The Almost Great Bank Robbery
When a lovestruck cop and his teller girlfriend pulled off the biggest bank heist in San Antonio history, it seemed like the perfect crime. If only they hadn’t made one small mistake.
FBI SPECIAL AGENT CURT HUNT was working in the yard of his San Antonio home one quiet Saturday morning when the call came in: The Texas Commerce Bank off Loop 410 had been robbed. Motor bank? In his 22 years as an agent, the intense, wiry Hunt had worked a lot of bank robberies—there are about twenty a year in San Antonio—but they almost always involved a robber walking into a bank lobby, pointing a gun at a teller, and demanding all the money in the drawer. How could anyone possibly get past the locked doors and bulletproof glass of a motor bank?
It was September 21, 1991. Hunt rushed to the scene to begin investigating what would turn out to be the biggest bank robbery in San Antonio history. Grim bank officials told Hunt that someone had gotten away with almost $250,000—all the more astonishing considering that the average bank robber gets no more than $2,000. The heist was reminiscent of the old glamour days of bank robberies. The robber had reached the vault—another rarity—and then made his escape so efficiently that a customer waiting several yards away for the bank to open did not even know there had been a robbery until police cars started screaming up around him.
Quickly, Hunt ordered agents from the FBI’s bank robbery squad to fan out through the nearby neighborhood, looking for anybody who might have noticed something, searching through trash bins to see if the robber had tossed his gun or his mask while making his getaway. But they came up empty-handed. The evidence at the bank wasn’t much better. There were no security guards or security cameras, and there were no witnesses to the crime save for two nearly hysterical tellers: Kelly McGinnis, 21 and Lisa Silvas, 19.
Pretty, outgoing young women, former cheerleaders at their small-town schools, Kelly and Lisa were perfect tellers for the bank. Customers would ask for them by name. Older men driving through to make deposits invariably would flirt with them. Bank officials considered them so reliable that they were the only employees scheduled to come in that Saturday to work the nine-to-one shift.
As they later told San Antonio police detectives and FBI agents, they got out of their cars that morning and walked, just as they always did, toward the first of two locked doors they needed to open to enter the bank. Kelly unlocked the first door and walked with Lisa fifteen feet down a secured hallway to the second door. As Kelly unlocked that door and stepped inside the bank, she turned around to say something—and there, standing directly behind Lisa, was a man holding a silver-barreled pistol. He wore a maintenance-type uniform and gloves; a flesh colored mask and a watch cap covered his entire face and head. Apparently he had slipped in behind them before the first door closed. In a raspy, disguised voice, he yelled, “Cut the f—ing alarm off, bitch!”
Kelly screamed and stepped backward. The robber aimed his gun at her head and kept bellowing about the alarm, then pointed down a hallway toward an unmarked door, behind which was the alarm switch. Both women were crying, their bodies shaking. Afraid that she and Kelly were about to get shot, Lisa took the keys from Kelly’s hands and hurried to the alarm panel. She knew the alarm would automatically go off if it was not disconnected within 45 seconds after the first door opened.
While the robber used a pair of plastic handcuffs to restrain Kelly’s hands behind her back, he ordered Lisa to open the huge, gleaming gray vault across the hall from the alarm room. Pointing to a bulky object inside his maintenance uniform that he claimed was a police scanner, the robber told the tellers he would know if they secretly tripped and alarm. “If I hear anything about Texas Commerce Bank come across that radio,” he said, “I will kill both of you.”
He pushed them inside the vault room, where there were two large safes, each about four feet high. The safes were double-locked: They had to be opened with a key and the proper spindial combination. Lisa unlocked the far left safe with a key, then turned the dial as Kelly called out the combination. The robber threw Lisa a trash bag and instructed her to fill it with money.
He ignored the second safe when the tellers told him it was filled with coins. But to its right were the locked teller drawers, filled with money to be used during the workday. Lisa opened hers and dumped the money into the bag, but Kelly was so panicky that she couldn’t remember her own combination. The robber put the gun to Kelly’s head and said she had one last chance to open it. “I’m going to blow your f—ing head off,” he waned. In desperation, Kelly grabbed a nearby unlocked empty drawer and pretended it was hers. “Kelly, we are fixing to get killed,” Lisa said, pointing toward Kelly’s real drawer, “You better open it,”
Finally, Kelly came up with the combination. The robber grabbed her money and ordered her and Lisa to stay in the vault. Then he was gone.
The whole operation took less thank five minutes. For several seconds the two tellers remained in the vault, debating whether the robber had really left the bank. When they dashed out, Kelly hit alarm buttons and called their supervisor, and Lisa dialed 911. Then both women did what for them was the next natural course of action. They tearfully called their boyfriends. Kelly’s boyfriend, who had just dropped her off a the bank, came back right away. But Lisa couldn’t reach her fiancé, Jack Nealy, a respected second-year police officer with the San Antonio police department. He had been working the night shift and was no doubt asleep, as he always was at that time of the morning, with the phone unplugged by the bed. Lisa paged his beeper, leaving the bank’s number.
When Jack called the bank at about ten—yes, he said, he had been sleeping—a bank official informed him about the robbery. “Oh, God,” Jack exclaimed. He arrived at the bank around noon; he said he didn’t come sooner because he knew the investigating officers wouldn’t want another cop “tromping all over their crime scene.” Wearing shorts, a pullover shirt, and a San Antonio police department baseball cap, he introduced himself to a couple of FBI agents outside the bank, then went inside to see Lisa.
Frankly, everyone from the bank was glad to see the stocky, square-jawed 28-year-old Jack. A highly decorated ex-Marine, he had been president of his San Antonio Police Academy class, graduating sixth out of 38 cadets. In the words of no less an authority than San Antonio police chief William Gibson, Jack was a “young man who excelled.” His goal, his friends said was to be named a lieutenant or a captain.
On the spot, a bank executive asked Jack if he would work in his off-duty hours as a security guard at the motor bank. Obviously, the skittish tellers were going to need protection. Jack said he would be happy to start the following Monday.
But according to Curt Hunt, Jack Nealy was the wrong man for the job. Less than a month later, after a miraculous break in the case, the FBI arrested Jack for the robbery of the motor bank. Then, in another shocking twist, the FBY arrested Lisa Silvas for acting as Jack’s accomplice. It seemed impossible to believe. If the authorities were correct, the all-American couple were also bold, calculating bank robbers. Almost overnight, Lisa and Jack had become a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.
A CAREFULLY PLANNED BANK ROBBERY—especially one where no one gets hurt—never fails to capture the public’s imagination. Citizens find themselves admiring the robber who is smart enough to beat the elaborate security systems and get the loot—which is after all, not anyone’s money in particular but money that belongs to an impersonal, fully insured bank.
While the robbery at Texas Commerce Bank was dramatic enough, the arrests of Jack Nealy and Lisa Silvas brought a sensational dimension to the crime. No one who knew the couple could come up with any comprehensible motive why the two would try something so daring. Neither of them had a criminal record; nor were they living bitterly on the edge of society, resentful of people in better positions. They loved their jobs. Jack had wanted to be a policeman since the age of five, when he would pull over his sister on her bicycle and write her speeding tickets. Lisa, at the same age, was playing “store,” handing out play money from a toy cash register. As Lisa got older, her mother says, she talked about growing up to become a bank teller.
More than a year later, the couple’s closest friends and associates are still speculating about the robbery. When members of Jack’s police academy class run into one another, they regularly bring up Jack’s name, shaking their heads in disbelief. “I’ve gone through it all, over and over, asking myself what I could have missed about him,” says San Antonio police officer Juan Morales, Jack’s best friend at the academy. “But I can’t look back and say, ‘Okay, this is where he changed.’”
Those who know the twosome also debate whether Jack talked Lisa into the robbery or Lisa persuaded Jack. Jack was “a dutiful police officer who had always done his job,” explains his attorney, Stephen A. Nicholas of San Antonio. “And then he meets this good-looking girl who wants to experience a lot of things. She wants more and more, and that means more money.” But others suggest that Lisa was a naïve teenager who was manipulated by an older man. Lisa’s younger brother, in a letter to the federal judge who presided over her case, calls her, “a blind damsel in distress led by a deceiving grim reaper, Jack Nealy.”
Recently, in his first interview about the case, Jack Nealy insisted to me that he and Lisa are innocent. In a separate interview, Lisa told me that she now knows Jack committed the robbery, but she maintains that she never knew he was planning it and that she participated in no part of it. Perhaps, Lisa says, her dark brown eyes blinking back tears, jack robbed the bank out of love: “He might have done it to hold on to me, to try to impress me, to keep me.”
Regardless of who’s telling the truth, one thing has become clear. The story of the Texas Commerce Bank robbery is really a story about a doomed romance, about two red-hot lovers who inexplicably lost their way. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know the real motive,” says Sergeant George Ramirez, a robbery detective with the San Antonio police who helped investigate the couple. “But I know it had something to do with attraction. Here’s a guy who was twenty-eight years old, and here’s a girl who was nineteen, and they start getting caught up with one another. Well, as they say, that stuff can move mountains.”
They were raised in mostly fatherless homes: Lisa Silvas’ parents divorced when she was twelve, and Jack Nealy’s father died in an airplane crash when he was six. Beyond that, their childhoods were ordinary, empty of the kind of mishaps that a psychologist might point to as the cause of later problems. In retrospect, nothing could seem so harmless as their early backgrounds.
Growing up with his mother and two sisters in a small home in rural Bandera County, northwest of San Antonio, Jack wasn’t used to great comforts in life. After his father died, his mother, Victoria, made ends meet with her social security checks. Jack lived the life of the typical small-town high school student — football games on Friday nights, visits to a country and western dance hall on Saturday nights. He and his friend William Norwood would split a six-pack of beer and talk about becoming police officers. “We thought that was every guy’s dream — to be a cop when you grew up,” says Norwood, now a policeman in the Fort Worth suburb of Euless.
After graduation Jack joined the Marines and by all accounts was an outstanding soldier. He earned two good-conduct medals and at least nineteen commendations. He received a Navy Achievement Medal for saving a fellow Marine from drowning. For two years he received top-secret security clearance to work as a Marine embassy guard abroad.
In 1989, when Jack was honorably discharged after eight years in the service, he went straight to the San Antonio Police Academy. He raced through all the background checks — a polygraph, psychological tests, and interviews. Neighbors and former employers from as far back as high school were interviewed. The department couldn’t have asked for a better prospect. He had a military haircut, he already knew how to keep his uniform perfectly pressed, and he was such a good marksman with a .357 Magnum that he could outshoot anyone in his class.
The police life mattered a lot to Jack — so much, in fact, that it busted up his first marriage. In 1985 Jack had married a woman he met while stationed as a Marine guard in the Bahamas. They had two children, but they separated in 1990, eventually divorcing in January 1991. In an interview with the FBI following the robbery, Jack’s ex-wife called him “thoughtful” and “nonconfrontational,” but she said he was so “preoccupied” with law enforcement that she left him, moving to Miami with the kids. Jack, in turn, settled in northwest San Antonio, handling burglaries and other small calls on his beat.
One night in September 1990, on a disturbance call at an apartment complex, he began chatting with the woman who had phoned in a complaint. Even in her bathrobe she was adorable, just a couple of months out of high school. They talked for at least an hour. Because he worked the all-night “dogwatch” shift, Jack rarely got to meet women, and he wasn’t going to pass up this chance. He even skipped his dinner break to continue the conversation. Afterward, he ran her name through the computer inside his squad car: Lisa Michelle Silvas, born July 9, 1972. Jack was infatuated.
The next right, while she was out at a party, he kept stopping by her apartment, each time leaving a business card with a handwritten message: “Hi, I came by” or “I missed you.” Another night, he showed up at her door with a chocolate brownie from Fuddrucker’s. Although Lisa made sure Jack knew she already had a boyfriend, she could not help but be flattered by the attention. She asked him if he liked being a cop, if it was true that cops let pretty girls get out o f speeding tickets. “I thought he was okay looking,” Lisa says. “But it wasn’t the sort of attraction where I looked up and said, ‘Gosh, I’d like to end up with that guy.’”
Within a month, though, Jack and Lisa were living together. Some of Lisa’s friends weren’t surprised. They said it was just like her to do something so rash.
For a long time, Lisa Silvas grew up just as her mother, Terry, wanted — the brightest and most behaved of children. A meticulous student, she wouldn’t turn in a school paper unless her handwriting was perfect. Besides a year of cheerleading, she was nominated for homecoming queen, and at halftimes of football games she marched in the flag corps. At sixteen she entered the local Miss America Coed Pageant and placed in the top twelve.
In her small hometown community of Flour Bluff, just outside Corpus Christi, Lisa was one of the most popular girls around — “always the center of attention,” one of her friends remembers. Almost every weekend when it was warm, she would be with the in crowd at the Bob Hall Pier on Padre Island, a fifteen-minute drive from Flour Bluff. Boys would moon over her thick brown hair and perfect smile and the little mole on her chin, the kind that movie sirens from the forties had. And that’s when, at least for Lisa and her mother, the problems began. At home, boys constantly called for her. They sent her flowers and bought her costume jewelry. One ex-boyfriend, to keep other boys away from Lisa at school, would dash out of his class at the end of each period, find Lisa, escort her to class, and then run back to his next class before the tardy bell rang. Early on, Lisa learned how easily boys could be twisted around a pretty girl’s finger.
Inevitably, Lisa’s social life came in conflict with her mother’s ideas about how she should be raised. The two had typical disputes over curfew hours and underage drinking. Those who know both Terry and Lisa say they were equally headstrong. Lisa says they were equally headstrong. Lisa says when her mother wouldn’t let her go to a party, “I’d say, ‘But Mom, everyone is going. I have to do it. I’m Lisa! I have to be there.’”
Through high school, the arguments escalated, especially over Lisa’s boyfriend, Bert Karrer, a tall, handsome teen whom Lisa once favorably described as a guy “who always knew where the parties were.” Terry didn’t approve of Bert — which, of course, made Lisa all the more interested in him. Caught up in the drama of teenage romance, Lisa would sneak away from home to be with Bert. Terry Silvas would then send the Flour Bluff police looking for her daughter. Bert says Lisa found a thrill in running away: “Lisa would say, “Yeah, I can avoid the police and do whatever I want.’” Lisa denies that she ran away for several consecutive days, as some people have claimed. But she does admit that her mother once put her in a runaway shelter for two weeks after they had an argument over Bert. Afterward, Lisa moved to Houston to live with her father, then to San Antonio to live with Bert, who by then had an apartment there.
Perhaps — but only perhaps — these incidents showed a rebellious side of Lisa that would one day lead her into a life of crime. Many of her friends, however, say that Lisa was only “a little wild.” Indeed, Lisa didn’t commit any criminal act; nor did she become a troubled teenage dropout. After moving to San Antonio she enrolled as a senior at John Marshall High School, graduated, and mad plans to attend college. She fulfilled her childhood dream and found work at the Texas Commerce Band as a part-time teller, bringing home about $250 a month. She became close again with her mother.
In May 1990 Lisa and Bert went back home for their high school prom, which was held at the Corpus Christi Country Club. It was an emotional night for Lisa, a grand return to her scene of adolescent glory. She received some cutout stars and a key ring with the inscription, “Admit One, Wish Upon a Star, Prom 1990, Flour Bluff High School.” For Lisa, these mementos were priceless, something to cherish forever.
She should have thrown them away. More than a year later, those very keepsakes would ruin her. They would be discovered in the strangest of places, ironically sealing her fate.
If Lisa was hoping her move to San Antonio would give her the chance to experience the heady freedom of being on her own, the feeling lasted only a couple of months. Bert was working nights at the Subway Sandwich Shop while attending college during the day, but he wasn’t bringing in much money. Predictably, he and Lisa began arguing about finances. Bert would get mad at Lisa for spending so much to get her nails done. He would complain about her driving to get her hair cut in Corpus Christi. He didn’t understand why she had to buy so many clothes. Her clothes took up all the closets in their small apartment, plus an entire closet at Bert’s father’s home.
“Bert was really good to Lisa,” says Rockie McMillan, a high school classmate who moved into their apartment complex after graduation. “But I think Lisa got to point where she was greedy, and Bert wasn’t giving her everything she wanted. She would always complain that they didn’t’ have enough money to go out and eat, that they couldn’t’ do anything special because they always had to make payments either for Bert’s school or for their car. . . . She was tired of Bert. She wanted to go live somewhere else and not have to worry about the money problems.”
Lisa said she wanted to dump Bert for an entirely different reason. When she saw Bert kissing another girl at a party, she says, “I said, ‘Whoa,’ got real upset, and said, ‘This is it.’”
In any event, when Lisa met Jack Nealy, she was ready for another boyfriend. Bert was devastated. “Jack could totally pay for all the bills,” Bert recalls, neatly summarizing the end of teenage love. “He had a better apartment. I drove a clunker of a car.” Not long after the breakup, Jack, driving through his own apartment complex to look for burglars, found Bert behind a tree, spying on Lisa.
The newly separated Jack certainly had to be feeling lonely, and it showed in the way he courted Lisa. On her first visits to his apartment, he would have the lights off and a candle it. He rubbed her feet with lotion. He took her to dinner at her favorite restaurant, the Alamo Café. He sent flowers to her at the bank. “I thought he was the perfect boyfriend,” says Kelly McGinnis, Lisa’s fellow teller. “He was always giving her everything she wanted. She would call him from the bank and say, ‘Jack, I’m hungry,’ and he’d be there in ten minutes with something to eat. He just spoiled her rotten.”
From a certain perspective, Jack’s love for Lisa seemed to border on obsession. In letters he sent to her, he called her “the most beautiful woman in the world,” “a sexual goddess in my eyes.” “You are the only TRUE woman I’ve ever been with,” he wrote. “You are totally ‘Texas Beauty.’ Please be mine forever, if not physically, then spiritually.” It was as if the slightly oafish Jack was overwhelmed that such an attractive girl would want to be with him — and similarly worried that she might suddenly decide to leave him. When Lisa would tell Jack that she and Kelly were going shopping, Jack would show up at the store to see if Lisa was really there. If she want to a movie when Jack was working, he’s cruise the parking lot to check for her car.
Kelly says Lisa loved the attention. Clearly Lisa encouraged Jack to treat her like a princess. On one occasion she packed her bags and threatened to move out of the apartment after he spanked her beloved golden cocker spaniel, Max, for shedding on his living room couch. Lisa would hint that if things didn’t improve between them, she might just go back to Bert. Once, when Jack went to Miami to visit his children, Lisa — thinking Jack might be trying to renew his relationship with his ex-wife — slept with Bert. Then she promptly told Jack, knowing it would make him even more jealous. At night, Jack would watch for Bert driving to or from work, pull him over, threaten to give him a ticket, and tell him to stay away from Lisa. When Bert got a new girlfriend, Jack gave her tickets for an expired license plate and inspection sticker. “He was a cop with an attitude,” says Bert. “He liked to use his power like any rookie cop does.”
Yet Lisa was attracted to that kind of person. “Lisa always loved power,” Bert says. “She loved to play with power. I think she was in awe of an older policeman who had some kind of standing in society.”
“It was exciting for me to tell people I was dating a police officer,” Lisa says. She was thrilled when he would take her for rides in his patrol car, cutting corners at high speeds and making the tires squeal. He once took her down a lonely back road and turned on both the siren and the flashing lights. Lisa says she would listen, enthralled, to Jack’s stories about his high-speed chases, about the time he ran after a thief and knocked him out by slamming the man’s head against his knee. She loved how Jack could go to certain restaurants in town and eat for half price, how he would drive through stop signs and red lights, knowing he would not get a ticket.
Everyone who knew Jack and Lisa says they were desperately in love. It was the kind of love that can happen to young people, that all-consuming feeling that can lead someone to call his girlfriend a dozen times a day to talk about how in love they are. In May 1991 Jack took Lisa to the Magic Time Machine to eat shrimp and drink strawberry daiquiris. (Lisa always kept a couple of fake IDs in her purse in case she got carded.) Then he drove her downtown to the Alamo, where he pulled a ring out of his pocket, got down on his knees, and proposed.
Despite everything that happened to her, Lisa today is still able to think dreamily of that moment when Jack asked her to be his bride. “I was the happiest girl alive that night,” she says, pausing a moment to look at a prison window crisscrossed with bars.
Trapped inside a motor bank, it’s difficult for tellers to act like strangers, and Lisa Silvas and Kelly McGinnis told one another just about everything. They took great interest in each other’s love lives, swapping stories about their boyfriends and sharing their dreams. Lisa asked Kelly and another teller, Edith Chavez, to be bridesmaids at her wedding.
One of the things the young women say they would often talk about was the lack of security at the motor bank. (Texas Commerce Bank officials in San Antonio declined to be interviewed for this story.) The tellers asked for security guards, but bank executives refused. Because no customers could ever get inside the bank, the chance of robbery was remote. This branch of the bank, in fact, had never been robbed. The executives didn’t even feel it was necessary to equip the teller drawers with a common bank security device: dye packs that explode during a robbery and permanently stain the money.
There is no doubt that Jack was aware of the bank’s security problems. Lisa admits she and Jack discussed the subject. At one point, according to Lisa, Jack even said the bank would be robbed one day but that bank officials would have no reason to complain, because they hadn’t provided enough security. Jack had also said that he wished the bank would hire him as a part-time security guard.
Actually, Jack could have used a second job. Although he was making $1,600 a month as an officer and staying in an apartment rent-free in return for some apartment security work, he was struggling financially. He didn’t have a car at the time he met Lisa (his ex-wife had taken it to Miami), and he was paying $250 a month in child support. Because his credit was poor, he couldn’t get a loan or a credit car. He owed at least $700 to Juan Morales, his friend from the police academy. “Jack would agonize over money, saying, ‘God, I’ve got to pay this and this,’” says Juan, “and sometimes he’d only have twenty dollars left to do what he had to do.” But Juan says he never asked Jack about the loans, “So I didn’t see him robbing a bank to pay me back.”
Nevertheless, such small events do have the power to rearrange someone’s world and send him in a stunningly different direction. One police officer, a friend of Jack’s, suggests that Jack’s position as a law enforcement officer ironically could have make him vulnerable to crime. “Being a cop,” he says, “you see guys getting away with a lot of things. Maybe Jack thought he could get away with this robbery.”
It might also be significant that Jack had a love for televised cops-and-robbers shows. Before going to work, he would watch Cops, America’s Most Wanted, and FBI: Untold Stories. Lisa casually told me that one movie Jack took her to see was Point Break, about a group of young men who rob banks, disguising themselves with big, fleshy masks that cover their faces and heads — just like the robber did at Texas Commerce Bank. In the movie, a rookie FBI agent finds the robbers but nearly gets seduced into a life of crime. “Why be a servant to the law,” the leader of the robbers asks the agent, “when you can be its master?”
If Jack and Lisa were planning a robbery, they certainly didn’t act like it. Nobody can remember the couple dong anything unusual. Yet nine days before the robbery, Jack and Lisa secretly went to the Bexar County courthouse and paid $25 to get an informal marriage certificate. Lisa and Jack claim they got married so that Lisa, as Jack’s wife, could qualify for health insurance through Jack’s police department insurance program. They told no one about the informal marriage, they say, because they didn’t want to spoil their big wedding plans.
Several weeks later, however, after finally learning of the marriage, FBI agents would suggest that Jack and Lisa had a more nefarious motive. By law, once they got married, Jack and Lisa could not be forced to testify against one another in case either of them ever committed a crime.
After the robbery, it didn’t take FBI special agent Curt Hunt too long to realize he was investigating an inside job. The robber seemed to know too much about the teller’s routines, the bank’s alarm system, and the bank’s layout. He didn’t go to the left side of the motor bank, where there was a large night deposit safe that the tellers didn’t have access to on Saturdays. Did he know the tellers couldn’t get to that safe? Hunt figured a robber unfamiliar with the bank would have at least zipped through all the rooms just to see what was there. Still, without concrete evidence, Hunt’s suspicions led nowhere.
Then, a couple of days after the robbery, one of the new agents in Hunt’s unit, Frank Montoya, learned that bank employees needed plastic access cards to open the gate that let into the bank’s parking garage. A computer automatically recorded the dates and times those cards were used. Curious, Montoya checked the computerized log. At 8:20 a.m. on the day of the robbery, a card was used belonging to Lisa Silvas.
But Lisa had said she parked that morning in an area near the motor bank that did not require an access card. Others had also seen her card there. Hunt and other investigators started reviewing their notes. Could someone else have used her card to park a getaway car on an upper floor, slip down the stairwell, run around the building to rob the bank, then run back upstairs, jump in the car, and drive unseen out of the back exit of the parking garage?
The FBI had found the slightest crack in the perfect crime. Agents recalled Lisa saying that the robber was probably a black man because of the way he talked. Could she have said that to deliberately mislead them? And why, for that matter, would the robber have wanted to disguise his voice unless he was worried one of the tellers might recognize it? Why did he handcuff Kelly but not Lisa? Why did Lisa grab the keys to turn off the alarm? Why did Lisa point out during the robbery that Kelly had opened the wrong teller drawer? Did Lisa try to keep Kelly from running immediately out of the vault after the robbery because she was really worried the robber hadn’t left or because she wanted to give the robber more time to make his getaway?
No one could forget how Lisa had acted toward the end of that Saturday, just before everyone went home. The chairman of the bank, who had arrived to survey the remnants of the robbery, asked Lisa to describe the robber. With Jack at her side, Lisa said that the robber was about five feet eight inches tall — to illustrate, she put her hand on top of Jack’s head — and that he weighed about 170 pounds. Then Lisa giggled, stared at Jack, and said, “Oh my God, Jack, just like you.” Either Lisa Silvas was an ingenuous patsy — or she had ice in her veins.
Hunt also remembered how another FBI agent, on the day of the robbery, told him that Nealy was standing in the parking lot asking questions about leads in the case. Furthermore, she said someone else, the plastic handcuffs used in the robbery were the kind that the San Antonio police use when they arrest large numbers of people. Maybe the scanner the robber used was the same detachable police scanner that officers have in their squad cars. And everyone wondered why Jack didn’t show up until noon that day. If he was truly concerned about Lisa, why wouldn’t he have come right away?
Hunt and his team knew they had to be careful. Incredibly, as the bank’s new security guard, Jack was in the perfect position to observe the entire FBI investigation. Whenever a teller would come back from an interview with the FBI, Jack would be able to quiz her about what the agents had wanted to know.
Hunt decided he had one option left. The investigators had to make Lisa crack. If they didn’t get someone at the scene of the robbery to confess, they didn’t have much of a case. Ideally, of course, they would like to find the stolen money in Jack’s or Lisa’s possession. But to do that, they needed to catch the couple with the bait money, a group of hundred dollar bills whose serial numbers had been recorded so that the bank could trace them in case of a robbery. Ten of the bait bills had been strapped together and kept in Lisa’s teller drawer, ten were in Kelly’s drawer, and twenty were placed in the safe in the vault. The problem was that Lisa would know exactly which bills were bait money — and if she was smart, she would already have burned them.
It was going to be an old-fashioned, down-and-dirty interrogation. Lisa sat in a windowless interview room, facing Hunt and assorted agents and San Antonio police department detectives. They laid out the case against her. They told he they knew about her parking garage card being used. Lisa said she had misplaced the card weeks earlier. According to Lisa, the officers said to her, “If you tell us where the money is, we will help you. You are a young girl; you don’t need to spend the rest of your life in prison. Try to help yourself. Maybe you got tied up with the wrong people and that’s why you’re here.” Lisa says she was crying so hard she could barely talk. Over and over, she kept saying she didn’t know anything.
For Hunt this was a difficult moment. He was used to dealing with longtime criminals, not sweet, pretty girls. Many of these officers had teenage daughters of their own. Nevertheless, they laid it on thick, telling her what jail would be like, how difficult it would be to survive. They told her if she would confess, they would get her a light sentence. But she didn’t waver. Begrudgingly, the officers had to admire her. “She was good, real good,” one detective says. “Her body language, everything about her, was perfect.”
After Lisa’s interview, the FBI talked to Kelly McGinnis in an adjoining room. They knew she and Lisa had become much closer after the robbery. The young women talked on the phone in the evening, visited each other’s apartments, and went to counseling together (paid for by the bank) to get over their nightmares from the robbery. The agents could not let go of the idea that Kelly knew something about Lisa and Jack’s involvement in the crime. But Kelly kept insisting to them that Lisa had done nothing wrong. The agents said things would be much better for her if she could get Lisa to confess. Kelly, loyal to the end, angrily replied that Lisa and Jack weren’t the robbers. If they wanted to talk to her again, she snapped, they could contact her lawyer — which only made some agents eve more suspicious about what Kelly might have had to do with the robbery.
Later that day, the FBI brought in Jack Nealy. But by then, Jack knew exactly what was coming. He didn’t even feign surprise that he was being accused of a crime. “If I did something wrong,” Jack told the officers, “you will have to prove it.” They asked if they could search his car and apartment. Jack replied, “You will have to get a search warrant to do that.” According to Jack, Hunt jumped up and shouted, “Don’t you ever tell me how to do my job! I’ve been doing this for eighteen and a half years, and you’re just a babe in the woods!” Hunt was so angry, says Jack, that “spittle was coming out of his mouth.”
Jack asked if he was under arrest, and when Hunt said no, Jack stood up and told them he was going home.
The cops had their robbers. Unfortunately, they couldn’t prove it in court. Lisa Silvas went back to the bank, and Jack Nealy, to the investigator’s anguish, went back to work as a police officer. Brashly, Jack told people that he and Lisa were going to take a vacation in Florida to get away from the FBI’s hounding. What the FBI would not learn until much later was that Jack and Lisa had no intention of going to Florida. Instead, telling no one, they flew to the Cayman Islands, where it is easy to deposit cash into a numbered, untraceable bank account.
During the next week, the FBI and the San Antonio police reinterviewed people at the bank and tracked down relatives of Jack and Lisa. The officers were getting nowhere. Then, one hot afternoon, Hunt, agent Frank Montoya, and two police detectives drove into rural Bandera County, looking for Jack’s mother, Victoria.
Over the years, Jack’s mother had become reclusive, unwilling to socialize with her neighbors, going months without even seeing her own children. She didn’t own a phone. If she needed to get in touch with Jack, she would leave a message for him at the police station whenever she happened to be in San Antonio, which wasn’t often. In truth, the children didn’t try very hard to see her either, mainly because they weren’t fond of her second husband, an older man named bill Murray, whom she married in 1983.
Hunt and the others pulled up to the property, not knowing what to expect. Victoria, always distrustful of strangers, would talk to the men only from behind a farm gate. Hunt told her that Jack and Lisa were suspects in a bank robbery. “What bank robbery?” Victoria asked. She hadn’t been reading the newspaper or watching the news on TV. Anyway, she said, the idea of her son robbing a bank was “an impossibility.”
The officers asked as series of routine questions. Had she seen Jack recently? Yes, she said. Jack had been out for a brief visit four days earlier. Was Jack acting differently? Victoria replied that he was fine. Frustrated, the agents and detectives drove away. The trip had been a waste of time. The list of people to interview was growing shorter, and so far no one had given them a clue.
Then, out of the blue, Curt Hunt said, “Gus, we’ve got to go back. We need to ask her one more question.” Something — a good cop’s instinct, perhaps, or the intuition that comes after years of criminal investigations — had clicked in special agent Hunt. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he suddenly thought the money might be buried on that land.
Hunt knew he would not be able to get a search warrant for Victoria’s property: He had not evidence to show probable cause that the money was there. So he made the risky decision to bluff her, to make her think the FBI knew something about the money’s being on her land. The four officers pulled up in front of the property and yelled for Victoria to come back to the gate. Hunt and Montoya asked if her son had given her any money. Did she know if any money was hidden or buried on her property? Victoria said that to her knowledge, Jack had brought no money out there. We’re warning you, the officers told Victoria: Don’t try to hide something from us. They drove off again, their hopes no higher.
But three days later their strategy paid off in a way they could not have possibly imagined. Amazingly, Victoria’s husband, Bill Murray, called the Bexar County sheriff’s office and said he had unexpectedly come across a bag of money. He had spent the previous day walking around the property, he explained, and had found a spot of disturbed ground in an unmowed, woodsy area. Bill said he started digging, and there, a food beneath the surface, was a blue canvas bag filled with thousands of dollars.
Victoria says not that she told her husband that the FBI was after them and that bill replied that he wasn’t going to get in any trouble. He went outside, says Victoria, and started hunting. In an almost farcical climax, Jack Nealy’s stepfather, a grizzled Judas, had solved the Texas Commerce Bank property.
Hunt went to the sheriff’s office to help count the money. There was $147,779 in cash, bundled together with rubber bands; almost $95,000 was missing. Among the loot was a stack of forty $100 bills, with the words “Mexico Money” handwritten across the top bill. Agents checked the serial numbers from that stack. Unbelievably, they were the bait bills from the motor bank. If the FBI’s theory was right, Jack and Lisa had greedily kept the bait bills, perhaps hoping to use them in Mexico, where they would be less traceable. (Through handwriting analysis, the FBI determined that Lisa had probably written the words “Mexico Money.”)
If that evidence was not damning enough, agents found in the blue canvas bag a cluster of cutout stars and a “Wish Upon a Star” key ring from Flour Bluff High School — Lisa’s prom mementos. What were they doing there? Had Jack hurriedly grabbed a back from the apartment to store the money, not realizing that Lisa used the same bag to save her prom items?
It might have been a robbery of absolute brilliance, pulled off with a lawman’s savvy, but it ended with astonishing stupidity. If the bait bills or prom items had not been found with the money, the FBI would not have been able to conclusively link Jack and Lisa to the robbery. Perhaps, even today, the FBI would still be looking at an unprosecutable case.
At the bank, when Kelly McGinnis heard the news of Jack and Lisa’s arrest, she started crying. She exclaimed, “No, I can’t believe this!” Kelly walked out of the bank and didn’t come back for two days. “I can’t remember what was actually worse,” she says, recalling that day, knowing that Lisa, being such a good friend, would betray me.”
To reach the visitor’s room at the all-female federal correctional institution in Lexington, Kentucky, Lisa Silvas must walk past an unsmiling group of women who shave their heads and roll the tops of their pants down to their hips. “Those are the lesbian inmates,” Lisa murmurs, her little gold hoop earrings wobbling every time she moves her head. “They call themselves the Bull Daggers.” Lisa is doing her best to keep up a fashionable appearance. Underneath her prison-issued white shirt and pants, she wears a red T-shirt that matches the red bow in her hair. She keeps her face and arms tanned by sunbathing out by the prison fence during her free time, and she wears makeup. In this institution she looks almost ridiculously out of place.
At her bank robbery trial earlier in the year, Lisa’s attorney argued that she had been framed, while Jack’s attorneys wasted no time suggesting that it was Kelly McGinnis and her boyfriend who were the robbers. Kelly’s boyfriend, after all, dropped her off that morning. Perhaps he donned the mask and did the robbery. The lawyers also hinted that the $95,000, which has never been found, is not in a Grand Canyon bank account but in Bill Murray’s hands. Bill and Victoria, in fact, left town a few weeks before the trial and didn’t even show up to support Jack — a further sign, the lawyers claimed, that the Murrays had knowledge of the crime. But all of Lisa and Jack’s old friends arrived to testify against them: Kelly, Juan Morales, even Bert Karrer, who identified the prom items with a disgusted look on his face. Jack and Lisa didn’t have a chance.
On February 14 — appropriately enough, Valentine’s Day — a federal jury in San Antonio announced its verdict o the lovelorn couple: guilty. Lisa’s mother, her old nemesis, burst into tears, raced past a courtroom guard, and held her daughter for several minutes. A look of horror swept across Lisa’s face as she realized no one was going to step in to help her.
At her sentencing a few months later, Lisa finally broke her silence and told the judge that it was all of Jack’s fault: “I realize now that I fooled myself into believing Jack loved me. I’m guilty of being a fool. I’m not guilty of being a bank robber.” Sobbing, Lisa pleaded, “I feel as if I am drowning. I am going down for the third time, and I implore you to help me. . . . Don’t let me die, Judge. Don’t let me die!” Unmoved, the judge sentenced her to prison for twelve years and eight months. Jack received a sentence of fifteen years and one month.
Since their conviction, Jack has tried to keep the love affair alive. From a federal prison in New Jersey, he sends her passionate love letters (“I love you hopelessly to eternity”). He writes that he wants them to move to Mexico when they are finally released. He tells her they will have plenty of money if a Hollywood producer comes along to film a cops-and-robbers movie based on their life stories.
In a brief interview from prison, Jack says Lisa is also writing him love letters. “She loves me, and she knows everything is going to be all right,” he says. But Lisa denies she’s writing him. Jack, she says, will never tell the truth about the robbery, because it might mean Lisa would be released from prison. “His only way to keep me is to see me locked up,” she says. Indeed, in one letter, Jack writes, “I’m sure if you were free it wouldn’t take you long to find a ‘new’ man and try to start a family.”
It now seems clear that Jack masterminded the robbery. “It’s hard for me to cope with the thought that I got you into this mess,” he writes, which is as close as he has come to an apology. “Lisa, I didn’t use you or do anything for my own personal gain. What was done was done for us, and it backfired.” One San Antonio police detective who investigated the case speculates that Jack, insecure over Lisa, decided he had to rob the bank so he could provide a good lifestyle for his new wife. Perhaps by persuading her to help him with the robbery, Jack also realized he was binding her inextricably to him. And just maybe, as Lisa claims, make sure that if he got caught, she would go down too.
But Lisa herself can’t entirely escape from the thick net of circumstantial evidence. Only she could have known, for example, which hundred-dollar bills were the bait bills. And there’s no question that either she or Kelly had to have helped Jack during the five minutes he was inside the bank. Although one person at the trial suggested that maybe Jack had been secretly involved with Kelly — at one point, Jack turned to Kelly, who was sitting in the courtroom gallery, and winked — prosecutors and FBI agents are convinced that she was not involved.
What really bothers Kelly about this story is the same thing that bothers everyone: Why would Lisa have done it? Perhaps, just as Jack was seduced by the power of a bad cop. Or maybe she figured the thrill of robbing a bank was no more consequential than the thrill of running away from home. In many ways, she is like her infamous predecessor, Bonnie Parker, a small-town girl who suddenly, mysteriously, became a beautiful outlaw. Bonnie was nineteen when she met Clyde Barrow; Lisa was eighteen when she met Jack. Perhaps Lisa, like Bonnie, simply found the whole notion of bank robbery rather romantic.
As for the great romance that got her into all of this, Lisa now says she wants to get the marriage annulled. But she cannot make herself say that she hates Jack. “I kind of feel sorry for him, because he had everything in life,” she says, utterly unaware that she could be describing herself. She still can’t accept that this one impulsive act has forever changed her life. If Lisa regrets not having accepted a plea bargain to get a shorter sentence, she won’t say. “I am not going to plead guilty to anything that I didn’t do,” she insists, confident that a court of appeals will see the truth and give her a new trial.
But toward the end of her time in the prison visitor’s room, a note of remorse seeps in. Lisa mentions the photograph taken of her for this article. She says she does not like the way she looks in her prison garb, her face sullen, her hair hanging down. She asks if a photo could be used of her from her high school days, when life was much different, when she was getting her tan at Padre Island and her hair done at her favorite salon in Corpus, when she was always the center of attention, when the boys were knocking at her door, asking for the adorable girl with the little mole on her chin.