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Robbery notes

Style & culture

A longtime G-man and his co-author write about some of the bank stickup artists who helped earn a dubious distinction for Los Angeles.

August 10, 2003|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Dodson was one of those people who came to Los Angeles to re-create himself, again and again.

In the 1970s, he owned a trendy antique shop on Melrose Avenue, befriended aspiring actresses and celebrities alike. He frequented the hottest bars and restaurants, had a townhouse in tony Hancock Park, and drove a restored 1965 black Lincoln. Dodson also had a serious and growing drug problem.

By summer 1983, he was broke, his business was failing, and he had mounting debts. By fall 1983, he was driving the FBI nuts.

He had turned to bank robbery, holding up tellers in West L.A., Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley with a polite smile and a fake gun. He was smooth, unflappable. On his best day, in November 1983, Dodson pulled off six robberies in four hours, collecting more than $13,000.

The FBI's bank robbery squad in Los Angeles, led by agent William J. Rehder, played cat-and-mouse in searching out Dodson. The agents, with the Los Angeles Police Department, set up stakeouts at various bank branches around town, but he always eluded them.

Finally, his luck ran out. In 1984, a bank employee followed him after a robbery and alerted police. Seven months, 64 banks, more than $280,000.

Rehder was intrigued. Who was this guy? How had he eluded capture for so long?

"I just love the back stories of these guys," Rehder said recently. "I got hooked ... right away."

It was this curiosity that led Rehder, with co-author Gordon Dillow, to write the just-released "Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World," (W.W. Norton & Company). Dodson's story is the centerpiece of the book about the famous, the infamous and the unknown bank robbers of Los Angeles.

The book also focuses on four other subjects, though none as prolific as Dodson: the gang leader who hired his underlings for a portion of the proceeds; the tunnelers who dug their way to a Hollywood bank vault; the bank manager who helped her boyfriend, a Los Angeles police officer, steal more than $700,000; and the two heavily armed robbers who made national news when they held up a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood and then engaged police in a gun battle in which the robbers were killed.

But it was Dodson that really captured the attention of Rehder and Dillow.

He was known to the FBI as a one-on-one bandit, someone who robs a teller usually without anyone else in the bank knowing. He was polite and apologetic.

"As a teller handed over the cash," Rehder and Dillow wrote, "he would often say things like, 'I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to,' or 'I'm sorry to have to do this.' He was always clean and nicely dressed. As bank robbers go, he was a pretty nice guy."

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Shortly after his release, he began using drugs again -- and robbing banks. But he looked in such poor condition that when Rehder saw the surveillance photos from a Beverly Hills robbery in January 1999, he had no idea it was Dodson. The robber had gone from being dubbed the Yankee Bandit, for the baseball cap he wore in his initial string of robberies, to being called the Down-and-Outer.

A tipster led the FBI to track him down at the Farmer's Daughter Motel on Fairfax Avenue. In poor health, Dodson was sentenced this time to 48 months in prison; he served a little more than three years.

Rehder sent a $25 money order to the imprisoned bank robber whom he had hunted for so long. A call came from the Federal Correction Facility in Victorville. Dodson, the most prolific bank robber in modern American history, was willing to talk.

Over the next six weeks, Rehder paid for the phone calls as the two swapped stories. In a letter Dodson wrote to Rehder, his humanity comes through as well. "I must tell you that I never perceived myself as a career criminal," he wrote. "I accept responsibility, of course; there's mortification and shame still in my game. I lost so much, so quickly. And here I am. However, I have less than two years remaining to serve and plenty to look forward to. I stay as positive and clear as I can, and I trudge on...."

Despite all the feature films, television movies and cop dramas about bank robberies, Rehder says nothing can top the true stories. "The far more interesting story is always the real thing," he said.

Dillow, 52, agrees. "I only wish some of these guys were still alive so we could know more about them."

Rehder and Dillow, a columnist for the Orange County Register, met during the Dodson case. For the book, they interviewed FBI agents, L.A. police officers and prosecutors. They read court files, transcripts and newspaper articles. When he talks about his cases, Rehder, 61, has every detail at his fingertips, as if the robberies had just occurred.

While Rehder is undeniably proud to have caught many bank robbers in his day -- he participated in some 250 felony arrests -- he says the thrill was putting together the cases, hoping a thief would make a return trip to a branch and matching descriptions to bank jobs.

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