Eric Manson, AKA, "Sha".
Every bank robber in existence is Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, right? A glamourous, suave, highly organised anti-hero (with fantastic jaw definition) who's more interested in helping their community than themselves. Because obviously the reason people risk their lives for potentially measly sums of money and years in jail is so they can give most of the spoils away, then spend a day looking all pained and stoic. That's the end-game here – the reserved triumph at the end of all the hard graft, like Lincoln when he freed the slaves, or Adam Sandler when he completed his journey of getting everyone in the world to hate everything he does.
Actually – and this is going to stun you – if we go by statistics published by the FBI, bank robbers are really nothing like that at all. Apparently almost all modern day bank robberies are “unsophisticated and unprofessional” crimes of desperation, bungled by young, male, casual offenders. The movies have been lying to us, people. Who knew? Of course, there are exceptions, such as the glimmer of hope after the £53 million Securitas depot heist in 2006 that temporarily had the nation's youth wanting to hold up men with shotguns in complete anonymity rather than appear on reality shows. But most are committed with little or no prior planning, leading perpetrators to make such basic errors as failing to conceal their identity or plan an escape route. Basically, bank robbery isn't nearly as slick, sophisticated and Hollywood when it's being carried out by n00bs.
All this goes some way to explaining why, according to one study, the average bank robbery yields only £20,000 in the UK and just under £1,900 in the US. And once you’ve split that between your crew and getaway driver, you’ve got to start wondering whether it’s worth the risk. The researcher's deadpan conclusion: “The return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish. As a profitable occupation, bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired.”
A friend of mine is currently awaiting trial for a nonviolent crime in a New York federal jail, MCC NY. At one time or another, this jail has been home to the head of the Gambino crime family, Bernie Madoff and the would-be Times Square car bomber, as well as Somali pirates, international arms traffickers and a multitude of low-level drug offenders. The American prison system is a jaw-dropping, Steps reunion-sized failure of an institution, even by its own warped logic, having been repeatedly proven to actually increase crime.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn that the jail had paired Tim – a first time offender, who technically remains innocent – with a cellmate known as “Criminal Sha”, a notorious bank robber with a wholly unoriginal – but, nonetheless, perfect nickname for a criminal – who has appeared on America's Most Wanted on numerous occasions during the last 20 years and is alleged to have carried out over 60 bank heists. Having always been fascinated by bank robberies, I decided to get in touch with Sha (real name: Eric Manson) for a first-hand account.
Sha on the outside.
Having grown up in Brooklyn, Sha – as he says – “always had a little thug in me”, and though he never aspired to a life of crime, he recounts being moved by the struggle of the underdog from a young age. “I didn’t just say 'Fuck it, instead of being a doctor or a football player, I’d rather be a bank robber.' But as I got into my late teens and started to know the power of a dollar, my life changed forever. I was always into the old black and white crime movies; watching old actors portray hoodlums was cool to me. When everyone used to want the so-called bad guy to die, I wanted him to live, and when the cowboys fought the Indians, I rooted for the Indians.”
Sha made his criminal debut aged 15 at a local McDonald's, ordering £30 worth of fast food before snatching it off the counter and running back to his block. After that first canapé of crime, Sha was quick to diversify and capitalise on his newly acquired skill set, spending the next few years “doing all sorts of petty crime”. I asked Sha if he could be any more specific about his smalltime criminal undertakings, to which he replied, “What are you trying to do, get me another case?” Which I suppose I should have expected, really.
“Anyway, after a while, it was really time to grab my nuts. I always heard stories about how the older guys in the neighbourhood were taking down Brink’s trucks and robbing banks and cheque-cashing spots. I wanted to make my bones with the big boys.” And so, aged just 17, Sha robbed his first bank. It was an unsophisticated, low-tech affair, although one with arguably more forethought than many bank jobs.
Sha had scoped out a bank far enough away from his own neighbourhood, and without security glass between the customers and tellers. To avoid recognition, he donned a clumsy disguise consisting of a baseball cap, sunglasses and a faked limp. As soon as the bank opened for morning business, he walked in and politely asked the teller to hand over all of her fifty and hundred dollar bills. He stuffed the money into his pockets and limped to the door, making a break for it. When he got home, he sat in the kitchen – adrenaline still pumping – and counted the money: “I didn’t use to smoke heavy, but I lit a Newport. I took out the money and placed it on the table. I’d never seen so much money in my life – it was crazy! I must have counted it 20 times: £6,750, and I wasn’t even in the bank but a minute. I thought I was fucking rich.”.
The money was quick, easy, addictive (although I suppose the addictive part is the same deal with most varieties of money) and there was no looking back. “After my first job, I got more clever with my disguises and more brazen with the robberies. I went on to rob more banks than anyone I know. People talk about a rock star life, this was it: cars, mink coats, diamonds, girls, drugs. I was fucking the finest pussy, eating the best food. I gave money away to my family, friends and just about anybody with a sad story. I know, without a doubt, that I pissed away a million bucks at least.
“I partied with all sorts of celebrities – porn stars, sports personalities, you name it. I won’t say who out of respect for them, but I was doing coke off of plenty famous chicks you see on TV. A lot of those chicks partied harder than the porn stars. I was into the S&M scene pretty hard, and I used to walk this one woman around her backyard on a dog chain and make her sleep in the dog house. She was one of my 'slaves'. She’s a big star now.”
Sha was committing more and more robberies to maintain his playboy lifestyle: “My way of life at the time was to rob a bank, get broke, then rob another bank. People ask me all the time why I didn’t stop once I had a certain amount, but I’d never set any limits.”
Unfortunately, robbing banks wasn’t always as simple as courteously asking the cashiers to hand over the loot and, on more than one occasion, Sha had to resort to more blunt methods to help things along. “I’ve had to pull my guns a couple of times and that’s not a good feeling. I’ve never shot or killed anyone, but I was ready to. I had to get a little crazy one time in LA . I went into the bank thinking, 'Just another day at the job,' but when I asked the teller for the money, she looked at me like I was speaking fucking Russian or something, then told me to get the hell out of there!
"When I heard that I went apeshit. I jumped on the counter, pulled out a .45 revolver – a pretty scary looking pistol, with a long, stainless steel barrel – and let off a couple of shots for drama. I jumped over the counter and spotted a cart full of money. I filled my rucksack up with stacks of tens, twenties, fifties and hundreds. On my way out I told everyone to count to 50 before calling the police. When I got home, I had to calm myself down with a shot of Hennessy. I counted the money and it came to £58,242 – the most money I ever took in one shot.”
Over the years, banks have deployed countless methods in their attempts to foil would-be bank robbers, most notably by using “dye packs”. These are small radio-controlled explosive devices hidden inside stacks of banknotes. Once they cross the threshold of the bank door, a radio transmitter trips a timer, after which the dye pack explodes, spraying runaway thieves with a mixture of bright red dye and teargas.
Sha explained his brusque but effective method of avoiding them: “I found out early on in my career that the tellers are told to give you the money and, if they can, to slip you a dye pack. A dye pack looks just like a stack of money, but it blows up on your ass when you leave the bank. I’ve had it happen to me one time and that was all I needed. From that day on, I’d just say to the teller, male or female, 'If you give me a dye pack, I will come back and blow your fucking head off.' I never got a dye pack again. All the banks really have to do to stop robberies is employ an armed guard and have glass protecting the tellers. It might not stop them all, but I guarantee it would reduce them by 75 percent. But guess what? They’ll never do that. Why? Money, that’s why! The thing with bank robbery is that the banks want you to rob them! No bullshit.”
Sha went on to tell me how he's repeatedly been indicted for taking far more than he has actually stolen, in order for the banks to claim more money from their insurers. In his own words, “It goes to show everyone has a little crook in them. The rich commit crimes every day, the difference is they don’t use a gun.”
I couldn’t help but think that wasn’t the only difference between white collar criminals and people like Eric Manson. White, middle-class financial criminals are unlikely to ever receive a prison term, whereas Sha has spent almost half of his life behind bars, including a single 16-year stretch.
“The flip side of this bank robbery shit is the prison part. The world outside goes on while you’re in prison. You may be surrounded by a thousand felons, but prison is a truly lonely place. Before I came to jail for the first time, I may have had a hundred friends; by the time I got out, I had about five. I do not recommend bank robbery or crime AT ALL. This life of crime shit is real. A dear friend of mine told me long ago that, 'If you can’t be good, be good at it'. But don’t think you can rob banks or do any crime forever and not go to jail. Just be smart”.
Sha is currently awaiting trial and, as such, his release date has yet to be determined, but once on the outside, he intends to put an end to his life of crime and go straight.
“I've been locked up in this hellhole for nearly four years now. Enough is enough. I believe I have a bright and positive future ahead of me – crime free, that is. Since I've been inside I've had plenty of business ideas, and when I'm successful this go round, I won't have to look over my shoulder, worried the authorities are about to take everything away from me. I just want the opportunity to take care of my family, to have fun and enjoy the rest of my life.
“You're a good brother, Theo. I'm sure you and I will link up in the near future, go catch a football game, have a few beers or go sniff a bunch of cocaine and get our dicks sucked. If any hot English bitches care to get in touch, write me at
MCC New York
150 Park Row
New York, NY
Follow Theo on Twitter: @TheoKindynis
Talking to criminals is great: