The Last Ride of the Polo Shirt Bandit

William Guess was his name—and it was prophetic. When he shot himself while surrounded by the police, he left unanswered the question that had stumped his pursuers: Why did an ordinary middle-class Texan turn into the most prolific bank robber in the state’s history?

ON NOVEMBER 27, 1996, WILLIAM Guess sat in a rented maroon Nissan Maxima surrounded by Harris County sheriff’s deputies, holding a blue steel semiautomatic to his head. Guess was 46 years old, and he was a big man—more than six feet tall, around 240 pounds. He had graying blond hair and a square face. At that moment he was wearing a windbreaker, blue jeans, low-heeled boots, and glasses, bearing little resemblance to the person who had just robbed Guaranty Federal, a small bank north of Houston. About fifteen minutes earlier, however, Guess had been wearing a fake beard and mustache, sunglasses, a baseball hat, and the shirt that had come to be the signature of his alter ego, a serial bank robber known as the Polo Shirt Bandit. Once he had driven away, he had hurriedly pulled off the disguise, and a heady surge of relief probably had flooded through him—he thought he was going to escape once more, back to the part of his life that was ordinary and respectable. On the floor of the car on the passenger side was $12,460. The money had been in Guess’s briefcase when he had walked out of the bank. He could have dumped it out shortly after getting into the car to see how much was there, or it could have tumbled out during the fast turns he had taken in his unsuccessful attempt to shake the deputies who had cornered him. Either way, all those crisp-as-if-starched bills were now spilled out over the carpet: all that easy money, obtained at such immense risk.

Guess had just wrecked the Nissan on FM 1960, a busy four-lane stretch bordered by strip malls, Chinese restaurants, and auto body shops that intersects Interstate 45 and U.S. 290, the Northwest Freeway. The banks that stand along the road’s length are quintessentially modern; they are small outfits, staffed by three or four people, that sit next to day care centers and Hunan Palaces and Repp Big and Tall clothing stores. The branches are as homey and cheerful as a Hallmark greeting card, and you wouldn’t think a robbery would ever happen inside one of them. But to Guess, they must have once looked like a row of cherries, his personal jackpot. This was where he had started robbing banks. Over the span of his career, he is suspected of pulling off at least 38 robberies—making him the most prolific bank robber in the history of the state—and stealing in the vicinity of $600,000. He robbed more banks than Jesse James, John Dillinger, Willie Sutton, or Bonnie and Clyde, although he never hurt anyone. Guess committed one robbery in a town called Salado, two in Austin, and nine within the limits of Houston, but he always came back to FM 1960 or Texas Highway 6 (as the road is known south of 290): Of the 26 additional bank robberies that he is believed to have committed in parts of Harris or Fort Bend counties, 21 occurred somewhere along the road where he now sat. There were never many witnesses around, never that many bank employees to control, and afterward he would slip into the speeding stream of traffic on U.S. 290 or I-45 and vanish.

Not this time. The front of Guess’s Nissan was stuck under the bed of a red pickup truck, and the back of it had been rear-ended by a Harris County Sheriff’s Department patrol car. Two other squad cars had swerved to stop beside the Nissan. What kind of desperation filled Guess, knowing that he was trapped? It would not have been the kind that a crime victim feels—the sudden shock of an entirely unexpected threat. It would have been the sort of dread that steals over a person when he finally confronts a scenario that he has been courting yet running away from for a long time. Four uniformed deputies hurried out of the patrol cars with their guns drawn and took aim at the Polo Shirt Bandit. But Guess had already taken aim at himself.

AS DETECTIVES LEARNED AFTER THEY DISCOVERED his identity from his driver’s license, William Guess lived in Oenaville, an unincorporated town six miles northeast of Temple, in a redbrick ranch house. He shared it with his wife, Geneva, and the youngest of their three sons. Oenaville is far removed from the urban sprawl of roads like FM 1960; the town consists of a main crossroads, one convenience store, half a dozen ranches, and some houses, surrounded by a vast expanse of rolling prairie. The revelation of the Polo Shirt Bandit’s identity was greeted by the residents of Oenaville with total disbelief. “This is a farming community,” said a neighbor who lives two houses down from the Guess family. “This is the least likely place in the world for something like this to happen.”

William Guess grew up in Temple, where his father worked as the director of the city’s utilities. His family life was unremarkable. He was known to be friendly but reserved—he rarely initiated conversations, although he was happy to stop and talk if you did. “He was quiet, confident, calm, self-assured, intelligent, and a natural athlete,” remembered one friend. As a student at Temple High School, he had achieved nearly perfect grades without having to study hard, and he was an all-around athlete who served as the captain of both the basketball and the golf teams in his senior year (class of 1969). He dated one of the school’s homecoming princesses, Geneva Sanderson. “When I saw him for the first time, it was, like, wow, love at first sight,” Geneva told me over the phone. “We got engaged right after high school.”

Guess’ single quirk was his apparent lack of drive. Classmates had assumed that because things came to him easily, he would go on to become something of importance, but he didn’t. While friends like Brad Dusek won a football scholarship, left for Texas A&M, and went on to play professionally for the Washington Redskins, Guess attended local

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