Friday, January 6, 2017

Review: How not to rob banks in Missouri

Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit
Author: Caroline Giammanco
Publisher: W & B Publishers, Inc.
Source: PDF from author in return for review
Grade: C+

There are a lot of good stories buried in Caroline Giammanco's narrative, Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, but readers will have to dig for them. This account of the brief criminal career of a Missouri bank robber and his much longer career as an inmate of the state’s prison system can’t quite decide whether it’s a memoir of how to (or not to) plan a life of crime or whether to be a call for reform of one state’s overcrowded, bumbling criminal justice system.

Although Caroline Giammanco is listed as the author, most of the book is written as a first-person memoir by Donald Keith Giammanco (who prefers to be known as Keith). Caroline explains in the book’s preface that she and Keith met in 2012 when she was interviewing inmate tutors for the classes she taught at Missouri’s South Central Correctional Center. Although Caroline has taken Keith’s last name, they were not married as of the time the book was published.

“Four teachers were looking for new tutors and I was the third to interview Keith that afternoon. The instant we saw each other, and immediately in the next hour, talking during the interview, we knew there was a connection between the two of us. We were like two old friends catching up after a long separation,” she writes.

“By the end of our time, I was certain Keith was the person I wanted to hire. He was bright, thoughtful, genuine and completely honest with me about why he was in prison without me asking. Most inmates do not want to talk about why they are there. Keith believed I had a right to know who was working in my classroom should I hire him. So impressed, I only half-jokingly asked him to do poorly in his remaining interview so I could hire him. He looked at me and said, ‘I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be ethical.’ I could respect that. What I didn’t know until later was he left my classroom thinking, I’m throwing my next interview. There’s only one classroom I want to work in. Keith proceeded to intentionally fail the math quiz portion of his next interview.”

After realizing that he is the “Boonie Hat Bandit” who robbed 12 banks in the St. Louis area in 2008, and confessing that she fell in love with him, Caroline turns most of the book over to Keith (as he prefers to be known). The person who emerges from this confessional narrative is so different from the charmer Caroline writes about in her preface, and later, near the end of the book, that I could only wonder, which (if any) is the real Keith Giammanco.

A middle-aged, apparently middle-class divorced father of twin daughters, Giammanco writes that he changed his occupation from failing stockbroker to bank robber to pay off the debts he incurred through his divorce, subsequent love affair, and free-wheeling lifestyle. But hey, he says, all he wanted to do was give his daughters the good life, including tuition at private high schools. As soon as he stole enough to pay off his debts, he intended to hang up the floppy-brimmed military-style “boonie hat” he used to conceal his features from security cameras and become a law-abiding citizen again.

(New reports indicate he stole more than $100,000 in the course of his 12 robberies. Near the end of the book, he states that all he needed was an additional $35,000 in order to end his crime spree.)

Giammanco’s internet research on how to rob banks unfortunately didn’t include what would happen if he got caught. Most of Bank Notes, in fact, deals with his battles with the legal system. He willingly confessed in federal court to his crimes, not realizing that the state of Missouri would then prosecute him for those same crimes, and sentence him to far lengthier terms than he received from the federal court system. This portion of the book has some fascinating elements, but those are dulled by Giammanco’s opaque style, and sometimes chapter-long rants against friends and family members he considers to have failed him.

Caroline Giammanco takes up the narrative again late in the book, and the story turns from Keith’s personal situation to the general state of criminal justice in Missouri. Its bloated prison system unfortunately mirrors that of too many other states, where fear of crime has led to exaggeratedly-long prison terms, grotesquely overcrowded prisons, and internal corruption – again, a potentially fascinating subject that I could only wish had been interwoven throughout the book to leaven Keith’s narrative.

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