Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"This Gun Talks!"

Bizarre Case of the “Grandma Bandit”
Written by Robert A. Waters

The Wiltshire Boulevard branch of the California Bank in Los Angeles was crowded on that Friday morning in 1952. Behind the counter, Marguerite Evert politely greeted each customer. Next in line was a “little old lady” who wore a black jacket and green scarf. The woman quietly pulled a wrinkled-up brown paper sack from a shabby leather purse. Shoving it toward Evert, she said, “Be quiet and give me the money in the cash drawer.”

Evert was astounded. She hesitated, and the robber poked the barrel of a pistol through the bottom of the bag. “This gun talks,” she said, “and I know how to use it.” With that, she pushed a red envelope toward Evert. The teller took $1200 out of her drawer and handed it to the woman. Placing it in her envelope and putting the brown bag back in her purse, the robber casually walked away. No one noticed as she ambled to the door, strolled down the street and flagged down a cab.

Evert was so flustered it took her more than a minute to ring for the bank manager. Soon the place was swarming with cops, but they had missed their prey. The old woman was nowhere to be seen.

In the next few weeks, as she robbed bank after bank, California news hounds gave her an appropriate nickname: “The Grandma Bandit.”  Both local police and FBI agents joined the hunt, but it was a local bank manager who finally caught her.

It was nearing Christmas in the United States National Bank in Arcadia, fifteen miles east of Los Angeles, when a woman walked up to teller Lorene McGehee. “Give me all your money,” Grandma said. “I’m desperate.” McGehee, incredulous, turned to William H. Lloyd, her manager, and said, “This woman wants to rob me.”

Grandma didn’t hesitate. She turned and sprinted to the door. But Lloyd was quicker. He grabbed her and jerked the paper bag from her hands. A toy pistol fell to the floor. As Grandma begged Lloyd to let her go, bank employees triggered an alarm and soon the robber was in handcuffs. Checking her purse, cops found sixty-three cents.

Fifty-three-year-old Ethel Arata was no normal bank robber. She had once been an heiress, the daughter of Robert Catts, who lost 20 million dollars in the stock market crash of 1929. A syndicated news article written by Sam Cohen and Ruth Reynolds stated that “she once studied voice abroad and sang with the Duncan Sisters in their ‘Topsy and Eva’ company.”

Arata informed detectives that she was a Robin Hood robber, stealing from banks to give to the poor. She claimed to have given some of her proceeds from the robberies to a destitute couple who wanted to return home to Minnesota for Christmas.

Cops learned that Arata had been born to privilege in Philadelphia in 1900 and spent her childhood in private grooming schools. In 1903, Robert Catts divorced his wife and married an actress, Dorothy Tennant. In 1913, Oja McWhorter Catts, Ethel’s mother, overdosed on prescription drugs and died. In 1929, the stock market crash bankrupted her father. He died in 1942, leaving Ethel nothing.

Ethel had married four times. She’d had one child, a boy who died as an infant. In 1948, Ethel was committed to a mental institution for alcoholism. According to Cohen and Reynolds, after leaving the institution “she resumed her drinking, became hysterical and tried to kill herself by jumping from a fourth-story hotel window. Two weeks after this suicide attempt, she was found sprawled in a stupor amid a litter of wine bottles in a Hollywood rooming house. She spent five days in jail for disorderly conduct.”

When arrested for the bank robberies, Ethel was living in a dive hotel in Monrovia, California. Detectives learned that she had gambled her money away and not given it to poor people as she claimed.

A federal grand jury found her guilty of bank robbery and she was sentenced to ten years in Federal prison. Ethel Arata was paroled in 1957, two years after her conviction, and disappeared into the mists of history.

NOTE: Much of the information for this story was obtained from a news article written by Sam Cohen and Ruth Reynolds and published in several newspapers on April 10, 1955. The article was entitled: ‘Grandma’ Sentenced as Bank Robber.

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