Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Athena bank robbery perpetrated by repeat offender

Some footprints in the snow and the idea that the thieves knew what they were doing when they tunneled through the back wall of the bank were the only clues police and the FBI had to go on following the burglary of the Athena branch of the U.S. National Bank of Portland on Feb. 5, 1948. Bank manager F.S. LeGrow said only a person who knew all about the building and the vault would have chosen to tunnel through the 30-inch-thick brick wall from the basement stairway; the floor and ceiling of the vault were reinforced with steel rails about a foot apart, but the walls were vulnerable. Bank bookkeepers Bonnie Mayberry and June Thomas discovered the theft the morning of Feb. 6.

The thieves took $8,900 in coins from the vault, mostly in quarters and dimes, and the bags were so heavy it would have been difficult to carry them far. A severe storm the night of the robbery hampered efforts to track the men, but a blockade was placed around Walla Walla when a gas station attendant reported customers who appeared so nervous they could hardly wait until the service was completed.

One week later, police arrested Theodore James Audett, 43, a Umatilla cafe manager, and recovered $8,500 of the loot from a sagebrush cache near Echo. Some of the money was found stashed in the Damsite Cafe where he worked. No other arrests were made but Sheriff R.E. (Bob) Goad said there was no way the 6-foot-tall, 180-pound Audett could have fit through the 15-inch hole chiseled in the bank wall.

Audett was well known to law enforcement across the nation as “Bum Rap” for his repeated complaints that his many sentences were unjustified. Following his honorable discharge from the Canadian army in 1921, Audett began his life of crime and served sentences for liquor theft, car and boat thefts and several prison breaks, and was released from Alcatraz in 1940 only to be caught the same year trying to tunnel into a bank vault in Whitman, Nebraska. He was conditionally released from Alcatraz again in 1945.

U.S. Deputy Marshal Frank Myers took Audett to Portland, where he waived a preliminary hearing and asked that no bond be set. He was remanded to the federal district court.

June (Thomas) Schmidtgall worked for the Athena bank for 32 years before her retirement. She still lives in Athena. The story was suggested to me by her son.

Bonnie Mayberry (left) and June Thomas, Athena bank bookkeepers, attempt to heft bags of money similar to those stolen in a bank robbery Feb. 5, 1948. (EO file photo)

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