Long life of thievery gave him great stories with regrets

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In the 83-year-old man across the table, I see the young thief in the mug shot from the 1956 newspaper clip, "Ex-Pirate Batboy Caught Stealing.''

Michael Godula, who worked for the ballclub as a teen in the mid-1940s, no longer looks like a wayward Everly brother with a stylish pompadour, though he still has a good head of hair and an even better backstory.

That arrest in '56 is the first of many in a clip file that stretches almost two decades, with the stories always detailing how this fast-talking guy from East Pittsburgh would walk away from unwatched tills in banks and supermarkets. Caught red-handed with thousands of dollars on him, he'd all but charm the badges off the cops who nabbed him.

In 1957, Miami police detective John Heywood said of Mr. Godula, then 26, "He seemed like just a nice kid ... a little more intelligent than most, but a nice, well-mannered young man. We're amazed at the knowledge he has about the stock market."

You'd think he was talking about a future son-in-law, not a thief holding $10,000 in cash snatched across Florida from Key West to Bradenton.

"I never met a cop I didn't like,'' Mr. Godula said, recalling that Detective Heywood invited him to his home -- "Southwest Fifth Street in Miami'' -- to meet his wife and daughters.

His memory is remarkable. He'll tell a story about an ancient heist, like his casual emptying of a jewelry store window in Beverly Hills, and a quick computer search confirms the store's name on the street he mentioned.

"Never has anything he's told me not been absolutely true," said Tom Dempsey Jr., an attorney who has been appointed to handle one of Mr. Godula's inheritance issues. "I'd say he's as honest as the day is long but we're heading toward Daylight Savings Time and the days are getting shorter."

Mr. Godula doesn't tell his story with "My Way'' bravado. Regrets? He has thousands.

He began stealing at 5. His father, an honest Westinghouse worker, sent him down to a Turtle Creek store for a newspaper and he lifted a pack of gum. In due time, he'd discover there wasn't a movie he couldn't see for free, wasn't a store or bank he couldn't rob by simply walking into the office or behind the counter.

"I had the looks. I had the innocence. Every other idiot was going in with a gun."

By 1960, thievery was a long career. Caught taking $280 from a San Francisco area clothing store cash register, police found $48,000 in cash in his car (more than $367,000 in today's dollars).

He confessed to every caper -- "I could rattle off every town and store and how much I got'' -- and a 1960 newspaper clip says he offered to make restitution through his $30,000 in mining stock. But those crimes, he said, cost him 81/2 years behind bars in California, and he served another three after being caught with $13,444 in his Los Angeles apartment in June 1973.

A '73 story mentions his longtime habit of paying some stolen money back. He'd call the stores he'd robbed and say he'd just hidden the money on a certain shelf. He said he'd sometimes go back to see the look on the merchants' faces when they found it.

Mr. Godula moved back to Pittsburgh some years ago. He was provided with a Shadyside apartment by his beloved younger sister Norma, who died in 2009. He now lives in an extended-stay motel in Monroeville.

He calls himself a "leech of America," but he also betrays a measure of strange pride when saying the average man wouldn't have the guts to do what he did, nor would the average man have given any money back.

His hands now shake from Parkinson's disease, but he's feisty about protecting about the only thing he has now -- his story. He implored me to do him justice.

"I hated every theft I ever committed. Don't make me feel proud of it,'' he said. "I'm really ashamed of my whole life.''

Were he to write a book -- and he's sure he has one in him -- he'd call it, "Like You, I Sinned.''

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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