With its front and rear entrances, one of which fed into the winding maze of Aiken Estates, the Farmers and Merchants Bank in the Mitchell Shopping Center on Whiskey Road was an ideal target for a bank robber.
Michael Blackwell said he did his banking there and was familiar with the layout of the building. This was where he and several accomplices would carry out the first of three robberies.
Blackwell said he got three of his brothers and two friends in on the plan, which would be carried out about two months after Blackwell single-handedly robbed two stores in one night. This would be the brothers' first robbery, too.
“I tried to school them, let them know what they're getting into. I gave them plenty of time to think about it,” he said, adding that they came to Aiken shortly before the robbery and scoped out the bank at night.
“I showed them which way we're coming in, which way we're coming out, which street we're going down, which way the police are gonna come,” Blackwell said. “I mapped everything out, to the T.”
'They froze. We told them to get on the floor'
On the morning of March 24, 1975, the men left Blackwell's home and rode together to the bank in a green Plymouth belonging to one of his brothers, Blackwell recalled. Once at the bank, Blackwell, one of his brothers and Blackwell's two friends prepared to enter the bank, with Blackwell brandishing a sawed-off shotgun and the other three men carrying handguns, he said. They wore pantyhose on their heads to conceal their faces.
Outside, one of the brothers – the “good driver,” according to Blackwell – parked the car behind the bank on Hitchcock Drive. The other brother was posted near the front of the bank, holding a rifle.
“If the police ran up on us while we were in the bank, his job was to fire on them,” Blackwell said. “I don't want to hurt or kill nobody, but I don't want nobody to hurt or kill me, nor capture me either. … It's gonna be me or them.”
At 9:42 a.m., the alarm sounded.
“Freeze!” Blackwell recalled yelling. “They froze. We told them to get on the floor.”
According to previous reports, there were five customers and six bank employees inside at the time. The robbers reportedly closed the drapes over the windows in the lobby.
Blackwell said he reached up with his shotgun and hit a security camera above the entrance, knocking off the lens.
“We ain't here to hurt you, we're here for the money. But if you want to play hero, you can get hurt,” Blackwell said he told the victims.
He remembered watching a television show called “The F.B.I.” which was an authentic retelling of actual FBI case files. One thing he said he learned is not to let tellers give you the money because they'll put a dye bomb in.
“My men jumped the counters and got the money themselves,” he said.
The phone rang, and the bank manager asked to get it, Blackwell said. He wouldn't let him answer it.
In just a few minutes, the men had about $40,000 in cash and checks in two bags, according to previous reports. They fled through the back door of the bank, jumped over a fence and got into the waiting getaway car, Blackwell said.
“I knew which way the police would be coming, and we were gonna be going the opposite direction,” he said. “We rode by them, and I'm laughing at them.”
The brother who was standing out near the front of the bank could see them leave out the back door, Blackwell said. “Once he saw us, he left. Everything was timed,” he said.
Blackwell said he was glad they didn't have to hurt anyone during the robbery, and expressed anger at criminals who hurt people unnecessarily.
“They did what we told them to do, and I appreciated that. I don't want that (murder) on my mind,” he said. “What really turns my gut, really makes me sick – when people do what you ask them to do, and then you kill them.
“That's just evil,” he continued. “You don't have to kill somebody.”
The men went back to Blackwell's home, split up the money “and everybody went their separate ways,” he said.
Blackwell said it's difficult to describe the feeling that leads someone to steal in such a violent way.
“You know you're doing wrong, but the lifestyle, the money, the horror you're doing, the drugs – you just get hooked on it,” he said. “I wish I had a way of explaining it. … You know it's wrong, you know you shouldn't do it, but you've started something that you ain't fixing to stop.”
'It was gonna be my life until they kill me or I kill them'
Blackwell and his accomplices had carried out the first successful bank robbery in the City of Aiken since 1932, according to an article in the March 25, 1975, issue of the Aiken Standard. He didn't know it at the time, though, because during their crime spree, he said they didn't read the newspaper.
After the first robbery, Blackwell's brother took the green Plymouth they used as a getaway car to Detroit, where he bought a new Cadillac El Dorado, Blackwell said. This would be one of their getaway cars for the next bank robbery on June 12 of the same year, the target of which would be the First State National Bank in Beech Island.
“It was a bank that sat isolated, all by itself,” Blackwell said.
The day before the robbery, Blackwell said they stole a Buick LeSabre from a car lot in Augusta. They drove to the bank in the stolen car.
According to an archived story, an armored truck had made a delivery at the Beech Island bank shortly before the robbery around 11:30 a.m.
Blackwell said they followed the same template for this robbery. One of their men – the lookout – drove a separate car, which he parked on an embankment near the bank with the hood up, giving the appearance that he had car trouble, Blackwell said.
The men entered the bank and ordered everyone to the floor, according to court documents. One of the robbers held a gun to the bank manager's head and forced him to open the safe.
Altogether, they got away with $55,000 from the vault and about $4,800 from the teller drawers, according to the documents.
They drove the stolen Buick from the bank to a wooded area between Highways 25 and 125, where the new Cadillac was parked, Blackwell said. Although there were four people in the Cadillac, two of the men were crouched down on the floorboard, he said.
“They (police) see two black males, but they're looking for four,” he said. “They couldn't stop us because we're driving a Cadillac. We're not driving a car they've got a description of.”
With the fast money flowing, Blackwell said he was living his ideal lifestyle comfortably, which included a Hawaiian vacation and a trip to the Playboy Mansion in Chicago.
“We just lived it up,” he said. “I planned to keep it going. It was gonna be my life until they kill me or I kill them. I had gotten to the stage in my life where I just didn't give a damn. I didn't care no more.”
'I was prepared to die'
That same absence of care carried over into the selection of the group's third target, the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Midland Valley Plaza in Clearwater on Sept. 9, 1975.
“The second one, I just got bolder. The third one, it didn't really matter,” Blackwell said. “There was nothing particular about that bank.”
After snatching about $44,000, the men ditched their getaway car and headed toward Blackwell's parents' home in Athens, Ga., he said. A fourth robbery attempt was already being planned, had it not been for the events that unfolded three days later, he said.
Blackwell remembered standing on the porch of his parents' home in Athens around dusk.
“Looking down at the end of the projects, I see this car coming in, he's just got his parking lights on,” he recalled. “I said, 'That's kind of strange.'”
Another car could be heard approaching, but never got into eyesight, Blackwell said. He went into the house and got his 9 mm handgun and filled his pockets with bullets, he said.
Blackwell said he walked outside toward the street, and as the car he saw earlier came closer to the home and parked, he cocked his gun.
“I figured that was it,” he said. “I'm ready to just do away with it. I know they're closing in on me – I can feel it.” He walked by the car “calmly,” the gun in his belt with his finger on the trigger, he said.
“As soon as I walk by them, their front doors open, they jump out and said, 'Freeze!'” he said.
Blackwell said his finger was still on the trigger of his gun.
“I'm thinking real fast, 'Do I turn around and shoot it out with them, or do I freeze?'” he said. “Before I can complete that thought, they had me all jacked up. They took me to court.”
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series of Blackwell's life of crime and redemption, as he told it to the Aiken Standard. Part three, which will run Wednesday, will cover Blackwell's time in prison, how he turned his life around after getting out and how he plans to reach out to his victims.