Vintage Bank Robbery

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Mary Anne Zak

Mary Anne Zak

The September 21 robbery at Suffield’s First National Bank in 2016 was not the first.

On July 22, 1938, the late C. Luther Spencer, bank president, heard glass breaking on the lobby door of his office. Rushing out the rear door to his home next door, Spencer called the phone operator to sound the alarm.

Shortly before, a grey-suited man had entered the bank asking change for a $5 bill. East Granby patron Mrs. Norman Adams had also entered, followed by a tall man wearing work clothes and white gloves. Tall Man forced Mrs. Adams to sit down.

Grey-Clad man stationed himself with a .38 Colt revolver in front of the tellers’ windows. Tall Man and Glass Breaker moved to the bank’s rear area through Spencer’s office doors, emptying cash drawers. Shirley Reid, daughter of cashier Samuel Reid, was ordered to open the vault cash drawer, but she denied knowing how to open the vault. The three men, carrying $11,000, ran outside to a blue Pontiac. It headed south. Tests later showed no fingerprints anywhere; all the men had worn gloves.

Passersby Edmund Zera, William Jackson and Jasper A. Phelps, Jr., followed the car to South Street and Remington Street where it disappeared. The getaway vehicle and its plates had been stolen in Hartford.

Helen Covington and Shirley Reid had seen the car’s plates and sounded alarms, pressing a button connecting with Suffield’s fire alarm system.

Soon, FBI, state and local law enforcement officials converged on the bank. Assistant State’s Attorney Hugh M. Alcorn, Jr., and George Greer, investigator in the state attorney’s office, both of Suffield, rushed to Suffield to aid in the investigation.

Expecting to intercept the escapees near Hartford, police took up watch near city entrances. The getaway car was found next day on Belmont Street in Springfield, its wheels caked with red clay from Suffield’s Remington and Blossom Streets.

On the day of the robbery, three men were apprehended in Monson, Mass. and questioned in Springfield. They were released when witnesses could not identify them. After abandoning the Pontiac, the bandits acquired another car and proceeded to Boston to board a boat sailing to New York.

A week later police detained Leo Santaniello, 28, of Springfield and two other men. Santaniello appeared in Suffield’s Town Court. Arraigned by Judge Howard W. Alcorn, Santaniello tried to dodge photographers but was handcuffed and taken to the county jail The men detained with him were released but directed to appear later as material witnesses.

By March 5, 1939, all three suspects seen at the bank had been identified, plus another who had colluded. Santaniello was in jail awaiting trial with Alvin J. Blair with a long record of auto thefts. Two were still at large.

Filed later as a cold case by this writer, the robbery was dramatized on “Gang Busters” and narrated in Detective Magazine.

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