Stalking the 'Saturday Night Bandit'

James M. Merritt

August 04, 1992|By James M. Merritt

IN 1926 we had a "crime wave" in Baltimore.

But it was a one-man wave. The perpetrator earned the epithet the "Saturday Night Bandit" because he held up neighborhood stores on Saturday night, when cash flow was heaviest.

After the first few hits, his exploits commanded banner headlines and his description became a daily fixture in the newspapers: white male in his 30s, medium build, no distinguishing marks visible under the pulled-down brim of his slouch hat. His weapon was a revolver of undetermined caliber.

In those days every police district commander wanted the public to believe that his area was as free of crime as a pastor's study (and, by comparison with 1992, it was). So when the Saturday Night Bandit continued to evade capture, the whole department became a little sensitive.

Everywhere, that is, except in South Baltimore for the simple reason that the marauder had not as yet ventured into the district commanded by Capt. John A. Cooney.

Finally one Saturday night it happened. A call came in from the excited manager of a shoe store in the 900 block of South Charles Street. The manager shouted that the bandit had just rifled his cash register at gunpoint while holding everyone in the store at bay.

Cooney was behind the desk. "Find out which way he went!" he yelled to the phone operator.

"North on Charles Street!" was the reply.

"Come on!" said Cooney. "Let's make the bastard sorry he ever came into South Baltimore!"

The captain, with Officers Erhardt and Delaney, his plainclothes operatives, and Patrolman Block, the emergency man, piled into the captain's car. I was covering police for The Sun. Press card at the ready, I followed in the patrol wagon driven by the diminutive but tough-as-nails Patrolman Martin Conroy.

Reaching the 700 block of South Charles, Erhardt leaped from the car and grabbed a pedestrian who resembled the bandit. It wasn't our man, so we sped on, leaving a badly shaken citizen with an improbable story to tell.

At Pratt Street, Cooney spotted a man boarding an eastbound trolley.

"There's the s.o.b.!" he shouted, commanding Erhardt and Delaney to take the front while he and Block boarded through the rear door.

I'll never forget the look of terrified astonishment on that motorman's face as two men in plainclothes, each waving a pistol, ran in front of his car, ordering him to stop. The pursuers converged on their quarry and very quickly had him draped over a seat while they patted him down. The search produced the revolver and the wad of bills he had just stolen.

A few weeks later the culprit, who turned out to be an amateur, was beginning 10-to-20 for armed robbery.

This could not have happened at a better time for Cooney and his men because Commissioner Charles D. Gaither and one or two of his inspectors visited the districts every Saturday night. To say they were delighted with the catch would have been the understatement of the year.

When I called the desk with the story, nightside city editor Bill Knighton sent down old Alley the photographer. We lined up Cooney and company with the prisoner. The resulting flashes from the flash powder had the neighbors around the station house at "Patapsaco" and Ostend believing the place had "caught on far."

The next morning Bill spread the story, with pictures, across six columns of the back page. I'm sure church-goers breathed easier on their way to services that Sunday, and the sermons no doubt took on a strengthened tone of confidence that crime does not pay.

/# After all, seeing is believing.

James M. Merritt still lives in Baltimore. Gilbert Sandler's Baltimore Glimpses will resume next week. He is on vacation.

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