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The Butch Cassidy Revival


I live in the new West, a gentrified place where the streets are paved for the SUVs that roll down them. It’s a region where we get decent cell reception and New York Times home delivery. The Telluride, Colorado, of today is a far cry from the original hardscrabble mining town where people commonly died from scarlet fever or mining accidents. We ski, attend concerts and eat five-course meals, while our predecessors were lucky to live to the age of 45. I cherish this quality of life, but I also quietly mourn the timidity of this West. Shouldn’t there be occasional gunshots in the saloons and horse thieves eyeing steeds on the corner? Is the Wild West forever gone?

My question was answered last week when the local paper ran a story about a spate of recent bank robberies in the Southwest. At least five banks have been robbed since April, the most recent on September 22, 2009. The banks all lie a few hours south of Telluride—in Durango and vicinity. The news would, no doubt, have made Butch Cassidy proud.

Butch’s own career began in downtown Telluride on June 24 in 1889, back when he was still known as Robert LeRoy Parker. He was a small player in his first big heist, but he and two friends managed to withdraw over $20,000, which, according to an online inflation calculator, is a sum equivalent to nearly half a million today. It wasn’t until later that he joined with the Sundance Kid and officially became a part of the Wild Bunch, but Butch did purportedly partake in this initial operation that was organized well enough to include fresh horses just a few miles outside of town, which assured his clean escape from a determined law posse.

Today’s bank jobs are paltry in comparison to Butch’s first take. Modern-day bandits in these parts usually clear less than $15,000—and that’s at its current value. Thieves of the new West also approach the work differently than the Wild Bunch. They brandish semi-automatic weapons instead of pistols, or, more resourcefully, a bank in Durango was reportedly breeched by threat of a needle and syringe last year. The desperados of today are up against bait money, dye packs, surveillance cameras and silent alarms—not to mention the Internet once a photo or sketch is procured. The odds are not in their favor.

Regardless of the era, I suppose the odds seldom favor the bank robber. Take Charles Delos Waggoner, President of the Bank of Telluride in the 1920s, for example. He walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank with drafts on his own bank that had been affirmed by a Denver bank. His transaction for $495,000 was honored, and he used the funds not for personal profit, but to pay off his bank’s debts to other banking institutions. This slight of hand saved his bank, and its clients, from a run during the depression—but Waggoner did end up repaying the debt in the clink.

After a successful 1970s robbery in neighboring Norwood—just 32 miles west—the most recent attempt at bank thievery in Telluride was in the early 1980s when an industrious group dug a tunnel from the cellar of an empty main-street business to the vault of the Bank of Telluride next door. As the excavation neared the floor of the bank, the vault’s motion detector triggered numerous times. The alarm calls mystified the police, but finally, one officer fresh out of training pointed out that it felt like a B-grade movie and suggested searching the empty building next door. There they found tracks in the snow to a plastic-covered window and a trap door in the floor locked from the inside. With pistols drawn, they broke into the cellar, discovered the tunnel in progress and surprised the shovel crew. The sheriffs department long joked about printing up t-shirts that would read “Only Butch Gets Away with It.”

But, according to my paper’s headlines, people are getting away with it these days. Perhaps I’ll saunter over to the coffee shop for a latte and see if there’s a getaway Prius idling in front of the bank. There’s still some wild in this West after all.

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