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Obituaries

Eddie Watkins, 82; Notorious Bank Robber

March 19, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Owens "Fast Eddie" Watkins, once viewed as "perhaps the most notorious criminal in Cleveland's history" for his innate ability to rob banks, has died. He was 82.

Watkins, who during a 43-year career in crime claimed to have knocked over 55 banks coast to coast and netted more than $1.5million, died Wednesday at a Cleveland hospital. The cause of death was not announced, but Watkins was known to have suffered from heart and lung disease.

A native of Pittsburgh, Watkins left his mother's home at the age of 13 and rode the rails to California to join his father, who was making a living as a grifter.

At 16, he robbed his first bank, taking $2,400 from a heist in Cleveland. He was eventually caught and served time for that crime and several smaller jobs.

Getting caught and going to jail, then escaping or making parole, would become the rhythm of his outlaw life.

His wife once said of him: "Most men ogle girls, Eddie ogles banks."

He made the FBI's most-wanted list in 1965 after he robbed five banks in the Cleveland area and another in Columbus.

A year later he traveled west, taking $20,000 from a California Savings and Loan branch in Los Angeles. He returned to the Southland in 1980 to knock off a Citizens Savings and Loan. The amount of cash from that illegal withdrawal was not disclosed in the local press.

Watkins' exploits were well reported in the Cleveland newspapers, which described him as one of the most notorious criminals in the city's long history. He gave interviews in which he acknowledged that he found bank robbery a rewarding exercise. He also confided that he believed in banks and was an eager depositor.

"I trust banks with my money--they're insured," he once said. "It's the best place in the world to put your money."

While he may have put his money in banks, his desire for a lavish lifestyle ensured that it didn't stay there long.

"I wanted to be a big shot," Watkins once told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I wanted to buy fancy cars. I wanted to impress the women. I wanted to have a pocket full of money when I walked into that casino in Las Vegas."

He earned his nickname from his ability to get in and out of banks quickly without physically harming anyone in the various institutions. The one time he didn't live up to his "Fast Eddie" moniker was in Cleveland in 1975, when he ended up taking nine hostages and holding off police for 21 hours. After letting the hostages go unharmed, he surrendered and was sent to federal prison in Atlanta.

Five years later he escaped and was back to bank robbing. He was captured months later and ended up spending the next 15 years in federal prison.

Watkins took up painting while in prison. His canvases were mostly nostalgic landscapes revolving around the quest for freedom and a simpler life. He said he favored using acrylic paints because they would dry faster in his cell.

But he could never seem to forget his first love--banks.

"It's probably an ego thing," he told a reporter, "but I never really thought about doing anything else.

"Everybody has got to have something to be proud of."

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