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Naselle noir: How tellers helped nab elusive bank bandits

Natalie St. John

Published on August 8, 2017 4:02PM

Last changed on August 8, 2017 4:11PM

Officers from multiple agencies responded to the Naselle branch of Bank of the Pacific on July 25 after a robbery. Although bank robberies are rare in Pacific County, the bank has now been hit three times in recent decades.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Officers from multiple agencies responded to the Naselle branch of Bank of the Pacific on July 25 after a robbery. Although bank robberies are rare in Pacific County, the bank has now been hit three times in recent decades.


NASELLE — Bank robberies are rare in Pacific County. However, the July 25 robbery at the Naselle Bank of the Pacific was actually the third holdup at that location, and it was far from the strangest crime to occur there. That distinction goes to two armed robberies almost exactly a year apart in 1983 and 1984.

In 1983, a former teacher in one of America’s most notorious prisons tricked a sidekick into helping him rob the bank. He’d planned every detail of the clever heist. But he didn’t count on John Didion and Jerry Benning, the tenacious deputies who kept working the case when even the FBI had given up, or the quick-witted tellers who helped them solve it.


‘Almost like a Mexican’


Joe and Obie thought they had it all figured out. Being from Montana, they weren’t likely to be recognized in the remote Grays River Valley, but they didn’t take chances. By the time Joseph Scott Gertz, then 35, and O’Bert Leroy Myers, then 25, walked into the Naselle bank on October 11, 1983, Gertz had spent almost a year planning what seemed like a perfect heist and getaway. And it almost was.

By late 1982, Gertz had left behind a string of near-death experiences for the relative peace of Polson, Montana, but he was still spending a lot of time on the road. Gertz’s friend Lisa McComa later told an FBI agent that she knew he was a bank robber who “traveled around the western states, casing out banks.”

“He spent a lot of time driving down backroads, finding out routes in and out of town and determining how the police were set up,” former Pacific County Prosecutor Jeff Campiche said in an affidavit.

Just before Christmas, Gertz went to the Washington coast to scout banks and try out a young potential sidekick named Mike. He came back with fresh oysters and crab, but no sidekick.

Gertz kept scouting, taking McComa on a few trips. She was with him in the spring of ‘83 when he bought a wig and food coloring at a Missoula K-Mart, and later, when he used hair from the wig to fashion a beard. After painting his skin with the dye and donning the hairpieces, he “looked almost like a Mexican,” McComa said.

In August 1983, Gertz robbed a bank in Big Fork, Montana, but he still didn’t have a sidekick. Mike had refused to sit in the pickup watching banks, and was “too afraid and not heavy enough to do the kind of work Joe wanted to do.” Gertz considered his younger half-brother, but “Apparently, he refused to cooperate, or at least talked too much,” Campiche said.


Women’s intuition


The women in Gertz’s life knew he was up to no good long before the men got the credit for catching him.

In summer 1983, Gertz dated Pamela Houle, a single mom who lived near Polson. To explain his frequent travel, he told her he was a bounty hunter. Houle grew suspicious when he said he’d have a lot of money after his upcoming trip to Washington. He wanted her brother, who worked in finance, to invest it.

In early fall, he called her collect from Longview. He told her she was to call his lawyer if he ever got into trouble. Gertz wouldn’t say any more — he already regretted the call. It would show up on her bill, he said, and then “they” would know he was in Washington.


Tinker, Tolva, Teller, Spy


In Naselle, Gertz started watching the bank, not realizing that part-time teller Debi Tolva was also watching him.

About a week before the robbery, Tolva noticed a customer taking an undue interest in a display of brochures.

“I was watching him from the moment he came through the door,” Tolva, now 65, said on August 7. The man looked around when he thought no one was watching. When he asked a teller to change a $20 bill for smaller bills and coins, she knew he was bad.

“That’s the oldest trick in the book,” Tolva explained; it helps crooks learn how tellers access drawers, and how the money is organized.

“This guy’s casing the joint. I just know he is,” she told her manager. A customer followed him out. He said the suspicious man drove a blue pickup with Montana plates.

That afternoon, Tolva and her coworker Kata Varila were driving to Astoria when they saw the blue pickup ahead of them on the Megler Bridge. Tolva accelerated, getting as close as she dared, while Varila wrote his license down. They followed him all the way to Warrenton, and watched as he looked at Halloween costumes in a drug store.

“We talked about it the whole way home — ‘Was it a stupid thing to do?’” She said. The next day at work, however, “No one was interested. No one. Not even the sheriff’s office. They just kind of blew me off. I knew in my gut, and so did Kata.”


Obie in captivity


People said Myers seemed like a nice enough kid, if a bit feckless. Like Gertz, he was a refugee from his past.

When he was two, his alcoholic father was sentenced to three years in a Montana prison for vehicular manslaughter. When he was seven, his father died and his mother was placed in a rest home, according to a parole officer’s report. He had no contact with her after that.

Myers went to a foster home, and seemed to do fine. In high school, he played sports, earned a 3.5 GPA and enlisted in the Navy after graduation. When he finished his tour in 1981, he took a couple of terms at junior college and worked as a night watchman in Polson.

By summer ‘83, he was at loose ends. His 1978 marriage had recently imploded. Then Gertz called, saying he needed help with a bounty hunting job — could Obie fly out to Portland?

Myers later claimed that as they left the airport, Gertz said he was going to rob some banks, and Myers was going to help, whether he wanted to or not. Gertz allegedly wouldn’t let him out of his sight, and threatened to hurt him if he tried to leave.

“Myers, at this point, felt it was best to go along with Gertz, as he feared for his safety,” the parole officer wrote.


The gunman wore a wig


On a Tuesday morning in October, a brown pickup pulled up in front of the bank. The window teller watched as two masked men jumped out.

Gertz wore a white jumpsuit, surgical gloves and sunglasses along with his “Mexican” skin-dye, wig and beard. He carried a large-caliber Beretta pistol. Myers wore a red wig, and long green canvas overcoat “with something stuffed underneath.”

Gertz pushed the four female tellers around and ordered them to open their cash drawers. Vault teller Diana Lindstrom, now 78, was in the back when they arrived.

“One of the tellers came in and said ‘We’re being robbed. You have to come out,’” she recalled on August 3. Pointing his Beretta at her, Gertz commanded her to open the vault. Then he herded the tellers into the restroom. Myers hovered near the entrance until Gertz tossed him a bag and told him to fill it.

“I don’t think we did too much talking,” Lindstrom said. “We were just in disbelief, you know?”

A few minutes later, the pair hotwired the ‘73 Ford truck they’d stolen in Astoria the previous day, and took off. They’d taken more than $20,000 — the equivalent of about $50,000 today.

Tolva returned from her daily walk to the post office, and found the bank empty. There was money lying on the floor. Her heart started pounding.

“I started yelling for coworkers,” she recalled. They emerged slowly, fearing the robbers might still be there.

One of the suspects looked Mexican, a teller said. But she thought his hair was fake.


Escape from Deep River


As the newly-rich bandits sped east on State Road 4, it seemed like Gertz’s obsessive planning was paying off. The two had also stolen a motorcycle, a skiff and an outboard motor and hidden them at strategic points along their getaway route.

Near the Wahkiakum County line, they turned south onto Oneida Road, and then onto an abandoned road near the bank of Deep River. After wiping the truck clean of fingerprints, they sprinted to the water’s edge, and climbed into the skiff.

All they had to do was follow the bends in Deep River until it spilled into the Columbia. They’d planned to beach the boat upriver near Westport, Oregon, and rob the Wauna Federal Credit Union. Then, they’d ride the motorcycle to Astoria, ditch it, and head back to Montana in Gertz’s blue pickup.

If only they’d stolen a better outboard motor.


By land, air and sea


Maybe Gertz thought a tiny logging town would be an easy target, but it soon became clear he’d underestimated the cops, and just about everyone else in Pacific County.

The tellers called the phone company operators. Minutes later, “every available deputy” in Pacific and Wahkiakum counties had been called out, and workers on the Astoria-Megler Bridge alerted, according to the Chinook Observer. In short order, the FBI was assisting, and police were surveilling every route out of the county and setting up roadblocks. While state game wardens patrolled the waters and woods, Oregon State Police searched their side of the river. Loggers were asked to keep a lookout on the vast web of logging roads. Even the Coast Guard pitched in, searching for the suspects in a helicopter that nearly crashed, according to Campiche. But the responders were too late.

That afternoon, deputies Benning and Didion found the brown truck and footprints leading to the river. Then fishermen found the stolen skiff drifting near the Oregon slough town of Brownsmead. There, the trail went cold.


Marooned on Bug Hole Road


Trouble seemed to follow Joe Gertz everywhere he went, and he had been a lot of places.

A registered nurse, he had once been a teacher at the infamous Angola Prison in northern Louisiana. That ended when he was arrested on suspicion of burglary and theft. The state agreed to defer prosecution, provided Gertz commit no more crimes.

A 1975 letter from his doctor in Oakdale Louisiana said that in 1968, a bloody, unconscious Gertz was delivered to a New Orleans hospital after he was “accidentally” shot twice in the head with a .30 caliber pistol. The bullets left metal fragments in his scalp, and caused tissue and nerve damage. For eight days, he drifted in and out of consciousness.

In 1972, he nearly died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in Denver. In 1982, he was logging near Polson, when a tree hit him in the face, causing “a serious fracture”.

His bad luck was with him when he and Myers set out from Deep River. As they crossed the Columbia, the outboard froze up. They had little choice but to make land near Bug Hole Road in Brownsmead, Oregon, about 10 miles short of their destination. A pair of local boys gave the hitchhikers a ride to Astoria.

Gertz gave Myers his $4,000 cut, and the two parted ways.


Paranoid in Polson


Myers went to Missoula and put his money in the bank. Gertz worried the bills might be marked. He drove to Polson, “laundering money as he went,” Campiche said.

When Gertz showed up at Pamela Houle’s place, he had “wads” of $100 bills, and paid the $5,000 he owed her with cash. In hopes of getting bills with different serial numbers, he asked Houle to deposit a large sum in her account, and then withdraw it again later.

He warned her never to mention his trip to Washington; to say nothing and ask for a lawyer if anyone asked her about him. She should stay away from the phone, he said.

“When he talked about these things, he always whispered, and preferred to leave the house, telling her he felt the house was bugged,” Campiche said in an affidavit. “When she said this was stupid, he became very angry and paranoid.” Gertz even interviewed her child, demanding to know if Houle had said anything about the robbery.

He stashed money around her property, but never seemed satisfied with the hiding places.

“He would move it every day, and always carried a handgun,” Campiche said.


Persistence


The FBI quickly gave up on the case, but the deputies didn’t. Like Benning, Didion would go on to serve as Pacific County Sheriff. But at the time, the former pro football player had only been a cop for about five years. The robbery was his first big case.

“Didion really wanted these guys,” Benning told the Observer. “He just kept at it and checked out thoroughly every lead. We kept working it and working it.”

Benning and Didion went door-to-door in Brownsmead until they found the boys who gave the robbers a lift. The license plate number provided by Tolva and Varila led them to a driver’s license photo of Gertz. It looked strikingly like the sketch a forensic artist had done, based partly on Tolva and Varila’s description.

“The real reason we found him was the persistence of Benning, sitting there in the office making phone calls,” Campiche said. “‘Do you have a robbery like this? Do you have a robbery like that?’” Finally, Benning learned there had been a similar robbery in Big Fork over the summer.

In mid-November, the deputies hit the road.


The road trip


Benning and Didion couldn’t get warrants in Polson. Campiche flew out to help. In the meantime, the FBI took an interest in the case again. Agents offered some rather dubious help with the warrants.

“They got the wrong house,” Campiche explained. “... This line of police cars went by Gertz’s house, and took down this house that was filled with two young people who were waiting for their parents to come home. Gertz saw that and fled.”

“Seeing red,” and starving, they retreated to a bar. Campiche read while he worked on his burger and Coke, still wearing a suit that was soaked to the knees with melted snow.

“This cowboy comes over to me and says, ‘How come you’re not drinking beer? Are you some kind of faggot or something?’” Campiche remembered. He told the cowboy to leave him alone.

“All of a sudden, I hear this ‘Whack!’” It was Didion, 6’4 and almost 300 pounds, clapping the cowboy on the shoulder.

“I think you’ll want to be moving on,” Didion said. Benning, who was almost as imposing, joined Didion. The cowboy left, mumbling something about Mafiosos.

The Pacific County men went to Houle, who gave them Myers’ name. Didion and Benning went to Missoula to confront him.

“Myers spilled the beans,” Campiche said. “He said — and I think it’s true — that he didn’t know Gertz was going to pull a gun out. Myers isn’t all that bright.”

Myers also told them Gertz had taken off for Mandan, North Dakota, where he planned to rob another bank. Benning and Campiche got on a plane to Bismarck, North Dakota, while Didion stayed behind with Myers.


End of the line


Gertz’s run came to an end at an FBI roadblock on the morning of Nov. 18, 1983.

“When Gertz came over the rise of those gently rolling hills toward the bank he was going to rob, he was confronted by all of the cops,” Campiche said. He was armed, but he didn’t resist arrest.

“It looks like I’m going to need a lawyer,” he said.

“Benning walks up and looks at Gertz and goes, ‘Hi, I’m Jerry Benning from Naselle Washington,’ and Gertz just turns green,” Campiche remembered. Gertz clearly hadn’t expected the long arm of Pacific County law to reach all the way to North Dakota — when detectives searched the room where he’d been staying, they found the gun, dye and costume he’d used to rob the Naselle bank.

Myers agreed to go back to Washington and testify against Gertz, who initially planned to fight the charges. Campiche rode in the back with him during the snowy 14-hour drive home. Myers was officially arrested after they crossed the Washington state line.

“He was a very courteous, pleasant fellow,” Campiche said in an Observer article.


Consequences


Myers returned his $4,000 share and pleaded guilty to second-degree robbery in December.

“He wrote a letter of apology to the tellers of the bank,” Campiche wrote in a sentencing document. The parole officer who evaluated him said the robbery had been “completely out of character,” but didn’t believe Myers had no choice.

“I find it very difficult to believe that Myers did not know what was going on, and that he could not back out at any time,” he wrote. In February 1984, Myers was given a light sentence of up to 10 years in a state prison.

After the arrest, Gertz was charged in federal court for the Big Fork robbery. In January 1984, he was charged with attempted murder and escape, after a Morton County Jail officer said Gertz attacked him. Gertz alleged the guard had actually slammed him into a wall and shoved him down the stairs, worsening symptoms from his gunshot wounds, poisoning and skull fracture. Eventually, the charges were dropped, and by late January, he was in Pacific County Jail.

Gertz, who could be incredibly charming when he wanted to be, found no allies in Washington. Campiche noted that he had planned to take one of the tellers hostage if things went sideways in Naselle. Gertz, “is a very dangerous criminal,” Campiche wrote. “ Although polite and articulate, it’s clear that Mr. Gertz will do what he has to do … It’s also clear that Gertz manipulates whoever he can to his own needs.”

On Jan. 30, Gertz pleaded guilty to first-degree armed robbery in Pacific County. A half-hour later, U.S. Marshals drove him to Seattle so he could plead to the federal charges. He was ordered to serve two concurrent 20-year sentences in federal prison.


‘The girls made the case’


Between the two robberies, Gertz took about $40,000. Most of it was never found.

In prison, he represented himself in an appeal of his plea deal. In well-crafted legal briefs, he argued that due to brain damage from his many injuries, “he lacked a rational, as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”

He continued his itinerant lifestyle after being released in the early 1990s. Public records show that he has lived in Billings, Montana; Maui, Hawaii; Sophia, West Virginia; and the Puget Sound area. He does not appear to have gotten in serious trouble again.

Myers served a few years, then moved to a desert town in southern California. Though he was never convicted of another bank robbery, he’s been arrested a couple more times, most recently on suspicion of spousal abuse in 2006. Both men appear to still be alive, but could not be reached for comment.

Bank supervisors told the tellers not to discuss the robbery. Lindstrom, Tolva, Varila and the others quickly returned to their normal work routines, until the November 1984 robbery. It was all a little too quick, Tolva said. She and Varila hadn’t expected any kind of reward, but it stung when their bosses didn’t recognize their contribution.

“They never thanked us or gave us any acknowledgment at all. It was disheartening,” Tolva said. “There just wasn’t any support.”

However, Didion and Benning both insisted later that the cool-headed tellers had been the real heroes.

“The girls really made the case,” Benning told the Observer. “We would have had nothing without them.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 2 of this report will examine the 1984 Naselle bank robbery. The suspect in July 25’s robbery remains at large.



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