Will the Real Smithville Bank Robber Please Stand Up?
An Austin artist’s criminal history was—kind of, sort of—the inspiration for a recent movie. But the true story of her life is even stranger than what made it onto the screen.
I ask Mollie Iley if she knows that a movie has been made — sort of, but not really, but sort of — about one of the most important moments of her life. “No,” she says. “I’ve been in one movie here in Austin, and it was pretty bad. It was called Barn of the Blood Llama,” a horror tale about a perverted veterinarian who takes a particular interest in one of his animals: the Blood Llama. It didn’t get much attention. She heard about theater walkouts in Australia.
The new one, she hasn’t heard about at all. It’s called The Teller and the Truth, I say. “Really? The Teller and the Truth,” she says, rolling around the last word in the title. You can’t trust creative types, she says. “They’re silver-tongued devils. They’ll spin a tale.”
The Teller and the Truth, which became available on streaming sites on March 1, is billed as the romanticized true-life story of a bank robbery, done in a style that’s part documentary and part fiction, though the precise ratio is a bit of enigma, as I detailed in a recent Texas Monthly story. My piece, which started out as a seemingly straightforward assignment to write a brief profile of a local director, turned into an odd game of cat and mouse, as Austin filmmaker Andrew Shapter spun an elaborate web of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the story behind his film.
Throughout our conversations, Shapter insisted that the first half of his film was based in broad outline on the case of a woman whose boyfriend successfully robbed the bank she worked at in Smithville, Texas, in 1974; soon after the robbery, she disappeared, and neither were ever seen again. (The second half of the film, in which Shapter imagines what happened to the woman, is fairly clearly a work of fiction.)
But as I dug into the story, I had trouble confirming virtually anything Shapter told me. Eventually, I discovered that the actual bank robbery had almost nothing in common with the story he was telling. Though the robbery did occur in Smithville, it took place in 1972, not 1974, and was carried out by three people—two men and a woman. And nobody disappeared, much less settled in the south of France with their true love, as Shapter imagines his female protagonist doing: all three of the robbers were caught within minutes, and all three went to prison. As my piece was going to press—but too late for me to include in the story—I tracked down Iley, one of the three perpetrators, and got her to discuss The Teller’s true origin, a moment that changed her life forever.
Rather than the south of France, Iley, who has been a free woman since 1980, eventually settled in the south of Austin, where she works as an artist, focusing on abstract painting, poetry, and video performance work. We meet in a local coffeeshop, where she’s been working with her weekly creative writing group. Dressed in a smart vest and hat, she puts a stainless steel attache case on the table and presents me with a copy of her latest book, Love’s Darker Powers, a collection of “erotic vampire poetry”.
She signs it—“I never did mind about the little things,” a line from the 1993 movie Point of No Return, in which Bridget Fonda plays a reformed armed robber who becomes a government assassin—and kisses the inside cover, leaving a fresh lipstick mark. She then hands me a copy of the December 8, 1989, issue of the gay magazine This Week in Texas, which features a picture of her vamping with paintbrushes. She tells me, with no small measure of pride, that she was the first woman on the cover in the magazine’s history.
Over the past 43 years, she hasn’t told many people about the bank robbery. “I fired a gun in a bank,” she says, with a look that seems equal parts conspiratorial and embarrassed. “I sure did.” Nobody got hurt, though; the bullet, which was intended to intimidate rather than harm, hit a wall and lodged itself by the vault door. “It was me and another girl. I was 18, and a bit of a brat, from an upper middle class family in Gonzales.” Iley had been sent to business school in Austin by her parents, but college wasn’t for her, and once that ended her parents stopped sending money. Iley didn’t think the consequences of the robbery would be all that severe: “I never thought my parents would let me go to jail.”
The other girl, Beverly Mohrstine, had just “moved down here from New York City, and I was still a bit of a country mouse. I was like, she’s so amazing,” she says. “Everybody just gravitated toward her, cause she was real pretty. I hadn’t met anybody like her, and I just started hanging around her and coming under her influence.” The influence Mohrstine had on Iley wasn’t a positive one. “She started talking me into [the robbery] and I said, well, I know a black guy, I can talk him into this. We thought, oh, people are scared of black guys. So that’s how our little trio came together.”
Once the two women enlisted Eddie Neville Jr., who they deemed suitably intimidating—and who had a yellow 1968 Dodge Coronet, to boot, the perfect getaway car unless you don’t want to be noticed—the plan went into motion. Iley knew guns, on account of having grown up in the country, and she knew Smithville a little. So they rolled into town and, according to contemporary media accounts—Iley doesn’t remember—grabbed somebody’s hunting rifle off the back of a truck.
“I think I was supposed to drive, because I knew the area better than anybody,” Iley says, “and then they were supposed to go into the bank. But he chickened out, and so I had to go into the bank and give the orders. This is a bank robbery. Everybody get down. Give me the money. I don’t even remember how much money we got in the bag. [It was about $21,000.] And we were supposed to have another car to get away with, but we screwed up on that too. So [Beverly and I] got in the trunk of the car, and the guy chickened out, and let himself get pulled over. And they got us.” The robbery had been botched from the start. Two bank employees had managed to exit through the building’s back door and quickly called the police, and someone got the license plate of the getaway car.
Iley’s parents didn’t pay for a lawyer, so she had to rely on Mohrstine’s. She got five years. She thinks the revolutionary atmosphere in the country at the time—a lot of frightening news about young robbers and radicals—helped the judge decide to come down hard on the trio. But she was strictly apolitical. “We were just kids. We had no records, no nothing. The judge was making an example of us,” she says. The three did time in prisons, she says, that we “never should have been in.”
Incarceration was like nothing she had experienced before. “There was a riot in the Travis County Jail. They tear gassed us. All we had was water in the toilet to soak our faces.” A contemporary of Iley’s at the Travis County Jail, Joan Hardy, recently described it to me as a rough place. One of the other inmates was psych-rocker Roky Erickson: “We could hear him screaming and freaking out every night even through those thick concrete walls,” Hardy says.
Eventually Iley ended up in the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, where she was imprisoned with figures like President Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin Squeaky Fromme and Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican radical who led a violent assault on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954.
The feeling of lost time is still powerful for her. “When I was in that Travis County Jail, my mother was really sick of cancer, and it just ate her alive. My lawyer told me she had died. That’s how I got the news,” she says. The prison authorities let her go to Gonzales to see the casket, in shackles, but wouldn’t let her attend the funeral. “When they took me away, time stopped for me in my hometown, and there was a lot nobody bothered to tell me about. My mother’s first husband [who Iley had known since childhood] was shot down in a saloon and died,” she says, and she didn’t find out until much later.
Jail was a harsh experience, but it was also a place Iley could learn about the world. At a co-ed minimum security prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, she met people from all over the country, from wildly diverse backgrounds, including radical leftists. “They’d talk about Israel, and the relations of the United States,” she says. “It was a political education, of sorts.”
Eventually, she managed to escape. “I had people help me who had escaped before,” she says—“hippie radicals.” “They smuggled in a screwdriver for me. A guy broke into the prison yard, and came in and helped me pop the window [in my cell.] I ran across this field of ice and snow, and went over this wall.”
Iley went into hiding for a time. “They hid me up in the woods up in New Hampshire or Maine, up around that state line. I was living up there in some cabin, in the winter. But eventually, through the network of people that was helping me, they got me to Boston,” she says. “I don’t know how I got by. I lived with a bunch of other people. I’d do little odd jobs, here and there. Nothing that they could use to trace me,” she says. For a time, she was a live model for art students at Boston University, a job which always paid in cash.
It was a tense time, but she grew accustomed to living on the lam. “After I finally got used to the fact that every cop who looked at me didn’t have my image in his head, I kind of came out of my shell. I was living in a nice place in Beacon Hill with some gay boys. I was just living free.” After about a year, she was recaptured and sent to Alderson in 1975. She got a year for the escape, but she served it concurrently with her remaining time.
Since getting out, she’s done well enough for herself. She’s particularly grateful to her “brothers and sisters and my family,” she says, people she once rebelled against who have helped support her and keep her steady over the years.
But there are some things that don’t fade. “I’ve been psychoanalyzed since then. They say I have some problems with authority,” she says. “I don’t like any light at all when I sleep, because they would always shine lights on us, come count us when we were asleep.”
Since settling in South Austin after her release in 1980, Iley has been making art, keeping herself afloat with part-time jobs while she focuses on painting, poetry, and performance. She immersed herself in the Slacker Austin of the eighties and early nineties—she became an active part in the downtown punk and goth scenes, and held weekly parties for artists at her southeast Austin apartment, centering around poetry readings. For a time, she had a public access show. “Goth and punk was big, still,” she says. “And we would all just go to the same clubs, and drink and party and dance all night.”
In 1991, when four Austin teenagers were killed at a north Austin frozen yogurt shop, the police, without any good leads, turned to the alternative community downtown. Iley was associated with a group of young people who called themselves the People in Black, and the Austin police thought the group was just weird enough that one or more of them might have been involved.
“I was a bigshot downtown, and my parties had become popular,” she says. “They started investigating us, I guess. And they started investigating me and my past, because of my prison record. And I thought, they’re trying to find someone to pin it on.” Iley took a lie detector test, but she was offended by what she saw as police harassment of Austin’s “punks and goths. It’s a hard thing to be asked, Did you kill those girls? It changes you.” So she shot a video interviewing her friends, asking how they felt about being suspected without reason, and gave it to one of the investigators. Eventually, the police turned to other suspects.
These days, Iley is working on a website to sell her paintings and other work (you can see some of her art here) and wants to put more of her video work online. (One piece, Vampires in the Night, is here.)
She’s lost touch with Neville, the driver. But a few years ago she did see Mohrstine, who was living in San Antonio at the time. “She came to visit me here in Austin,” Iley says. “It just felt so weird, because it made me think about: You know, I do kind of blame you for leading me into that. It changed my life.”
Iley hoped to attend the Austin premiere of The Teller and Truth after I told her about it, but a busted truck kept her from going. It’ll be hard for her to watch, she thinks, even if the woman portrayed onscreen is another person entirely: the whole experience is still tough for her to talk about. Still, she says, she’s rooting for Shapter, who constructed a narrative around a single moment in Iley’s life to get at cinematic truths — love, youth, rebellion, etc. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to beat the truth.