Monday, September 7, 2015

Bank Robbers and Cowboys

August 31, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The late 1950s found me working on a cattle ranch known as the old “Quarter Circle U” in the Superstition Mountains.  I was following a dream to be a cowboy. My education about cowboys had been derived from the Western movies at the old Rex Theater in Hayden, Arizona, and my dream to be a cowboy had finally been fulfilled.

At the time I was certain all cowboys were honest and were men of their word. I had a lot to learn about real cowboys and my silver screen heroes.

The Superstition Mountain area has experienced several unusual cases associated with bank robbery, a federal crime. One bank robber decided to be a cowboy and another was a decent cabinet maker here in Apache Junction many, many years ago.

Apache Junction was a quiet, sleepy community with only one deputy most of the time in the mid 1950s. Phoenix was the nearest office of the FBI that handled bank robbery cases. Back in the 1950s there were few people interested in living in Apache Junction other than the visitors who came down for the winter.

I recall the first bank robbery arrest handled by the FBI was the arrest of my partner “Keith” at the ranch. He had been a cowboy for almost a year before the law caught up with him. He had robbed a bank in Oklahoma two years prior. Keith’s arrest was not made on the ranch. The FBI Agent Lynn Bedford, DPS and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office arrested Keith on the highway between Apache Junction and Mesa.

After Keith’s arrest, I was alone at the ranch for almost six months before anyone else was hired. However, in the meantime I met a man called John Dark. He claimed to be a cabinet builder. He came out to the ranch a couple of times and said he could build some cabinets for us. He eventually talked Bill Barkley into building new cabinets in the ranch house.

Barkley put John to work on the cabinets. To make a long story short, I found out many years later (about ten) that John had served time for bank robbery and bank fraud, etc. Both of these incidents completely shocked me. I was a naïve individual in those days and I took a man at his word. I soon learned that a man’s word might not be his bond. My cowboy heroes from the silver screen were fading into the sunset.

Now, for one of the strangest cases I had ever heard. In 1999 a horseman was riding in the Superstition Wilderness Area on the southeastern edge of Hackberry Mesa near Cholla Tank. The tank is about three quarters of a mile west of Boulder Canyon in a flat filled with Chain Cholla cactus. It was here near the rock dam the rider found skeletal remains. The rider made the discovery on December 3, 1999.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies collected about fifteen pounds of bones at the site, including a man’s skull. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner was able to trace the dental work down and identify the man. The sheriff’s office confirmed the remains belonged to a Richard Pietras, 58, a known bank robber. I rode through this area two weeks prior to Thanksgiving in 1999, with a group of riders and I didn’t see any sign of a skeleton in the area. As a matter of fact we ate lunch nearby because the tank was full of water. During the summer months this tank usually has no water in it at all.

Our ride and lunch stop at Cholla Tank on Hackberry Mesa, c. November, 1999.
The authorities figure Pietras died sometime after his release from prison in August of 1998, after serving time for Bank Robbery. His cause of death still remains unknown. Pietras was wanted for bank robbery again shortly after his release from prison. Federal Marshals and the FBI were after him for robbing a Chicago Bank of an undisclosed amount of cash.

I was told several years later that the money from the bank robbery was found near Pietras’ remains at Cholla Tank. Here was a man who probably read about how rugged these mountains were and headed into the Superstitions believing he could evade capture. However, he was not prepared. He carried his loot but ignored the essentials for survival, like water. My guess is he walked into these mountains when it was hot and very dry. He probably died from exposure or dehydration. He sure didn’t follow any of the basic rules for survival in the desert.

He carried his bank loot to his final resting place in the Superstition Mountains. The law didn’t capture him, but the heat of summer in the Superstition Wilderness did.

I have never figured out why I am so fortunate to meet such people in the middle of nowhere. I actually associated with John Dark and Keith for a while, but I knew nothing about their criminal backgrounds.

My friend, FBI Agent Lynn Bedford, opened my eyes to reality about men on the lam. As I matured, I became very careful with whom I associated with. Some of you old-timers around Apache Junction may remember John Dark as the cabinet builder and he drove a 1957 Blue Plymouth Fury. His mother and dad lived up on the Apache Trail.

I am certain John Dark took advantage of our friendship. I did learn the hard way growing up, not to trust people on their word. Of course my dreams about my silver screen cowboys had been shattered.