TALLADEGA, Ala. — The job paid better than a thousand dollars a minute.
All Bobby Joe Phillips had to do was park his fire-engine red pickup outside the bank, walk inside with a gun and step out with a sackful of cash.
He watched police pull up from the McDonald’s next door.
“I tell you, it’s a rush,” he said. “Five minutes after it happened, I had the money laying in my lap while I sat there and ate me a Big Mac. It’s easy to do, but damn if it ain’t hell to get out of.”
Phillips, 71, held up nearly half a dozen banks from East Tennessee to Middle Georgia in the space of two months during the fall of 2007. The robberies earned him a nationwide spotlight; his gray hairs earned him the nickname “the Grandpa Bandit.”
Now he’s serving time as a trusty at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama, about halfway through his prison sentence.
“I’ll be 78 when I get out,” he said. “As long as you mind your own business, it’s not so bad. Prison’s just what you make of it.”
Robbery wasn’t a new career for Phillips. He got his start in petty theft as a teenager in the 1950s in his home state of Georgia. He spent time in the military and lived through two marriages along the way.
“I’ve probably got 40-42 years in prison,” he said. “I’ve done armed robbery, theft, that kind of thing. Three and a half years was my longest stretch in federal prison. I did 12 straight years in the Florida state prison from 1967-1979. I ain’t bragging or nothing. I’ve just been in prison a long time.”
Phillips had just wrapped up a term for breaking into cars in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he settled in Covington, Ga., on the outskirts of Atlanta and went to work in a grocery store.
“I was out under supervised release,” he recalled. “The only job I could get was at Kroger for $5.35 an hour. I just couldn’t make it on that. I was trying to pay rent, trying to pay insurance. Then out of the blue, I just got the idea. I tried bank robbery, and it got very easy.”
Phillips said he’d heard others talk about robbing banks during his stints behind bars, but he’d never tried it himself. He says he never gave much thought to planning any of his holdups.
“I just went in and did it,” he said. “I didn’t case ‘em out or nothing. The first bank I hit was right across the parking lot from the Kroger where I worked. I’d been in there before. I just parked at the Dunkin Donuts next door. I thought it would be like it was in the movies, but it wasn’t.
“I didn’t have nothing but a note. That gun I had wasn’t nothing but a toy gun. I bought it at Wal-Mart. It still had the orange end on it, so I painted it black with a magic marker. I never even pointed it at anybody. There were people in line behind me when I robbed the place who never knew what was going on. After the first time, it just gets easier.”
Phillips hit on what seemed like a winning formula. He took up residence in a Pigeon Forge motel, a place he remembered from his visits to the national park, and struck again at the First Tennessee Bank in Knoxville — and again at the same bank branch a week later.
“That same teller was there at the counter,” Phillips said. “She saw me and just started putting money in the bag. I took it and said, ‘Have a nice day.’
“As long as you don’t run — just walk away — they don’t pay no attention. Usually I’d park one or two stores away. Then I’d go in, get my stuff and leave. The tellers have got orders to give you the money. Most of the places don’t have security guards. I never got a dye pack. I never got a GPS chip. I always wrote in the note, ‘No dye pack. No GPS.’ I carried a little zippered bag for them to fill. When you walk out with that, you look like you’re just carrying payroll or something.”
Phillips insists he did no real harm — that his holdups cost no one who couldn’t afford the loss.
“The money’s insured,” he said. “I ain’t ever been out to hurt anybody. I just wanted the money. I wouldn’t go out and rob an individual or even a store. The bank makes more money from you than I’m taking.”
Authorities ultimately pinned seven bank robberies on Phillips — five in Knoxville and two in Georgia. He made no effort to avoid detection and laughs now when he remembers the life he led.
“I think I probably could have done it forever,” he said. “I was driving all over Knoxville in that red truck. I went to wrestling matches and ball games there. I went shopping and took my girlfriend and her kids. She thought I was a real-estate salesman. Somebody wasn’t paying attention. I thought I might as well go back and do it again.
“I knew I’d get caught eventually. But what could I do? I was bagging groceries and pushing carts before. I couldn’t make it. And that money goes in a hurry when you get it that easy.”
Ask about the official scorecard on his robberies, and he changes the subject.
“The most I ever got was $21,000,” he said. “I won’t say where.”
The last robbery spelled the end. On his way out of the SunTrust Bank branch in Suwanee, Ga., Phillips dropped a handful of papers, including his note and a slip of paper that bore his girlfriend’s name and address.
FBI agents tracked her down. She identified Phillips from bank security photos and told agents about his red pickup, a Chevy S10.
Police in Covington spotted the truck parked outside a motel on Nov. 10, 2007, and arrested Phillips there. He gave up without a fight.
“I don’t hold no ill will,” he said. “I admitted everything. I even signed the pictures they had. When they got you, they got you. That girl I was seeing wrote me one time after I got caught. She said they scared her to death. I told her not to contact me no more, that it might make trouble for her.”
Phillips’ case moved smoothly through the court system. He waived his right to indictment and pleaded guilty in exchange for a 10-year sentence.
He said he mostly keeps to himself in the prison. He has no family left on the outside; he gets no mail, no phone calls, no visits.
Sometimes he hears younger inmates talk about bank robbery as a plan for when they’re out. He snorts.
“If I was young, I wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “These youngsters doing it today, they’re just lazy. They don’t want to work. Drugs have ruined this country. I tell them, ‘Get out of here, get you a lunchbox and go to work. One day you’re going to wake up and be like me — 70 years old and still here with nobody.’ ”
He calls his health good and said he hopes to live long enough to see the outside of the prison again in a few years. One of his bank robbery cases in Georgia remains unresolved — something he says he’ll never understand.
“They’ve still got a detainer on me,” he said. “What are they going to do, put me in an old folks’ home? Seems to me like they’re wasting money.”
He said he hasn’t thought through what he’ll do or where he’ll go if he gets out.
“The only thing I can do is apply for Social Security and hope for the best,” he said. “I’ve got no ties left. I ain’t gonna go hungry. I won’t be a street person. I ain’t saying I would (rob again), but ...”
He shrugs. That’s one question he’s not ready to answer.