Bank President to Bank Robber to Prison Reformer

One balmy morning in April 1989, a short, round, white-haired man named Lawrence Pope stood at a downtown bus stop in Austin, Tex. Suddenly, he gasped for breath, teetered on his cane, struggled briefly beneath the weight of a plastic bookbag stuffed with documents, fell to the sidewalk and died.

At the time of his death, Pope, who was 70, was probably on his way from his spartan apartment in a poor section of south Austin to the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas. The Barker Center is the repository of his vast, Dostoyevskian archives, and of his oral history, all but unnoticed until recently, recounting his life as a banker, then a bank robber, then a convict in what was once one of the nation’s most brutal prison systems.

During most of his years at the top, or as close to it as he ever came, he was beset by confusion and bitter failure. Only at the bottom, stripped of all comfort, status and possessions, did he achieve success. As a prisoner crusading passionately for prison reform, Lawrence Pope finally made something splendid of himself, and found a measure of happiness as well.

PRISONS SHAPED HIS LIFE WITH haunting symmetry. As a boy in the 1920’s, he grew up in his grandparents’ genteel home in Huntsville, a town in the eastern part of the state where the Texas Department of Corrections is headquartered. He played, hunted and fished on lands adjoining those he would later till, under armed guard, as a convict. Many of his schoolmates were the children of guards; his maternal grandmother, an imperious matriarch named Mamie Jones, wouldn’t allow them in her house. She considered prison employees ”scum.”

Mamie Jones, nicknamed ”the Duchess” by her family, was a powerful force in Lawrence’s life. She and her husband, William, a town banker, had taken in their daughter Ellen and her two sons, Lawrence and William, after Ellen’s separation from her husband, a dentist whom Mamie disliked. Then ”the Duchess” blocked attempts at reconciliation by refusing to let Dr. Pope visit his sons, and by intercepting his letters to their mother. The children never saw their father again. Larry was 3 years old when he came to Huntsville. A precocious child, he was also solitary, and plain by comparison with his handsome younger brother. ”We were not very close,” says Air Force Lieut. Col. William H. Pope, retired. ”We scrapped a lot, and I’m the one who got beat up on.”

In 1931, when Larry was 13, his grandfather’s bank failed and his family life began to unravel. A cousin, Frances Curtis Ingram, remembers him as increasingly introverted and preoccupied with girls. ”He used to keep a file on all the Huntsville girls he knew, classifying them as hot, cold or indifferent.” After high school, he was sent to live with an uncle who was a banker in Dallas. Larry dreamed of joining the Foreign Service, and he studied Romance languages. But when his uncle found him a $60-a-month job as an office boy in a Dallas bank, he grabbed it.

THE BANKING BUSINESS MADE MANY Texans rich, but Lawrence Pope wasn’t one of them. By the late 1950’s, he had worked his way up to executive vice president of the Gulfgate State Bank in Houston. Yet he was making only $12,000 a year, and he had a family – his wife, Geraldine, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and their daughter, whose name has been omitted from this article at her request.

”The wife was there, several children, and I took all of the stuff that was in the refrigerator, which wasn’t much – maybe some milk and eggs and butter and a few things like that -set it out on the table, and wheeled the refrigerator out. And here’s a good man. Because he’s out of work, we have to go out and repossess his refrigerator.”

In 1958, beset by marital problems and having lost his job at Gulfgate for what the bank called ”inefficient operation,” he went into partnership with three Houston entrepreneurs to acquire a few small banks in the burgeoning suburbs. Their first acquisition was in a farm town called West, near Waco. None of Pope’s big-city partners wanted to live there, so Pope became president and chief operating officer of the West National Bank – at, again, $12,000 a year.

He tried to make a go of it; he even became president of the local Chamber of Commerce. Unbeknownst to him, though, his partners sold their shares to a Dallas swindler who promptly went bust. Creditors took over and bank examiners arrived. They found marginal loans, questionable practices and precarious capitalization. In the ensuing scandal, Pope was forced out. In the fall of 1960, at the age of 42, he left West, in disgrace and almost broke, with a heavy cargo of rage.

Soon he hatched a desperate scheme to acquire a country weekly newspaper, then use its press to print banking forms – deposit slips and the like – which he planned to sell to banks run by people he knew. In a town called Giddings, east of Austin, Lawrence managed to make a $5,000 down payment on The Giddings Star. During the following month, he traveled to nearby towns to sell newspaper ads and banking forms. But banker friends infuriated him by refusing to give him orders; they said he’d been smeared by scandal. Without a word to his wife, Pope drove to Houston, bought a snub-nosed .38 revolver for $35 in a pawn shop, and paid $500 cash for a used black Ford. Then the man who’d lived so low on the hog as a bank president drove to Thornton, a tiny town east of Waco, to start a new, high-stakes career.

WEARING DARK glasses but no mask, Pope walked into the First State Bank of Thornton, a small brick corner building, and asked about taking out a loan. Suddenly, he pointed his gun at the teller, Lois Jackson, and ordered her to get all the money from the vault. She gave him $1,744.

”There should be considerably more than this,” he declared, in his cultivated, resonant voice. Pope astonished the teller by demanding to see the general ledger. He ran down the list of transactions, riffled through a stack of cashed checks and decided she was telling the truth.

Pope waved the teller into the vault, along with the only other people in the bank, its owners, Jack and Laurene Barnett. For the next 25 minutes, he forced the two women to undress and assume lewd poses, while he snapped pictures with a Polaroid camera. Tying up all three of his captives, he warned that if they tried to identify him, he’d give his Polaroids to the newspapers. Finally, he locked them in the vault, which he knew had an air vent, and fled.

One week later, he hit the Farmers’ State Bank in Schulenberg, south of Giddings, for almost $5,000 in cash. Again, he took lewd pictures in the vault. By the time Pope got out of town, there was a roadblock on the main highway.

He avoided it by swerving onto a side road, but got lost and had to stop at a farmhouse for directions.

Reaching Houston, he bought a new Volkswagen for $1,800, and planned his next heist, a small bank in a San Antonio suburb. Never mind that a shiny white VW bug was exotic enough to turn heads in the Texas of 1960, or that Houston was a place where Pope knew he’d run into friends who might identify him, which he did.

The trail he’d already left behind was a triumph of self-incrimination. Arriving in San Antonio, he saw himself depicted in a startlingly accurate composite drawing in the papers. Even then, he decided to spend the night in a motel: ”It was so nice and warm in that bed and all, and I wasn’t feeling too good – and so I just stayed.’ ‘The next morning, four Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, acting on several telephoned tips, took him into custody. As soon as their interrogation began, Pope said ”Yes, I was the guy.” Pending trial, he was moved to the McLennan County Jail at Waco, where he joined a slapdash jailbreak and ended up in solitary confinement. He had two trials, state and Federal. Both courts rejected his plea of temporary insanity and gave him a total of 50 years in prison. In October 1961, Pope entered the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., to begin serving his term.

WHY DID HE DO IT? In 1987, when he was telling his story to an oral historian named John Wheat at the University of Texas, he said a long-standing antipathy toward banks ”became a hatred when my own – my so-called good buddies – decided they didn’t want anything more to do with Lawrence Pope.”

That still leaves the matter of the photography. Since his threat to have newspapers run the Polaroids seems ludicrously unconvincing, one searches for other reasons why an otherwise rational man should have done something so bizarre and deeply hostile. As an adolescent, he had displayed an almost obsessive fascination with sex; as an adult, his interest in nudist colonies scandalized his family. Were the Polaroid photographs another product of sexual obsession? Lawrence himself never said a word about them in his oral history, so his motives must remain a mystery.

A few months after the robberies, Jack Barnett, the Thornton bank owner, suffered a fatal heart attack; his son, Jack Weaver Barnett, still considers Pope a killer. Pope’s wife and daughter felt completely disgraced. His wife divorced him, and most of his family shunned him for the rest of his life. The divorce came as no surprise, but Lawrence adored his daughter. When his letters to her(Continued on Page 73) came back unopened, he felt a grief that would only deepen in decades to come.

POPE’S EARLY YEARS IN prison were tolerable, though physically taxing because of the onset of asthma. He tried to learn enough law to overturn his Federal conviction, and he pursued his study of languages. Annoyed by restrictions on law books from the meager library, Pope was astonished to learn that he couldn’t write to a probation office for details of his own case. So he slapped the system with a writ – a petition to a court – the first of many to come.

After several setbacks, Pope’s petition, which raised new issues of prisoners’ rights, reached the United States Supreme Court. But before the Court could consider the case, Thurgood Marshall, then United States Solicitor General, intervened personally and directed Leavenworth to redress its inmate’s grievance. This created an uproar among the prison officials, but it emboldened Pope to challenge other limitations on his rights.

The more he succeeded, the more he was punished with isolation and revocation of privileges, and the more defiant he became. Eventually, Leavenworth shipped him off to another penitentiary, at Lewisburg, Pa., where he found new battles to fight. One involved a ban on Playboy in the prison library. Insisting that the magazine had literary merit, he pointed to pieces it had published by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When Lewisburg officials said that Playboy was nothing but smut, Pope quoted them in letters he wrote to Douglas.

This latest uproar led to a meeting between the warden, Jake Parker, and his senior staff, which Pope learned about from prison psychiatrists who attended. ”They said Jake came in with tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘These sorry bastards have beaten me. I’ve got to let ’em have Playboy.’ ”

Such victories were sweet but Pyrrhic, since the Federal penitentiary system, even with its strictures, was relatively humane and free of institutionalized brutality. When Pope was also dumped by Lewisburg, he landed in the Texas Department of Corrections, which saw humanity as a sign of weakness. Entering the Texas system in the winter of 1970, he was evaluated as ”a potential institutional adjustment problem and malcontent” and assigned to the department’s maximum-security Ellis unit in his hometown of Huntsville. The reception committee was headed by an assistant warden named Bobby Taylor, who displayed a letter from the warden at Leavenworth describing Pope as an agitator, trouble-maker and writ-writer. ”If you write any writs on my farm,” Taylor said, ”you’ll wish you had never been born.”

THE FARM WAS A throwback to the 19th century. Where the Federal penitentiary system had been built along industrial lines, the Texas model was agricultural – huge, sun-baked plantations staffed by what might be called ”house slaves” (convict guards called building tenders) and ”field slaves” (whose ranks Lawrence Pope joined).

At the age of 52, he was suffering from a heart condition in addition to increasingly severe attacks of bronchial asthma. According to department of corrections policies, he should have received regular medication and been assigned to light physical labor on a so-called garden squad. He got no medicine, was transferred to another unit of the prison, handed an aggie – prison argot for a heavy hoe – and put to work tilling dry, dusty fields. Once, when he inhaled a cloud of insecticide and collapsed, guards revived him with a few buckets of water.

 

Yet he saw suffering far worse than his own. Building tenders routinely beat prisoners, often tortured them, sometimes killed them. Overcrowding was pandemic, medical facilities were medieval, psychiatric care almost nil.

One way to survive was to conform: ”Head down, butt up, pick cotton,” went a saying from the days of slavery. But conformity wasn’t one of Pope’s gifts. He continued to write writs, for himself and other prisoners. He documented every abuse he witnessed, with a bank examiner’s passion for detail, then barraged public officials with letters of protest.

In front of a prison warden, he told the director of the department of corrections, Dr. George Beto, about an inmate’s unprovoked beating by convict guards. This particular display of defiance was so astounding that Beto sent Pope to the department’s psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sheldon, to see if he’d lost his mind. During the examination, Pope launched into a discourse on interest rates and Treasury bonds, all of it intended to prove that bankers were the greatest thieves of all. Dr. Sheldon found the discourse troubling, and the inmate eminently sane.

Pope’s sanity was sorely tested by the department of corrections, which put him in solitary confinement with only bread and water for weeks at a time and transferred him frequently from one facility to another. His terrible loneliness was relieved by occasional visits from his uncle, Franklin Jones, a marriage and family counselor, and Franklin’s wife, Sylvia, a psychiatric nurse, and by a few letters from his brother, whom he had last seen at Leavenworth. From Lawrence’s daughter and the rest of his family, there was only silence.

WHEN POPE ARRIVED IN the Texas prison system, a national prisoners’ rights movement was underway and reaching full boil in Texas. It had started in the late 1960’s, when a small group of civil rights activists, led by an impassioned East Coast lawyer named Frances Jalet, began attacking the Texas corrections department’s Draconian restrictions on inmates’ correspondence and access to legal materials and its practice of isolating writ-writers from their fellow inmates. In retaliation for these activities, Beto assigned all of Jalet’s writ-writing clients to what came to be known as the eight-hoe squad, and banished them for 11 months to the same cell block where Pope was confined.

With the encouragement of a brutal warden, the cell block’s guards, sadists even by Texan standards, tried to grind down the new arrivals. But the strategy failed. By throwing all of Jalet’s writ-writers together, Beto created what a recent book on Texas prisons described as ”a brotherhood with a single cause – litigated reform.”

The brotherhood drew strength from Lawrence Pope. If they were the young firebrands, he was the wise elder. Pope benefited too. Suddenly, he had a common cause and strong allies, such men as Fred Cruz, a charismatic leader and writ-writer par excellence who was in prison for armed robbery; Al Slaton, a smart, self-taught possession of narcotics, and David Ruiz, a volatile Mexican-American also convicted of armed robbery, whose petition written on toilet paper would form the basis for the most important prisoners’ rights suit in American history.

”Before I met Lawrence,” said Slaton, who has recently been running halfway houses in Temple, Tex., ”I’d heard he was a radical, an instigator, an agitator, all those good things. Then I was surprised that he didn’t look like a convict. He was very elegant in his speech, very professional. But he was a man of great principle and compassion for the underdog. And he hated George Beto to the point of obsession. Pope would tell him: ‘If we live, we’ll get you.’ ”

THEY GOT MUCH MORE. In the face of all the litigation, Beto retired in 1972, and the eight-hoe squad shook the department of corrections to its foundations, first with class-action suits on prisoners’ First Amendment rights, then with the landmark Ruiz v. Estelle case – W.J. Estelle was Beto’s successor – that dealt with overcrowding, physical abuse, medical care and other aspects of prison life. Ruiz was actually a number of suits that had been consolidated by the presiding Federal judge, William Wayne Justice. The prisoners were represented by William Bennett Turner, a nationally prominent civil rights attorney, who chose Pope as his lead-off witness.

”He made a vital contribution,” Turner said. ”I led with him because he could articulate all the problems for the judge, and he was a guy who could be counted on to get his facts straight.”

The trial was held in the Federal District Court in Houston. On the first day, Oct. 2, 1978, Pope, who was 60 and in poor health, took the stand. ”In appearance he was not prepossessing,” Judge Justice recalled. ”He looked bloated and seemed generally aggrieved in everything he had to say. My initial impression was not a favorable one. However, his testimony was fascinating, and I came to believe everything he testified to.”

Ruiz ended in an unqualified victory for the plaintiffs, and in judicial orders for a fundamental reform of the Texas Department of Corrections. After the trial, Pope and other witnesses were transferred from Texas for their own protection. In 1979, Pope was sent to the Federal penitentiary at El Reno, Okla., accompanied by more than 50 boxes of his files.

The following year, he was offered parole, but chose to stay in prison rather than accept the parole board’s conditions of psychological counseling and residence in a halfway house. ”We were in tears at that point, just begging him to come out,” said Charles Sullivan, a prison-reform activist who had been in contact with Pope for many years. But Pope’s health was precarious, so much so, he was afraid to leave prison and its medical services before he turned 65 and could qualify for Medicare. Two years later, however, he decided to brave the outside world he hadn’t seen for 21 years.

ON JULY 2, 1982, three days shy of his 64th birthday, Pope was released from El Reno. He traveled by bus to Austin, where he was met by Sullivan and his wife, Pauline, and taken to Dismas House, a residence for ex-offenders. He was exhausted from the trip, and only beginning to feel like a free man.

Early the next morning, Pope hit the streets. Walking at the pace of a joyous tourist, he visited newspaper people to announce his arrival, and moved into a little office that awaited him at Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a prison-reform group the Sullivans had founded. Soon he bought some natty clothes and indulged in simple pleasures, like his fondness for Durkee’s mustard, that had been forbidden for so many years. ”We were all pushing the system,” Charles Sullivan said, ”but there was also a sense of Lawrence just enjoying life.”

Pope learned that one of his grandsons wanted to meet him, but he refused. ”They turned their backs on me,” he told his friend Martha Quinlin, another ex-offender active in CURE, ”and I don’t want any part of him.” There was, Quinlin said, ”an unforgiving side of his nature to some people, but to me it was only Lawrence protecting himself from any more hurt.”

As a neophyte lobbyist, he knew only one approach -frontal attack. Buttonholing a public official, he would recount some ghastly abuse, then demand: ”What are you going to do?”

Yet the world had changed more than Pope knew. The consequences of the prisoners’ rights movement were finally being felt in actual reforms, and his exertions won him few friends at the outset. Most people saw him as an embittered jailbird who had not only robbed banks but had taken lewd pictures. ”He was one of the smartest con artists I’ve ever met in my life,” said Representative Allen R. Hightower, a conservative Democrat and chairman of the Texas Legislature’s Committee on Corrections. ”He could take a story that was 10 percent true and 90 percent false, and make you believe it.”

Pope was more successful when he focused on the Texas Department of Corrections as the big business it was, a public corporation with an annual budget of more than half a billion dollars. Soon he discovered that a $2 million construction contract to build a prison dairy had gone to a business partner of the department’s director, W.J. Estelle.

”He was right on top of it all,” said Harry Whittington, then a member of the state board of corrections, which manages the prison system. ”He had a depth of knowledge and a management expertise that were just uncanny.” Like Pope, Whittington fought the department of corrections to the mat and was shunned by many of his peers.

They were an odd couple, the pugnacious little ex-con gone to fat and the tall, handsome, well-connected Republican lawyer. But they were both tough-minded loners who developed a deep respect for one another. Once, when Whittington raised some of Pope’s charges with fellow members of the prison board, a colleague replied dismissively: ”Don’t you know what that guy did?” And Whittington, who did know, said: ”As long as it wasn’t perjury, we’d better listen to what he says.” Other key people began listening, too, among them state Representative Ray Keller, the reform-minded Republican chairman of the Law Enforcement Committee in the Texas House. Pope had the right data at the right time, and he knew it. ”In several letters,” his brother recalled, ”he told me he had never been happier in his life.”

 

ON NOV. 19, 1982, WHILE Pope was speaking to a class at the University of Texas, he suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to nearby Brackenridge Hospital. Discharged a few days later, he went to the hospital’s credit office, where he was handed a bill for $5,000. Pope protested; he was nearly penniless. During an argument that followed, he toppled to the floor, overcome by a massive stroke.

After 36 hours in intensive care, he was transferred to a veterans hospital in Temple, Tex., then to a nearby nursing home. ”We never thought we’d see him out of a wheelchair,” Sullivan said, ”but he was back on his feet by the following summer.”

Walking required a cane now, but Pope managed. Returning to Austin on a meager budget of $300 a month, he took an apartment that was hardly big enough for him and his files. His friends watched his recovery with amazement. The same old Lawrence, they said, challenging them and everyone else with the same old battle cry: ”What are you going to do?” But he wasn’t the same. After the stroke, his anger had a sharper edge. ”You’ve got to go for the jugular every time,” he insisted, upbraiding colleagues in CURE for their willingness to compromise. His bete noire was Hightower, who came from Huntsville and who represented many prison employees in his right-wing constituency. Then, as now, Hightower was an enlightened lawmaker; he recently won an award from the state’s Legislative Black Caucus for, among other things, his work on reform of the state’s criminal justice system. But Pope could only see Huntsville and the corrections department, and conjure up an old-boy network of the sort of people his grandmother had branded as scum. He badgered the chairman and his staff to the point where Hightower threatened to have him arrested if he didn’t get out of his office.

Eventually, Pope and CURE had a falling-out, though his friendships with many of its members endured. His abrasive, absolutist style was the wrong one for an organization trying to work within a changing system.

ON HIS OWN ONCE AGAIN, he spent many of his waking hours at the state capital. During legislative sessions, he sat in on every public meeting that touched on prisons. He also did research in the legislative reference library. ”Lawrence almost lived here,” said the librarian, Sally Reynolds, who used to save her used file folders for him. ”He was interested in our news clipping service, and he’d trade us clippings of his own.”

The more he clipped, the more he learned: meats stolen from corrections department kitchens, machinery missing from its shops, convicts dead under suspicious circumstances. The more he learned, the more he wrote: letters and press releases studded with facts and seething with spleen. He became a familiar sight on Congress Avenue, trudging along on his way to or from the Capitol, always with a bulging bookbag on his back. From his files came grist for countless news stories, and for a scholarly history of prison reform called ”Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down.”

”He was a gold mine for our book,” says Steve J. Martin, co-author, with Sheldon Ekland-Olson, a University of Texas sociologist. A former general counsel of the corrections department and a prison guard before that, Martin still marvels at the depth of Pope’s archives. ”I’d had some really sensitive documents as general counsel, but he had documents I didn’t have. And I’m convinced that he came by them legitimately.”

Pope himself became a scholar of sorts. At the suggestion of the Texas journalist Molly Ivins, the University’s Barker Texas History Center invited him to tell his tale to a tape recorder, and to make his files part of the center’s permanent collection. Beginning in February 1987, he talked to John Wheat for a total of 28 hours.

The tapes, transcribed into almost 900 pages, reveal the discipline of Pope’s mind: the tortures of the damned set forth, with eerie lucidity, by one of the damned. Pope’s sprawling files bespeak his hunger for justice. Occupying 65 feet of shelf space, they are stored in more than 70 boxes, most of them Budweiser beer cartons that he cadged from his neighborhood 7-Eleven. Though no one has counted the individual documents yet, they must number in the tens of thousands. Students of prison reform say there is nothing like these archives in the world. Once they are indexed and transferred to more suitable containers, they will become a precious scholarly resource. For now, though, Pope’s files, stored in the sepulchral silence of the Barker Center’s fourth-floor stacks, seem like some sort of burial ground of corruption and pain.

Their depth is stirring, their range almost hallucinatory: an uprising of 98 inmates, bid-rigging in contracts with construction companies, a prison shop using lead-based paint on children’s furniture. An inmate is stabbed, forced to walk to the infirmary, bleeds to death along the way. There are sewage treatment studies (”What is the T.D.C. doing to the environment?”) and a letter to the pilot of a crop-duster that may have sprayed pesticides on a group of inmates in 1983 (”Please give exact dates and chemicals used.”).

One senses that Pope, in his darkly obsessive, self-punishing, ultimately heroic way, struggled to record absolutely every single thing within the confines of his walled world. Perhaps he hoped, by bearing witness, to gain redemption.

HIS HEALTH WORS-ened after the completion of his oral history. He kept staggering along, took buses, saw friends, worked on his files at the university, even insisted on lifting the heavy cartons himself. But a series of small strokes clouded his mind and ravaged his spirit.

”He started crying so much,” said Cecilia Nunez, his neighbor in the next apartment. ”He was so sad that his daughter never had anything to do with him, and I cried with him.”

He made calls to Martha Quinlin, his friend from CURE, in the middle of the night, rambling angrily for hours about pollution, earthquakes, ”the sickness of humanity.”

To Al Slaton, his old ally from the eight-hoe squad, he said, ”I’ve run my course. I’ve done all I can do. I’m ready to go.”

After he did go last April, some of his friends held a memorial service beneath a breezeway on the university campus. Steve Martin recalled, in a voice choked with emotion, how he used to make Lawrence laugh by calling him an old curmudgeon. Harry Whittington said he hoped Lawrence had made it to heaven so the place would be well run by the time everyone else got there.

In the last row sat Lawrence’s daughter, who had come to Austin to claim his body, and her children, two sons and a daughter.

His cousin Caroline Williams was at the service, too. Caroline had been teaching children from poor families in a school only five blocks away from his apartment, but never knew it; she had lost track of him after his incarceration and, like most of his relatives, continued to think of him as a man who had dishonored his family. After hearing Lawrence extolled by a succession of scholars, ex-cons, lawyers and public officials, she turned to her husband, Odell, and said softly, through her tears: ”My God, it is true that the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Because this man, out of apparent evil, has left us a magnificent legacy.”

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