cap and a dark zipper jacket, collar tucked high. She had arranged the red wig tightly and added a colorful silk scarf—like a young Bonnie Parker might have done in the 1920s.
Alison gave a warm smile toward a wall-mounted bank video camera peering from behind the counter.
A bank teller, looking so sweet with blonde hair in a pony tail, read the fresh hand-written note: good afternoon, this is a bank robbery, hand over cash. The haul amounted to two thousand, one hundred fifty dollars.
Instead of leaving town, Alison stuck around, sensing that Ohio banks held more cash-on-hand for shoppers looking for holiday sales. She found a second bank in the city’s State Street section. On that Friday, a bank trainee nearly peed himself when he saw her Hollywood smile.
Alison vanished before the sound of police sirens.
Midway home, Alison caught television news at a roadside diner. The robberies three days apart captured national attention, and the scrutiny of both the FBI and U.S. Marshalls. Security video from the bank streamed on television; the news anchor portrayed the bank robber as a calculating and armed thief like the famous Bonnie Parker. The bank’s manager had not disclosed the amount stolen but Alison knew, two thousand dollars.
On the TV, the local police chief said: We’re still investigating the bank robbery. We’ve called in the FBI.
She trashed the red wig.
Upon her return, she chose a cheap motel on a forested road outside of town, rather than risk staying at her attic loft. While the motel’s desk clerk had suspicions, he had known Alison from days when they used to shoplift together. He kept quiet.
She ate at Granny Sue’s house, and shared news about her Hollywood exploits. After handing out more gifts, she kissed her cousins goodbye. With a full cigar box, she felt ready for Hollywood audition calls.
On New Year’s Eve, a Saturday, Alison had a panic attack. She became agitated and felt her heart rush, blood flowing hot, and her skin sweating. She imagined knocking came at her motel door, and a team of FBI agents and state troopers standing out front of her doorway—all of them holding revolvers and handcuffs.
The rush jolted her. She realized the authorities might soon close in on her whereabouts like they had done finding Bonnie Parker.
Alison called Granny Sue for advice.
“Need a small favor.”
“Sure, honey,” Granny said. “I’d do anything for my son’s little girl.”
They drove to the town’s only fast-food place and ordered take-out meals. At the counter, a pair of county sheriff’s deputies waited on their own take-out order.
Having gone to high school with Alison, one deputy recognized her from TV news and an APB, all points bulletin. Given the holidays, and not much going on in town, he smiled at Granny Sue, grabbed his bagged meal, and followed his partner to their patrol car. They left looking the other way.
Early Monday morning after New Year’s Day, the same two deputies joined a team of four FBI agents and two U.S. Marshalls surrounding a motel where a witness reported seeing Alison. After knocking, the motel door opened, and Granny Sue stood in the doorway. She bid a welcome to the officers, and asked if they’d like a cup of hot cider from a thermos she held or a bowl of homemade potato soup from a pot inside.
“Best around,” she said. “Ya-all know that for a long time.”
“No Ma’am, but thank you,” said one deputy. He bid her a happy new year, and walked away from FBI agents searching the motel for the fugitive.
On the way to the patrol car, one deputy said, “betcha our girl Alison will win one of them Oscar film awards, someday.” His partner who knew her too, said, “betcha yer right but she won’t forget family—especially at holiday time.”
The night of her panic attack, Alison had called her mechanic friend and paid 450 dollars for a seven-year-old Chevy someone left at his shop. He tuned the engine, changed the oil, and replaced spark plugs. She hid in his shed far from the FBI knocking at the motel door.
Before she got back on the road, she stopped at an ice cream shop, and ordered a large cup of vanilla ice cream, piled with blue and red sprinkles, the kind she liked.
Alison enjoyed the treat in her car while looking back down the road toward her home town. She thought—so good seeing the family and all the guys especially Granny Sue.
A tear welled in her eye. Better call daddy on his birthday.
She revved the motor and headed west toward the sunset.