September 19, 1999
Roy Audler had two passions in life: restoring cars and robbing banks. In both, he was meticulous.
The cars, especially his beloved Corvette, were handled as gingerly as newborn kittens, treated to new engines, refurbished interiors, expensive wheels and frequent rubdowns.
The banks, often rural ones lacking security guards, were treated more roughly, but with the same attention to detail. For as long as a week, Audler staked out his targets, studying the bank workers and the building, and mapping his escape route, FBI officials said. His preparations included stealing a car to use for his getaway and leaving his own car in the parking lot of a nearby store, so he could switch vehicles before driving home to the Elmwood apartment where he lived alone.
Then, the same man who friends said never raised his voice would storm into the bank, terrorizing employees and customers. Wearing a disguise, waving a gun and using a loud voice and foul language when his victims didn’t obey his commands, Audler got away with 13 bank robberies across the southeastern United States between 1993 and 1998.
But the 14th holdup, at a bank in Oxford, Ala., led to his downfall. And on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, Judge Edith Brown Clement sentenced Audler to 22 years in federal prison for four of the robberies. He has admitted to the 10 others, FBI officials said.
Audler, 55, has already served two prison stretches, for bank robberies in California and Louisiana. As he heads back to the penitentiary, America may be saying good-bye to one of the last of its old-time bank robbers.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and Roy is a unique person. He takes great pride in his work,” said FBI agent Daryl O’Donnell, one of the investigators responsible for Audler’s capture. “He’s a professional, and we’re very lucky to have caught him.”
*** Throwback to another era ***
Audler is a throwback to another era, a time when crooks planned their heists more carefully and took pride in a bank well robbed. The best of them could even become folk heroes.
John Dillinger specialized in small-town banks in the 1930s and had an almost cultlike following. He was seen as a dashing, Robin Hood-like figure who was chivalrous to women while thumbing his nose at authorities. Thousands went to pay their respects when he died.
Dillinger’s peers included Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and George “Baby Face” Nelson. Both were cheered during their often-murderous exploits by an enchanted populace. Floyd, who often tore up any mortgage deeds he could find while robbing a bank, once got a “Give ’em hell!” from a witness who saw him walking toward a bank with a machine gun.
Unlike these legends, Audler never fired a shot or sought attention for his exploits. But like all three of them, he made robbing banks a career, approaching his job as seriously as any stock broker or lawyer.
In contemporary America, bank robbery has lost much of this mythical image. Bank robbers these days usually are men 20 to 50 years old, much younger than Audler, and prone to drug addiction, according to FBI statistics. Rather than taking over entire banks and ordering everyone to the floor in a frenzy of calculated intimidation, they are likely to pull a robbery on an impulse, simply slipping a furtive note to a single teller and walking out without being noticed by more than a couple of people.
“Mostly we deal with desperate individuals doing desperate things,” O’Donnell said. “Most of them are not like Roy.”
Audler’s attorney, Lee Leonard, agreed.
“You don’t want to bring back criminals from any era, but the ones we’re looking at now scare me a lot more than the Roy Audlers,” Leonard said.
Audler has no respect for this younger generation of crooks.
“If you can’t suit up and do what you got to do without being high, you’d better go drive a cab or something,” he said.
*** La. banks out of the question ***
Audler was born in New Orleans but began his bank-robbing career in California in 1969. A rookie, he did nothing to hide his face, collected money from only one teller by handing her a note, kept his pistol in his pocket and didn’t disguise his Louisiana drawl.
He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served five.
Audler came home to Louisiana, married a local woman and settled down in Metairie. At the end of 1976, he robbed a Metairie bank. This time, he was a bit more refined: He wore a rubber mask and, waving a pistol, took control of the bank. He collected money from all of the tellers before leaving.
Audler was caught when police came to his apartment a month later with a search warrant because they suspected his wife of drug use. They found the tools of Audler’s illegal trade.
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served 17 in the state penitentiary at Angola.
Audler was released in 1993 and settled into a one-bedroom apartment at the Elmwood end of the Earhart Expressway. It normally rents for $675 a month, but Audler needed three on-site garages for his cars, bringing the tab to $975.
He was divorced, estranged from his relatives and not eager to get in touch with many people from his previous life. He had only two skills: detailing cars and robbing banks. But car detailing can’t pay all the bills unless you work at it, and Audler, in a telephone interview Thursday from jail, admitted he’s lazy.
Thus began a five-year out-of-state crime spree that started at a small bank in Long Beach, Miss., stretched from Florida to North Carolina, and ended in Alabama. Audler’s total take was $350,000, O’Donnell said.
“He was going to keep going until he got caught. He even had robbery tools with him when he was arrested,” O’Donnell said.
Audler said he chose out-of-state banks because he didn’t want one of his friends to pick up the local newspaper some day and recognize him or his techniques.
To select his targets, Audler took trips, some as long as three weeks. He sought small banks with little foot traffic. A security guard at the door automatically eliminated a bank from consideration.
“That’s why I had to go so far to find them,” Audler said. “There’s not so many of them around anymore.”
A disguise is crucial, Audler said, and he refined his over the years, moving from a hood with slits for eye holes to the hat-sunglasses-fake beard combination that he favored until the end. Then, gun in hand, he’d enter the bank when it seemed emptiest.
“You tell them, in the strongest voice possible, ‘Give me the money. Don’t put no bomb in the bag and don’t press any buttons,'”Audler said.
He said he came close to being caught only once during his five-year spree. That time, he said, he forgot to give his warning about the “bombs,” exploding packs of money baited with colored dye or Mace-like chemicals. After knocking off the Ocala National Bank in Florida on Feb. 23, 1998, Audler was making his getaway when a bomb of chemicals exploded inside the money bag.
“I had two blocks to go until the other stolen car and don’t think I could have gone another foot,” Audler said. “I got out and fell on the ground onto my hands and knees, trying to breathe. I heard the sirens behind me. I was almost busted.”
Audler left the money and his revolver behind in the car.
Ten days later, he robbed a bank in Pensacola.
*** Acquaintances fooled ***
Audler’s friends say they had no idea the quiet man who tinkered with cars was a consummate bank robber.
“I thought he made his living buying and selling cars,” said Steve Zimmermann , a longtime friend.
Zimmermann met Audler in 1963, when the two car fanatics were racing their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Airs through the streets of New Orleans.
“Roy always had a beautiful car, the sharpest car in town,” Zimmermann said.
They were easy friends, bonded by their love for the automobile. When Audler went to prison in 1969, Zimmermann never expected to see him again, especially because the word on the street was that Audler had been stabbed to death while in custody.
After his second stint in prison, Audler showed up at Zimmermann’s New Orleans auto detail shop needing a job. Thinking Audler had reformed after serving hard time in Angola, Zimmermann gave him work whenever he needed it: a few days one month, one day the next month.
“He was one of the best I’ve ever had,” Zimmermann said. “You have him do a job, it was done perfect. You never had to check his work.”
Zimmermann trusted Audler. He left Audler in charge of the office and the cash drawer filled with the day’s receipts, “and I’d never come up missing.”
Because Audler always seemed short of cash, Zimmermann treated him to lunch. Sometimes, Audler asked for short-term loans of $100 or $200.
“I always gave it to him. I knew when he was working he’d pay me back,” Zimmermann said.
Yet Zimmermann said he didn’t really know Audler. In all their years of friendship, Zimmermann was never invited to Audler’s home, although Audler had been his guest numerous times. Audler never talked about his personal life, and when he went to car shows or bars, he was always alone.
He was also very “particular,” Zimmermann said.
“You were talking to him and said one thing he didn’t like, and he wouldn’t talk to you for months. He would get his feelings hurt, and then you’d get your feelings hurt,” Zimmermann said.
Al Woodruff met Audler about three years ago, when the bank robber took his beloved 1978 Corvette to Woodruff’s Metairie auto shop.
“It was just a plain Jane Corvette, nothing special about it at all, except he liked it,” Woodruff said. “That car was his pride and joy. He redid that car from front to back when it didn’t even need it.”
The Corvette was restored to its original silver gray and outfitted with a new engine, interior and wheels. Audler said he spent more than $50,000 on the car. Woodruff’s shop did some of the work.
What made Woodruff a little leery was that Audler always paid his bills in cash, even if the tab was more than $2,000.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have to worry about me. I won’t give you no bad checks,'” Woodruff said.
“He was always very low-key, but a very nervous type of person,” Woodruff said. “He was timid and shy. I guess he didn’t want to be too much in the limelight.”
The two men had a falling out one day when Woodruff and a coworker were removing the wheels from Audler’s car. Audler didn’t like the way they were doing it.
“He thought we were going to scratch the wheel or the bolt that held the wheel on,” Woodruff said. “I’ve been doing cars for over 40 years, and I think I know how to do it.”
Audler had the men put the wheels back on, and he drove out of Woodruff’s life. The next time Woodruff heard anything about Audler was when he was arrested.
“I guess he read one too many comic books,” Woodruff said. “He thought he could get away with it.”
When an FBI agent went to Zimmermann’s shop last year and told him how Audler made his living, Zimmermann said he felt weak in the legs.
“I was devastated,” he said, but added he didn’t feel betrayed by Audler, “That’s his life. I got my life. I work.”
*** Bank teller traumatized ***
While Audler’s friends described him as low-key and soft-spoken, seemingly gentle, his victims offer a different opinion. More than a year after Audler robbed the Farmers and Merchants Bank where she worked in Oxford, Ala., Josette Burns’ voice still shakes when she recounts that day.
It was a Thursday, and she and the manager were alone in the bank. Burns, a teller, looked up to see a man wearing a hat, a fake Santa Claus-type beard and a pair of sunglasses. Pointing a gun at the manager’s head, he demanded money. He was calm, and Burns had no doubt he would use the gun.
“The blood rushed to my feet. It scared me to death,” Burns said.
Burns filled the sack the robber gave her and handed it back. He then asked his hostages who could open the vault. When neither answered quickly enough, the robber yelled and cursed at them, Burns said. She opened the vault and handed over what she could carry.
The gunman departed, but the robbery that had lasted just a few minutes left Burns with scars that would last a lot longer.
“That first night, I had trouble sleeping,” she said. “I was afraid he’d follow me home and come in after my husband left.”
Burns quit her bank job about a month later. She now works in a doctor’s office.
Audler said he regrets having terrorized people, but he said fear is the hallmark of any robbery.
“I’m ashamed of the fact that I was a bank robber but proud of the fact that I could do what I did without having to hurt anybody,” Audler said.
*** Stranger puts end to spree ***
As it turned out, the Farmers and Merchants Bank heist was to be Audler’s last.
On that day last summer, Audler drove away from the bank in a stolen car and picked up a switch car, also stolen, from a nearby parking lot, O’Donnell said. He drove that second car to his own car, parked near a Wal-Mart store.
But a truck driver had seen Audler drive away from the bank and, unbeknownest to the bank robber, had followed him. The two strangers made eye contact as Audler was stepping into his own car.
“I knew at that point that they’d got me,” Audler said.
As Audler drove away, the bystander jotted down the car’s Louisiana license plate number.
Audler stayed on the road. The FBI traced the car and began poring over his credit card records, and O’Donnell noticed a pattern: Each time Audler’s cards indicated he’d taken a trip, a bank in that area had been robbed.
The FBI thinks Audler hid in the Atlanta area before returning to Louisiana to pick up some identification. Six weeks after the Oxford robbery, he was captured at a Best Western motel near Covington on Aug. 29, 1998. FBI agents won’t say how they found him there, only that “information developed” leading them to his motel room door.
O’Donnell and his wife, also an FBI agent, were preparing for a rare night out at the movies when they got the call that Audler was on the north shore.
“We both rolled out on it,” he said. “It was very satisfying.”
O’Donnell said that during his interview with Audler, it was clear the old pro knew the ropes as well as he did. Like a gambler, he knew when to walk away, and he cooperated with the FBI, confessing to 14 bank robberies across the South.
If he hadn’t been caught, Audler said last week, he would have used his latest batch of stolen money to buy a 1957 Chevy. He said he’s better with cars than with banks.
With cars, “it’s a gift I have. How can you describe a touch you have with something? I can take something and make it look good.”
“I’m not going to say I’m a good bank robber. I don’t think there are good bank robbers.
“How do you judge a good bank robber? One that doesn’t get caught? Well, I got caught.”