Originally created 03/28/04

Oldest bank robber got late start in crime



SPUR, Texas - "Red" Rountree shuffled into the bank and surveyed the teller windows.

He had done this twice before and knew the best way was to pick a bank within a full gas tank's drive of home, hit it early before there were too many customers and then never, ever return to that city.

He handed two manila envelopes to the teller. On the first, in red marker, was written "robbery." The second envelope, he told her, was for the money.

"Are you kidding?" the teller asked the bespectacled man with wrinkled, knotted hands.

"Hurry up and put the money in the envelope or you'll get hurt," Mr. Rountree told her.

As the teller complied, Mr. Rountree became the oldest known bank robber in U.S. history. He was 91.

SITTING IN A WHEELCHAIR now at the Dickens County Correctional Center, at the edge of the Texas Plains, Mr. Rountree puts his hand to his forehead, coaxing memories from a brain fogged by age. He's 92 and is serving a 12-year sentence, the equivalent of life for someone his age.

He can't remember when he decided to rob a bank in Abilene. Or even what he planned to do with the loot - $1,999. But he does have one answer.

"You want to know why I rob banks?" Mr. Rountree said. "It's fun. I feel good, awful good. I feel good for sometimes days, for sometimes hours."

It was one last adventure for a man who'd had others years ago.

He once made millions as a businessman, once had a family.

But time has a way of erasing things, and if you stick around long enough, the world you know can disappear.

AS HE TELLS IT, J.L. Hunter Rountree was born Dec. 16, 1911, in the family farmhouse near Brownsville, Texas, in the days when farmers charged items at the dry goods and grocery stores.

"When they sold the crops and got some money, they went and paid. We didn't have a very good crop one year, so J.L. Hunter Rountree is my name. J.L. King was the dry goods man and Hunter was the grocer," he says.

Really? No, he says. "But it makes a real good story."

Mr. Rountree loses track of many names, events, dates. But he can remember the details.

The good ones revolve around Faye, the woman with whom he had a "50-year, one-month love affair." The bad ones marked the start of a second, lawless life.

He met Faye, a striking brunette, in the early 1930s at a honky-tonk in Freer, Texas. She had a son, Thomas, from a previous marriage, whom Mr. Rountree later adopted.

Together, they owned a small boat-building and shipyard business, Corpus Christi Marine.

In 1965, he said he was approached by a company to build three boats, for running supplies to offshore oil rigs. Mr. Rountree said he took out a bank loan with the understanding that he would repay it when he finished the boats.

"They let me buy the steel," he said, "and then they called the note." The incident forced him into bankruptcy. Mr. Rountree eventually recovered, making more than a million dollars with his Rountree Machinery Co.

But he always resented banks. That bitterness blends in his mind with another loss at about the same time.

Thomas Rountree, just returned from a tour of duty in the Army, was killed in a car accident after a father-son dinner.

Time eased the pain somewhat, but then it created more. At age 75, after years of smoking, Mrs. Rountree was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in October 1986.

"After the funeral, I stayed in the house a week. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do," he said. "Then maybe a week later, I went to a beer joint. People were nice to me there."

That's where Mr. Rountree's second life took hold.

NEVER MUCH OF DRINKER before, Mr. Rountree says he began spending a lot of time in bars.

At age 83, he says, he experimented with a few drugs. Later, he married a woman he met in a bar.

Texas marriage records show Rountree married a Juanita Adams in 1989 and that they divorced in 1995.

It was some time during this period that Mr. Rountree visited his nephew, Buddy Rountree, at his home in Goldthwaite, Texas.

Mr. Rountree had burned through his money and found himself broke, on Social Security, and living in a trailer in Alabama.

TRUTHFULLY, HE SAYS he can't remember when he came up with the idea to rob a bank.

Whatever the prompt, on Dec. 9, 1998, a week before his 87th birthday, Mr. Rountree entered a bank in Biloxi, Miss.

"I was kind of dumb about it. I just walked in and told the gal behind the counter to give me money," he said. "Then I told her not to say anything until five minutes after I left."

But as the old man was making his getaway, someone followed him, and he was arrested within minutes, according to police records. He was eventually given three years' probation, fined $260 and told to leave Mississippi.

In jail awaiting sentencing, he met a man who knew how to rob banks - successfully. This part, he insisted, is true. During hours of conversations, the man taught him "the rules" of bank robbery.

Less than a year later, Mr. Rountree walked in to a bank in Pensacola, Fla. He looked for the youngest teller and gave her a note with the word "robbery" written in red ink.

"Give me the hundreds," he said, handing the teller a black bag.

She stuffed the bag with $8,000. But before he could get out of the bank, she screamed: "We've been robbed!"

Two customers chased Mr. Rountree as he headed across the parking lot to his idling truck. One knocked him down with what felt like a karate kick.

He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. At 87, he became the oldest inmate in the Florida prison system.

ROUNTREE HATED PRISON. There were too many rules and bad food. When he got out in 2002, he said he never wanted to go back. Prison officials gave him a one-way bus ticket to Texas. Mr. Rountree called his nephew in Goldthwaite.

Buddy Rountree helped his uncle open a bank account and get an ATM card. Red told people his nephew was a retired director of the town's bank. (Really? No, Buddy Rountree says. "I retired from the Department of Agriculture.")

Later, the nephew helped Mr. Rountree buy a used car, a 1996 Buick Regal with 78,000 miles on it. The first month he put 3,600 more miles on the car.

Two months later, he got into his car and drove more than 100 miles to the bank in Abilene.

SITTING AT THE CORRECTIONAL center, Mr. Rountree made no excuse for the last robbery.

He even told authorities within minutes of his arrest that he was guilty. Although he is appealing his sentence, he says he's not sure he wants to get out.

"What would I do at my age? Rob another bank?" he says, laughing.