The Gang That Couldn't Dress Straight

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

All three cars then raced south on Interstate 270, switching lanes continuously and clocking speeds of 80 miles per hour.

Police lost the caravan at 7:30 a.m.

A half an hour later, less than a mile away, McAllister and Morris acted as lookouts while their accomplices, David Greenwade and Ida Merkson, tried in vain to rob a First National Bank in Chesterfield, according to statements Morris gave to the FBI.

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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.

It was the first of many times law enforcement would fail to catch them red-handed.

Two days later police attached GPS tracking devices to several of Morris' cars, believing another strike was imminent. Sure enough, early on December 7, McAllister met up with Morris at a parking lot near their north-county homes and headed into Illinois for a scheduled holdup, according to court documents. The cops sped behind them, losing them twice.

At noon the same day, FBI agents pulled into Morris' Spanish Lake apartment complex. They planned to lease an apartment for a stake-out when they noticed McAllister and Morris casing them.

Several hours later, two agents working surveillance from a van near Morris' apartment witnessed McAllister's Toyota Camry unexpectedly pull onto the vacant parking lot. Of all the empty spots available, the Camry sidled into one right alongside the FBI, according to agency affidavits. The men in the car -- presumably McAllister and Morris -- sat for five seconds, staring into the eyes of an agent.

The next day the FBI discovered one of the GPS devices from Morris' cars in a Dumpster. They combed sewers looking for a second missing device but never found it.

Morris' wife, meanwhile, was packing the family's belongings, and the couple's son told friends they were rich and moving to Ohio. On December 9, the family left St. Louis for Columbus, Ohio, where Morris' wife has relatives.

To crack the case, one option remained: eavesdrop on Morris' and McAllister's phone lines.

Police listened in on the pair for two months, chronicling numerous conversations of doom and gloom -- especially when it came to money and love.

Morris was now commuting between St. Louis and Columbus, fretting about scaring up the funds to buy his wife a house in Ohio. Per usual, he was out of work, having been fired several months earlier from his job driving a garbage truck.

Police heard him beat himself up for spoiling his wife with fine dining and fancy accessories. He was shaking down friends to pay his gas bills and decided it was time to sell his Mercedes-Benz.

McAllister, too, was struggling, what with having to bring home food every night for his children and fiancée of eleven years. She tended house, leaving McAllister to fend for his monthly child-support payments and debts totaling $40,000.

McAllister had a new towing business that he'd operated in fits and starts over the past decade. Yet by Christmas, his pockets were so empty that he couldn't afford his yearly gift, a handbag for his fiancée. On December 26, McAllister was supposed to meet his girlfriend Ida Merkson for breakfast, but instead hit the street peddling five-dollar CDs with his nephew.

Ida Merkson -- that was a new name to authorities. They tapped her line at the end of December.

Merkson, they learned, met McAllister through her married boyfriend, David Greenwade, a career criminal with thirteen felony convictions on his rap sheet. Police were quite familiar with Greenwade; they were investigating him for participating in a drug conspiracy.

Attorneys say Greenwade learned of the drug probe and quit dealing. Hard up, having spent thousands of dollars trying to launch a record label with a local friend named Barry Ball, Greenwade knew of McAllister's ring and arranged to meet McAllister through a mutual contact. (Greenwade and Ball were indicted in the drug conspiracy earlier this year.)

As for Ida Merkson, food stamps weren't cutting it. Thirty-five years old, with five children to feed and a husband in federal prison, she owed nearly $8,000 to Nordstrom, not to mention the $9,000 her mother lent her. Merkson was so desperate she was preparing to switch her five-month-old daughter, Diamond, from costlier baby formula to 2-percent milk with iron drops.

Police heard friends call Merkson "a good gangster," but "screwed up" when it came to men. She blamed Greenwade, Diamond's father, for her financial troubles. "I'm tired of the motherfucker. Every time I see him I want to hurt him," Merkson told her sister, according to wiretaps.

Greenwade didn't know it, but Merkson and McAllister kept a standing Friday-night date and met at "little hideaways" during the week. By December, authorities say, Merkson wanted more than sex from McAllister. She wanted in on the criminal enterprise.

Ida Merkson rang McAllister a little after 10 a.m. on December 28 and complained that she had "been to work, damn near three to four times and nothing." Police listened intently to her cryptic remarks, fairly certain that Merkson was referring to an attempted bank robbery.

"That happens too, sometimes," McAllister replied. "For sure it do. Sometimes you gotta keep going. When the timing's right, it will be there."

Authorities believed Ida Merkson and David Greenwade cased a bank for several days beginning December 23 but had their efforts thwarted by customers showing up to use an ATM. What police heard next appeared to be McAllister advising Merkson to be patient and keep at it.

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