Heavy lifting

When he came back on the telephone, the banker said, "A million dollars would weigh around 20 pounds in $100 bills. In $20 bills it would be 100 pounds. In $5 bills, a million would weigh 400. How much did they take again?" More than $4 million, he was told. The Seattle banker laughed. Picture that, he said. "In small bills, that could be a ton of money."

In the afternoon, driving past Tacoma to Lakewood and standing in the bank lobby, you had to picture it: After 16 months, with the accused robbers ready to work out a plea, most of the details and much of the money are still missing from America's biggest bank robbery. The accused, two former small-time Midwest thieves named Billy Kirkpatrick, 57, and Ray Bowman, 53, are said to be onetime shoplifters who first paired up in the 1970s to steal disco tunes from record stores and then again in the 1980s to hit banks under the earned name of Trench Coat Robbers—a reference to their work attire. Authorities will not talk about Lakewood, and the suspects' attorneys say only that their clients are innocent. A woman at the brick one-story Seafirst branch that is set back from Bridgeport Way points out they "of course" do not comment on robberies. The FBI will conjecture, though, that in two decades Billy and Ray took $3.5 million from almost 30 US banks. Then came February 10, 1997, a record day for heavy lifting in a bank vault. By 7pm that chilly Monday, Billy and Ray allegedly more than doubled their score, leaving Lakewood with $4,461,481. It may not have been a full ton, but the money was in $100s, $50s, and $20s, so it is at least possible that the back bumper hit bottom as the getaway car left the parking lot.

Then, as today, the bank was a nice place for both customers and thieves. The teller counters are low and open, and the world outside is a panorama through a wall of windows. A parking lot encircles the building and has four exits, one at each corner, which lead into a maze of intersections with heavy traffic flowing off in a dozen directions. There are front and side doors. Indications are that whoever pulled off the biggest US bank job came in not with guns blazing but on little cat's feet: A man nicely dressed in a trench coat and an FBI cap walks up to the bank just after closing time and, using an excuse, talks the teller into unlocking the door.

Inside, donning sunglasses and showing a gun, the man is joined by another in trench coat and sunglasses. Although the robbers have in the past been known to set off their guns, wounding one Midwest teller, this time they politely order the three women tellers into a vault in the corner. The women are bound with plastic handcuffs, and the men begin filling their bags with cash stacked to the ceiling. In darkness, they drag the overstuffed bags to their vehicle. The tellers free themselves a little after 7 and call 911. The thieves in a vehicle unseen are gone.

For months, authorities would not say how much was taken, offering $25,000 for information. Lakewood was just another robbery. Then began a string of mental errors by the record-setters. The first, allegedly, was Ray's. The reputed millionaire-by-theft forgot to pay his $30-a-month storage-locker bill in Missouri. When the manager opened the locker he found guns, silencers, and police equipment, and went to the phone. Federal agents, thinking they had a gun runner, began a stakeout of Ray's home last summer. Eventually they'd find $1 million in his safety deposits, some supposedly traceable to Lakewood. Billy, meanwhile, made the mistake of driving 7 mph over the speed limit in front of a Nebraska state trooper who likes to rummage in car trunks. In Billy's trunk the trooper discovered guns and some money—$1.8 million in cash, stuffed in duffel bags. Some of it was traceable to Lakewood, as well, the FBI says.

The search has since been ruled illegal and the evidence cannot be used. But the problem now is Billy's girlfriend, Myra Jean. Having plead guilty to money laundering, she is hoping to reduce her sentence. She talks about her and Billy casing banks, burning stolen checks in the fireplace, or making Billy's house payments with cash in a paper bag. Six months later, Myra Jean is still talking—but not always about the past. Despite Lakewood, she says, Billy wanted an even greater heist, a grand finale—$12 million, maybe. It would have been a doomed record try. Do the math: Toting small bills, the getaway car couldn't get out of the parking lot.

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