Inside the Mind of the Bookstore Bandit


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."

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