This Week in South Side History

Bloody 1953 bank heist hit silver screen

Movie gave boost to then-unknown Steve McQueen

by Jim Merkel

southwestbank1953.jpg

At 94, Melburn Stein has been retired longer than he served in the St. Louis Police Department.Yet he still has dreams about April 24, 1953, when he was nearly killed more than once in what was to become known as the Great St. Louis Bank Robbery.

The sensational robbery at the Southwest Bank at South Kingshighway Boulevard and Southwest Avenue attracted a crowd of police officers and onlookers.

It ended with a police officer injured, two bank robbers dead and one robber injured. The getaway car’s driver eluded police but was quickly caught.

One robber took his own life, saying “They’ll never take me.” Stein killed the other one as the robber rushed to the front door using a woman as a shield.

The bank’s directors, who were holding a board meeting in a room in the bank, threw their wallets in a wastebasket and hid under a table until police used tear gas.

In the end, police recovered the entire heist – $141,000.

It was the stuff you’d see in a 1950s crime movie, and people in Hollywood agreed. In 1959, United Artists released a movie about it, “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” starring a new actor named Steve McQueen.

The man who played Stein had a special knowledge of the part. It was Stein himself, ordered by the city police board to play the role.

“Frankly, I didn’t think McQueen was all that great,” Stein said, adding that McQueen was distant and self-contained.

Living in Creve Coeur and still spry enough to cut his own grass, Stein credits his Marine Corps training to saving him amidst the gunfire. It told him to bend down and become a smaller target.

Stein shot the robber holding the hostage after she passed out of his line of fire.

“It was a calculated shot,” Stein said. “I had plenty of time to think about it.”

The dying robber went for a .38-caliber revolver in his belt and almost shot Stein. Fortunately, Stein noticed what the robber was doing.

“I reached down and got the gun,” Stein said. “Just to think about it gives me the creeps.”

Stein stayed on with the city department and retired in 1973 after 31 years.

The officer who was injured, Cpl. Robert Heinz, didn’t do as well.

A bullet that struck him in the head lodged in the skull around the ear and was not removed. He lost his equilibrium and had to retire.

Last week, retired Southwest Bank President Ed Berra showed off the old vault that had held money stolen in the robbery. Now an advisory board member and a consultant to Southwest, Berra started with the bank in 1959.

After the robbery, the bank increased the numbers of armed guards or introduced them at branches that didn’t have them, said Berra, 78.

Pictures on the wall of the Southwest Bank office include a newspaper photo of the robbery.

“I can’t believe that’s over a half-century ago,” Berra said.

Note: I hope Jim Merkel will forgive me using his article as my blog entry. Jim, if you ever read this, just remember who made you famous as the Grinch.

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