Crown Royal Bandit's letters describe life of crime (2024)

Crown Royal Bandit's letters describe life of crime (1)

Back in the day there was a time when it seemed I was running out to cover a bank robbery every other month or so.

For whatever reason such banditry, which used to be the standard stuff of Hollywood fare, seems to have fallen out of favor among the criminal crowd. I can’t even remember when the last time a bank was robbed in Athens.

Here’s a story of mine that was published by the Athens Banner-Herald on June 9, 2010 and was based on correspondence I had with the most prolific bank robber ever to have terrorized Athens, the Southeast, and possibly anywhere else in the country.

By Joe Johnson

When he was 17 years old Bruce Allen Hughes put on his mother's wig, pointed a toy pistol at a bank teller and demanded $1,000.

That's how the “Crown Royal Bandit”got his start robbing banks in 1977 and went on to become one of the most prolific bank robbers in U.S. history.

His run came to an end in 2008 after he robbed a bank in Athens - one of 28 Georgia banks Hughes was convicted of robbing, though he claims responsibility for about 40 additional heists in other states.

Now 49 years old, Hughes made that and other claims in an exchange of letters with this reporter from the federal prison where he will live out the remainder of his life.

A U.S. District Court judge sentenced him in February to 127 years for the Georgia robberies. That’s essentially a lifetime sentence for Hughes because there is no parole in the federal penal system.

In his letters, Hughes portrays himself as someone who stole from greedy banking institutions to help people in need, but also as someone who simply enjoyed throwing around his ill-gained cash.

He acknowledged that his crimes were wrong and apologized for terrorizing people during his robberies, yet showed no remorse.

“My whole career has basically been dedicated to all who have ever been used or abused by the government or banking industry,'' Hughes said. “It was really not about the money, although it was fun spending!

“It's about showing Uncle Sam that you can't break the human spirit, that the Big Machine can be had.''

As a kid, Hughes lived a Huckleberry Finn sort of life.

He was born in Indiana and moved with his family to Dade County in Florida, on the fringes of the Everglades. They moved again when he was 11 to be near his grandparents, still near the Everglades but in Naples, on the Gulf of Mexico.

“I've been stomping around the Glades most of my life, and saltwater fishing has been my passion, besides bank robbing, that is,'' Hughes said.

“I was doing 'Crocodile Hunter' stuff, caught gators for sale, along with poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and sold them to the Miami Serpentarium and a lot of other wildlife hot-spots in South Florida,'' he said.

“My grandfather and father had been taking me fishing off the Naples municipal pier since I was real little, and I took to it like I was born on a reef. It's all I lived for,'' Hughes said. “My parents' house was on the bay, and I had my first boat at age 12 a 13-foot, 6-inch Boston whaler with a 35-horse Evinrude'' motor.

Hughes spent more time fishing than he did in school, and he dropped out in the 11th grade.

He wanted nothing to do with his father's electrical company, and didn't go along with his parents' wishes that he become a minister.

“I loved God, Jesus and all the Bible's heroes, but found myself drawn away by the rich kids I was hanging with in school,'' Hughes said. “From 13 to about 17, I hung with the 'jet-set' kids. There's more millionaires in Naples than anywhere, even back then. Megabucks.''

Hughes envied his rich friends and wanted to be just like them.

“That's what led me astray,'' he said.

Hughes also got what he wanted by committing break-ins, and was twice convicted on burglary charges in Naples in the 1980s. He also was convicted there of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Just before he dropped out of school, Hughes began dating an older woman, a 26-year-old bank teller with whom he later moved in. She was promoted to branch manager.

“She explained all the inner workings of the branch-banking world not just for robbing purposes, just for conversation. I paid attention,'' Hughes said. “She explained all the ins and outs behind the counter. She also told me not to worry about (tellers') fright, as they knew what they were getting into.

“I robbed my first bank in 1977 or so,'' Hughes said. “It was Naples Federal Savings & Loan, the biggest baddest bank in town.

“I walked up wearing one of my mom's wigs black and had a toy gun held under a handkerchief,'' he said. “The gun was a toy pirate's double-barrel flintlock pistol I bought from the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I only asked for $1,000 in hundreds, in a bank envelope.”

Hughes read in the next day's newspaper about the robbery and chuckled about how he outwitted the police.

“After I robbed the bank I ran behind the building and left the wig, gun and handkerchief behind it,'' he said. “The CSI team found blonde hairs in the wig, and that's because my mom had shoulder-length blonde hair at the time. I had sandy brown hair. Ha. Ha. They thought it was probably done by a beach-bum surfer.''

Hughes claimed to have robbed more than three dozen banks in the Naples area between 1977 and 1992, and he used the money to attract women.

“I don't know how many girls I had, but I know there were at least 40 banks,'' he said. “I always hit the banks alone. I told everyone else the money came from my rich parents in Naples.”

Hughes graduated from using a toy gun to a semiautomatic pistol, and his disguise changed from his mother's wig to his “trademark” black ski mask with just eye holes cut out, Hughes said.

“The early years were great, a 15-year party,'' he said. “I helped many a single mom then and whoever, but was really no Robin Hood. I mainly robbed for me. The needy just were benefited by it.''

When he moved in with the bank teller his two cousins and their girlfriends joined them.

“We all shared the rent and each other's girls,'' he said. “It was real cozy. My cousins sold co*ke and weed, mostly a lot of co*ke.''

In addition to robbing banks, he held up a couple of drug smugglers in 1982, Hughes claimed.

“Got a half-million and 90 pounds of co*ke in that job,'' he said. “Didn't hurt them, just scared 'em out of 10 years though.”

The robberies bankrolled a good lifestyle without having to work for it.

“Robbing banks, taking a few babes to Disney World for a week, then going home to a nice, modest yet clean house with property to keep the party going,'' Hughes said.

He claimed to have robbed a bank in Chula Vista, Calif., in 1992, the same year as his last hold-up in Florida.

Hughes did not explain when or how he wound up in Georgia, but he met a Blairsville woman, Karen Totherow, who soon became his partner in crime and mother of his children.

The first Georgia bank they robbed was in Alpharetta, in 1997.

Totherow, who Hughes called his “bird dog,'' went into banks to scout for security guards and the layout, and was the getaway car driver.

“I chose her to help me because she's ballsy, cold as a mackerel,'' he said. “She wanted me to shoot one of the head tellers so that I would have a reputation amongst the banking community as a killer. She said that they would give me all the big money in a hurry from then on.''

Hughes never shot anyone, but he did fire his gun to scare people when he robbed banks in Dalton and Woodstock.

He never anticipated a shoot-out with police.

“If it would of come to that, I would have dropped my gun in clear site and then run, I guess,'' Hughes said. “If they shot me in the back, oh well.''

Totherow helped Hughes rob Georgia banks between May 1997 and December 2006, according to authorities.

The pair had a love-hate relationship, according to Hughes, who said he asked the judge to show leniency when he sentenced Totherow.

“Karen never deserved any of my help,'' he said. ``I saved her for my kids' sake. As bad as she is, she's a half-decent mom. At least she wasn't strung out on booze or drugs.''

Authorities nicknamed Hughes the “Crown Royal Bandit'' because in his first Georgia bank robberies, he made tellers put the money in the purple cloth bag that the whiskey comes in.

“I started drinking before the robberies to thin the guilt,'' Hughes said. “I didn't like scaring the panties off pretty tellers, but how else can you get to the money?''

Hughes often announced to people inside the banks that he was only robbing the same people who stole from him, by foreclosing on his home.

Authorities say that was a red herring to throw off investigators.

Hughes and Totherow parted ways because she was everything he wasn't, he claimed.

“She's mean, I'm nice. She's greedy, I'm giving to a fault if you ask my mother,'' Hughes said. ``I'm athletic and love the outdoors, she's fat and loves to shop, eat and sit at home. She told me that if she had to go back to work that it was over. I made her go back to work just to get rid of her.''

After breaking off his relationship with Totherow, Hughes moved in with a woman in Hull, who was the getaway driver in his final robbery, in February 2008 when Hughes stole $10,390 from Regions Bank on Prince Avenue.

But Christine Verner was a methamphetamine addict and dealer, and when she was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover officer in Madison County, that was the beginning of the end for Hughes' life of crime.

“All the hot girls from around the neighborhood came sniffing around,'' Hughes said. “They knew Christy was in jail for meth. They also knew I had money, and (I) was very nice about helping them out when they asked. Within days I was entertaining half-a-dozen pretty young women. It reminded me of the old days.''

Hughes didn't know that just before and right after the Athens bank robbery, witnesses finally caught a glimpse of him without a mask and were able to describe him well enough for a Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic artist to draw a sketch.

The Banner-Herald published the sketch on Feb. 25, 2008, prompting a reader to call the Athens-Clarke County Police Department to say the sketch looked like Hughes.

Crown Royal Bandit's letters describe life of crime (2)

But authorities still didn't know where to find him until an anonymous tipster called the Madison County Jail to say Verner was living with a bank robber.

Verner admitted to investigators that she was the getaway driver for Hughes in the Athens bank robbery, and heavily armed authorities from Madison and Athens-Clarke counties, the GBI and FBI went to Verner's home in Hull. They found Hughes at that Beverly Road trailer home and arrested him on March 5, 2008.

Hughes claimed he knew the jig was up after Verner was jailed on drug charges, and that he waited to be arrested.

“When Christy got busted for meth - which I am totally against - I knew it was a matter of time before she cracked under the pressure,'' he said. “But instead of running, I stayed put and waited for the self-righteous clowns. If I ran, they'd probably arrest Karen, stake out my entire family in Florida and kick my dog! So I waited.”

Investigators eventually tracked down Totherow, and she pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy and was sentenced to five years on probation.

Verner pleaded guilty to one count of bank robbery, and a judge sentenced her to 30 months in prison and five years on parole. She is scheduled to be released Aug. 8.

Hughes claimed to have the formula to become a successful bank robber.

“When I started, I told myself I would keep going until they got me,'' he said. ``Along the way I learned you can get away clean. A little common sense and a lot of guts and they could be had!

“It was simple. The best answer is usually the simple one. Use a mask and a real gun. You have to control the room. No fuss and no hero's (sic). 90 seconds or less. Don't worry about the take as much as the act. Channel your fear to work for you. There's a lot more little factors that give you a 90 percent chance of a clean get-away. If the general public ever got hold of my style, they would have to change the way banking is conducted immediately.''

A prosecutor told the judge who sentenced Hughes that the robber never wore gloves, but he always made sure that when he touched something he twisted or rubbed his hands so that he left smeared fingerprints that couldn't be used to identify him.

Hughes doesn't hide the disdain he has for law enforcement, especially the FBI.

“Little secret, they're not that organized,'' he said. “There's just a billion of them out there. If they didn't have tipsters, they couldn't function. They didn't catch me, I just got tired and gave up.''

Hughes believes he could have excelled in anything he set his mind to.

“I've just wasted a perfectly good life,'' he said. ``I could of been one of the best in any endeavor I chose. I never thought I'd be one of the most prolific bank robbers in U.S. history. It certainly wasn't my goal in life.

“I don't think I've ever heard of anyone robbing 70-plus banks over 30 years without the feds having a clue as to their identity,'' Hughes said.

He apologized for terrorizing bank employees and customers, but not for stealing.

“I'm sorry I scared some people, but I'm not sorry about abusing the authorities and the banking industry,'' Hughes said. ``Stealing is a sin, but so is setting up people, killing people and foreclosing on people who are trying! When I meet my maker I'll be in line right behind them. I'll apologize then.''

Hughes and I exchanged letters between February and May while he was housed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. He has since been moved to a federal prison in Florida.

Crown Royal Bandit's letters describe life of crime (2024)
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