Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2010.
No one was hurt in Shon Hopwood's bank robberies? That's just not true.
No, the victims weren't physically hurt, but many suffered serious psychological injuries.
Allen Thorberg, senior vice president of the Petersburg (Neb.) State Bank, recalls the rifle barrel so close to his face in 1997 that the opening “looked a foot across.” He was ordered to the floor with three other bank employees and two customers. One, an elderly woman, prayed aloud. Thorberg recalls one of the robbers shouting, “I told you to be quiet!”
Six months later, the banker's minister spoke in church about a missionary who had half his face shot off. Allen said that for several seconds, he shook. More than 12 years later, he occasionally awakens thinking of what happened.
At another of Hopwood's robberies, in Hallam, Neb., a customer wept aloud, fearing that she would never again see her baby, who was at home. Patti Becker, a bank teller that day, recalls a sawed-off shotgun at her window and a pistol pressed against a bank manager's back.
Patti, now a loan clerk at the First State Bank in Cortland, Neb., said she is happy that Hopwood has turned his life around, but she said his crimes left their mark on many people.
“All of us had something that bothered us, ” she said. “This was no picnic. It was scary. It was wrong.”
Hopwood's story, which has attracted the attention of filmmakers and book publishers, was told last week in The World-Herald and the New York Times.
After growing up in David City, Neb., he committed five rural bank robberies in 1997 and '98 to pay for his drug habit. He and accomplices took about $200,000. Hopwood was caught and served a federal prison sentence from 1999 to 2008.
While in prison, he became a “jailhouse lawyer, ” and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal that he wrote for another inmate. Now 34, Hopwood lives in Omaha, is married with an infant son, holds a job, attends Bellevue University, is preparing for a speech at Harvard University and may apply to law school.
It's an amazing story of recovery and redemption, but he hasn't redeemed himself with some of his victims. Because the robbers wore masks, the victims don't know who held which gun or who said what — but they still hold Hopwood responsible for his role.
“Never once, ” Thorberg said, “has he written a letter or called or come to see us and say, 'I'm sorry for what I put you through.' To me, that would mean a lot and maybe help us heal a little bit.”
The robbers, he said, took about $40,000 from his bank. Some restitution has been made, Thorberg said, but he didn't know the amount. “We haven't got it all.”
Hopwood's other bank robberies occurred in Gresham, Peru and Pilger. A man called The World-Herald on Wednesday, saying he didn't want to be identified by name or by the bank where he worked.
“I'm thrilled he has turned his life around, but I really hate to see him profit from what he did in the past. He came in in a bizarre costume and motioned for us to get on the floor. It was a terrifying trauma that you don't get over easily.”
The robbers wore stocking-style ski masks, and Becker said that for a long time, she shook every time she saw someone wearing one. Thorberg said he wasn't amused when a friend came up from behind a week after the robbery, stuck a finger in his back and said, “Stick 'em up.”
Violent crime and threats of violence affect victims and their families. Many if not all of Hopwood's victims had access to group and individual counseling, which helped, but the memories linger.
Four years after Hopwood's robberies, Nebraska and the nation were shocked when five people were shot to death in a bank robbery in Norfolk, Neb. When people start pointing guns in banks, anything can happen.
I contacted Hopwood by e-mail, asking for an interview about his victims. He politely declined Wednesday, saying he was very busy at work. He also said he was certain his agent wouldn't approve an interview on this topic. In spite of that, he said, the question of victims is “very important for me both personally and as a man of God.”
So he issued a statement:
“Not one day has passed in the last 11 years that I have not thought about the people whose lives I have affected. I will regret my actions every single day and I sincerely apologize.
“I can only hope that those people will see — through my more recent actions and with God's grace — that I am a changed man. And my hope is that one day they will forgive me.”
“No one was hurt in Mr. Hopwood's bank robberies,” The New York Times reported last week, but the reference was to physical wounds. For some of his victims, all these years later, psychological wounds still fester.