Ice House

How Did the Once-Largest Bank Heist in Houston History Happen?

Fifty years ago, with the Bayou City exploding, a bank that couldn’t keep up paid the price.

By Adam Doster January 23, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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It was February 16, 1967. The man was in his mid-thirties, about five-foot-eight, blonde with a sallow complexion. His suit and tie were black, as was his briefcase. His concealed pistol was blue. He wore no hat, no mask, no fake mustache—to a handful of clerks and customers inside Meyerland State Bank, he seemed perfectly ordinary, a businessman running errands on a Thursday morning in February, no different from any other.

The bank was a sandy brick rectangle on Beechnut down from the West Loop, established in 1959. There was a sign mounted on the roof. The man parked his 1956 Chevrolet in the lot out back and entered from the west, strolling past a Meyerland State executive deep in conversation with two salesmen who just happened to be hawking a state-of-the-art alarm system. Fifty years later, it makes you wonder: How safe was this place, really?

Frances Spence, Meyerland’s head teller, was working alongside her assistant, Kay Taylor, behind the counter. They watched as this sharply-dressed patron took a few long strides and slid quietly behind the teller’s cages, near a safe deposit box, meeting no resistance. Out came his firearm. Spence was closest. “Fill up the briefcase,” the man whispered to her, “and don’t make a sound.”

Taylor was next. “I just opened the drawer and let him have it,” she’d explain to reporters. “He never said a word to me.”

The besuited intruder raked stacks of bills into his attaché. And before anyone was the wiser, he was gone, out the east entrance and back into his Chevy, peeling out toward Endicott, leaving the staff befuddled and shaken, and the bank $62,211 poorer. The story led both the Houston Post and the Chronicle’s evening editions, bold banner headlines splashed across the front pages; according to the FBI, an “efficient gunman” had perpetrated the largest bank heist in Houston history.

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Head teller Frances Spence was behind the counter when the intruder pulled a gun.

For an audacious midcentury criminal, Meyerland was an attractive neighborhood in which to break the law. Developed on 1,200 acres of rice fields a decade prior, the suburb along Brays Bayou had already drawn national attention for its upper-class amenities and middle-class prices. Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed some of its distinctive ranch homes, which Look magazine featured in a 1957 spread. Meyerland Plaza, the innovative multi-store shopping center, was right around the corner.

Young families with disposable income flocked there. Garden clubs sprouted. The inner-city clatter felt a world away. “It was neighborly, very safe,” says Joshua Furman, a history post-doc at Rice working on a book about Meyerland. “It had a prominence and cachet that some of the other surrounding suburbs didn’t have.”

And Houston as a whole was undergoing an intense transition of its own. The population was booming; by 1970, it would reach 1.2 million, having doubled since 1950. Robberies were skyrocketing, too.

Banks and retailers wouldn’t start installing video security cameras until well into the ’70s or ’80s; before that, the technology was too pricey and glitchy. A particularly sophisticated branch might have trained its tellers on proper burglary protocols or rigged up a crude camera to snap still-shots during unexpected altercations, according to Robert McCrie, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, though set-ups like that were rare.

Meyerland State Bank—lacking even a single employed security guard—considered itself a friendly mom-and-pop shop, more Mayberry than Gotham, but it was suddenly operating in the modern metropolis we now understand Houston to be, with all its beauty and complications.

Indeed, February 16 wasn’t the first time the bank had been pinched. Just two days prior, under the cover of darkness, crooks had drilled a hole through one of the bank’s wood-paneled walls. They were aiming for the vault, but hit a records room instead. Their consolation prize was $650, in coins. Two years before that, in the spring of 1965, two masked men had stormed the building and swiped $37,633, only to be captured minutes later after a shootout with police.

As the Chevy skidded out of the parking lot, V.T. Vermillion, a Meyerland cashier, sprinted in pursuit. He caught a portion of the license plate, losing track of the stick-up artist as he disappeared down the road. Cops and FBI agents flooded the scene later that afternoon, dusting the manual cash registers in vain for prints. Taylor, the teller, delivered her statement nervously, hands clenched, her purse already admitted into evidence. Leads were thin.

It would take agents two more years before they collared their man, George Byron Hamlet. By then, the 38-year-old had committed at least 10 bank holdups worth some $250,000, including two in Dallas and two more in Houston, before making his way to San Diego. Authorities initially fingered him after he was photographed by hidden cameras, like those described by McCrie, during one of the Dallas raids.

At trial, Hamlet declined court-appointed counsel and elected to conduct his own defense. His initial plea was not guilty by reason of insanity, which a judge dismissed after Hamlet passed a psychiatric competency hearing. A jury eventually convicted him on six robbery counts. It took all of 12 minutes for them to deliberate, sentencing him to concurrent terms totaling 76 years.

Five decades hence, the risks of a silent, weaponized invasion like Hamlet’s nearly always outweigh the potential rewards; security and tracking measures are too advanced, legal penalties too strict. And consolidation in the financial industry has sliced the number of independent banks to pick off. In all of 2016, the FBI’s Houston field office reported just 80 bank and armored car robberies in its jurisdiction, down from 139 in 1996.

Meyerland State Bank is no longer: It merged with NBC Bank in 1978, which was absorbed by NationsBank of Texas 12 years later, which itself was bought out by Bank of America, in 1998. The location on Beechnut is now home to a BBVA Compass branch. 

And the $62,211 that Meyerland reported stolen, the richest haul in Houston history to that point? It turns out the figure was a little high. One day after Hamlet’s escapade, Meyerland officials discovered a bag in their vault containing $13,000, money they’d thought stolen but was only misplaced. In doing so, they’d forfeited their dubious crime record to Gulf Coast National Bank, pilfered of at least $50,000 a decade prior.

We have to assume executives purchased some type of elementary alarm system with the recovered proceeds.

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