Saturday, 24 November 2007

Partners In Crime

By Max Alexander (From Reader's Digest)

This new Bonnie and Clyde robbed $500,000 from a half-dozen banks, then lived the highlife on the lam.

For winter recreation, it doesn't get much better than Mt. Bachelor, with its 3,365-foot vertical drop and 350 annual inches of snow. The Oregon ski resort has it all when you throw in some kick-off-your-shoes nightlife; the area's Upper Castle Keep Lounge warns, "Choose one of our other facilities if you can't handle too much fun!"

But too much fun wasn't a problem for good-looking Brent Wilson "Wil" Hicks and his athletic girlfriend, Alex Santini. The couple pulled into nearby Bend in December 1998, anticipating a fast-paced season of snowboarding and partying. An Internet stock trader, Hicks could work anywhere that had a high-speed connection for his laptop. After renting a two-month condo, paying $1,800 cash for ski passes and joining the local Gold's Gym, Hicks and Santini settled into a daily routine of a little work, and a lot of play.

At night in the Lounge, the couple made friends with Carey Black, a cocktail waitress, who didn't know that Hicks, whose real name was Craig Pritchert, was in fact a career criminal and a wanted man. At age 37, he'd already done time for bank robbery. Santini was Nova Guthrie, a 25-year-old college grad with no criminal record but a taste for high living. Over 16 months from 1997 to 1999, authorities now say, Craig, often with Nova's help, pulled off precision, armed "takedown" heists in banks from Oregon to Texas, netting as much as half a million dollars. The robberies earned them comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, the bank-robbing lovers who eluded cops for four years before perishing in a rain of police bullets in 1934.

Shortly after arriving in Bend, Craig and Nova began checking out the Klamath First Federal Bank. It was the kind of bank Craig liked: in a small town without a lot of cops and across from a busy shopping center, where a getaway car could blend in quickly. Best of all, it was open until six on Fridays -- after dark during winter.

On a Friday in late February, Nova was behind the wheel of a silver Subaru that pulled into the parking lot of the Timbers Bar & Grill, just down the street from the bank. It was just before six, and as darkness settled in, authorities allege that Craig donned a latex mask-and-wig likeness of a bearded old man. He grabbed a walkie-talkie and a white canvas bag, zipped up his ski parka and headed for the bank. Nova stayed in the car with the other walkie-talkie and a police scanner. Her job was to listen for the words "211 in progress" -- cop code for a bank robbery -- then alert Craig.

But Craig didn't give the bank's three employees time to trip silent police alarms. He burst in wielding a semiautomatic handgun and ordered manager Bill Olsen to lock the door. "At first I thought it was a joke," says Olsen, "but he got my attention when he cocked the gun and threatened to blow my head off." This was not the Craig who charmed waitresses and swapped stock tips at the bar. "Every other word was an obscenity," Olsen recalls. "He knew how to terrorize."

Craig told the operations officer, Rhonda Dent, to draw the shade over the drive-up window and open the vault. As Dent filled a bank bag, Craig ordered Olsen and teller Laurie Morin to their knees, and bound their hands and ankles with plastic flex ties. When Dent couldn't cram any more bills into the bank bag, Craig whipped out another and demanded she fill that one too. Then he tied up Dent, grabbed both bags and bolted out a side door. It was over almost as soon as it began.

Back in their condo, Craig and Nova counted $120,000 in cash. It was a stunning haul, but their day's work wasn't done. Craig lit the wood stove and tossed in the mask, the remaining flex ties and his ski jacket. On Saturday, he got rid of the radios. On Sunday, in what seemed an amazingly generous gesture, the couple gave Carey Black, their friendly cocktail waitress, the title to their silver Subaru. Then they disappeared in a BMW.

Even before he met Nova, Craig had been eluding cops, and baffling those close to him, for years. Raised in a middle-class, Catholic family in Scottsdale, Arizona, Craig stood out from the crowd -- and not just because he was handsome and gregarious. He was a gifted outfielder and switch-hitter at Coronado High School; the team won the state baseball championship in his senior year. There he met his future wife, Laurie, a pretty blond cheerleader and the homecoming queen. "He said all the right things," recalls Laurie. "You felt like he knew so much."

After graduating, Craig played in a summer league with future batting champ Mark McGwire; at Arizona State University in 1982 (a year after he and Laurie married), he landed on a dream team with Barry Bonds and other soon-to-be major-leaguers. With Craig on track to be a high draft pick for the majors, he and Laurie settled down to raise a family, ultimately having three kids.

But Craig couldn't keep his eye on the ball, so to speak. Frustrated with sitting on the bench as Bonds and other heavyweights took the field, he dropped out of ASU after one year. He could have transferred to another Division I school or simply cooled his heels, waiting for Bonds to move on. "He had no patience," says Laurie.

Beneath Craig's charismatic exterior was a controlling, manipulative person who craved danger. Unbeknownst to his wife, he had been living a life of petty crime and deception for years. "He gets off on it," says Laurie. "I found out that in high school he was stealing tires off cars at fancy dealerships, and then selling them at a swap meet the next day."

Perfect Partner
Tire theft escalated to more daring crimes during the late '80s, when the couple separated, in part because of what Laurie says was Craig's repeated infidelity. He seemed to enjoy taunting her, at one point frolicking in the hot tub of her apartment complex with another woman. While she worked full-time as a bank teller to support her kids, her estranged husband was robbing banks to support his taste for the good life. Laurie once spotted him driving a silver Porsche Carrera.

The couple divorced in 1990, and later that year the FBI caught up with Craig in Honolulu, where he'd relocated with a girlfriend. Arrested and convicted of robbing a Las Vegas bank in April of that year, Craig served five years in Arizona's Black Canyon federal penitentiary. There he read The Wall Street Journal every day and dreamed of making a fast buck as a day trader when he got out.

After his 1996 release, during a visit with his kids, he told Laurie's second husband, John Pulzato, that robbery was like a drug -- and it was his drug of choice. "There is no better high," Craig said, describing how he would sit in his car before a heist and pump himself up, like an athlete getting ready for the big game.

Clearly, he hadn't put crime behind him, which became evident soon enough. On August 12, 1997, investigators say, Craig held up a Scottsdale Norwest Bank. That same day, Laurie was working as a teller at a Norwest branch in nearby Mesa. She believes his choice of banks was no coincidence.

That afternoon, local cops came close to nabbing their man during a spectacular getaway that included a diversionary car fire and a cat-and-mouse chase through a luxury shopping mall, with Craig buying -- and changing -- clothes several times. In the end, the cops found Craig's car, strewn with wads of cash and a bank money-tracking device -- but no Craig. A few weeks later, the bank robber walked into a restaurant in Farmington, New Mexico, and met Nova.

She was a dark-haired beauty from the tiny rural town of Boone, Colorado. Her steelworker dad and schoolteacher mom were strict Christian fundamentalists, and Nova showed little sign of straying from the flock. A member of the National Honor Society as well as the Christian Student Fellowship in high school, she went on to earn a premed degree from Morningside College in Iowa. "She was very intelligent," says her college roommate, Tina Laskie. Laskie says Nova attended church on campus, but also had a bit of a wild side. "She wasn't afraid to get dirty, and she didn't let anybody push her around."

But why did she throw it all away for a life of crime? Family members can offer little more than sighs of disbelief. Was it true love? Perhaps, but people who know Craig believe Nova was swept up by his forceful personality. "He could sell ice to Eskimos," says John Pulzato.

When she met Craig, Nova was helping her brother Gerald sell vacuum-cleaning supplies in New Mexico. Although Craig was 12 years older, she once said she saw something in him that matched something in her. For his part, Craig has said he had never met any woman like her.

Craig had a reputation as a ladies' man, but as far as cops knew, he had always kept his love life and his crime life separate. Yet Nova became Craig's perfect partner in love -- and crime.

Their spree began on Halloween 1997 when cops say Craig and Nova, along with an accomplice still at large, held up a Bank of the Southwest branch in Durango, Colorado -- cleaning the vault out of $60,000. They avoided big cities, hitting one-horse towns like Aztec, New Mexico. Nova would case a bank by going in for a money order, then studying the layout. And Craig figured out you could dunk stolen loot in a bucket of water (which Nova kept in the getaway car) to disable tracking devices. "I consider Craig one of the more intelligent bank robbers," says Tom Van Meter, a robbery detective with the Scottsdale Police Department.

But he was an even better fugitive. Using a host of fake names, bogus IDs and unstoppable charm, Craig and Nova managed to hide in plain sight -- from the slopes of Mt. Bachelor to the beaches of Belize. The money dwindled quickly, especially given Craig's appreciation for sharp clothes, watches and premium liquor. To fund their "permanent vacation," the pair continued the holdups. Thanks to several appearances on "America's Most Wanted," Craig and Nova sightings started flowing in, and FBI agents say they came close to them several times -- just not quite close enough.

Then the cops got a break. On March 8, 1999, about two weeks after the Bend heist, Nova turned herself in -- possibly following a fight with Craig. "I think I'm wanted," she told a Baptist minister, who drove her to an FBI office in Denver. During a four-hour interview with agents, she spilled the story of their life on the lam. Based on the information she gave them about Craig, all charges against her were eventually dropped, and she was allowed to leave.

Permanent Vacation
Enter Special Agent Mike Sanborn of the FBI's Fugitive Task Force in Phoenix, a burly ex-Marine with a nose for hard cases. Sanborn studied Nova's FBI interview, searching for clues. The couple often stayed in Super 8 Motels, so he sent photos of the pair to every Super 8 in the country. When Craig's oldest son played in the state high school baseball playoffs, the stadium was swarming with FBI agents and local cops. But Craig never showed. "It was my feeling they weren't in the country anymore," says Sanborn.

The special agent now believes that after Craig and Nova hooked up again, they fled to Belize. There they spent about eight months on the island of Ambergris Caye, a snorkeling and fishing paradise. With robbery money running low, Nova probably worked in a local restaurant, while Craig occupied himself day-trading. Eventually, agents say, Craig and Nova moved farther afield, spending time in London, Athens and Cyprus. After the September 11 attacks, Sanborn figures, the couple decided it would be too risky to re-enter the United States, given tighter security checks. But where in the world were they?

In July 2003, four years after Nova's disappearance, Sanborn got a tip that the pair was seen at a nightspot in Cape Town, South Africa. The tipster said Nova was working at the Bossa Nova Club under the name Andi Brown. Sanborn thought it was far-fetched at first, "but several things made sense," he recalls. Nova had worked as a waitress before, and often used aliases that were "four-letter names." So he e-mailed the FBI's legal attaché in Pretoria and asked about Cape Town.

"I got a one-sentence response," says Sanborn: "Cape Town is a fugitive haven." In less time than it takes to park at the airport, Sanborn "Googled" a website for the Bossa Nova that included hundreds of photos from theme parties, where costume-clad regulars and employees danced the night away. "I got to about picture 300, and there she was, plain as day."

The photo, labeled "Giorgos & Andi," shows an attractive, dark-haired woman, smiling cheek-to-cheek with club owner Giorgos Karipidis. But Sanborn had never met Nova in person, and he needed to be sure. "I sent the photo to the Denver agents who had interviewed her, and they said, 'Hey, nice picture of Nova. Where'd you get it?' "

Sanborn then assigned undercover agents from the FBI along with South African police to stake out the club. (South Africa has an extradition treaty with the United States.) Andi had an American accent, agents noticed, and a large sunburst tattoo on the small of her back -- just like Nova's. But Craig was nowhere to be seen. Then, Craig -- or "Dane," as he was known around the bar -- walked in. When he greeted "Andi" warmly, the jig was up. "The two of them hugged and kissed," says Sanborn, who was directing the stakeout via cell phone from Phoenix, 10,000 miles away.

Four nights later, South African police arrested Craig and Nova without incident as they were sitting down to a dinner of Chinese takeout in their $325-a-month sparsely furnished apartment in a mixed oceanside neighborhood. Cops found a pile of fake passports in the apartment, but no guns -- or wads of cash. "They were living near the poverty level," one of the arresting agents observed.

Bossa Nova owner Karipidis, who says he frequently loaned cash to Craig and Nova, had become close with them during their two-year stay. When he heard they'd been arrested, "I thought it was a joke," he recalls. He says Nova managed the club and had access to his bank codes and accounts. "They could have taken close to half a million dollars," he explains. "It seems obvious to me they came here to change." They left in handcuffs -- after a final embrace that Karipidis arranged through a friend in Immigration.

It was likely their last kiss. Nova, now in custody near Denver, pleaded guilty in May to three robberies and will get a sentence of up to 20 years, but could serve much less. The following month, Craig, while being held in Arizona, also pleaded guilty to three counts of armed robbery, as well as a gun charge. He is looking at 20 to 22½ years behind bars.

Karipidis says Craig and Nova's crime-free life in South Africa should be considered by prosecutors or parole boards. "They're not the same people they were," he says. "And they never hurt anybody."

Laurie Pulzato, who no longer works as a bank teller after being robbed at gunpoint herself, disagrees. "The mental duress during robbery is extreme," she says. "What flashes through your mind is your kids, and you're just praying, Please don't kill me." She says Craig's real victims are their children, who've spent years being stigmatized in classrooms and on the same baseball diamonds where Craig once shone, because of their father's misdeeds.

It's not too much of a stretch to view Nova as yet another of Craig's victims. "He feels responsible for her," says Karipidis, who spoke to Craig in prison. "He feels he's the one who got her into trouble."

But Nova's mother says blaming Craig is too easy. "Had she served the Lord and not strayed from what she knew," says Delores Guthrie, "this would not have happened." Nova's brother Gerald puts it another way: "We all follow a path, don't we? He had a life to lead, and she had a choice to follow."

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