Thief was a gentleman to the end: He takes rap Considerate bandit turns himself in

August 28, 1991|By J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy,Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON -- The thing about the "Gentleman Bandit" was his courtliness, his Cary Grant manners as he stole and stole and stole some more.

He would apologize as he tied people up, make them as comfortable as possible, return pictures of the grandchildren that he found in wallets and call the front desk of hotels to tell them the guest in Room 319 could use some help getting untied.

Once, a man started having a heart attack during a robbery, so the Gentleman Bandit called the hospital and ordered an ambulance. Sometimes he would call victims at home later to inquire whether they had recovered from their ordeal.

Posh hotels in Louisiana and Texas were his venue. He struck 100 times over two years, surprising guests with his efficiency, his unfailingly graciousness and, of course, his pistol. Frustrated police and hotel operators posted composite pictures of him to no avail. Then there was a breakthrough. A Texas salesman was arrested June 27 and charged with the crimes. But it was the wrong man.

For a time, the Gentleman Bandit watched as the salesman took the rap. But yesterday, he turned himself in to Houston police, saying he couldn't let someone else suffer for what he had done.

The man calling himself the Gentleman Bandit turned out to be Houston resident Lon Perry, 49, a churchgoing father of two who took up crime in 1989 when he lost his job and his money ran out.

Not even his wife of 26 years had a clue to what her husband had been up to. She thought he had a job working at night. Police were hard-pressed to find even a traffic ticket in Mr. Perry's past.

A computer programmer, Mr. Perry had spent 22 years in the oil business, but on Jan. 1, 1989, the energy bust caught up with him. He was laid off at Texas Eastern Corp.

"The layoff . . . left me an emotional cripple," Mr. Perry said in a statement provided by his lawyers. "Here I was nearly 50 years of age, back taxes owed to the IRS, a son in his second year at a college that I really couldn't afford."

He said that he entertained thoughts of suicide, the sense that he was more valuable dead than alive. By the spring of 1989, Mr. Perry's severance pay was almost exhausted and the bills were mounting, putting him in a "financial pressure cooker, the depression deepening and seemingly no way out."

The thoughts of suicide began turning to thoughts of robbery. In May 1989, Mr. Perry pulled off his first robbery at a motel in suburban Houston.

"Walking around the motel, I saw a room with the drapes open and one man and two ladies inside," he said in his statement. "I knocked on the door. When the man answered, I walked in pretending to know him and closed the door. I pulled the small .22-caliber antique revolver from my pocket and, inconceivable as it seemed, I actually performed the first of what would be numerous motel-hotel robberies."

He would approach hotel guests in a variety of ways, his friendly manner putting them off guard. After being admitted to a room, he pulled out his pistol -- which Mr. Perry said wouldn't fire because the hammer was frozen -- and apologized for the inconvenience.

For some guests who seemed resistant, Mr. Perry would say that he had a friend waiting outside the door in case there was trouble. But on occasion, "a potential victim would say something to me that would touch my heart and I would not be able to rob him," Mr. Perry said in his statement. "I simply would leave and most everyone would assure me that they would give me sufficient time to get away."

As Mr. Perry told the story, he wanted to stop but financial needs kept cropping up. At one point, he stopped for six months before the Internal Revenue Service put a lien on his house to cover back taxes.

Mr. Perry decided to rob just enough to make up the three months of house payments that were in arrears and end his life of crime. His last two robberies were on June 27 of this year. According to published reports of the incident, Mr. Perry made known to businessman Robert Jones that he was being robbed thus: "I have to tell you, sir, I am here under pretense. I'm going to rob you."

That might have ended the story had not Michael David Harvey, a food broker, been arrested the day after Mr. Perry's last robbery and charged with the Gentleman Bandit's crimes. According to Mr. Perry's lawyer, Allen Isbell, the Gentleman Bandit could not stand the thought of another man doing time for his crimes.

He called police and told them they had the wrong man. Lt. D. J. McWilliams of the robbery squad said yesterday that Mr. Perry sounded at the time like a man who would eventually give himself up "because it was evident he was having a real battle with his conscience."

Amid a throng of reporters and flanked by his two lawyers, Mr. Perry gave himself up yesterday morning. A magistrate set bail at $20,000 on two robbery charges. A second attorney, Rick Brass, said his client was unlikely to post bond because he couldn't afford it.

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