Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.
But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.
The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.
South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.
"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.
"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."
I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.
Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?
"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."
But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.
But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.
Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.