The Gentleman Bank Robber
A Double Life
For thirteen years the media knew Ken Cooper only as the armed and mysterious “gentleman bank robber.” The soft-spoken Ken, however, led a double life. In appearance a model citizen, Ken was a devoted family man who worked as publicity director for a Christian college and directed advertising and tourism for the state of Kentucky. But beneath his polished exterior was a man with a tragic past who was driven by a dangerous addiction.
The Making of a Rebel
Ken traces his rebellion against authority to his early years. In first grade his teacher yanked him out of his chair by his hair when she saw him daydreaming. The sudden attack filled Ken with terror, so much so that he stopped trying to learn and began inciting his classmates against the teacher. When Ken was eight years old, he was cheated by a man who had offered him a job at a country store. Ken and a friend were to move a heavy sack with a wagon, but when they completed the job, the store owner refused to pay them. Since they had been cheated, Ken and his friend decided to help themselves to the candy. Taking sweets from the store gave the boys a thrill, and they began to do it more openly. There was the rush of adrenaline each time they did not get caught, and Ken began to crave this exhilarating feeling. The boys expanded their stealing to other stores, but the country store owner was their favorite target, because they felt good getting back at him.
Despite his waywardness as a child, Ken became a good student in high school and worked hard for top grades. He became an honor student and was motivated to attend college. At 17, he landed a job at a car wash where the owner trusted him and promoted him to cashier and assistant manager. For an adrenaline “rush”— calling it “joy juice”—Ken would take money from the cash register right under the owner's nose.
When Ken received an acceptance letter from the University of Arizona, he celebrated with a “high.” He and a friend found a car with a University of Arizona staff parking sticker on it in a supermarket parking lot—with the keys in the ignition. The thought that the car might belong to someone who would be his professor gave Ken a thrill. The two friends drove the car to the university and parked it in the staff parking lot. Then they found another car which they “borrowed” and took for a “joy ride.” Ken was on an adrenaline high! He told his friend that someday he wanted to rob a bank. His friend told him he was crazy!
Two Great Losses
During college Ken met “the most beautiful girl he had ever seen” and she was good for him. She helped him stop drinking and partying, and they got married during his junior year. Tragically, on their honeymoon, Ken noticed a lump on the side of his young wife's neck. It turned out to be lymphosarcoma, a fatal form of cancer. Doctors operated, and during the next six months, Ken stole a thousand dollars from his employer and felt justified, because doctors had given his wife two years to live. He used the money to take her on a month long vacation to visit relatives.
Even though doctors advised against getting pregnant, Ken's wife wanted a child so that Ken would have part of her with him after she was gone. As predicted, after she got pregnant, the cancer began to spread at an accelerated rate. Treatments would put her cancer into remission for periods of time, but it continued to spread throughout her lymph glands. For the next eight years Ken's wife was in and out of the hospital. Ken worked at a local juvenile court, supervising juvenile delinquents, and he vowed never to return to his evil ways. Ken's wife wept tears of joy when Ken began to attend church with her and her family.
Six months before his wife's death, Ken moved his wife and daughter to the home of his in-laws. Watching her painfully slip away, Ken was filled with anger. He was despondent, and blamed God. He wanted to retaliate! He was sitting beside her bed when she died. Ken's kindly father-in-law invited Ken and his daughter to come live with them, but Ken was distraught and couldn't accept the offer for himself.
Ken's father was in the hospital in Nashville, and he called to see how his ailing father was doing. A voice on the phone told him that his father's heart had failed. He was only 57. At his father's gravesite, Ken once again blamed God. His anger grew into depression. He wanted to die to be with his wife and father, but he also wanted to take care of his daughter. To get himself out of the depression, he told himself, “If I do something crazy, it will shock me back to life. Otherwise, I will remain dead!” He wished for a massive adrenaline rush. He would rob a bank—but he would practice first on smaller convenience stores!
Life as a Bank Robber
In time, Ken remarried and took on the role of family man, businessman, and community good guy. But his mental image was split down the middle. Bad Ken robbed banks. Good Ken was squeaky clean. Since he was well-mannered, attractive, and soft-spoken, no one suspected that a dark side lurked within. One of Ken's uncles bragged that he was a descendent of Jesse James, a famous bank robber, although Ken's grandfather was a Baptist minister. Ken wished he could be Jesse James.
Ken's wife was offered a professorship at a university in Florida, so they moved south. Ken robbed banks in small towns away from where they lived. He chose banks that were secluded and not near police stations. He would watch the bank employees’ routines while he was on public relations trips for his job. To increase the adrenaline rush, Ken began taking hostages during holdups, but he never hurt anyone physically. During his years of robbing banks (1969-1982), there wasn't advanced technology, so employees were told to cooperate with the robber. This made Ken feel like superman. He robbed for the adrenaline high and not the money, since he and his wife had excellent professional jobs. The challenge was to keep his bank robbing a secret from everyone.
The last bank Ken robbed was in Tampa, Florida, in 1982. He describes the moment when he encountered a sheriff's deputy as he walked out of the bank. “As if in slow motion, fire flashed from the shooter's pistol. The plate glass exploded into fragments, coming at me like glistening darts. A slug slammed into my chest, knocking me backward. Shards of glass pierced and sliced my skin. Fire burned in my chest. Someone screamed—the sound bouncing around my mind like an echo. Everything faded to black.” The .357 magnum bullet did terrible damage, but amazingly missed Ken's heart.
In a Holding Cell
Ken's second marriage ended in divorce three years before he was stopped by a bullet and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. After recovering from his injuries, he was released from the medical cell and detained in the Hillsborough County Jail in a holding cell called the Lion's Den—temporary living quarters for lifers awaiting transfer to prison. He was now a victim—“held hostage” to brutal terror and evil in that jail.
Conditions were horrible and sadism permeated the twelve-man unit, which held as many as twenty-two men. Ken says the cell smelled like a butcher shop mopped with a heavy dose of Lysol dumped into a bucket of urine. He gagged on the putrid air. Rapes were common, and all around him were men who saw him as their next target. The screams and groans at night of victims being physically beaten and violated made Ken cringe in horror. He said, “I thought I was a tough-minded man of the world and acquainted with fear and terror. I had no inkling that men would stoop lower than ravenous animals. Sadists tortured their victims until they lost human dignity. The weakest gave up hope and stumbled around like dead men living in terror. They were pawns in the hands of the biggest and baddest in the cell. Victims tried to commit suicide. Others became gang rapists to please their masters. There were broken bones and dripping blood.”
Waves of sorrow and regret engulfed Ken. He cried out to God for forgiveness. When a jail ministry volunteer led him to Christ, he fell on his knees and prayed, “Jesus, I'm a horrible sinner; please come into my heart and change me. I've made a terrible mess of my life—and the lives of others. I'm tired of living a double life, and I'm sick and tired of being out of control and crazy. Please come into my heart and give me peace.” Great tears flowed from Ken's eyes and splashed on the floor. Prior to his salvation, Ken used to make fun of the blood of Christ, even while working for the Christian college. Now he was washed by the blood of Christ and felt TOTAL RELIEF from the weight of his sins. But as a brand new Christian, Ken had horrific challenges ahead.
Ken was transferred to the Rock—the most dreaded prison in Florida— notorious for filth, rape, violence, murder, and suicide. The Rock was a 3-story rectangular building with thick walls made of poured concrete. It served as the high-security unit at Union Correctional Institution and housed 900 of the most dangerous criminals, many with life sentencesfor committing violent acts. There was little safety for inmates and correctional officers. The Rock was filled with evil. Murders and rapes occurred in the hallways. About half of the men were involved in homosexual activity. There was a subculture of fear and degradation. Ken's cell in the A-Wing was controlled by a serial murderer who was the cell boss. “It was total darkness, both spiritual and emotional. It was run by Satan and his henchmen,”says Ken. Living conditions were brutal. There was no air conditioning in the sweltering North Florida summers and little or no heat in the winters. Stench from the toilet was overpowering.
Violence and brutality were daily occurrences. One of Ken's best friends was murdered across the table from him in the chow hall and died in his arms. How could he trust God to protect him? “It was not a living hell, but a dying hell,” says Ken. No one ever escaped from the Rock.
Light Through a Glass House
Ken was so depressed he didn't eat or shower for a week. Suddenly, an idea came to him: clean the commode in your cell—which looked like it hadn't been cleaned in months. After performing this humbling act, something happened inside of Ken. He was cleansed and felt a spark of hope. He looked at his insane bunk partner and told him he loved him. In just those few minutes, Ken's thinking changed from suicidal depression to hopefulness. He and his cellmates started praising God and praying in their cell. The more they sang about the blood of Jesus, the more the demons ran. A Christian Fellowship formed in Ken's cell and also in other cells down the corridor where men began reading the Bible, praying, singing, and praising God. With no privacy in prison, Ken said you have to be real, because it's like living in a glass house. Cell to cell to cell more than 200 men gave their lives to the Lord as they reached out to help each other.
A big inmate had raped two of his cellmates and was boasting about making Ken his next victim. However, when Ken attended a Kairos Prison Ministry weekend, inmates were given a bag of cookies and challenged to share them with an enemy—the inmate they hated the most. On the way back to his cell, Ken got permission to stop by this man's cell to give him the cookies. The confused inmate took the cookies with thankfulness, and the harm meant for Ken was averted.
A Prisoner for Life
Although Ken previously had extreme anger against authority, since he had been “born again” in the jail cell, Jesus had become his Authority. Ken found that Christ in him could love even rapists and murderers. He found Christian brotherhood among reformed inmates, Christian staff members, and prison ministry volunteers. Surrendering his life to God had healed Ken's lifelong skewed thinking! He committed to putting God first in his life, and God orchestrated his release from prison after only three and a half years. He says, “I believe God released me at His chosen time, so that I could fulfill His plan for my life. To express my deep gratitude and devotion, I am serving a life sentence as a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”
Even before they met, Ken and June each had a vision for a ministry they were calling by the same name: “Adopt-a-Man.” They met when Ken was in prison and June was a victim of crime. Both wanted to sponsor men coming out of prison, providing them with a place to stay and helping them adjust to life outside bars. In the past 25 years, Ken and June have helped with transition housing for over 2,500 men. 88% are still out of prison. They attribute the low recidivism rate to the fact that their program is Christcentered. Ken believes that when a man surrenders his will to God's will and is humble, he can be led to the right work and right church. They also have classes on overcoming addictions. Ken says, “A hundred times a year, my wife and I conduct worship services and discipleship classes in prisons where we share the good news that God will save and deliver ‘a wretch like me’ through Jesus Christ.” They have witnessed thousands of men and women turn their lives over to Christ.
Chaplain Alex S. Taylor, head chaplain for the Florida Department of Corrections says, “Ken Cooper is the real deal. He is a prison success story who holds out hope for inmates who want to make changes and family members of inmates who hope change is possible.”