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A Botched New York Bank Robbery

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

FBI mug shot of John Wojtowicz taken the day after the failed heist.

FBI mug shot of John Wojtowicz taken the day after the failed heist.

Keystone Crooks

In August 1972, John Wojtowicz, 27, and Sal Naturale, 19, tried to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in New York. The two were woefully inept and the heist went horribly wrong, triggering an event covered live on television.

The Life of John Wojtowicz

Born in 1945 in New York City to a Polish father and Italian American mother, Wojtowicz was, according to his mother, a good child who was no trouble. On leaving school, he volunteered for service in Vietnam.

With his military duty completed, he got a job as a teller working for the Chase Manhattan Bank. There, in 1967, he met Carmen Bifulco. They married and had two children. All very conventional so far, at least on the surface.

In the army, Wojtowicz discovered he liked homosexual sex more than the heterosexual variety. He tried to hide his bisexuality from his wife, but the marriage ended in 1969. As with so many veterans, he was also dealing with psychological issues brought on by the war in Vietnam.

Meeting Ernie Aron

Wojtowicz joined the Gay Activist Alliance and had relationships with many men. Then, in 1971, he met Ernie Aron, who identified as a woman. The two “married” in a public ceremony long before such unions became legal. The relationship was tempestuous with frequent arguments, usually about Ernie Aron's deep desire to have sex re-assignment surgery.

Wojtowicz resisted because he feared that Ernie, as Elizabeth Eden, would no longer love him. Ernie was desperate to have the procedure but lacked the financial resources to get it done. In deep despondency, he took a drug overdose in an attempt to kill himself.

Wojtowicz realized his partner would never be happy until he became a woman, so he devised a plan to get the money by robbing a bank. In a gay bar, he recruited a couple of accomplices, Bobby Westenberg and Sal Naturale.

None of the three had any expertise in bank robbery and it showed. The trio did not really have a plan; they cruised around Brooklyn looking for a likely target.

At the first bank, they dropped their shotgun, bringing about a quick retreat. They were about to hit a second bank, when Westenberg saw someone inside who he knew. Scrub that attempt. They tried a dry run at a third bank and crashed their car as they practiced a getaway.

Eventually, they decided to rob a Chase Manhattan branch.

The Chase Manhattan Heist

The would-be robbers had spent the afternoon of August 22, 1972 watching The Godfather movie. Energized by fake Mafia bravado, they approached their target in the Gravesend neighbourhood of Brooklyn.

It was just before closing when, borrowing a famous line from the film they had just watched, they slipped a note to a teller reading “This is an offer you can't refuse.”

Among them they had a Colt revolver, a shotgun, and a .303 rifle. Almost immediately, Westenberg bolted the scene, having spotted a police car.

Inside the bank were the branch manager, an unarmed guard, and six tellers. Naturale held his gun on the manager while Wojtowicz emptied the drawers of the tellers and told the staff to answer the phone normally if it rang.

The phone did ring and the manager, Robert Barrett, took the call from downtown about staffing. The caller sensed there was something wrong by the way Barrett talked and asked if there was a problem. Barrett said, “Very much so and have a nice day.”

The alert downtown staffer called the New York Police Department. And so began one of the biggest media circuses ever seen in New York City, a place that has seen more than its fair share of such events.

Wojtowicz yells at police outside the bank.

Wojtowicz yells at police outside the bank.

Standoff at the Bank

Within minutes, the NYPD had the bank surrounded and members of the FBI's Bank Robbery Squad were also in attendance. Sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops and the standoff began.

Wojtowicz and Naturale were trapped inside with eight hostages and news of the event was all over the media. Soon, a crowd estimated at 2,000 gathered behind police barriers to take in the entertainment. Mostly, the onlookers cheered the robbers as little guys taking on the establishment.

Wojtowicz seemed to enjoy the notoriety. He ordered pizza for his hostages and gave the delivery guy a huge tip of the bank's money. He came out of the bank and yelled at the police to back off—they didn't.

Negotiations dragged on during the hot summer evening. Wojtowicz asked for his lover, Aron, to be brought to the scene from the Kings County Hospital where she/he was undergoing a mental health assessment. Aron arrived but refused to meet with the hostage-taker, fearing his “bad temper.”

The two robbers had seized $38,000 in cash and almost $175,000 worth of traveler’s cheques (more than $1.5 million in today's money). But they didn't have an escape strategy.

After 14 hours of negotiations, the FBI agreed to take the two robbers to John F. Kennedy Airport for a flight out of the country in exchange for releasing the hostages.

It was a trap, and, at the airport, Naturale was shot dead while Wojtowicz was arrested. The latter received a 20-year sentence but only served five. After release, he returned to New York and moved in with his mother along with a new lover, George Heath. Later, he lived on welfare and died in 2006 at the age of 60.

A Familiar Story

If this tale of a failed bank robbery sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen the movie Dog Day Afternoon, which was loosely based on John Wojtowicz's botched crime.

Sidney Lumet's 1975 film starred Al Pacino as a Wojtowicz character and John Cazale as Sal Naturale. Both Pacino and Cazale had been in The Godfather, the movie the robbers watched before holding up the bank.

The movie cost less than $4 million to make and grossed as much as $56 million at the box office.

Wojtowicz sold the movie rights to his story for $7,500 plus one percent of the film's net profits. He used the money to pay for Ernie Aron's transformation into Elizabeth Eden. She thanked him by saying she never wanted to see him again after he got out of prison. She died in 1987 of AIDS-related illness at the age of 41.

Bonus Factoids

  • In his later years, Wojtowicz would stand outside the bank he tried to steal from in a T-shirt that read, “I Robbed This Bank” while signing autographs.
  • An alternative motive for the bank robbery is that Wojtowicz had borrowed $1,000 from the Mafia to pay for Aron/Eden's wedding dress and that he was going to use the money from the heist to cancel the debt. Wojtowicz said this was not true.
  • In 1972, New York City was suffering an average of more than one bank robbery a day.
  • In 2013, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren released a documentary about John Wojtowicz. They titled it The Dog, which was a nickname Wojtowicz like to be called by.

Sources


© 2022 Rupert Taylor