Saturday, November 21, 2015

Q&A with Caroline Giammanco

Caroline Giammanco is the author of the new book Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, which chronicles the story of Keith Giammanco, whom she met when he was in prison for bank robbery and she was working in the prison. She is a public school teacher, and she lives in Missouri.
Q: Why did you and Keith Giammanco decide to write this book, and how did the two of you collaborate on the project?
A: Writing Bank Notes wasn’t something I planned on doing. Keith had been approached by many people, starting with a police officer the night he was arrested, interested in writing a book about his experiences.
My involvement actually began as an inside joke between the two of us.  Keith was taking a college class at the time, and I would proofread his (and my other tutor’s) papers before they turned them in. Keith is a terrible speller!  I told him, “If you ever write a book or a screenplay, you may want me to proofread it!” We laughed and joked about it off and on. 
As time went on, it was a natural progression that I should be the one telling his story. No one knows Keith better than I do. We wanted his story to remain true and not be “interpreted” by someone who had his own agenda. 
The more time went by, we realized the story should be more than simply a tale about the robberies. There was a bigger story to be told, and I was becoming a part of that story. Originally I was only going to write from Keith’s perspective, but he told me my experiences had to be a part of the book too.  Increasingly, our shared experiences were tied so closely, there was no separating them.
We saw things happening inside the system that were wrong, and we knew we had the capability of getting awareness out in society. While I don’t go into them in the book, I had a number of hostile work environment issues well before I ever met Keith. It’s not as though I thought the system was great and then Keith changed my mind. We both were looking at the way things operated as two, normal, middle-class people who were shocked at what our tax dollars have been paying for. 
Every experience I tell about in Bank Notes is true. No poetic license was taken, and in many instances, things were worse than I portray.
While I worked at the prison, Keith and I collaborated during our conversations. He has an incredible memory for details from years past, and he could verbally paint vivid pictures of what happened in his past. I got to know who he is as a person, share his family stories with him, and it was easy to write from his perspective.
After I left the prison, Keith wrote me letters, detailing events so that I could put them into chapter form. While working together, I had already decided the name of the book was going to be “Bank Notes.”
I chose it for two reasons: Keith had used notes to rob banks, and currency is called bank notes. Once he began having to write the information to me, it took on a third meaning.  I was gathering information about Keith’s experiences through the notes he wrote to me.
Q: Can you describe the dynamic of your relationship?
A: Literally from the moment we met, we were like old friends catching up. There was no sense of, This is a stranger. We were never strangers. We always thought, Oh, it’s you…We were going, Hey, you’re losing your mind, because we’re in a maximum security prison. It’s not where you find the love of your life.
Q: Had you heard of Keith's crimes before meeting him in prison?
A: Yes, I had known about the Boonie Hat Bandit. I lived in southern Missouri, but his crime spree was featured on nightly news broadcasts on the Springfield television stations. My brother lives in the St. Louis area, so I tended to pay attention to news from that area anyway, but perhaps fate had something to do with the fact that I knew about the crimes years before meeting him.
Keith is not a braggart, and he never told me who he was. During our interview, he told me he had robbed banks using notes. Not a lot of guys will admit what they did to end up in prison, but Keith was straightforward about it.
He said if I hired him [as a tutor], he thought I deserved to have an idea of what kind of person I was spending 10 hours a day with.  Never once did he mention that he was known as the Boonie Hat Bandit.
A few weeks after he started working for me, one of the younger students in class was harassing him at his desk, insisting that Keith “admit it.” Keith finally told him he was too high profile to lie about what he was in prison for, and he redirected the man to get back to work.
When I asked him what that exchange was about, he told me the accusation was that he was a child molester (a middle-aged white male with no previous criminal background did fit the profile). When I asked if he was really high profile, he said, “Well, I was on the front page of USA Today and on Good Morning America.” 
Suddenly, everything clicked into place in my mind, and I said, “Oh my god! You’re the Boonie Hat Bandit!” He admitted he was. Keith never brags about his notoriety, and he feels remorse for his crimes. He also has no problem admitting what he did to end up in a maximum security prison. That’s not a common trait for inmates.
Q: How well known was he when he was caught, and why did he decide to rob banks?
A: Fox 2 News referred to Keith as “St. Louis’s most notorious bank robber,” so he was very well known when he was caught. He had kept authorities scrambling for 11 months, and he had become a Robin Hood figure for many in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
His motivations are deeper than the simple answer of needing money to stay afloat. While his desperate financial straits pushed him to the brink, it was a combination of things that finally caused him to cross the line.
In the book, I give a brutally honest self-assessment by Keith as to what caused him to break the law. He wasn’t a criminal in the past, and he had close friendships with people in the law enforcement field. Crime was far out of Keith’s normal behavior, and I think people will be able to relate to (or at least understand) what drove him to such reckless measures.
Q: What is the current status of his case?
A: Keith is currently incarcerated at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri. Keith was given a sentence of six years and four months by the federal government after he pled guilty to all 12 bank robberies.
St. Louis County then prosecuted him a second time for the seven robberies that took place there. He was given a 20-year sentence by the state. He has been in prison for seven years, and in September 2014 he was given his detainer release from the federal system. That means his term with the federal system is served.
Because of Missouri’s 85 percent mandatory minimums law for first degree robbery, he must serve a total of 17 years in the Missouri prison system. Even as a first-time offender, and even as someone who never used a weapon or even threatened to have one.
There is a legislative reform effort underway to reform the 85 percent mandatory minimums statutes in Missouri (which began in 1994 after the Clinton administration offered short-term federal funding incentives for states to adopt the increase in percentages. The funding went away, and now states are paying for a policy that even the Clintons admit was a mistake). That effort is a part of the story in Bank Notes as well.
Keith’s case is currently under federal appeal.  His attorney is Kevin Schriener out of Clayton, Missouri. We are awaiting the decision as it is still pending.
Q: How are you and he reacting to the current situation?
A: Some days are tougher than others. If we dwelled on the fact that it could be 10 more years before we saw each other, it could make you very depressed. At the same time, even if it has to be 10 years, I feel confident in waiting for him.
Also, our relationship—I had one interviewer say, Your relationship is on hold. Actually, it isn’t on hold. It exists and is alive and well. Our separation is the problem. Getting him home is on hold.
He is a very optimistic person. I ground him and he buoys me. I tend to be a realist and try to think, what’s the worst-case scenario? If I can survive it, I’m good with the rest of it…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a book about prison relationships. They are a mystery to many and carry a huge social stigma. I am going to share vignettes about different couples and families showing not everyone in a prison relationship is a Crazy Cat Lady. 
Some people end up there by circumstance, and some by choice, but people may be surprised by some of the stories there are to be told. It is amazingly easy to find yourself connected to an inmate, and with 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States, it’s less of a fringe element and more mainstream than people realize.
A lot of prison relationships live in the shadows because of the scorn women in them face. This new book gives them a moment in the sunshine.
Keith and I have had our share of ugly family reactions, both to his incarceration and our relationship. It’s something I can personally relate to. After the New York prison escape and the focus on the female employee who aided in their escape, I thought it was necessary to provide a more realistic view for people of what most relationships are like for inmates and their families.
Q: How have you overcome that stigma relating to prison relationships?
A: We have that certainty about the relationship. It would be nice if other people could be completely understanding and accepting. It’s peripheral. We know the strength of the relationship, and have utter trust with each other.
Last Thanksgiving, I was visiting my cousins, and [one cousin] said, I hope you’re not being scammed. I thought, Who’s the most vulnerable, me or Keith? I have power of attorney…if anyone is vulnerable, it’s Keith….
Q: How have you come to terms with the idea that he committed crimes?
A: He told me I was the first person who never asked him why he committed the crimes. Part of it is the connection we had, and part is because for periods of my life, I was a single parent with two little boys. Our kids are close in age.
In the same situation, I would never have robbed a bank, but I understood the situation [with his bills] and you look at your kids and say, How am I going to take care of you?
People say they would do anything for their kids, yet they are the first to attack Keith for doing something outside normality. I’m not saying what he did was right…we’ve all had periods in our lives when we say, Why did we do that?
He looks back now with the ability of having a clear head…He needed to trust in God more and [recognize] that his kids would love him if [they] didn’t have the life he expected. When you’re successful, if you lost everything, and become homeless…he didn’t want that.
The important thing is, he has had an awakening as far as whether it’s important that people like you, and what other people have to say. When the absolute worst has been said about you and has happened to you, it doesn’t matter as much what the neighbors think.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Keith’s twin daughters, Elise and Marissa, who were 17 at the time of his arrest, have always been topics of interest by people who know about Keith’s case and incarceration. The girls definitely play a role in Bank Notes, but Keith and I made a conscientious effort from the start to not tell their story. They are 25 now, and they are getting closer to telling their experiences. We respect them enough to give them that opportunity.
Elise and Marissa are beautiful, capable, intelligent, caring women who have gone through a lot in their young lives. They both took different paths after Keith’s arrest, but they have maintained a close and devoted relationship with him. I am very close with both of them, and we are very proud of how they are doing now.  Both are supportive of us and this book.
I mentioned that we have had negative family reactions. We do not, nor do we intend to, publicize individuals’ lack of compassion or loyalty. Bank Notes was not used to publicly attack anyone. What we did was remain silent about them. The people who have been the cruelest know who they are, and we believe our silence better represents the void they have created.
This book has been endorsed by the former director of Colorado prisons, Robert Cantwell. He calls it a "must read for all criminal justice students." We peel the lid off the worm can of the Missour Department of Corrections, but everything we say is true. Names were changed, but the actual events and quotes are exact. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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