By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
The 43-year-old Morris moved to St. Louis more than twenty years ago, escaping a broken home in Hollygrove, Arkansas. He got his first job as a salesman at Famous-Barr and spent most of his time hanging out in Kinloch, a municipality near Lambert International Airport. At one time, the man served on the town's reserve police force.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Morris was almost always in trouble. He served time for drug-dealing and was arrested on numerous occasions for other offenses. His marriage fell apart. But Morris persevered, starting up his own security company, Murphy Higher Quality Security, in 1995. He soon scored honest work guarding several branches of the St. Louis Community Credit Union.
Five years later, Morris lived near Spanish Lake in north county with his second wife and young son -- a much happier arrangement than his first stab at matrimony.
He'd been sober for eight years and regularly attended church.
But with things going poorly at his security business, Morris decided to pay a visit to an employee of his, Charles McAllister, and asked to arrange a meeting with Charles' hot-headed brother, Otis.
The thirteenth of fourteen children, 41-year-old Otis McAllister was well-known around Kinloch for his rebellious streak and often bragged that he was the "nigger that others don't want to mess with." Morris thought McAllister would be just the kind of badass needed to help him with a little side action.
At the time, Otis McAllister lived with his fiancée of six years, their son and infant daughter, along with two children from a previous marriage. With a penchant for expensive clothes and fancy cars, McAllister hustled hard to make some decent "scrilla," his slang term for money.
Never a nine-to-fiver, McAllister was more comfortable "ripping and running and back-and-forth and gangster living," recalls Rhonda Woods, one of the four women who fathered his six children. A salvage firm, car washes and nightclubs were among the enterprises McAllister launched and folded over the years.
Plain and simple, McAllister wanted serious money -- and to get it he was willing to shoot the moon. When he met up with Morris, the two men, police say, concocted plans for what came to be their most successful career to date: robbing banks.
On June 12, 2000, Franklin Morris, Otis McAllister and the cohorts they'd enlisted decided to make their first foray into bank robbery as easy and painless as possible, according to FBI reports.
Why not, Morris reasoned, hold up one of the credit unions guarded by his own security firm? After all, Morris was on a first-name basis with the tellers at the Jennings branch of the St. Louis Community Credit Union; he was even dating one of them. Even better, Morris knew that employees rarely double-locked the back door. Not wanting to be part of the holdup, Morris familiarized McAllister with the bank's layout and gave him a key to the building.
Police believe that McAllister, along with two other unknown accomplices, accosted a female teller at gunpoint, forcing her to open the vault. Afterward Morris appeared at the Silver Lining Lounge, McAllister's now-defunct Kinloch bar, and the duo divvied up the spoils -- a tidy $266,293.14.
On December 8 of that same year, Charlotte Peek arrived shortly after 6 a.m. at the SLCCU on Gravois Road -- another bank under contract with Morris' security firm. For several minutes the veteran bank employee sat in her car with the engine running, waiting for the security guard to show. Two black men appeared and pointed guns in her face, court papers say.
Peek thought about peeling away, but it was too late. The man on the car's passenger side said, "Don't do it." His partner, huddled next to the driver's-side window, coaxed her out of the car and helped her on wobbling legs to the door of the credit union. The man wore glasses, a stocking cap and a black cape. He barked at her to hurry.
It took Peek several tries to crack the security code, but soon she and the caped man were inside opening the vault. The man then led Peek to the hallway and told her to turn around.
As the caped assailant let his cohort inside the credit union, Peek suddenly smelled sulfur. She whipped around to see red ink seeping through the robbers' bag of money and smoke pouring from it.
"There was a dye pack in there!" the caped man yelled. "Tie her up!"
The men left Peek face down on the hallway floor and fled with $211,590. McAllister had struck again, according to FBI statements.
With Morris as the brains of the operation and McAllister as the muscle, the loosely organized gang relieved banks of $1.4 million during the next five years, according to police reports and court documents.
Authorities still have no idea where or how the stolen loot was spent.
"We never did know anything about trips they may have taken or anything like that," says John Newsham, a St. Louis County Police Department detective. "It's a lot [of money] to be gone, and believe me, we checked.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
"Well, shit, it's good as gold," McAllister said. "Sometimes motherfucker I went at it, shit, eight or nine times before it was good."
"For real?" Merkson asked.
"Hell, yeah, because there's always something comin' up," McAllister replied. "You know what I'm saying. When I got there, bam! Motherfucker wants some scrilla that morning. Then another motherfucker over here cutting grass. Bam! Motherfucker sitting over here looking stupid. Shit like that. Just keep at them. Then one time you're going to go. Damn! Shit! It's a green light. Gotta be ready to move when it's time. Beauty of it is, it's not a dope-fiend move. You know what I'm saying?"
McAllister again boasted that his racket was foolproof, "not something a motherfucker just hopped up and said they were going to do and just ran up and did it. It's a real plan. That is the beauty of it all."
McAllister, meanwhile, was taking a break from his criminal endeavors and looking for other money-making schemes. Police heard him talk about attending a stock-market class with lawyers and doctors "that will teach you strategy to become a millionaire." They also listened to him muse about selling cars through a nonprofit.
Police even heard McAllister discuss what they believed was a $2 million check-writing scam that Merkson was helping him with. The project fell through in mid-January, though, and Merkson tried to convince McAllister to resume holding up banks.
"It's tight as booty here..... I'm back 'bout to drown," Merkson complained to him on January 11. "Your ass just need to come out of retirement."
McAllister was torn. The towing job stressed him out, what with calls coming in at all hours and the truck in constant need of repairs. Still, he feared "them goddamn people."
"Them people ain't studdin' your ass," Merkson goaded him.
Authorities believe the couple meant law enforcement.
Just five days later, on January 16, McAllister called Franklin Morris and announced, "Yeah, I was just hollerin' at you man, you dig, I was thinkin' about Monday, get up, going and checkin' out that property, man."
Then McAllister promptly called Merkson. "I'm outta retirement, baby."
Merkson laughed. "Where we going to work?"
"I just called my boy, I told him we're gonna check some things out Monday. Ya dig? But you're in."
To police, it appeared McAllister's bank holiday had ended.
"I'm tired of this shit," he told Merkson. "I ain't feeling to be keeping no goddamn getting up every motherfuckin' day, having to get up and do this, that and the other, even though I'm makin' it happen. I'm not ready to keep on bustin' my motherfucking ass. Shit, nigger needs a day to kick back and do that when he feels like it."
On February 3, Otis McAllister called his fiancée with news that Franklin Morris' son was sick in Ohio and needed a ride. McAllister promised her he would leave for Columbus that night and return the following day.
A flurry of calls between Morris, McAllister and Ida Merkson and their roundabout talk of "everything being ready" led police to conclude that McAllister was planning to hold up a Columbus bank and return home flush with scrilla.
Determined to stamp out the gang once and for all, the FBI lined up an extensive surveillance convoy.
Just before 6 p.m., FBI agents watched Merkson pick up McAllister in an SUV at a Kinloch junk yard. An hour later, another team of agents saw McAllister inspect the SUV's underside for a tracking device planted on it.
A third pair of agents noticed one of the alleged robbers walk straight toward a surveillance van parked outside a gas station. One agent feigned sleep while his partner hid in the back of the van, watching the man peek directly inside it. "It is believed that the individual observed lighted electronic devices operating in the vehicle," says an FBI affidavit.
Police proceeded to lose the SUV momentarily, and at the same time, the car's tracking device malfunctioned.
Not long afterward, an antenna-laden surveillance truck staged in Illinois watched the SUV pull into the same parking lot. The arrival turned out to be rotten luck for authorities. They saw McAllister and Morris jump out of the SUV and lay eyes on the truck's intricate mass of antennas.
McAllister, Morris and Merkson hurried back to St. Louis, and police resigned themselves to defeat, putting a halt to that night's stakeout.
"We tried time and time again, and we were so close to catching them in the act," remembers Detective Newsham.
So resolved were they, though, that McAllister, Merkson and Morris, investigators believe, stole away that same night and tried to fleece a Columbus credit union the following morning. The heist failed and the threesome returned to St. Louis once again.
Merkson and Morris got behind the wheel of the car and headed for Columbus one more time fewer than 24 hours later. Morris roped in David Greenwade, who brought along his pal Barry Ball and another friend, Jeffrey Moore.
The next morning, the crew thought they noticed police everywhere in the vicinity of their target, the Kemba Financial Credit Union, according to what Morris later told the FBI. Scared, the alleged robbers threw their handgun on top of an adjacent building and split.
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.
"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."