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‘Gentleman Bandit’ Turns Self in After 100 Robberies : Crime: Man with courtly manners took up gun after losing job. He surrenders to save an innocent person.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The thing about the “Gentleman Bandit” was his courtliness, his Cary Grant manners as he stole and stole and stole some more.

Why, he would apologize as he tied people up, make them as comfortable as possible, return pictures of the grandkids that he found in wallets, call the front desk of hotels to tell them the guest in Room 319 could use some help getting untied.

Once, a man had a heart attack in the midst of a robbery, so the “Gentleman Bandit” called the hospital and ordered an ambulance. Sometimes, he would call victims at home later to inquire if they had recovered from their ordeal.

Posh hotels in Louisiana and Texas were his venue. He struck 100 times over two years, surprising guests with his efficiency, his unfailing graciousness and, of course, his gun. Frustrated police and hotel operators posted composite pictures of him, to no avail. Then, there was a breakthrough. A Texas salesman was arrested on June 27 and charged with the crimes. But it was the wrong man.

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For a time, the “Gentleman Bandit” watched as the salesman took the rap. But, on Tuesday, he turned himself in to the Houston police, saying he could not let someone else suffer for what he had done.

The “Gentleman Bandit” turned out to be Houston resident Lon Perry, 49, a churchgoing father of two who turned to crime in 1989 when he lost his job and his money ran out.

Not even his wife of 26 years had a clue as to what Lon Perry was up to. She thought he had a job working at night. Police were hard-pressed to even find a traffic ticket on Perry’s past.

Perry, a computer programmer, had spent 22 years in the oil business, but on Jan. 1, 1989, the energy bust caught up with him. He was laid off at Texas Eastern Corp.

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“The layoff . . . left me an emotional cripple,” Perry said in a statement provided by his lawyers. “Here I was nearly 50 years of age, back taxes owed to the IRS, a son in his second year at a college that I really couldn’t afford.”

He said he entertained thoughts of suicide, the sense that he was more valuable dead than alive. By the spring of 1989, Perry’s severence pay was almost exhausted and the bills were mounting, putting him in a “financial pressure cooker, the depression deepening and seemingly no way out.”

The thoughts of suicide began turning to thoughts of robbery. In May, 1989, Perry pulled off his first robbery at a motel in suburban Houston.

“Walking around the motel, I saw a room with the drapes open and one man and two ladies inside,” he said in his statement. “I knocked on the door. When the man answered, I walked in, pretending to know him and closed the door. I pulled the small .22-caliber antique revolver from my pocket and, inconceivable as it seemed, I actually performed the first of what would be numerous motel/hotel robberies during 18 of the next 25 months.”

He would approach hotel guests in a variety of ways, his friendly manner putting them off guard. After being admitted to a room, he pulled out his gun (which Perry said wouldn’t fire because the hammer was frozen) and apologized for the inconvenience.

To victims who seemed prepared to resist, Perry would say that he had a friend waiting outside the door in case there was trouble. But, on occasion, “a potential victim would say something to me that would touch my heart, and I would not be able to rob him,” Perry said in his statement. “I simply would leave, and most everyone would assure me that they would give me sufficient time to get away.”

As Perry tells the story, he wanted to stop robbing, but financial needs kept cropping up. At one point, he stopped for six months before the IRS put a lien on his house to cover back taxes. In July of last year, he began robbing again.

By that time, the case of the “Gentleman Bandit” was coming clearer for law enforcement officials. In Austin, an analyst for the Texas Department of Public Safety named Sharon Whitman began noticing a pattern of crimes involving a courtly gentleman. She began tracking the crimes and tried to predict--usually unsuccessfully--where the robber would strike next.

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In June, Perry decided to rob just enough to make up the three months of house payments that were in arrears and end his life of crime. His last two robberies were on June 27, both of them in Dallas. According to published reports of the incident, Perry made known to businessman Robert Jones that he was being robbed thusly: “I have to tell you, sir, I am here under pretense. I’m going to rob you.”

That might have ended the story had not Michael David Harvey, a food broker living near San Antonio, been arrested the day after Perry’s last robbery and charged with the “Gentleman Bandit’s” crimes. According to Perry’s lawyer, Allen Isbell, Perry could not stand the thought of another man doing time for his crimes.

He called the police and told them they had the wrong man. Lt. D. J. McWilliams of the robbery squad said Tuesday that Perry sounded at the time like a man who would eventually give himself up “because it was evident he was having a real battle with his conscience.”

Perry consulted his minister and other members of his church before calling Isbell, whose law firm began negotiations with the police and district attorney. Perry decided to plead guilty to the two robberies with a recommended sentence of 35 years.

Then, over the weekend came the painful duty of telling his wife how he had spent the last two years, a disclosure that was met, according to Isbell, with “absolute total shock.”

Amid a throng of reporters and flanked by his two lawyers, Lon Perry gave himself up Tuesday morning. A magistrate set bail at $20,000 on the two robbery charges. Another Perry attorney, Rick Brass, said his client was unlikely to post bond because he can’t afford it.

Perry’s gray hair was neatly combed and he wore a blue and red plaid shirt, gray slacks and black tasseled shoes. The “Gentleman Bandit” looked sharp to the end.


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