Every Sunday I like to sit down and read the New York Daily News “Justice Story” column.
As a former police reporter and perspiring writer, I enjoy these old time stories of crime and punishment.
After five years of chasing police cars and fire engines, being cursed at by lowlifes, and harassing victims’ families at the worst hour of their lives, it’s nice to sit on my rear end and enjoy all manner of mayhem without having to report on it.
I’m cover accounting now, and while it’s nothing like police reporting, I get to work a normal schedule and I don’t have to fly out the door in the pursuit of havoc every time the police scanner squawks.
Last week I was reading a Justice Story about Carl Gugasian, aka “The Friday Night Bank Robber,” a one-man crime wave who, over the course of nearly 30 years, had knocked over a series of banks from New England to Virginia.
This guy hit his intended targets like a commando taking down a terrorist cell. He meticulously planned his robberies, always wore elaborate disguises, and earned his moniker by sticking up banks on Fridays just before closing time.
The article said Gugasian pulled a number of jobs in Pennsylvania and instead of using a getaway car, Mr. Friday Night would rob banks located near forests so he run into the woods and vanish.
And that’s when I sat up in my chair.
“Hey,” I said to my computer screen, “I know that son-of-a-bitch!”
Of course, I don’t actually know the guy, but I did cover a bank robbery in the Poconos that bore all the signs of Gugasian job.
It was a rainy day—possibly a Friday—sometime in the 1990s, and I was recovering from a nasty bout with the flu. I was sitting at my desk praying to God for a quiet day at the office. But about an hour into my shift the scanner lit up with a call for an armed robbery in Mountainhome. And off I went.
The bank was sealed up tight, standard procedure for a hold-up, and there were cops all over the place. Some state troopers I knew were heading into the woods where the gunman had run and I fell in right behind them.
“Where are you going?” one of the troopers said in mock outrage.
This was part of the usual razzing I had to come expect from these guys.
Sgt. Mike Chaplin, the commander of the Swiftwater barracks at the time, once told me that cops only break your balls if they like you. If they don’t like you, they just don’t talk to you.
The ground and bushes were soaking wet and I thought, great, I’m just back at work and now I’m risking a bout of pneumonia.
I’ve had a lot of trouble with my health over the years and as I stomped into the woods with rainwater in my socks, I wondered if maybe the stress of covering crime was too much for me.
Perhaps I should stick to town meetings, or even get out of reporting all together.
But then I looked around at all the cops, felt this surge of adrenalin charge through me as I trailed an honest-to-God bank robber, and I thought, no, whatever’s running down my immune system, it wasn’t police reporting. I loved this stuff too much.
I ran back to the bank and hit the mother lode of information when I found an actual eyewitness to the robbery. This man had planned a day of golf with his buddies and stopped off at the bank so he could pick up some cash.
“I walked into the bank,” he told me. “And everybody has their hands in the air.”
Then he turned, saw a masked standing behind the door pointing a gun at him, and raised his hands, too.
The golfing buddies actually chased the gunman into the forest—something you really shouldn’t do—and they saw him throw a handful of cash in one direction and run in the other in hopes of throwing off his pursers. But they kept on his tail.
“Then he slowed down,” the golfer told me, “turned and pointed the gun at us. That’s when we stopped chasing him.”
I was tripping at this point. Page One story, complete with fabulous quotes—fuck the flu!
My heart sank when a local TV truck pull up. They were going to interview my witnesses—reporters are so possessive—and go on the air that evening while I couldn't get my story out to the next day.
I knew the TV cameraman, who was a very nice guy, but not a reporter. His job was to get footage for the show to run with the news copy.
“What’s going on?” he asked me.
“Oh, not much,” I said, my stomach in knots. “Just waiting on the cops.”
The cameraman got his footage, left without talking to the witnesses, and I was able to breath again. I know it wasn’t nice, but this is a tough racket. And I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell him about the great material I had just gathered. Sorry, dude.
Mike Chaplin was my best source ever. He would always tell me a ton of details just to give me a better understanding of a story.
In this case, he told me that the guy was a suspect in at least two other area bank robberies, including one where a bank employee was shot. But he asked me to keep that out of the paper.
“We don’t want him to know what we know,” he said.
The suspect wasn’t caught that day despite an intense manhunt.
I eventually moved on to business writing and Mike Chaplin retired and moved to Florida to get into the aviation business.
Carl Gugasian evaded the law for roughly 10 more years before some kids in suburban Philadelphia found a length of pipe buried in the woods that contained guns, ammunition, masks, maps, and a list of potential bank targets.
It was April Fool’s Day, 2001.
I decided to email Mike a copy of the Daily News story. We hadn’t communicated in a long time and I figured he’d get a kick out it. He remembered the gunman’s profile instantly, though not this particular job.
And then he said something that absolutely made my day.
“I have to tell you, I love flying,” he wrote. "I have a great business but I really miss catching the ‘perps.’ And I really miss working with you. We were a helluva team... I miss you, Buddy.”
Same here, brother, and I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one who has fond memories of that grief. And for the record we were indeed a helluva team.
I am thankful beyond description for my current job, but I have to admit that, on occasion, I do miss the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, and the thrill of chasing cops in the rain.