Wisps of gray hair showed through the holdup man’s stocking mask and so, naturally, Denver police reporters dubbed him the Salt-and-Pepper Bandit. Beginning in December 1986, he would walk into another area business every two months or so, brandish a pistol and walk away with a roll of cash-more than $25,000 in all. He might have continued, growing grayer and more notorious, had it not been for the vigilant McBee family. After 11-year-old Christopher McBee and his sister, Christi, 13, spotted a robbery suspect fleeing a Longmont, Colo., bank on March 28, their father, Gary, 34, tackled the man, and their mother, Leah, called police. The captive turned out to be a living legend of sorts: 82-year-old heistmeister Jack Kelm, apparently the oldest bank robber in FBI annals.
A contemporary of Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and John Dillinger, Kelm has a rap sheet dating back to 1921. A onetime escapee from a Florida chain gang, the 6’3″ Kelm and a diminutive sidekick later formed an infamous “Mutt and Jeff’ team that robbed couples on lovers’ lanes in the Denver area. Though Denver police estimate Kelm committed more than 1,000 robberies in his career—he spent 40 years behind bars for his trouble—he never physically harmed anyone.
In fact, during what is likely to be his last robbery, Kelm was carrying only a starter’s pistol loaded with blanks. Things began to go wrong for him when Christopher McBee saw him slip on a stocking mask, then take it off again when he realized he was being watched. A few moments later, Gary McBee, who had been inside the bank signing a deed, pursued Kelm after the accused bandit tried to flee pushing a 10-speed bike and holding a booby-trapped bank bag that was spewing clouds of red dye. Inside the bag was $9,000. When Kelm went for his gun, McBee—cheered on by his two children and the family dog—wrestled him to the ground. “A bystander thought I was mugging him,” says McBee, “but I told him, This guy just robbed a bank.’ So the bystander held his legs while I wrestled with the guy. I was sure surprised to find out how old he was. I couldn’t believe it, because he was so strong.”
Afterward, discovering that he too was covered with red dye, McBee returned to the bank to ask if the stuff would wash off. The bank told him it wouldn’t, but cut him a check the next day for $500—enough to pay for 10-speed bikes for both his children.
Following Kelm’s arrest, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Conner recommended that he not be released on bail. The octogenarian robber, who was discharged from parole in 1971, was then transferred to the Boulder Community Hospital, where he underwent surgery for a urinary tract obstruction, adding the insult of infirmity to the humiliation of capture and the sting of the law.