The Gang That Couldn't Dress Straight

Meet the cross-dressing bank robbers who confounded cops for years

"This is without a doubt the most prolific bank-robbery crew that St. Louis has ever seen, and as good as anybody across the country."

As St. Louis defense attorney Steve Stenger put it: "An organized bank-robbery ring is novel in St. Louis, harking back to the days of Bonnie and Clyde."

Red Nose Studio

Otis McAllister, top, allegedly organized the bank-heist gang, while Franklin Morris, second from bottom, told the FBI he provided insider know-how. David Greenwade and his girlfriend Ida Merkson allegedly spent only a few months on the team.
Otis McAllister, top, allegedly organized the bank-heist gang, while Franklin Morris, second from bottom, told the FBI he provided insider know-how. David Greenwade and his girlfriend Ida Merkson allegedly spent only a few months on the team.

Otis McAllister was fast becoming a legend. Patrons at the Silver Lining Lounge spun stories of him clad in long sleeves to cover the dye stains on his arms as he counted his stolen booty. They also recalled him making death threats to anyone who "ran their mouth," according to FBI affidavits.

"It kind of became a community joke," recalls Rhonda Woods. "At least it was a joke to me. I told Otis I'd heard that [he was robbing banks], and he said, yeah, he'd heard it too, and we just laughed about it. It never came up again."

The operation took a new turn with a change in costumes. Morris figured cross-dressing might be just the right touch, since customers expect to see more female bank employees opening banks in the morning than males.

Their favorite masquerade: maids' outfits, with each man wearing shorts underneath white-trimmed, black miniskirts, plus white tennis shoes.

They also bought slinky black gowns and a navy-blue dress with cream-colored polka dots from Goodwill Industries. On other occasions, they donned bathrobes and housedresses and wigs of all colors, purchased at Walgreens. As a change of pace, Morris once slipped on a JFK Halloween mask.

McAllister and Morris began to see every bank as a potential victim, hunting for those with a rear entry and located near a sleepy neighborhood.

They'd case a place for several days to learn its early-morning routine, such as the all-clear sign that the first teller had arrived. On the night before a heist, they'd steal cars to use for both lookouts and getaways.

Various accomplices helped McAllister and Morris with their thieving, and some were far from perfect -- forgetting, for example, to tie up a teller's hands or coming close to leaving their own handgun inside a bank.

The cross-dressing crew communicated via two-way radios, speaking in code, and they approached their victims with civil greetings such as, "Good morning. You are going to open the bank." No one gets hurt, they'd always say, as long they followed directions.

They moved swiftly, police said, and five minutes rarely passed from the time the gang entered a bank till their payday was realized.

Some attempts went bust, like when a bank employee without a vault key showed up unexpectedly, or when a teller noticed the robbers and slammed the door before they could enter.

Once, McAllister and Morris were foiled when they awoke and realized their getaway car had vanished. The vehicle was equipped with OnStar, a global positioning system, and the robbers reckoned its owners must have found it in the dark of night.

"It's almost like a moronic version of Heat," says lawyer Steve Stenger. "Instead of [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro, you have Moe and Curly -- with Curly in a maid's outfit!"

Indeed, this was no typical bank robbery, says Bill Ratliff, executive vice president of the Missouri Bankers Association. The average robber, explains Ratliff, walks into a crowded bank wearing a hat and sunglasses, then hands a note to the teller asking for money and departs a minute later -- usually with not more than a few thousand dollars. McAllister and Morris, police say, were averaging $150,000 a heist, and their workday was over an hour before the bank even opened.

Morris and McAllister pulled out all the stops when a particular bank struck their fancy. They took a crack at Cass Commercial Bank in Ferguson several times, for example, before it netted their biggest haul -- $285,505.

To raid the Vantage Credit Union on West Florissant Avenue in St. Louis, McAllister threaded plastic strips through a piece of an old chain-link fence, then spray-painted it blue to match the color of the Dumpster near the credit union door, the FBI reported.

"They pushed the Dumpster back, crouched down and held this gate in front of them so the employee thought she was looking at the Dumpster," Detective Newsham says. "When the employee walked up, they dropped it, ran out and grabbed her."

All the while, police marveled at the ring's continued exploits. Huge sums of money -- $143,232, $165,000, $196,000 -- were plundered without leaving behind a trace of evidence.

"They left us nothing to work with," Newsham exclaims. "No forensics. Nothing."

It wasn't until April 2004 that police got their first break. The tip came from a snitch, a heroin distributor who said he participated in the December 2000 robbery when the dye pack went off. The man identified Otis McAllister as the "mastermind."

The gang was lying low at the time, though, and it wasn't until the fall of 2004 that police noticed a rash of stickups in Illinois and St. Louis. Surveillance of McAllister began in earnest. The number of city, county and federal officers working the case ballooned from a handful to twenty.

At 4 a.m. on December 1, 2004, undercover agents arrived near McAllister's house. Two hours later, they watched a Honda Accord -- traced to one Franklin Morris -- pull into the driveway and pick up McAllister. The Honda proceeded to a nearby north-county parking lot and joined two SUVs.

« Previous Page
Next Page »