Michael Blackwell had every intention of being a good resident when he came to Aiken in 1972.
He said he didn't plan to start stealing from the businesses for which he worked. He said he didn't plan to shoot an Aiken business owner during a robbery.
He said he didn't plan to rob three banks of more than $100,000 at gunpoint to support a life of drugs and alcohol use that eventually led to 10 years in a federal penitentiary. And he didn't plan to hurt so many people in the process.
But he did – and now, more than 30 years later, he wants to make an apology.
“It's something that's been on my mind that I need to do,” Blackwell said at the beginning of an interview with the Aiken Standard.
“I contacted you all because I want to make a heartfelt, sincere apology to the residents of Aiken County for the devilment that I have done to them. There's no doubt that I've hurt people, and it will probably last them for the rest of their lives. If I can say something to them in a public way, let them know I'm sorry, that's what I want to do.”
Blackwell was accused, along with two of his brothers and two other men, of robbing three banks in Aiken, Beech Island and Clearwater in 1975.
“We were convicted on one, we were acquitted on one and we pled guilty on one,” he said, adding that he committed numerous other crimes for which he was neither charged nor sentenced.
Blackwell sat down with the Aiken Standard to share the story of what drove him to a life of crime, how he and his cohorts carried out their dirty deeds and how he came to regret what he did.
'Everything was going pretty good'
A native of Athens, Ga., Blackwell was working as a cook at IHOP in 1972 when he met a white University of Georgia co-ed named Judith, who was a waitress at the restaurant. Blackwell is African-American.
“We got to talking, and one thing led to another,” Blackwell said.
He and Judith moved in together, and she became pregnant. After finishing school, she moved back in with her parents in her hometown of Aiken and brought Blackwell with her.
Judith's parents moved to Aiken from Boston after her father joined the Savannah River Site as a nuclear physicist, Blackwell said. He described them as “good, Christian people” and said he still respects them today.
“It shocked me, and I'm still shocked today about it, how open they were,” Blackwell said of the Judith's parents accepting his relationship with their daughter and her pregnancy. “A black guy coming into their upscale, white community. It seemed like they didn't care anything what their neighbors thought. … I was part of the family. I was just part of the family.”
The young couple didn't stay with her parents for long.
“Our plan was to move out on our own, get our own place and raise a family,” Blackwell said.
They found a home off Highway 1, and Blackwell got a job driving a delivery truck for AR Feaster & Co.
“Everything was going pretty good. I didn't have thoughts of crime. None of that stuff was nowhere in my brain,” Blackwell said. “I came here with the intent of being a good citizen, but when you run on hard times and you're trying to maintain your family, that kind of changes a few things.”
As a driver, Blackwell made deliveries to stores around Aiken County each week. He'd take the meat orders in and drop them in the coolers, exchanging products as needed.
“Some of the storekeepers would go in there also,” he said. “I would just be glancing over my shoulder, and I would see where they were stashing their money.”
Blackwell said that, in those days, not many stores kept money in safes, but instead hid it in the coolers. That's when he said his thievery began.
“I would get some of the money. I would go in, get some of it out of the bag and put it back like it was,” he said. “I guess that's how it got started.”
Blackwell said he usually took between $50 and $100, trying to take amounts that “wouldn't be too conspicuous.”
This practice continued for nearly the entire year that Blackwell worked for Feaster, he said. He explained he went to numerous stores around Aiken County each week, dropped off a delivery and took an inconsequential amount of cash, sometimes even snagging a bottle of wine and driving the truck while drunk.
“Having that extra money that I didn't earn, which is 'fast money,' I just got hooked,” Blackwell said. “One day, they called Mr. Feaster and told him they thought I was stealing.”
Feaster began “trailing” Blackwell, he said, and Blackwell said he caught on to what his boss was doing. He began searching for another job and left AR Feaster after getting a job as a press operator at Thermo Disc. There, he worked the night shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“I had developed this lifestyle from all that fast money,” he said. “I wanted to keep that lifestyle up and keep my friends around me, so I concocted this idea.”
Blackwell said he called one of his brothers, and one night during his shift, he left a door unlocked so his brother could enter the building, break into a change machine in the break room and steal the money from inside the machine.
The operation went smoothly, and it appeared they'd gotten away with it, he said. Until the next day.
“They said, 'We're not gonna accuse anybody of anything, but we're gonna ask everybody to take a polygraph,'” Blackwell recalled. Two weeks later, he said it was his turn to take the polygraph.
“I said, 'Listen, I haven't done anything, but if I have to take a polygraph just to prove something, I guess they don't need me working here,'” Blackwell said. “I was confident that the polygraph would have seen. I didn't admit anything. I just walked off.”
By that point, Blackwell and his wife had a young daughter, and while they were still together, “it's kind of like we're best friends,” he said.
His “fast money” that was funding his life of drinking, smoking, pills and LSD, was in danger of falling apart.
“So, here I am,” he said. “No job. I've messed up with Thermo Disc and AR Feaster, and money's running low.”
'I didn't want to hurt nobody'
One philosophy Blackwell said he uses even today is: If you can't do it by yourself, don't do it.
“That was my first thought,” he said. “I knew I needed some money, and I said I got to do it by myself. If I don't do it by myself, I can't do it.”
He said he planned to rob two places in one night by himself around January 1975 – a convenience store on Whiskey Road, and a store in the Valley area where he frequently delivered meat previously for AR Feaster.
The first attempt went smoothly, but Blackwell said he ran into trouble with the lone employee of the second store.
“You wouldn't think the Lord would be with you robbing somebody, but I look back on it and say, 'the Lord had to be with me,'” Blackwell said. “Me and that man, we were struggling in the store.”
After a physical struggle, Blackwell said he got the money.
“I didn't want to hurt nobody. I hastened out the door and across the street,” he said.
Blackwell said he ran in a different direction from which he entered and came upon an embankment. The store owner was coming behind him with a gun.
“I got to the edge of this thing and said, 'Oh my God, I've got to jump,'” he said. “I heard something say, 'Pop-pop-pop!' and I jumped. I know it's a gun, but I don't know if I'm hit or not. I jump and run.”
Blackwell said he returned to his home, and after some confusion, got his wife and daughter into the car, and they drove to his parents' home in Athens.
He said he scored about $1,200 from the two robberies, but the fast money proved to be “an addiction” – an expensive one.
“The faster you get the money, the faster you're spending it,” he said. “I had to reason with myself: I'm gonna get just as much (prison) time, or more, robbing these little nickel and dime stores than I am gonna get robbing a bank.”
Blackwell needed something bigger. But he wouldn't be able to get it by himself.
Editor's note: This is one of a three-part series of Blackwell's life of crime and redemption, as he told it to the Aiken Standard. Part two, which will publish Tuesday, tells the story of how Blackwell and his co-conspirators carried out three armed bank robberies around Aiken County. Part three, to be published Wednesday, will cover Blackwell's 10-year stint in prison and how he turned his life around after getting out.