Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Crime and Punishment

There is a principle in the field of marketing that maintains that customers will likely have a more favorable opinion of a business with which they’ve had a problem satisfactorily rectified, than they will of a business with which they’ve experienced nothing but fault-free transactions. The purpose of this principle isn’t to suggest that intentionally spilling soup on a customer and then offering to pick up the lunch tab is a desirable method for building a loyal clientele at your bistro. Rather, it is meant to illustrate how mindlessly mechanical commerce can operate when running smoothly and how the occasional stick in the cogs can be an opportunity to demonstrate your mettle in customer satisfaction. In a broader sense, it illustrates how a person’s character can be best judged when he is embroiled in turmoil or controversy.

I thought of this principle when reading a report in Sunday’s SJ-R about a bank robber, one George Landers, who was nabbed when a crisis of conscious led him back to the scene of the crime to return his plunders. I know little of this man Landers and if he hadn’t made the ill-fated decision to stickup the Prairie State Bank & Trust last Saturday I would know nothing at all. But he did, and because he also took the unusual step of reneging on his robbery, he’s gone from obscurity to being a paragon of virtue. Well, at least he could be.

The SJ-R didn’t provide any back story on Landers so we the readers were allowed to sketch in the details as we saw fit. I imagined him as an honest, hardworking man who was down on his luck and succumbed to an act of utter desperation. Perhaps he was recently laid off from his job and the bank was about to foreclose on the house that his grandfather had built with his bare hands. Perhaps contributing to his misfortune was a sick child whose mother abandoned their family, pilfering his life’s savings before leaving them all in the dirt. Yet despite the lowly circumstances in which he found himself, Landers knew that he simply must return the money and face punition because of a deep-rooted sense of right and wrong.

Of course, I could be wrong. Old George could have been strung out on crank and looking for some quick cash so he could score. Maybe he wandered back into the bank, only then remembering that he had already robbed it, and upon seeing the police decided he better make good with the loot and throw himself on their mercy by pretending it was an intentional act of contrition.

But I see no need to be cynical and will choose to believe the first story until proven otherwise.

It’s rare, but I do occasionally find myself admiring the work of the outlaw. And not just the fictional capers depicted on the silver screen such as the stylized heist in Ocean’s Eleven or the hold-up hijinks in Bottle Rocket.

One of my favorite real-life crooks of all time wasn’t a gentleman bandit or a criminal mastermind, but a humble scam artist whose work was characterized by its modesty. Coincidently enough, his scam not only took advantage of the marketing principle explained at the start of this article, but also employed spilled soup in his MO.

Operating in New York, this man devised what seemed like the perfect ruse. He would send letters to restaurants saying that he had recently enjoyed a wonderful meal there, very complimentary. But, he would hesitantly add, the experience was somewhat marred when the server spilled soup on his shirt. He explained that at the time he shrugged off the mishap, but after discovering that the resulting stain would require the services of a professional dry cleaner, he felt he must ask for compensation in the sum of $17. Many of the restaurateurs found the amount he asked a mere pittance and well worth it to maintain the good will of a customer.

And so this corresponding crook cleaned-up, as it were, fleecing many of the city’s eating establishments without them ever knowing about it. He was eventually caught because he had the checks sent to a PO Box and whatever monitoring methods the Post Office uses to detect mail fraud picked up the scent of his little scheme.

I don’t condone criminal behavior of any sort, but in a world of bumbling burglars and greedy grifters, it’s nice to see someone apply a little nuance and humility to their craft. And after reading stories about local bank executives getting caught skimming from the till and local charity organizers found pocketing donations, it’s nice to read about someone like good old George Landers who did the right thing and turned himself in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Saw "Stealing Sinatra" over the weekend. Loved it. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction! These guys made "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight" look like criminal masterminds.

I think my appreciation of the movie was helped by the fact that I actually remember the 1960s and so loved it for its art direction, too. If you want to see a funny movie involving wacky, bumbling criminals, based on a true story, see this movie.

George would've fit right in. When they first contacted Sinatra, Sr., by phone (they had kidnapped Jr., he offered to pay a million dollars ransom. No, they said, the wanted $240,000. And apparently that's a true part of the story. Hell, I could've been in that gang.