The woman behind the mask

Crystal Little enters the Forcht Bank on Southland Drive with an unloaded pistol hidden in the blue canvas bag. This was her first robbery.

Will Wright

At just before 10 a.m., a teller at the PNC Bank on Tates Creek Road looked up as a heavyset woman wearing a white surgical mask and mirrored sunglasses walked toward her.

The woman didn’t look dangerous, but she was carrying two canvas Walmart shopping bags and set them on the counter with a sense of purpose.

“I’m not going to hurt anyone, I just want $100,000,” she told the teller. “Don’t sound no alarms, I just want $100,000.”

Virginia Johnson, the teller, looked at the Walmart bags and worried the woman was hiding a gun.

Johnson was right, though she would never see the unloaded Davis Model D-38 pistol.

Across the lobby was Joe Wilder, the bank manager, who immediately recognized the disguised woman from reports of previous bank robberies in Lexington. When he saw her walk in, he knew the bank was about to be robbed.

Wilder could just make out the teller saying, “I can’t understand you,” before she handed over some money. As the robber spun around and started toward the door, Wilder followed two or three feet behind her.

She opened the bank door and got into a gold Camry parked directly in front of the bank. While standing inside, Wilder looked for the license plate, but it was covered with a pillowcase.

As the woman sat in the driver’s seat, she paused, turned, and she and Wilder stared at each other for a moment. Then the woman backed out of her parking space, squealed the tires, bounced over a curb and drove out of sight.

She had to go to her own bank and make a deposit. She was behind on bills, and the money she made at UK’s Office of Research Integrity wasn’t cutting it.

Finding ‘the fix’

It was June 12, 2010, and Crystal Little was about to rob her first bank.

Little’s mother had two days before the nursing home would evict her for insufficient funds, and neither Little nor her siblings had the money to keep her there. Little still had two weeks before starting her job at UK, where she would work until her arrest in July 2012.

Little, now 32, said she thinks of herself as a “fixer.” That started when she was a child, caring for her parents while her brothers were off getting into trouble.

When Little was three or four years old, her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The illness only got worse as she aged, and Little acted as her mother’s primary caretaker.

She fed her mother, helped change her clothes and helped her go to the bathroom.

She carried the caretaker mentality into adulthood.

So when the nursing home said she had two days to get the money or her mother would be kicked out, she had to find a solution.

The “fix” this time was waiting at the Forcht Bank on Southland Drive.

Little said she felt sick to her stomach on the way to the bank. She carried the same Davis pistol and surgical mask she would use more than two years later.

She was overwhelmed by the idea of robbing a bank, but not about getting caught. She did not worry that a cop would see the license plate covered with a pillowcase and pull her over. She did not worry that someone at the bank would try to shoot her mid-robbery.

Her mind was so cluttered, scattered and swirled that she was barely herself. Any hope of rationality seemed as far away as the African villages where she spent her last summer as a UK student and Kentucky Kernel editor, working on a story that would go on to win national awards before she graduated.

A Forcht Bank teller, identified in police records as Jason Marshall, said Little entered the bank with a blue grocery bag. She kept her hand in the bag and put it on the counter, moving it back and forth, indicating that she had a pistol.

Hilary Baker, who worked at the bank, said Little told Marshall to not set off any silent alarms, and the robbery would be quick.

Little asked Marshall, who had been a teller at the Fifth Third branch at Bryan Station when it was robbed in 2004, for $10,000. Jason told Little that he did not have $10,000 at the counter, so he led Little to the vault.

He entered the vault with his hands up, then grabbed a $10,000 stack of $100 bills and gave it to her. Marshall said Little saw that the vault contained much more money, but she only asked for $10,000.

Little grabbed the stack of cash, asked if it was $10,000, and after Marshall said it was, she turned around and walked out. Baker told police Little was calm and well-spoken.

When Little got to the Camry, she said she felt like projectile vomiting, but was surprised at how easily she pulled off the robbery.

All she needed to do to get $10,000 was ask. She had enough money to keep her mother in the nursing home, at least for a while.

Falling apart

But in a little more than four months, she would rob another bank: the Fifth Third on Euclid Avenue.

This time, she would not bring the gun. She wore the same outfit and again just asked for the money.

She walked out with $50,000, more than all the other three robberies combined.

It would be almost a year before her next robbery, on Aug. 31, 2011, less than two weeks before her mother’s death.

She robbed the American Founders Bank on Walden Drive of about $1,700, again without bringing the pistol.

One of her brothers was in the Fayette County Detention Center serving a drug sentence when their mother died.

The prison did not allow him to leave for the funeral.

This acted as a wake-up call for her brother, Little said. It encouraged him to quit using drugs, and he has, to Little’s knowledge, not used drugs since his release.

The death of her mother brought emotional burdens, and it created more bills to pay. The funeral cost $10,000, putting her even deeper into debt.

While Little said she used the money to help pay those bills, she also put $10,000 down on a new Jetta — much of that $10,000 came from the robberies. She hoped to give the car to her niece, but it was eventually repossessed.

The time surrounding her mother’s death and all the robberies is a blur in her mind. There are whole months she cannot remember, whole conversations she does not recall having.

Her role as a “fixer” was wearing thin. Between her turbulent family and holding down her job at UK, there was too much to keep together.

During all of this, Little was trying to act as a motherly figure for her niece. Little and her mother helped raise her niece when the parents weren’t around. Little said she tried to be someone her niece could lean on in a unstable family.

But she never reached out for help. She never told anyone about the robberies, and her friends were finding it more difficult to contact her.

Little seemed to be drifting further and further into her own mysterious troubles.

By the time of her final robbery, the PNC Bank, Little knew the life of a bank robber was not sustainable.

Little’s robbery career was about to end.

A sense of finality

It was early in the morning on July 28, 2012. She dropped off her roommate at work at PetsMart and drove home.

Her niece, who was living with her at the time, was still asleep. She put on black pants, black flats, her pink Harry Potter hat, sunglasses and the surgical mask.

She grabbed two reusable grocery bags and the unloaded pistol.

The robbery was quick, but when the teller gave Little the money, she put a tracking device in the bag that would lead police to Little’s door.

When she got home, Little put the pistol, her outfit and the money in her bedroom, then started getting ready to go to her own bank to make a deposit.

When she heard two Lexington Police officers at the door, she said a wave of calmness and finality washed over her.

Little asked the police what she could do for them.

“I think you know,” she recalled them saying.

“Yeah, I do,” she replied.

Her niece saw Little being escorted to the police cruiser and driven away.

After years of presenting herself as someone her niece could count on, Little was getting into the back of a police cruiser, the main suspect of four separate bank robberies.

When Little told this story years later in a cell in the Casey County Jail, the memory of her niece on that July morning would be the only thing to make her cry.

Coming clean

Before police put Little into the back seat, she said she was sorry for causing problems. Police read her Miranda rights to her, then drove to the station.

While en route, according to police records, Little confessed to all the robberies. She asked the officer if police were looking for another heavyset woman who had committed a robbery.

The police officer said he did not think so. Little told him she had robbed only four banks, and if police were looking for someone who had robbed a fifth bank, they had the wrong person.

She told the officer about which banks she robbed, and that she robbed them to help pay for her mother’s stay at the nursing home.

She told the officer that she could not understand how they were able to find her so quickly — what she said felt like 20 or 30 minutes after she left the bank — but did not find her after the other robberies.

When she got to the station, she waived her right to an attorney and confessed to everything.

According to police records, she told interviewing officers about the four robberies, her mother, the bills she needed to pay, and her niece.

She told police that neither of her brothers helped with the bills from her mother’s funeral and medical expenses, and she was trying to give her niece a better home life.

She said she was behind on rent, and she was the only one who knew about her crime spree.

Debating sympathy

During the trial, Fayette County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark said the case was one of the most unusual he had seen.

Little was a seemingly unlikely candidate for a bank robber.

Her friends — some from her time at the Kernel and some from other parts of her life — wrote letters to Clark following Little’s conviction. They asked the judge to release her on probation. They told Clark she had a 0 percent chance of re-offending.

One of Little’s supporters is Melinda Belleville. Belleville, a middle-aged woman with a passion for the Grateful Dead, met Little while taking classes at UK. The two bonded almost immediately, and Belleville hopes to adopt Little when she gets out of jail.

Little referred to Belleville as her “second mother” in letters to Clark, and Belleville seems happy to take this responsibility.

“That wasn’t Crystal,” Belleville said about the bank robberies.

She knows it technically was, but in Belleville’s mind, the woman behind the surgical mask is not the woman who called Belleville her “second mother.”

Belleville is one of many people who see Little not as a bank robber, but as a moral woman who took an unlikely and unfortunate turn for the worse during a stressful time. An attorney from Little’s hometown of Albany in Clinton County said until Little’s arrest, she was considered one of the community’s success stories.

Fayette Commonwealth Attorney Ray Larson, who prosecuted Little, is not as sympathetic.

He said he is sorry that she put herself in that position, but that Little should suffer consequences just like everyone else who breaks the law.

Larson sees Little for what she is, at least in his mind: a serial bank robber who terrified a series of innocent bank tellers for her own gain.

Plenty of people go through financial struggles without robbing banks or threatening violence upon innocent people, he said.

Larson said undeserved sympathy for Little could have grown from a number of things. He said “long-form newspaper articles” like this one also create unjust sympathy.

“She’s not the victim, she’s the bad guy,” Larson said.

Commonwealth Attorney Megan Kinsolving, who helped prosecute the case, said Little’s victims were terrified. She said the tellers were relieved that they did not have to testify in court. To testify would be to relive one of the scariest days of their lives.

Friend and former Kernel co-worker Hillary Canada said Little feels terrible about the people she robbed, and Little hopes to make amends when she is released.

Little is now in the Casey County Jail, finishing out a sentence that she thinks will end in September 2017.

Jail time is complicated, and things like good behavior can make the exact end date of any sentence difficult to pin down. Little was given four separate sentences: two five-year sentences for the robberies where she did not use a gun, and two 10-year sentences for the robberies where she did.

Those sentences are to be served concurrently, meaning she could serve a maximum of 10 years.

Larson said if she finishes her sentence and does not get released on parole, Little will not have to pay any of the $66,000 restitution — money that would pay the banks back for what she stole.

He said the idea of Little not paying restitution is “disgusting” and it sends the message that crime pays.

If Little is granted parole at her next hearing in August 2016, Larson said Little will be expected to pay the restitution. He said if she falls behind on those payments, he will send her right back to jail.

Life behind bars

For now, Little is spending her time working in the kitchen in the Casey County Jail in Liberty, a small town surrounded by equally small homes along Route 127, about 25 miles south of Danville.

The jail is gray, both in color and personality. Little said it is not a happy place and that waking up every morning in a jail cell is “surreal.”

She spends 10 hours a day working in the kitchen and makes 63 cents a day. She said the women she lives with try to stay away from drama. It is hard for two people who don’t get along to avoid each other in jail.

She has met with psychologists and social workers in Casey County and other jails. Little said jail has given her time to think, breathe and “regain her sanity.”

Throughout her time in the correctional system, she has met a number of inspirational women who, like her, made mistakes they wish they could take back.

Many of those women have told Little what she already thought: she is not the typical personality to meet behind bars.

When Little tells fellow inmates that she is in jail for bank robbery, some of them barely believe her. She is well educated, articulate, has a respectable resume, and has never had any problems with drugs or alcohol.

“I’ve never so much as puffed a cigarette,” Little said.

But her criminal record offers a stark contrast, and as she waits for her eventual release, she will contemplate what it really means to be Crystal Little.