His name was Thomas Shearer.
I had been working as a teller less than a month when Shearer robbed the First Union Foxon Branch in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s funny what I remember, what I don’t.
For example, I remember that was the day I started smoking cigarettes. Wednesday, February 13th, 2002.
The teller line was in the process of cutting over to the next business day, each employee one by one tallying deposits and withdrawals. My manager and I were taking customers and covering the drive-thru lane. I suspected something was off about Shearer the moment he entered the lobby.
I can’t remember who I was waiting on. A woman I think. I don’t know what it was I was doing for her. My attention kept drifting over her right shoulder. To the man at the glass-topped table where the counter slips could be found.
Shearer was scribbling something. Then he got in line. He wore faded jeans and white sneakers. A filthy denim jacket. He looked shaky and flushed. There were liver spots on his face. His hair was pulled back in a greasy pony tail.
I didn’t stall. Some tellers did that—spot a problem walking through the door and conveniently take a bathroom break or have a computer freeze up. Start humoring the chatterbox from the old folks home. But I didn’t know any of those tricks of the trade yet. I’d been at the branch two weeks, maybe less. I was thanking my customer and about to gesture to Shearer when my manager called him over to her station.
I took the next person in line. Moments later a frantic Shearer darted across the lobby toward the customer service kiosk, as if he was looking for an exit on that side of the building. He hesitated, then turned and fled through the front entrance.
There was a beat when everybody looked around, wondering what the hell had just happened. My manager hustled down the teller line, keys in hand.
“Where are you going?” I said.
“To lock the doors. We just got robbed.”
To this day I remember her poise.
New Haven police were on the scene in minutes. Apparently Shearer had hit a Fleet Bank that morning. Passed a note demanding money. Claimed he had a gun.
A black SUV pulled up, presumably FBI. Soon cops were swarming the area. We found it hard to follow our robbery protocol. It was all too exciting.
They caught Shearer hiding in a nearby restaurant.
“Could you ID him?” a detective asked after taking my statement.
I rode in the back of an unmarked cruiser for the drive-by. Uniformed officers had Shearer in cuffs. His pants were falling down. Later I found out he’d been stuffing the stolen cash into his underwear. I didn’t hesitate.
“That’s him. That’s the guy.”
Just like they do on television.
I bought a pack of Camel Lights and chain-smoked through the evening, pondering all the ways it could have gone down. What if Shearer hadn’t of just passed a note and bolted? What if he had pulled a pistol? Taken the whole lobby hostage. Started executing customers. How would I have reacted to a near-death experience? Would I have lost my nerve? Would I have wet myself?
We weren’t supposed to talk about the robbery but I told everybody. Family, friends, the guy at the 7-11. My copy of the newspaper article is still in a box somewhere.
Shearer was charged with two counts of first degree robbery, two-counts of fourth degree larceny and interfering with a police officer. I have no idea how Shearer pled or where he is now. An inmate search on the Connecticut Department of Corrections website yielded nothing, which leads me to believe Shearer is deceased. He was fifty years old the day he robbed two banks in two hours.
I wish I knew what confluence of decisions and circumstances led Shearer to pass those notes. More specifically, what had Shearer been thinking that morning? Was it desperation that motivated him? Did he need the money for drugs or to settle gambling debts? Had a doctor told him he had months to live? Or had a born-to-lose petty criminal simply acted on impulse and—fueled by liquor—been brazen and stupid enough to try it twice?
Ten years later I still think about what did and what could have happened that afternoon. My mind runs wild with possibilities.
Looking back, I realize now February 13th, 2002 might be the day a fiction writer was born.
And in some strange way I have a man named Thomas Shearer to thank for that.