Real life: ‘I froze when I saw dad’s mugshot on the TV news’

Molly Brodak was just 13 when her seemingly ordinary childhood was shattered after her father was sent to prison for a string of bank robberies. Here, she attempts to understand how he could so brazenly risk it all.

A stack of old Polaroids I found in a drawer, some of them peeling and stuck together, show what appears to be a regular family: Dad and my sister on the sofa watching TV, both grinning for the camera; me and my sister holding our new kittens, thrilled; me and Mum lying in the sun in the back garden, raising glasses of lemonade; a Lego fort I had built for my dolls. We looked so normal. At the time, I was unaware of the trouble beneath the surface.

Molly, aged two, with her father. 'We looked so normal. At the time, I was unaware of the trouble beneath the surface'
Molly, aged two, with her father. ‘We looked so normal. At the time, I was unaware of the trouble beneath the surface’

When I think back, I did notice how much Dad yelled at the TV. It used to wake me up. After bedtime I’d sneak down the hall to look at him in the living room, watching a basketball game in the dark, sometimes two TVs set up side by side with different games during the playoffs; him yelling, holding papers, pencils, making calls.

I had no clue he was gambling or any notion that this was what gambling looked like. I thought it was horrible that he would yell so loudly. I thought he didn’t care how much it frightened me.

Once I cut my foot on a loose nail in the hallway and tracked blood back to my room. I didn’t tell anyone.

Then the fighting started, and soon it was constant. The more Mum and Dad fought, the more the house became all about the fighting. I could feel their anger in my gut, even when there was silence, like a shadowy hand threaded through me.

Eventually the house felt completely wrong. I used to love it: the brass and glass coffee table with Dad’s squashed feet (he told me he wore shoes too small as a child) propped up; our big TV; our dining suite with lacy woven cane seats that printed octagons on our thighs in the summer; the cracked patio; the elms with white-painted bottoms like tube socks.

Once the fighting started, it made me mad, how nice all of it was. It didn’t seem to matter any more; it wasn’t for us.

Our parents divorced. My sister went to live with Dad and I went to live with Mum. Life carried on as we grew into young teens, although our lifestyles certainly differed with each parent. Mum was a mum – a good one, although strained. Dad was a dad, but it had become clear he was hiding something.

There was an unknowable self he covered up with stories and bluff. He was like fragments of a picture that didn’t match up. I couldn’t figure him out, couldn’t pin him down. Then came the day he would be pinned down as he had never been before. It was the summer of 1994 and he had just lost his job at General Motors.

A production-line worker, he wasn’t allowed to borrow company cars – that was a privilege for white-collar workers and executives – yet he ‘borrowed’ one anyway; a red Corvette for my sister’s 16th birthday.

Molly (right) with her parents and sister, 1983
Molly (right) with her parents and sister, 1983

A few days after receiving her ‘gift’, she was pulled over by the police and informed the car was stolen. Dad said it was all a big mistake and tried to smooth it over. He was fired, but he didn’t tell us, kept pretending to go to work.

On one of those pretend work days, Dad entered a small branch of a local bank, walked calmly up to the cashier and handed her a note: ‘Act normal. This is a robbery.’ It looked like a transaction to everyone else in the room. He just walked out with the money, easy as pie. He robbed ten more banks that summer.

The shocking revelation was made to my sister, who walked into their flat to find it being torn apart by the FBI. Men in black uniforms swarmed her and bombarded her with questions – where’s the money? Where’s the gun? Mum and I had gone camping and were unreachable as my sister repeatedly called us from the police station.

The day after Dad was arrested, Mum and Dad’s mugshot floating in the corner next to the familiar local news reporter, who was talking about him, saying his last name, my last name, a breaking story. I couldn’t hear, the sound disappeared. I could only see his sad face, baggy eyes, deep frown… Dad.

Molly's parents at their second wedding (they divorced in 1984, remarried in 1988 and divorced again the following year)
Molly’s parents at their second wedding (they divorced in 1984, remarried in 1988 and divorced again the following year)
Molly and her father, 1982
Molly and her father, 1982

He was finally caught in a stakeout. He had been working his way around the banks just north of the Detroit city outskirts and the FBI guessed right on his next hit.

They followed him to a golf club after the robbery and found the money and his disguise sitting in plain view in the back seat of his car.

Inside, he was at the bar, eating a sandwich calmly. In his pockets were chips from Casino Windsor and betting slips from the Hazel Park Raceway. The disguise? A plain newsboy cap and a bushy black fake moustache. Ridiculous, really. He was dubbed the Mario Brothers bandit because of his resemblance to the game character while wearing it.

When he was arrested, the nickname was splashed all over the evening news and the papers. We found out more when the story was reported on the late news. They said he had robbed banks all summer – 11 in all – and that the FBI had been tracking him for a while, staking out banks, hoping to catch him at one.

First he’d rent a car, then drive to a hotel. He’d take the licence plates off the rental and switch them with the plates of any nicer-looking car in the hotel lot. He’d drive to a bank, wait in the car, looking for a calm moment, then go in. After the robbery he’d switch the licence plates back and go out for a meal or a round of golf.

I saw grainy grey photos of him from the security cameras of a bank. He had on the hat and large fake moustache and a pair of glasses, but I could see his mouth and chin, and I knew it was him. He looked like he does when he is certain of himself – an iron calm. He had no gun. Cashiers reported that he pointed something at them from inside the pocket of his jacket – probably his finger or a toy gun. He would wait in the queue, calmly slide a withdrawal slip under the window on which he had written the demand note.

The cashiers passed him money and he left, acting normal, just as he wanted it to be. The customers around him went about their business, oblivious. When he was caught after the last robbery, one newspaper article reported that he said he was relieved.

Would he really have said that? I doubted a lot of the facts in the flurry of articles following him; many were wrong.

Dad served seven years. By the time he was released, in 2001, I was 21. He settled into a normal life again, working, trying to support my sister and I when he could, and he even started dating again – for seven years he lived a normal life.

Then it all came crashing down again. ‘Are you sitting down?’ My sister called to tell me the news. I knew right away what it was. She spilled the story of how his gambling debts had caught up with him again and how, again, he had made the desperate and incomprehensible choice to rob a bank.

This time, he’d been caught on the way out, chased down by a citizen who noticed the dye pack in the bait money had exploded and was fuming smoke. Dad went back to prison and we tried to go on with our lives. He’s there now, out of contact with every member of his family – except for me. I suppose I’m still not satisfied with the facts. Everyone else is happy to accept him as a simple sociopath, driven by greed, gambling addiction and selfishness.

But there were years and years of normalcy, of Dad just being a dad, coaching my sister’s softball team, mowing the lawn, playing catch at the park.

Molly today with her fiancé Blake
Molly today with her fiancé Blake

I wanted to know which one of these dads was the real Dad. It mattered to me to know, for certain, because it would help me understand myself better.

Did Dad love us? Or were we just his cover? Or just in his way? For years I wrote to him in prison through the official correctional department email service. I visited him a few times, trying to analyse his face for the truth. But he gave me the same stories he gave everyone else. I came away with no new information.

The only thing I’ve learnt is that there are no easy answers; that simplistic narratives cannot be so easily laid over the messy and unpredictable events of the real world. I realise Dad is – like so many of us – an irreducibly complex person, and I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with that.

Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir by Molly Brodak is published by Icon Books, price £14.99.