The Los Osos couple was quiet and kept to themselves — when they weren’t robbing banks.
The FBI nicknamed the husband “The Shootist,” after the John Wayne movie of the same name.
Operating quickly, John Madison Williams Jr. would leap on the counter, cursing and yelling, firing gunshots into the ceiling. He’d order customers to the floor and demand cash.
Then he would quickly exit, hiding in the trunk of a getaway car driven by his wife, Carolyn Marie Williams.
“He is by far the most calculating and surgical bank robber in the past second half of the 20th century,” The Associated Press quoted FBI spokesman Louis Quezada as saying on Sept. 8, 1994.
Newspaper stories said Johnny Williams, who carried out his crimes disguised with a hairpiece, mustache or beard, kept a meticulous diary with police scanner traffic, dates, locations and amounts taken in a string of 56 robberies in Texas, California and Washington state.
New robberies were linked to The Shootist only after investigators studied the robber’s notes.
A 1996 Seattle Times story said he cased banks for months or years. That planning could include rehearsing exits and cutting an escape route through shrubbery — arranging branches to cover his path.
In one Abilene, Texas robbery, The Shootist shot a bank manager in the leg.
Over an eight-year period, Williams stole $879,357. One day, the haul was $43,500. Other days, he left empty handed.
Eventually, investigators linked a bank video camera photo to a driver’s license photo. California and Texas driver’s licenses matched fingerprints and uncovered aliases.
For a time, the Williams’ house in Los Osos was under surveillance, but a tip generated from a true-crime television show lead authorities to a motel room in in the Seattle suburbs.
Williams blames a friend for tipping off the feds.
When they pled guilty, John Williams, 43, was sentenced to 92 years in prison for armed bank robbery, use of a firearm in a violent crime and conspiracy. Carolyn Williams, 34, was sentenced to 20 years.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, Williams, now 68, is still in custody, with a release date of September 2074. His wife was released in September 2011.
A few days after John and Carolyn Williams were arrested, Telegram-Tribune reporter Danna Dykstra and I drove out to Williams’ Los Osos home to check it out. This story was published on July 14, 1994 and has been edited in this republication to remove the address:
Quiet folks or bank robbers?
Osos residents say suspect couple was often gone for long periods of time
LOS OSOS — For two years the dark gray house in the upscale Cabrillo Heights neighborhood was home to a pair of the FBI’s most wanted.
Neighbors knew the quiet couple who rented as Rob and Carolyn Hall. The two traveled frequently, sometimes for months at a time, said one neighbor who asked not to be named.
No one ever asked where they’d been when they returned or thought it was unusual that they were often away from the well-landscaped home with its gorgeous view of the back bay and the Morros.
Apparently the gardener was the only visitor to the home owned by a former California Men’s Colony correctional supervisor who now works at Calipatria State Prison.
According to local authorities, Perry Tingley considered the couple great tenants who often paid their rent several months in advance.
“We’re often gone ourselves,” said Bert Harris, who’s lived next to the gray house for 11 years. “I guess you could say we’re not nosy neighbors.”
News that the FBI arrested the couple over the weekend outside Seattle for reportedly robbing 56 banks in California, Texas and Washington over eight years came as a great shock to residents on Crockett Circle.
Hall is actually Johnny Madison Williams Jr., a man the FBI believes is The Shootist, a bank robber so nicknamed because he always fired one to three warning shots when he entered a bank and ordered everyone to the floor.
Over the eight years the couple allegedly got away with more than $800,000. He reportedly robbed, she drove the getaway car.
“They were very nice people, great neighbors,” said Harris. “We never would have guessed.”
Another neighbor said “clueless” was the only word that came to mind when asked about the quiet couple.
“We hadn’t a clue,” she said. “We talked to them about superficial things, like the weather, normal stuff like that. It makes me shaky still,” she said, turning toward the empty house bordered by electric fencing. Neighbors said the fence was posted to keep the deer that roam the area from grazing the yard.
Carolyn was very slight, and it was apparent that her husband was in charge, continued the neighbor. “He was the only one who spoke. He was the friendly one.”
She said the couple never entertained when they were home. They mostly kept to themselves.
The home with its orange Neighborhood Watch sticker in the front window provided insight into the couple’s lifestyle.
Through the windows one could see sparse furnishings that suggested the house was more of a stopover than a permanent residence.
In an opened bedroom closet hung a few pieces of men’s clothing. On the bed was a book: “Looking for Gold.”
Against the bedroom wall stood a bookshelf that held eight fat phonebooks from out of the area.
Included were directories for Seattle, Tacoma and Greater Dallas — areas where the couple reportedly robbed banks.
Trash in a barrel outside the house suggested the couple had been away awhile. There were five weeks’ worth of rolled Sun-Bulletin newspapers and grass clippings.
On top of the debris sat a brown water pipe or “bong” and two baggies of what appeared to be marijuana seeds.
When asked whether authorities knew the paraphernalia was there or knew who it belonged to, sheriff’s detective Chuck Graves replied: “No comment.”