Inside the Mind of the Bookstore Bandit

PHOTO: In 1990, John Nelson was dubbed the bookstore bandit by the Los Angeles Police Department for a crime spree that began with bookstores and ended at his fifth bank.PlayCourtesy John Nelson
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These days, when John Nelson sees an online video of an ink pack exploding purple mist all over a hapless bank robber, he cringes a little.

"Sometimes they're hard to look at," Nelson said in an interview with ABC News correspondent John Berman. "You really do look foolish, your actions are foolish, your decision-making has been foolish. Everything about it is just -- the joke's on you."

Nelson knows all too well the embarrassment of being caught in public with a pocketful of money exploding into a purple mess.

In 1990, at 24 years old, John Nelson was dubbed "the bookstore bandit" by the Los Angeles Police Department for a crime spree that began at bookstores and ended at his fifth bank.

"I was standing on the street corner not 60 feet from the bank," he said, recalling that last bank heist, "and I felt a loud snap in my pocket, and it was sprayed up into my nose, and the pink and purple smoke was billowing up all around me, and I looked like a Vegas showgirl. And this clump of money that was in my pocket was now on the ground."

The only thing Nelson could do was run and hide, seeing as the explosion knocked the keys to his getaway car out of his pocket. He ran to the parking lot where his car was, found a bush and dove under it as LAPD officers swarmed the area.

The end of Nelson's crime spree was near. All that was left was to contemplate how a casual conversation with a former girlfriend sent him on a downward spiral of armed robbery and prison.

"I had a girlfriend who worked at a bookstore, and there was a robbery, and she explained that some guy came in with a gun and wanted all the money, and she said to herself, you know, 'I can't stay in this company ... here, take all the money and here's this register as well,'" Nelson said.

"That information just stuck, this little larcenous kernel stuck in my head."

That kernel, Nelson said, would fester in his mind for some time until he found himself broke and in possession of a movie prop .38 revolver. Being broke is one thing, but what pushed John Nelson to actually take the step of robbery?

He couldn't blame it on a troubled childhood.

"I grew up in a middle-class household. Church on Sundays," he said. "It was a good neighborhood. There were a lot of things to be happy about."

With unflinching honesty behind thick black-rimmed glasses, he sums it up simply: He said he was aimless, lazy and "ethically spoiled" by his early 20s.

Growing up, both of his parents worked hard and Nelson found it easy to play them off each other to get out of trouble -- a lesson he carried with him right into that first bookstore, along with a useful kernel of information about employee apathy and a prop gun in his waistband.

"I explained to the person behind the counter that it wasn't about, you know, harming anybody. I didn't want to hurt anybody, I just wanted to get the cash and be on my way," he said.

"I got essentially that same sort of apathetic, well, I don't care, here, yeah, it's not my money. And I applied that [to] about 45 more robberies. Essentially just walking in and pulling my T-shirt tight behind my back to reveal the handle of the revolver in my waistband. People would tend to go from there."

Nelson was hooked. He says it wasn't about power, but rather the rush of the crime, the pocketful of cash and the secret he kept from everyone he knew.

"In the moment your heart is racing, and you know you're doing something very, very wrong. I didn't think the consequences applied to me. I didn't think that far ahead," he said.

For all the yelling, criminal masterminding and gun play typically seen in movie bank robbery scenes, Nelson said his experience was very different.

"It was about displaying the proper credentials. A note, and the butt of the revolver in my waistband. Something that shows the people behind the counter that you're here for one thing, and like any other transaction, we can get this over with and I could be on my way," he said.

"It's almost as if both the people behind the counter and the people executing the robbery itself are both trained in a certain way to act out a certain role. I basically depended on those roles being played."

Nelson insists it's no justification for what he did, but he said he was always polite, always kept his voice down and nonthreatening to make sure the situation remained in control.

"The implication was that there was a threat, of course -- which technically is the crime, but I was good in that, again it wasn't about bullying," he said. "It was just get in, display the proper credentials, be given my prize, and walk out."

Those robbery "roles" garnered Nelson a take of roughly $60,000. Until other roles -- ones he hadn't thought about -- played their parts as well by his fifth bank.

"I walked in and said I have a note for you, and the woman at that last bank knew exactly what it was and didn't even open it, she just started handing the cash over the counter. Knowing that those things that are set up for her protection, were going to do their part," he recalled.

"The cameras, the security button for the alarm and the dye-pack, they would all come into play on her side. I didn't have anything on my side at all except my feet, and that didn't last long."

So there he was, hiding in a hedge in a parking lot, with swarms of police all around him, some even using the hood of his car to lay out a map of the area. Just when things couldn't get worse, a school bell rang.

"This parking lot was flooded with school kids. I had parked in St. Mary's Catholic schoolyard parking lot, and they used their parking lot for a playground for the kids," Nelson said. "I'm sitting there tears are streaming down my face because I'm realizing what have I done, what have I done to my life, what have I done to myself."

A minute later, Nelson said, a red ball came bouncing right into the bush and hit his feet. Soon after, a young boy came bounding in, looking for the ball.

He crawled into the hedge and Nelson curled up tightly, hoping the boy wouldn't see him.

"He slowly backed out the way he came in. I thought OK, good, no problem, until I started hearing, 'The bad guy's in the bushes, the bad guy's in the bushes.' So at that point, I knew I my goose was cooked, and I stood straight up in the hedge, and I saw about 30 cops freeze and look dead at me. One of them had a cigarette dangling out his mouth, with their mouths hanging open. For about just a split-second, everybody was sort of frozen," Nelson said.

He took off running but was caught shortly after and sent to prison, ashamed and embarrassed for the turn he'd taken.

For some, that would be it. Years in the penal system could either break him or send him right back into crime when he got out. Fortunately for Nelson, after coming to terms with the shame of getting caught and getting sent to prison, something good happened: John Nelson discovered he was worth something.

"During my incarceration I was given opportunities to find a voice and pursue it by people in the facilities that I was sent to who cared. Who saw some potential in me and, and, and encouraged me," he said.

Nelson began to write, and found he had a voice and a knack for comedy. He fostered a correspondence with writer Henry Rollins during his four-year prison sentence and did something he hadn't done before: He didn't quit. he kept writing and working and learned something valuable.

"That the voice I discovered while I was incarcerated is worth fighting for and worth sharing with people, and that I actually learned some things, lessons along the way that, might be of use to other people, convincing people not to execute their own worst ideas."

For Nelson, prison was where all the excuses he had made in his life to commit his crimes and not work toward honest goals died.

"The first thing that I ever started and finished was a prison sentence. It was a very harrowing experience, but it was also a real journey of self-discovery," he said.

He continued to write when he got out and, with the blog, created an homage to his time in prison and a platform to discuss issues of prison reform, prisoner rights and recidivism. He also uses his sharp, slightly dark wit to take people to task for using bad excuses in day to day life.

The blog became the basis for a book, "Where Excuses Go to Die," which will be published next year.

He still has flashbacks of his bank robber days when he walks into banks, as he puts it, as an honest citizen. Fortunately, for Nelson, the need for taking the short route is gone.

"I laugh a little bit to myself, again, being really grateful that that part of my life is gone," he said.

Nelson has a message for would-be bank robbers -- don't do it.

"Everything passes. If you need money now, just sleep on it, wait a night. I know that that sounds ridiculous. I know that to a country right now, in the situation that we're in economically, there are so many people out there who are desperate," he said. "But in terms of the individual consequences, and how it affects the lives of the people around you, it's not worth it."