On September 21, 1932, three gunmen walk into the First Savings & Trust Bank in the Eastern Washington town of Colfax and pull off a stunning crime. The brazen heist unexpectedly ties Washington state to well-known national hoodlums and the gangster violence sweeping through the Midwest.
The story began when the well-armed gunmen -- at least one wielded a submachine gun -- ordered the Colfax bank employees and customers to lie on the floor, forced a nervous cashier to open the safe, and stuffed more than $71,000 in cash and securities into a bag.
Then they climbed into a waiting getaway car in the alley and sped away.
Investigators quickly connected the Colfax holdup with some of the nation’s most notorious gangsters, including Edward W. “Eddie” Bentz (1894-1979), a career criminal from Tacoma; Albert L. Bates (d. 1948), an ex-con; and George F. Barnes Jr. (d. 1954), an infamous outlaw better known as “Machine Gun” Kelly.
The holdup, in the county seat of Whitman County, occurred in a thinly populated farming area nestled amid the Palouse hills, and was far removed from the centers of gangster activity in the Midwest. At the time, most of the crimes prosecuted at the Whitman County Courthouse consisted of theft, assaults, and public drunkenness. The First Savings & Trust Bank, open under various names since 1878, had never been robbed.
The bank was located at 102 N Main Street and looked as solid as a safety deposit box. The two-story building had a flat roof and a front door set among four columns topped with scrollwork. So it was all the more remarkable when the three armed men, one carrying a large bag, entered the bank on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in September when most of the county’s law officers were in Spokane for a conference.
One gunman stationed himself in the bank lobby. Another walked up to the second floor, where bank executives had their offices. A third man, armed with a revolver and a machine gun, locked the front door and stood guard.
The intruders flashed their guns and ordered employees and customers to lie on the floor. One bank employee felt a machine gun on his belly, according to a later newspaper account.
Altogether, 10 employees and seven customers were held hostage by the bank robbers, witnesses told police and reporters.
The gunman on the second floor made his way virtually unnoticed to the offices where bank president A. Fielding McClaine, a civic leader with deep roots in the community, and two other employees were working. The gunman jabbed a gun into McClaine’s back and marched him and his colleagues downstairs.
The robbers forced cashiers at gunpoint to take money from cash drawers and throw it in the bag. Then the robbers walked to a bank vault and made a cashier go inside to open a locked safe. The cashier was too nervous to open the combination lock.
“I’ll bust your head if you don’t open the safe in the vault,” one robber said. The cashier was too shaken to comply. The gunman then grabbed a trust officer, but he, too, couldn’t work the combination.
Thinking the bank employees were stalling, the robbers threatened to shoot a cashier. At that point another cashier stepped forward and opened the safe, and the robbers shoved money and securities into the bag.
By now, the bag was bulging with about $10,600 in cash and $61,000 in bonds. One gunman turned to the prone hostages. “Lie still for five minutes,” he barked.
The robbers fled through the back door to a green Chevrolet sedan waiting in the alley. The car, most likely driven by an accomplice, went down the alley one block, turned onto a side street and disappeared.
It was all over in less than 10 minutes, but the Colfax robbers scored big. Their stolen cash and securities would be worth about $1.1 million in the year 2010.
Witnesses gave different accounts on the direction of the getaway car. Some said the gunmen drove north, toward Spokane. Others claimed the car headed west, to Seattle. Police scoured the countryside but came up empty handed. The robbers were gone.
Nonetheless, investigators had some leads and theories. Within six weeks, the bank’s insurance company had recovered most of the stolen bonds in Seattle.
By then, authorities were searching for two suspects, Eddie Bentz, 38, who masterminded numerous bank robberies and was Washington state’s most notorious contribution to the violent gangster era of the 1930s; and Albert Bates, also 38, a small-time crook with a 16-year rap sheet for burglaries and theft. Authorities also wanted to question an additional suspect, “Machine Gun” Kelly, 35, a bootlegger and ex-con who was identified as an accomplice by witnesses in Colfax.
Bentz, Bates and Kelly were believed to be part of a gang that held up banks from Texas to Washington state in the early 1930s.
In November, two months after the Colfax holdup, police found Bentz and Bates 1,400 miles away, in Fort Worth, Texas. They arrested Bentz on suspicion of the Colfax heist and an armed robbery in Blue Ridge, Texas. A deputy from Whitman County even traveled to Texas with the extradition papers needed to bring Bentz back to Colfax to face trial.
But Bentz’ lawyers successfully argued that their client should first be tried in Texas for the Blue Ridge robbery. Bentz then got out of jail by posting a $15,000 bond -- and promptly disappeared.
Police also detained Bates, but he was released for lack of evidence.
No one was ever prosecuted for the Colfax bank heist, though eyewitnesses later identified photos of the robbers as Bentz, Bates, and “Machine Gun” Kelly, according to the Whitman County Gazette. Also, late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote in his book Persons in Hiding that Bentz and Kelly were accomplices in the crime.
Even though Washington state authorities never prosecuted the three suspects for the 1932 Colfax bank robbery, it hardly mattered because all of them -- Bentz, Bates, and “Machine Gun” Kelly -- by 1936 were sentenced to long prison terms for other crimes.
For a time, all three shared the same address – the U.S. Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Bentz, Bates, and Kelly served time in the 1930s and 1940s at the penitentiary within sight of San Francisco, but for different offenses. Bates was still in Alcatraz when he died of heart failure July 4, 1948, at the age of 54. “Machine Gun” Kelly was 59 when he died of a heart attack at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, on July 17, 1954.
Bentz was released from Alcatraz in 1948, but went on to serve more prison time for other offenses, and in 1963 he was released from his final incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota. He was almost 70 years old. Bentz moved back to Tacoma, where he died of heart failure on October 31, 1979, at the age of 85.
The First Trust & Savings Bank in Colfax closed two months after the robbery, brought down by the Great Depression. All but $200 of the stolen bonds were recovered. The bank’s insurance policy covered the other losses.
The bank did not reopen until the summer of 1934. Three years later, it was acquired by the former Seattle First National Bank.
The sturdy bank building, with its four distinctive columns, was later demolished to make way for a Bank of America branch. But the two-story columns and their scrollwork were spared.
Today, the four columns that framed the entryway used by the robbers stand on a hill overlooking the city, where they flank the entrance to the Colfax Cemetery.