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“Bank robbery is the real American Dream. We make movies about it, and as long as innocent people aren’t hurt or killed, our society loves bank robbers.” – Clay Tumey


What was it like the first time you decided to rob a first bank?

Technically, I chickened out the first time I actually decided to go do it. I went to the bank, sat in the parking lot, and just got really nervous. It was the kind of “scary” that I tend to enjoy, but I didn’t want to be without a clear head for that first robbery in case something went wrong, so I decided against doing it that day after not being able to calm myself down.

I returned the next day and was able to find my composure and remind myself that I was far too prepared to really be nervous. I found myself daydreaming and pretty much just going through any normal emotions as if I were just a regular customer. It was weird, but I enjoyed it. When I drove away, I was pretty excited — probably not unlike you’d be if your team had just won a buzzer-beating nail biter. I was pretty stoked.

Describe your strategy upon walking in the door.

My strategy was no different than if I were a customer walking into the bank (except for the obvious things like not touching anything with my fingertips as well as wearing a long sleeve shirt to cover my tattoos). Once in line, I just stood there and waited for the next available teller. When it was my turn, I approached them and went through the typical pleasantries while handing them an envelope with three clearly printed instructions on the face of it (Put all of your $100s and $50s in this. Do NOT look at me. I won’t hurt you.).

What is the most memorable thing that every happened during a heist?

My last robbery was a series of memorable moments. Here is an excerpt from my book about it:

“Sir, I can help you over here,” a female voice called to me from my left. She wore the standard banker smile while waving me over to her window. I met hers with a smile of my own and apologized for daydreaming. She laughed and politely asked what she could do for me today.
I gave her the envelope.

As expected, she immediately looked up at me. That’s the one thing that all tellers had in common after reading that note. I guess none of them were raised to know it’s not polite to stare. In fairness, no other teller had actually stared at me, but by comparison this teller was definitely staring at me. It didn’t feel like the passive, inquisitive is this real type of gaze that I had seen many times before. Those never bothered me because I thought they were reflexive, involuntary, and harmless. To those nonverbal queries, I simply nodded confirmation. This teller, however, seemed to be sizing me up. My instinct was to stay still and just maintain eye contact with her without reacting. There was no telling what she was thinking, but I was certain I could read her mind. She was thinking of a way to be the hero.

After a few seconds, she let out an exaggerated sigh accompanied by a subtle roll of her eyes before slowly reaching into her drawer and grabbing a few $50s and even fewer $100s. She put the money into the envelope, but she seemed to be proving a point with how slow her every move was. I wanted to squirt some oil into her joints in hopes that perhaps her bones had seized up and restricted her movement.
Congratulations to me. I just robbed a sloth.

I could tell by her movements that she hadn’t fully complied with my demands. I had plainly stated to hand over ALL $50s and $100s, not just some of them. She clearly wasn’t the least bit scared of me or the situation, but I didn’t know which pissed me off more—the fact that she completely short-changed me or the fact that she didn’t even bother pressing her panic button.

Without bothering to even reach for the envelope, my head tilted with irritation as I calmly said, “You can do better than that.” With her palms face up at shoulder height, her entire body shrugged as she feigned ignorance. “That’s all I got,” she lied.

Finally, someone had outsmarted me, and worst of all she did it on a whim. She knew that I was not going to shoot her or attack her or even press the issue. The fact that she was breaking protocol was completely irrelevant to me at this point.

I was powerless.

Regardless of what might happen to her after her employer learned of her insubordination, nothing changed the fact that she had beaten me at my own game by somehow knowing that there was no real danger in front of her. Resigning myself to defeat, I grabbed the envelope and turned to leave.

“Lock the doors!”
Not good.

Did anyone ever try to play a hero and put a stop to a robbery?

Mrs. “That’s All I Got” is the the only person who came close to being that person. Nobody else broke protocol, and in every robbery I ever did, only the teller knew what I was doing while I was there.

What advice would you give to a customer caught in a bank during a robbery?

Interesting question. I don’t want to pretend that I’m an authority on this, but I can say that it’s generally a good idea to avoid being a hero. People who rob banks are typically not known for their fear of doing bad things. I can tell you what I would personally do if I were a customer caught in a bank robbery though. I would do exactly what the hell I was told to do as long as it didn’t put me at risk of death. Want my money? Here ya go. Want my shoes? Hey, they’ll probably look better on your feet anyway? Get on my knees and face the wall? Okay, that’s where I draw the line.

What’s the most and least amount of money you ever made during a heist?

The least I ever got was from the last one: $1,000.

The most I ever got was in the neighborhood of $25,000.

The average per bank was probably more like $5,000.

Did you ever work with a partner or in a group?

Never. That’s a great way to put yourself at a greater risk of being caught. It’s just one more conscience to worry about, one more human to worry about, one more thing to go wrong.

How do you think most people get caught?

Frankly, I think people just don’t plan things out well enough. It’s like anything else; you can’t freestyle your way through something and just expect it to go well. Devising a plan is key in any successful endeavor.

What was your takeaway from your experience with prison?

Prison sucks because of what you lose, not because of where you are. You get used to the food, the cells, the people, and pretty much everything else. But you never get over the fact that you can’t just call your dad whenever you want or hug your mom whenever you want. If you’re a parent, you’re never going to be able to hug your kid and ‘make it better’ when the fall and skin their knee or have a bad day at school. That’s what really sucks about prison.

Beyond that, a big takeaway from prison is that America just doesn’t do it right. It’s a punishment-based system that doesn’t take a look at how to actually solve any problems. We don’t give two shits about the criminal because they’re just criminals. But people don’t realize that those criminals are going to be released back into their society soon. Think about it; what kind of inmate do you want released back into your free world? Do you want some dude who’s been stewing in his own crap for years, or do you want a guy who’s had a chance to really address his issues?

With that said, I’m definitely in favor of prisons. As long as we have criminals, we will need prisons. I’m just not in favor of our particular prison system.

You spent a decent amount of time in there. Do you have any thoughts or advice for anyone locked up or headed to jail?

Yeah, for sure. Don’t focus on something you can’t change. Yes, the majority of guards are jerks. Deal with it. Put your energy towards something that’s going to serve you, such as reading self-help books or at least taking an honest look at how you got there in the first place. And, by the way, “drug laws are stupid” is not an honest look at how you got there. Yes, I agree…drug laws are stupid. But that’s not a variable we can control, so it’s not worth crying about.

Prison is a great place to work on yourself. So do that.

If given the chance for some reason, how would you approach prison reform?

First of all, the privatization of prisons absolutely must go. That’s the worst thing our country has allowed since slavery was legal. I fully believe that. People who haven’t been to prison don’t understand how wrong that whole privatization thing really is. I’ve been to prisons in other countries (namely Denmark and Finland), and it’s truly amazing the way those folks work with their criminals. In America, recidivism rates are insane, and that’s not by mistake. The prison system just blows.

Secondly, I would do away with parole. It’s stupid and makes no sense whatsoever. I have a close friend who was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 21 because the jury wanted him to serve two years. In Texas, a 10-year sentence at the time meant you’d probably serve two years and then get out. The jury adjusted their sentence so he’d actually do two years. But unfortunately for my friend, he never made parole (despite a clean record on the inside) and ended up serving the full 10 years (five times what the jury had decided was worthy for him). This is wrong, and it completely robbed a man of his entire 20s. He should have been gone from age 21 to 23, not 21 to 31.

Lastly, I would open the prison to public tours so that “normal people” out here in the world can go and see how we treat people in prison. Most people are completely oblivious about how prison works until someone they love is impacted by it. And even still, people don’t realize what it’s really like until they’ve been there. If people are appalled by how the police in our country behave, they’d totally lose their minds if they could see how jailers and prison guards behave as a whole.

Do you have any advice given your experience?

It depends on the person asking.

If I’m talking to someone in prison, I say to use your time wisely and spend every day preparing for your release in some way. If you know you’ll eventually get out, then thinking about what you’ll do that first day, first week, first month. Obsess over it and think about every possible obstacle and then plan for infinite solutions to those obstacles. You’ll never have the solitude that you have in prison, so take advantage of that and become a master planner for your own life.

If I’m talking to a relative or friend of someone going through this, then I’d say to just write as many letters as you can. You don’t need tell them anything or encourage them. Just talk about life. Tell them what’s going on in your daily life and what you’re doing. They need that kind of positive influence more than you know. And, of course, send them a copy of my book.

Clay Tumey’s book is available now.

Photo Colin Brown
AMA via Reddit

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