One of the most remarkable crimes in Polk County’s history, my Dad always maintained, was the robbery of a Fort Meade bank in 1957 by two men — both drunk — who utilized two airplanes (one of them stolen) and a kidnapped law enforcement officer’s patrol car for transportation.
Spoiler alert: they got caught.
Mary and I have assigned ourselves the job of going through 30-plus Bankers Boxes full of memos, letters, stories and other impedimenta salvaged during the closing and ultimate sale of the building in which The Polk County Democrat was published for more than 50 years.
A magazine article about Polk’s most bizarre bank robbery prompted me to ask Dorinda Morrison-Garrard, senior library assistant at the Polk County History Center, for help in researching local coverage of the crime.
She found a lengthy story in The Polk County Democrat, undoubtedly written by my father (his writing style is easy for me to spot, even though he rarely put his byline on a story) and a shorter one published in The Fort Meade Leader, both on Oct. 25, 1957 — the day after the robbery.
The two robbers were from Tampa, and what they lacked in sophistication they more than made up for in imagination. The apparent leader of the pair of robbers was an Air Force pilot in World War II whose post-war employment was as a corporate pilot.
On Oct. 24, 1957, he borrowed a friend’s Cessna in Tampa for “a short business trip,” which he failed to explain was for the purpose of robbing the First State Bank of Fort Meade the next day.
Early the next morning, he and his associate, an unemployed airplane salesman, flew to Venice (for reasons unknown), then set course for Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field, where the No. 2 pilot “casually strolled over” to an Aeronca aircraft, cranked it up, and took off.
From there, they flew both planes to an abandoned air strip near Plant City, left behind the borrowed Cessna, and flew toward Fort Meade in the stolen Aeronca.
After landing near that city, they walked into town, by this time having consumed a quantity of spirits, and purchased soft drinks and two pairs of dark glasses.
Soon after leaving the store, they were arrested for drunkenness by a constable. Once in his car, the two men pulled pistols on the constable and ordered him to drive them to the bank, where they pulled stockings over their heads as masks.
Several witnesses believed the two men were dressed in pre-Halloween get-ups and initially ignored them.
This error became apparent when the miscreants entered the bank, ordered employees to fill a sack with money — “nothing less than tens” — knocked one banker unconscious and, as they left, fired a shot into a window frame.
As the robbers fled in the constable’s car, an anonymous caller reported the robbery to law enforcement, and lawmen from several agencies joined in pursuing the gunmen.
The fugitives fled to the Aeronca they had flown to Fort Meade, and took off in it for Plant City, where they left the stolen plane and got aboard the borrowed Cessna for a flight to Tampa. By this time, pilots from several airports had joined in an aerial search.
At Tampa, the Cessna pilot dropped off his accomplice, who left in a car, had an accident a short time later, and was arrested for drunken driving. The Cessna pilot took off and circled the area for awhile, finally returning to the Tampa airport, where he was arrested by waiting lawmen.
With help from one of the two robbers, lawmen recovered the stolen money the next afternoon.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. A senior in high school when this robbery occurred, he missed out on helping cover the story. But at least two witnesses to the crime became friends of his in ensuing years and remain so today. He didn’t discover this until reading the account of the robbery in The Fort Meade Leader just a few days ago.)