Gangster-style Nussbaum and Wilcoxson robberies ended in Pittsburgh
Joseph, standing, and Gary Lynch at their North Versailles home earlier this month.
In 1962, Joseph and Gary Lynch were pictured in a Pittsburgh Press story describing a bank robbery that the father and son witnessed.
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When Gary Lynch was in third grade, he and his classmates started each school day by telling stories about something that happened to them the day before.
No one topped his tale one September morning in 1962.
"I had the best story of the year," he said recently, looking back on that day 50 years ago.
"I was in a bank robbery."
Not just any bank robbery.
They didn't know it at the time, but when Gary and his father, Joseph, entered Western Pennsylvania National Bank off Route 30 in North Versailles on the evening of Sept. 19, 1962, they walked in on a heist by Bobby "Bad Eye" Wilcoxson, No. 1 on the FBI's most wanted list.
In the getaway car outside was No. 2: Al Nussbaum, who had taunted J. Edgar Hoover with letters, postmarked from South America, deriding him as a fool whose "college boys" would never catch him.
"It's a joke, isn't it, Dad?" Gary asked, as Wilcoxson waved a .45 automatic at the tellers and customers.
"I told him to be quiet," recalled Joseph Lynch, 90, who still lives in North Versailles with his son, now 58. "I was pretty shaken up myself."
This was no joke.
Wilcoxson, a violent psychopath whose glass eye earned him his nickname, had used a Thompson submachine gun to kill a guard at a Brooklyn bank the year before. Nussbaum -- a skilled mechanic, pilot, bomb-maker, safe-cracker and gun-runner to Fidel Castro -- was "the most cunning fugitive in the country," in Hoover's words.
This pair robbed at least six banks in the eastern U.S. and they'd hit the same North Versailles bank in June, when Bad Eye fired a shot into the ceiling and made off with $4,373.
This time he and Nussbaum got away with $28,901.
But the North Versailles robberies were their last. The FBI caught up to them later that year after uncovering their arsenal of grenades, submachine guns and World War II anti-tank guns.
Nussbaum and Wilcoxson aren't household names, but in the annals of American crime they were the equals of gangster-era bandits John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd.
Now their history is generating renewed interest because of two new publications, both connected to Nussbaum's second career: professional writer.
Al Nussbaum started writing in prison in the 1960s. He struck up a pen-pal friendship with mystery author Dan Marlowe, creator of the Earl Drake series.
When Nussbaum was paroled in 1976, he moved to Hollywood and churned out his own hard-boiled detective stories, scripts, book reviews and essays.
Nussbaum's daughter, Alison Bukata -- spurred on by a new Marlowe biography that explores his friendship with Nussbaum -- is collecting an anthology of his work.
A lawyer in Syracuse, Ms. Bukata was a toddler during her father's robbery spree and never knew much about him. The anthology of stories and newspaper pieces (several ran in The Pittsburgh Press) is a way for her to discover who he was.
She has launched a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter.com to acquire the rights to his writings, hoping the anthology will be out by Christmas. The market for such a book is limited, but that's not the point.
"In so many ways he was a stranger," she said. "This is more of a journey on my part to learn about him after his death. This is more personal for me."
Nussbaum, who died in 1996, is also a central figure in "Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe," by former Arizona Republic reporter Charles Kelly.
Published this month, the book details their relationship, during which Marlowe drew on Nussbaum's life for authenticity in his pulp fiction tales.
Marlowe said Wilcoxson and Nussbaum "fused like nitric acid and glycerine to form an equally explosive compound."
Born in Buffalo in 1934, Al Nussbaum was raised by restaurant owners. His IQ is debated -- Marlowe said he had tested out as a near-genius -- but there is no doubt he was smart.
"He was an extremely brilliant guy, to be honest," recalled Andrew Soltys, a former FBI agent who helped chase down Nussbaum in Buffalo in 1962.
A good chess player, Nussbaum saw crime as a game.
"Ever since I was about 16, I've made my living, at least partially, from some kind of illegal activity," he told a judge. "It was usually profitable and always exciting, like a chess game for cash prizes, and that's the way I thought of it."
He worked for a time as a draftsman and joined the Army, where he bought guns from dealers and resold them.
Discharged in 1957, he moved to Las Vegas and opened a gun shop. Details are sparse, but he apparently sold guns in Mexico and ran weapons to Cuban revolutionaries, according to what he told Marlowe.
In the late 1950s, he was caught in California with submachine guns in his car and sent to federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he met Wilcoxson and Peter Curry, 18. All were paroled within a few months of each other. Wilcoxson moved to Buffalo with his girlfriend, Jackie Rose, later his getaway driver. In July 1960, Nussbaum married Alicia Majchrowicz and the couple moved into an apartment above her parents' Buffalo home. She soon became pregnant with Alison.
Wilcoxson and Nussbaum drove around Buffalo in a van, casing banks and hit their first in December 1960. Nussbaum wore a mask and carried a pistol. Wilcoxson carried a shotgun that Nussbaum had hidden under his partner's winter coat by drilling a hole in the barrel and tying it around his shoulder with a shoelace. They robbed more banks, with Nussbaum using the proceeds to further his arms dealing and to set up a printing operation.
One heist was particularly ambitious. The pair decided to rob a bank in Washington, D.C., by first diverting the police with bombs that Nussbaum built.
In June 1961, Nussbaum set off two test bombs near the White House, sending police scrambling. The third bomb failed to explode. The pair robbed the bank anyway, but the FBI lifted Nussbaum's prints from the bomb.
J. Edgar's dragnet was on, but the robberies continued.
The fifth one, in Brooklyn, got the bandits on Hoover's list. Wilcoxson killed bank guard Henry Kraus with his submachine gun and shot a police officer in the chest; the cop's badge saved his life. They got away.
But Curry, their new recruit, was soon arrested and talked.
That led the FBI to Wyoming County, N.Y., where Nussbaum and Wilcoxson kept their cache of weaponry, including two Finnish anti-tank guns they hoped would help them blast open bank vaults.
The two men were now international fugitives, but they would commit three more robberies, including the two here.
Both times they stole cars from the Westinghouse Electric lot in East Pittsburgh to get to the bank, ditched the cars after the robbery and made their getaway in a second stolen car.
It's not clear why they ended up in Pittsburgh. They were hiding out in Philadelphia and had robbed a bank there June 26, so the bank here may have been merely a target of opportunity.
Joseph Lynch said he once predicted the North Versailles bank would be robbed because it was built right along busy Route 30. The pair struck June 29.
"[Wilcoxson] seemed awful nervous," teller Wayne Brentzel, 20, told the papers. "He kept waving the automatic around. He fired a shot into the ceiling, and everyone hit the floor."
Brentzel took a risk. When Wilcoxson barked, "Give me all of the big money," he tucked $50s and $100s into the wastepaper basket under his counter. Wilcoxson got less than $5,000. The bandits returned to their hideouts in Philadelphia's Germantown.
"I needed an occupation that would explain why I seldom left my apartment except for food and an occasional fresh supply of hair dye," Nussbaum later told the Buffalo News. "So I told everyone I was a freelance writer."
He tape-recorded himself typing, then played the tape all day so that anyone passing by thought he was working while he was really devouring books. He even dressed like a writer in a tweed coat with elbow patches.
Nussbaum became so immersed in the world of writers that he began to identify with them. "I was able to appreciate many of the difficulties they had faced and overcome," he wrote, "and, alone as I was, it wasn't hard to imagine how a writer might feel, sitting alone in front of his typewriter, confronting miles of blank paper and the danger of snow blindness."
One book he read was Marlowe's "The Name of the Game is Death," which featured a main character much like Wilcoxson.
Impressed, Nussbaum found Marlowe's phone number in Michigan and called him as a fan, using the name "Carl Fischer."
Marlowe later recounted how Nussbaum "dissected the story line of my book intelligently, inquired how I had created some of my effects and asked where I had obtained some of my information," according to Mr. Kelly's book.
A few months later, low on money, Nussbaum and Wilcoxson robbed the North Versailles bank again. Wilcoxson remembered Brentzel's previous trick.
"I don't want any monkey business this time," he said as he handed him a pillow case. "Just relax or I'll shoot -- I have enough lead in this automatic for everybody here, remember that."
This time Brentzel gave him the big bills. When Gary Lynch and his father walked in to exchange $10 for coins for Gary's coin collection, Wilcoxson was holding everyone at gunpoint.
"I thought they were doing a re-enactment" of the June robbery, Gary recalled.
Joseph knew the robbery was real. He recognized the .45 in Wilcoxson's hand; he had carried the same weapon as a bomber crew member in World War II. Wilcoxson ordered father and son to put their hands on the counter and stay still. Joseph told Gary to be quiet and placed himself between the gunman and his boy.
"I sort of shielded him a bit," he remembered.
Wilcoxson gathered the loot and fled to the getaway car driven by Nussbaum. Police set up roadblocks as far away as Greensburg, but the bandits escaped.
FBI agents arrived a few weeks later at the Westinghouse plant where Joseph worked and showed him a picture of Wilcoxson. All 56 FBI offices were now involved in the case.
The bandits split up, with Wilcoxson ending up in Baltimore with Jackie Rose. Nussbaum stayed in Philadelphia.
The FBI noose tightened.
Agents even questioned Marlowe in Michigan about the call Nussbaum had made to him in July and a follow-up fan letter he'd sent to the writer.
Nussbaum decided to flee the country to either Brazil or Russia. But he wanted to take his family. He visited Alicia in Buffalo. Her mother, worried that he would take Alicia away, called the FBI. Alicia reluctantly agreed to help set a trap for him at a downtown hotel, where she was to meet him early Nov. 4.
Agents were waiting when he showed up. In the initial part of what became a pursuit, Andrew Soltys and his partner followed Nussbaum's car.
"At first it was just him and us," Mr. Soltys recalled recently. "We didn't have our shotguns, either. We only had our revolvers. I kept mine aimed at him the whole time."
They knew Nussbaum had grenades and rifles.
"If he so much as opened that window, I was going to shoot," Mr. Soltys said.
After a wild chase, Nussbaum crashed his car and agents took him into custody. The FBI caught up with Wilcoxson and Jackie Rose six days later in Baltimore.
In his hideout, agents recovered $21,000 from the Sept. 19 North Versailles robbery. They also matched the bullet fired into the ceiling June 29 to Wilcoxson's gun.
Prosecuted in New York, Wilcoxson got life in prison and Nussbaum, 40 years.
Their destinies could not have been more different.
While behind bars, Nussbaum sold his first story in 1966 to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. He earned $42 for the story, plus 25 percent for foreign magazine rights.
"That $52.50 let me cross the invisible line and join the writers who get money for their work," Nussbaum later wrote.
He corresponded with Marlowe regularly and the two developed a partnership, with Marlowe using Nussbaum to vet his tales of crime and Marlowe re-working Nussbaum's stories.
Marlowe said Nussbaum "demonstrated from the beginning an aptitude for story construction and for dialogue."
He later visited Nussbaum regularly in prison and, with the bank robber's encouragement, developed the character introduced in "The Name of the Game is Death" into the Earl Drake series, featuring a professional thief.
After Nussbaum was released in 1976, he made a fair living for himself in Hollywood, writing stories, scholastic books, articles and the occasional TV script.
By 1978, Marlowe had suffered amnesia and could no longer write, so Nussbaum took him in.
They worked side-by-side, with Nussbaum, 44 and vibrant, helping Marlowe, 64 and in failing health, regain his memory.
Nussbaum cooked for his friend, and the two settled into a quiet life of writing and caring for their two cats.
In 1981, however, Marlowe suffered a heart attack. He moved out a year later, citing a lifestyle clash with the night-owl Nussbaum, according to the Marlowe biography.
He died in 1986, never having regained his literary clout.
Nussbaum continued writing, having befriended other writers in L.A. and sometimes helping them with projects.
His ex-partner's fate was far darker. Paroled in 1982, Wilcoxson was hired by the wife of a Dupont Corp. engineer in Chattanooga to murder him for insurance money. He shoved a mop handle and part of a plastic tarp down the man's throat, killing him. He died in prison in Tennessee in 2009.
Nussbaum, who had developed diabetes in his early 50s, returned to Buffalo in 1984. According to Mr. Kelly's book, he could no longer make a living in L.A. and wanted to be close to family, especially his daughter.
He published his last work in 1988 with three stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but he had gradually lost touch with his friends in California.
In a letter to one, he complained of the cold in Buffalo and lamented that "the old crowd has scattered to the winds or gone and died on me."
He died in 1996 at age 61.
"Al was certainly one of our more unique colleagues," wrote mystery writer Clark Howard in a eulogy, "not only in the life -- or rather, lives, he led, but also in the help, both personal and professional, he gave to other mystery writers. Those of us who knew Al will remember and miss him."
First Published October 28, 2012 12:00 am