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Sunday, January 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Shootist -- John And Carol Robbed Banks. How Long Could A Life -- And Love -- Like Theirs Last.

SHE DROVE HER HUSBAND to work, she waited in the car for him to finish, and then she drove him home. That was Carol's job. She'd been doing it for the past eight years. She didn't like it, but she loved John, and this was one of the ways she showed it. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and so forth.

John never kept Carol waiting long. He worked fast. He knew that was the only way to work if he wanted to keep this job. John was good. He'd be the first to tell you so, and everyone else agreed - the bank tellers, the local police, the FBI - everyone. A real pro, John.

Carol sat in the car again, waiting. It was around 11 a.m. on the first of July, 1993, a Friday, a busy banking day headed into the long holiday weekend.

Meanwhile, John stood atop the counter in the Kirkland Seafirst bank, arm pointed straight up, smoke curling out of the barrel of his gun. One of the tellers watched the smoke and thought, "How cliche. I didn't think guns actually did that." Another teller heard the "bang" and assumed some punk kid must've lit a firecracker.

John's .38 pointed at a fresh hole in the ceiling. He ordered everyone in the bank to hit the ground, except the merchant teller. John vaulted down off the counter and looked into her eyes. He held out an orange duffel bag and ordered her to fill it from her cash drawer. He cursed. He yelled, "No funny money!"

He yelled something about payroll. The merchant teller didn't

understand. John kept yelling and swearing. The merchant teller's drawer was cleaned out now, except for a few stacks of Canadian currency weighed down by blocks of wood. In the confusion, the wood blocks wound up in the orange duffel along with the rest of the cash.

John went ballistic. Probably, he mistook the blocks for exploding dye packs. "Get 'em out! Get 'em out!" The merchant teller grew even more flustered. It seemed to others in the bank that she was on the verge of being shot.

And then it was over. John and the money were out the door. The teller's legs turned to gelatin. People got up off the floor and started sobbing.

Meanwhile, Carol drove her husband home from work. As was his habit, he hid in the trunk and monitored a police scanner. After they stopped for the night at a hotel, John would take the ledger that he kept in his briefcase and add another line of figures. He didn't bother with dollar signs anymore. In the "NET CASH" column he wrote the number 11,579; under "RUNNING TOTALS" he wrote 879,357.

Until they were arrested in Bothell in mid-1994, Johnny Madison Williams Jr. and his wife robbed banks prodigiously - 56 (including four on the Eastside) over eight years. It was the lengthiest string of bank robberies in the U.S., according to the FBI.

During the eight year spree this was all John and Carol had, really: the money, the things it could buy, and each other.

THEY MADE A likely couple. John needed to be in charge, and Carol - who steered only when told - was happy to give him the marriage keys.

Carol was tiny - 5-foot nothing; 100 pounds wet - and shy. "She did not make friends fast," according to her mother. In high school in Dallas, she joined the creative-writing club and earned average grades. "Carol didn't feel like she fit in anywhere," remembered her best friend, Kimberly Bingham Pardi. "I can't remember a time that she would actually start a conversation." Carol was like some small creature walking on a big beach, a little mouse who left the faintest of tracks.

After graduation, Carol worked as a sales clerk in a Fed-Mart - Dallas' home-grown answer to Kmart. She dated a co-worker. He was her first boyfriend. He got spooked when Carol wanted to make the relationship more serious.

Then Johnny Madison Williams Jr. appeared. Almost 10 years older than Carol, he had a lifetime's more experience. Raised by grandparents. Sent away to prison in Texas for nine years, two months, six days for armed robbery of an Abilene convenience store. Out on parole, he found his angel. "She was young, innocent, naive and a virgin," Johnny explained in a letter to a reporter.

Carol's mother did not approve. As she would later write, to Seattle U.S. District Court judge Thomas Zilly: "We are not his type of people. We could tell her he was no good, but we could not make Carol believe it."

Carol's best friend and co-worker, Kimberly, also tried without avail to break the spell cast by the ex-con. "Johnny knew exactly what strings to pull with Carol. He knew exactly what she wanted to hear and those were the things he would tell her.

"Carol had never been told by a guy that they loved her."

Carol and John eloped in August 1980, about a year after they first met. She was all his.

John tried to go straight. He went in with a partner on a carpet cleaning and dyeing business in the Dallas area. They gave it a shot in San Diego, too. But the legit life never really laid out the welcome mat. Much was outside John's control - regulations, insurance requirements, taxes, not to mention the vagaries of the market for carpet cleaning and dyeing. The business teetered on insolvency.

"That is the basic scenario that led me into persuading my wife to rob a bank," John wrote. He told Carol it would only be a one-time deal. Carol stood by him, or rather, sat, with steering wheel in hand and gun in purse. She couldn't let him go solo. They hit a bank in April 1986, in Plano, Texas. They made off with $8,500.

"To sum it all up pretty quick, one bank led to another," John recounted, "and another, until I eventually realized I was doing better as a bank robber than as a legitimate businessman." He had found a way to attain the goal he had set for himself while in prison:

To be financially secure. Master of his own fortune. A millionaire.

THE FBI IS ON the trail of enough serial bank robbers that, to keep them straight, the agents attach a nickname to each according to the thief's physique, modus operandi or grooming habits.

Hence, "Bird Legs."

"Goldilocks."

"The B.O. Bandit."

And, referring to Johnny Madison Williams Jr., "The Shootist."

Early in his career, Williams is said to have robbed a bank where his demands were not met with sufficient respect. Disguised or not, Williams happens to look less like a bank robber than like a middle-aged distributor of plumbing hardware. It is possible to imagine how, coming face-to-face with this physically unimposing thief, a bank employee or customer may have actually laughed. This did not sit well with Williams, who came to endorse a shot fired into the ceiling.

He explained: "It set the tone."

Taking note of the habit, a San Diego FBI agent named Jack Kelly in 1988 christened one of his steadily fattening case files with the title of John Wayne's final movie.

Kelly specializes in solving bank robberies. He keeps busy. On the day of this particular interview, two San Diego banks had already been knocked over. The day before, three went down. "A usual day at work," Kelly said.

It was Kelly who linked a series of San Diego robberies to several others with matching MOs in Texas.

The Shootist was not your run-of-the-mill thief. So-called "takeover" robberies make up only about 5 percent of the cases, Kelly said; the rest are note jobs. "Anybody who commits a takeover . . . likes to be a very controlling-type individual."

Most takeover artists enter a bank accompanied by one or more partners. With The Shootist, it was just him and the gun. He refined a repertoire of "convincing theatrics" - the gunshot, curses - designed to provoke a very real sense of terror. He explained: "When I ask the manager or commercial teller if they want to be the next to die, and they can smell the acrid smoke of the gunpowder, and sometimes feel the warmth of the gun barrel next to their skin . . . they feel pretty certain that I have just shot a customer, or have at least shot someone in my past."

The number of bank robberies in Washington state more than sextupled, from 43 robberies in 1983 to 265 in '93 (the latest year for which the FBI had compiled national statistics). According to the Seattle office of the FBI, the state's bank robbers were on pace to top 300 heists in 1995.

While bank robberies nationwide nearly tripled in the 10 years that ended in 1993 - to about 9,000 a year - the professional bank robber is said to be a dying breed. Dillinger, the "Gentleman Bandit" and the Barton Gang are history. Nowadays, many cases involve drug addicts who rob on impulse. "Banks are a quick fix," said Seattle FBI Agent Don Glasser, who worked The Shootist case. These robbers fail to think things through. They get sloppy, and they get caught. Bumbling bandits of note include the Milwaukee robbers who forgot their loot in the getaway car; the Connecticut thief who wrote a demand note on the back of a withdrawal slip that showed his signature and account number; and bank robbers in several locations whose escapes were foiled by rush-hour traffic jams.

The Shootist was no dope. He surveilled target banks for weeks, months, sometimes years. He took detailed notes on security patrols, and the distance to the nearest police station. He paced off distances and rehearsed his escapes. More than once, he hacked out a shortcut through shrubbery before a robbery, then arranged the foliage back in place to create a hidden portal.

"We were getting pieces of breaks," Kelly said. Like in July of 1993, when a Redmond Seafirst was robbed of $21,489 and a passer-by saw Williams hop into the trunk of a red car with Washington plates.

"It was frustrating," Kelly said. "He was good at what he did. But it was only a matter of time."

JOHNNY MADISON WILLIAMS Jr. was attracted here by the same magnets that pull many other visitors: the San Juan Islands; the scenery; Nordstrom. Granted, Southern California has its own Nordstroms, but Williams appreciated the wider selection of merchandise to be found here.

He savored his morning coffee, and liked to bring Carol her first cup in bed. ("I am certain that there are a lot of women who would like to be treated like a queen," Williams wrote, "and have someone who would devote the most valuable thing of all - time!") Carol preferred Starbucks. When the couple wasn't in this area, the beans would arrive via FedEx.

"I tried to enjoy life," Williams wrote, "which is really hard for a lot of people to do nowadays."

He drove an '87 Sterling sedan - a modestly luxurious British car with leather seats and wood-inlaid dash. He sipped fine wine, puffed on expensive cigars, fancied himself a big-tipping gourmand, and traveled on a whim. Williams made regular excursions to Las Vegas to launder his loot by wagering it on craps tables and sending it into slot machines.

He appreciated the VIP treatment at Bally's 22-Club, "because that way I do not have to wait in check-in lines like the other people."

To work off some of the calories of his favorite dish at the casino restaurant - rack of lamb with garlic sauce - he took up bowling. He hired a pro for private lessons. When traveling, he packed his ball. He entered - and won - an Amateur Bowlers' Tour tournament. The purse: $1,200.

He had little time to enjoy his success. Williams had registered for the tournament using his real name, address and phone number. He adopted a phony identity, Robert James Hall, hung up his bowling shoes, and pulled back even further into the shell that protected him and Carol.

He used the alias for the frequent visits hr paid to chiropractors up and down the West Coast. A 1983 wreck in New Mexico fractured his skull, wrist and some ribs, and threw his spine out of whack. He lived with pain, and carried his X-rays with him on the road. He kept a detailed medical history, and tossed around enough medical terminology to put off a doctor.

"There was no point in me trying to tell him what was wrong with him because he wouldn't accept it anyway," said Gregory Zografos, a Lynnwood chiropractor who treated Williams several times.

"I normally spend a lot of time chatting with patients. He never told me things about himself. He always said he was from California on business. I never knew what he did. He made the staff nervous."

He wore orthopedic sneakers. Sometimes he robbed in a back brace. At least once, Williams' bad back forced him to change his usual MO. He heisted $29,900 from a San Diego Citibank by wearing a "CHiPS" baseball cap and using, he says, "a combination of a note and very convincing theatrics to obtain access to the bank vault . . . I exited and was long gone before the police were even dispatched to the area."

Not every job went down so slick.

Once, according to the FBI, Williams jumped onto a teller counter and banged his head on a low-hanging lamp. Another time, he had fitted the red Sterling with new tires, but forgot that the old tires were still in the trunk; he improvised and rode in the front seat. During his third robbery, in Abilene, Texas, he shot a bank manager in the leg.

She believed that the bullet was aimed. Williams claims the gun went off by accident. He says he intended to send her a get-well card, but he never got around to it.

JOHNNY MADISON WILLIAMS Jr. wanted me to understand that he was as good at his job as the FBI was at theirs - maybe better.

He wrote me twice. Long letters in large envelopes plastered with 32- and 5-cent stamps. In them, he apologized for not being able to say more.

He bristled at any suggestion that he adopted a "nomadic" lifestyle or lived with one eye trained over his shoulder. He seemed bent on being remembered not as a rabbit, but as a fox.

"Please let me get one thing straight, which is that I did not worry about the FBI, nor other law enforcement agencies catching me. No one knew who The Shootist really was, except my wife, and my only close friend." He refers to this friend as "my Judas."

Williams is sure it was his friend who brought him down by placing an anonymous telephone call to the toll-free "We Tip" hotline in May of 1994. Wells Fargo Bank had been taking out newspaper ads in California and hanging posters featuring a grainy security camera photo of The Shootist. He had also been the subject of a San Diego TV special. In his affidavit, the FBI's Kelly makes no mention of what distinguished the tip that eventually led agents to Williams from the hundreds of dead-end leads fielded by the FBI's San Diego office. According to the affidavit, the tipster placed three calls and left information that included Williams' name and alias, the address of the "safe house" with the view of the Pacific Ocean that Williams rented in the sleepy artists' colony of Los Osos, Calif., and the observation that Williams "has no job, spends lots of money, and has nice cars."

The hunt was on. Kelly's network of investigators - including a Texas Ranger, police detectives in San Jose and Bellevue, and FBI Agent Don Glasser in Seattle - pieced together a paper trail in the three states where The Shootist worked. They combed computer records from the DMV, Social Security, state prisons, post offices, credit card and car rental companies. Washington DMV records showed Carol held a driver's license under her maiden name, with a Kirkland post office box for an address.

The trail led to Bothell. There, late on a Friday afternoon, Glasser spotted the red Sterling parked outside the Residence Inn. "I think my words were `bingo,' " recalled Glasser, a former Navy SEAL and amateur boxer with bangs cut as straight as a roll of dimes.

Glasser rounded up a team of agents and set up a command post in the nearest empty hotel room to the one registered under one of Williams' aliases. A hotel maintenance man was enlisted to identify Williams by knocking on the door and asking to change the air conditioning filter. Meanwhile, Jack Kelly boarded a flight to Seattle.

The next morning, Williams called the front desk to borrow a typewriter. Glasser told the front desk clerk to say that the hotel was a little short on staff, but that Williams would be welcome to come down and use the office typewriter in person.

That's where the FBI arrested him. "It's over," Kelly told him. Williams' body appeared to go slack. He directed the FBI to his ledger of robberies, his "research notes," and an appointment book listing "potential bank robberies." He planned to rob two more Seattle-area banks that summer.

During the 10 hours Kelly and Glasser interviewed Williams at the hotel, he laid out his motives and methods. He complained of the high cost of doing business - for cellular phones and scanners and month-long hotel stays. He recounted how his wife begged him to stop robbing banks; he told her that if she refused to drive the getaway car, he'd have to do it himself, which would only increase the risk.

In their financial affidavits, John and Carol Williams would claim the following assets: the Sterling, worth $3,000; $3,200 in assorted electronic surveillance gear; and $2,500 cash, "plus interest." Williams told the FBI he planned to keep robbing banks, aiming for bigger and bigger scores, until 1988, when, at age 47, he would retire.

By the time the interview ended, Williams wrote in one of his letters, the FBI knew "more (about me) than my own family."

"I think it was a relief for him to be able to get this off his chest," Kelly said. "To talk to someone other than his wife."

That evening, John and Carol Williams ate what will probably prove to be their last meal together, in a conference room at the FBI's Seattle office. The FBI sprang for Chinese take-out. The couple's hands were cuffed in front instead of behind so they could feed themselves. Then the Williamses rode together in the back seat to jail. "Not always standard," Glasser said of the seating arrangement. "Out of human, just, sentiment."

They had not slept apart for a single night during their 56-bank crime spree. They spent their 14th wedding anniversary in separate cells at the Pierce County jail, their rings sealed in two manila envelopes in the property room.

AFTER BEING SENTENCED to a prison term of 92 years, Johnny Madison Williams Jr. mailed a letter to Judge Zilly. By way of asking for a new court-appointed attorney, and medical attention for his bad back, Williams wrote:

"I am not a `super criminal'; nor am I a `robin hood.' I was just careful, because I didn't want to get caught, and definitely didn't want to get my wife in trouble as I have done . . . My life is over. I've lost my wife and I've lost our future together."

Nowhere in any of Williams' words is there a hint of remorse for his actions, save for his choice of accomplice. His only regret seems to be that he was caught.

"For eight and one half years," he wrote from the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., where he works in the library, "I was able to pay my bills and filter money back into the economy. In fact, today would have been a good day . . . Its (sic) a Friday. Its the end of the quarter. Its the end of the month. Its the end of the week. It would be a perfect day."

Meanwhile, his wife, Carol, is serving a 20-year sentence at a federal prison in Northern California. She did not respond to written requests for an interview. Carol has been in touch, though, with the FBI. Agents Kelly and Glasser saw to it that she recovered her wedding ring, along with a photo album filled with snapshots of her and her husband.

Kit Boss is a former staff writer for Pacific Magazine. Sam Hundley is a freelance illustrator living in Virginia.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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