The Gang That Couldn't Dress Straight

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

The FBI decided to stop the gang en route home and question them for the first time. McAllister, perhaps sensing the end was near, began frantically dialing Morris and Merkson, to no avail. He also tried calling his fiancée at home. No answer there either.

McAllister, who was towing that day, stopped by Popeyes after work and returned home about 5:45 p.m. His fiancée remembers it vividly.

About noon that day, she heard loud banging on the screen door of their Spanish Lake home. She opened it and saw the St. Louis County Police Department's SWAT team preparing to break into the house. A pack of FBI agents and area police officers proceeded to flash their badges at her and explained that they came to carry out a search warrant. Police handcuffed her and put "Little Otis" and "Lady Bug," her two young children with McAllister, in another room of the house.

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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.

"I kept asking them why they were here, and I couldn't get a response," she remembers. "I'm like, 'Please, just tell me, is somebody a serial killer?' They didn't leave for hours."

Authorities hauled away boxes of McAllister's belongings, including safes, computers and a mask of some kind. They also took $2,900 in cash.

When they finished the search, McAllister's fiancée walked the police officers outside. "Then some of the agents said, 'Here comes Otis!'"

She says she was flabbergasted. "I'm going, 'How did they know who he is?' I told Otis, I cursed, I said, 'What the fuck is going on?'

"He was hugging me, like, 'It's OK, baby.' He told me his friend had got into some trouble."

She shrugged off her fiancé and left the house to go stay with family. McAllister screamed at police, demanding they return his $2,900. The officers refused and handed him a copy of the search warrant.

A little after nine that evening, McAllister called a girlfriend and said, "They're trying to sink me. They're trying to build a case." His fiancée was clueless about his business dealings, McAllister added. "I'll have to tell her what I'm doin', some things I was doin'."

Police were still eavesdropping, and in the days following February 5, they heard McAllister work the phone, calling friends in an effort to find cash for a good defense attorney.

A little after nine o'clock on February 7, McAllister dialed the Cochran Firm in downtown St. Louis and asked if Johnnie Cochran was available. McAllister had no idea that the storied defense attorney who helped set O.J. Simpson free worked in Los Angeles. (Cochran died in March.)

McAllister also called Merkson and Morris, figuring they knew about charges the authorities were considering against them. Merkson and Morris refused to talk on the phone, insisting they meet McAllister in person.

Just before daybreak on February 11, McAllister awoke and bolted to the garage, where police stood banging on the door. They stormed the house, ordering his fiancée to grab him some clothes. That was the last time she saw him without law enforcement guarding him.

McAllister was charged that day with conspiracy and armed robbery by assistant U.S. attorneys Steven Holtshouser and Allison Behrens.

"I couldn't believe what I was reading in the paper" the day prosecutors announced the indictment, recalls Rhonda Woods. "I started thinking, well, why am I still going to work every day? How come I got a mortgage to pay? How come I don't have a new car? How come I still gotta call Otis for my son's school tuition every week?"

On March 10, Holtshouser and Behrens issued a wider-reaching indictment implicating Franklin D. Morris, David Greenwade, Ida Merkson, Scott Williams, Barry Ball and Jeffrey Moore in the conspiracy. Prosecutors allege the gang hit nine banks and attempted to loot eight others during their five-year bender.

The seven defendants remain behind bars and have been denied bail. Their attorneys have declined to make their clients available for interviews. Morris’ lawyer, Larry Fleming, says his client intends to plead guilty. Other defense attorneys involved in the case expect that four of Morris’ co-defendants will do likewise and testify against Otis McAllister, whose trial date has been set for October 24 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis. Prosecutors declined to comment about the case.

The crew's undoing brings the total number of bank robbers charged by U.S. attorneys in Missouri's Eastern District during the past decade to 118.

"It's incredible," says Morris' St. Louis attorney, Larry Fleming, who has defended numerous bank robbers in his 30-year career. "Seventeen bank robberies, so well-planned that nobody got hurt."

"This might sound kind of weird, but the investigation was fun," concludes Detective Newsham. "I always live for the chase. And they made us work."

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