The gentleman bandit


HE WAS A gentleman. He was also a man who carried a gun and robbed people, but he was nice about it. In a society lacking in manners or sophistication, even a courteous bandit warrants special attention. That certainly seems to be the case with Lon Perry of Houston.

Perry, 49, was a computer programmer who spent 22 years in the oil business and suddenly got down on his luck. He lost his job at Texas Eastern Corp. on Jan. 1, 1989. By spring, his severance pay had almost run out, his bills were in arrears, and his choices of where to turn were about gone.

His first robbery was in May 1989. That led to more than 100 robberies for this father of two who has been married for 26 years. He developed a knack for robbing motel guests, used his gracious personality to gain entry to rented rooms, and let his not-so-nice .22-caliber pistol do the rest.

Word of his criminal escapades are turning Perry into sort of a folk hero. He would apologize to his victims for tying them up, try to make them comfortable, let the front desk know a guest needed to be untied, and mail snapshots of grandchildren found in the wallets of the people he robbed. He once called an ambulance when a potential victim decided to have a heart attack rather than go along with the robbery. He called his victims at home to see how they were getting along after being robbed.

His wife says she didn't know what was going on. She believed him when he said he had a night job, and she was glad to see family bills being paid and a son's second year of college taken care of.

Still, Perry had a hard time living with his role as a highwayman. He quit holding people up in June after a series of heists amassed enough money to make up the three months of back house payments.

Then police arrested someone else for the robberies. Perry waited for a while and turned himself in to keep someone else from going to jail for his crimes.

The affair has drawn a lot of news attention. It is a media novelty to be able to play up the gentleman-bandit aspect and focus on someone sacrificing freedom for someone he doesn't even know when the outcome could be 35 years in jail.

But no one is asking how a hard-working, churchgoing, middle-of-the-road WASP male, with work experience and a family, could start sticking up people in motels.

Almost 20 years ago, Jesse Jackson told an audience at the Midwest Minority Business Expo that "people will steal before they starve." It was a call to socio-economic consciousness that fell on deaf ears.

Now there are more poor, unemployed, underemployed, non-health-insured and homeless families and individuals living on the edge than ever before in U.S. history. That's happening at the same time that honest, want-to-be-hard-working folks are watching crooks in suits stealing everything they can get their hands on and sticking average citizens with the bill for restitution.

It strips a person of humanity to watch loved ones go without enough to eat or enough to wear or enough to pay for necessities, such as shelter. It wears down the head of a household until he or she feels there is nowhere to turn.

It wore Lon Perry down. He gave up on Horatio Alger's American Dream No. 1: hard work creating fame and fortune. He bought into the alternative and increasingly popular dream sequence that says get your money any way you can and no one will ask where it came from.

Perry doesn't fit the criminal profile that many people in this country seem comfortable with. He is not a person of color. He has held a decent job and successfully raised a family for more than a generation. He is just an all-American guy who decided to rob people rather than see his family on the street.

Perry's case is not an isolated incident. He is an example of the hell being caught by middle- and low-income people around the nation. He is an example of people stretched so thin that there are no longer two sides to an issue, no longer right or wrong -- just somehow finding a way to survive.

This is not an effort to justify robbery or other crimes. But we should recognize that similar acts of desperation will become more and more frequent as we allow manufacturing to leave the country and service-sector employment to pay meager wages. That silent majority we've heard so much about is hurting badly.

They can't, won't and shouldn't continue to pay for the excesses of the rich and bolster the quality of life for the poorest Americans while their own lifestyles deteriorate until they, too, are in need of public assistance.

We shouldn't be willing to watch decent people turn into outlaws and outlaws into animals as a system is created in which there are only the very rich and the very poor.

Bandits -- even gentlemen bandits -- are not cute and folksy. They are desperate men and women. There will be more of them. They won't all be polite and not want to hurt people and have nagging consciences.

That might be something we want to think about before we assume there's something gallant about the deep hole we're letting the Lon Perrys of the world fall into -- or the way he chose to dig himself out of it.

Don Williamson is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

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