By: John Arden-Hopkins
January 31, 1988
Transcribed by: Kathy S. Bentley
BELFAST - The date was January 24, 1986.
The time was 11:30 a.m.
The place was the Belfast Norstar bank.
Here’s what happened, according to an eyewitness.
“I was working across the street, in the Irish Kitchen Restaurant,” said Tim Metcalf.
I was getting ready to use the phone, which is close to the front door of the restaurant. I was looking out the door, as you do when you’re on the phone.
“I saw a young lady go to the door of the bank and pull on the handle, and then she turned away and I could tell by the expression on her face that something was terribly wrong.”
“There was terror all over her face – she was scared. And then she started to run.”
The Belfast bank robbery, which is still unsolved, was underway. And a legend was born.
Metcalf saw the woman run into Terry Sisson’s service station, then in a few minutes Sisson emerged, caring a semi–automatic rifle.
“The robbers came out of the side door of the bank,” Metcalf went on. “There were two guys, one in a fatigue jacket, the other wearing a faded Carhart–type jacket.
The second man was carrying a white bag, and they both began to run through the yards, past the house in behind the bank.
“They had a car on the next street, they took off, came out of Chapel Street, paused at the stop sign and were gone.”
“I hollered to Terry (Sisson) to shoot, but he didn’t.… I was back inside on the phone to the police before they were out of sight.”
Sisson, Vietnam veteran and owner of an auto repair shop, remembered it this way.
“I was pumping gas and a girl came up and said the bank was being robbed…I thought she was joking at first.
“Then I grabbed my weapon and went out, the car was just emerging from Chapel Street.”
Chapel Street meets Main Street opposite Sisson’s shop.
“I saw only one person in the car, there was something on the seat that looked like a poncho liner. The car was a Chrysler Cordoba, maroon or burgundy with a black top.”
“I noticed that it had a quiet exhaust, that it had snow tires on the back and that the back was all dirty, as if it had been on a back road”
“I heard Tim hollering for me to shoot, but I wasn’t going to shoot across Main Street.”
Then the robbers were gone, heading out of Belfast, turning south on the White Creek Road, and reportedly rendezvousing with a light–colored Ford van between Little John and Brainard Hill Roads.
Allegany County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Calcagno was forced off the road by the speeding Cordoba.
Calcagno, who was off duty, was driving toward Belfast in his private car; he moved over to avoid an accident with the speeding robbers.
“It wasn’t until I got to Belfast that I knew what was happening,” he said.
When he got there, he joined in the massive sweeps of the area that engaged local law enforcement officials for the rest of the day.
Anley Calcagno, Frank’s father, was by his garage when the robbers went by, but by now they were driving two vehicles.
“There was the red car (the Cordoba) and a bluish, beat up van right behind it,” he said.
“I wasn’t over 15 feet from them and I couldn’t see anything…They were going 70 –80 miles per hour.”
Calcagno said he had heard that the red car stopped and the suspects “did something,” then they proceeded in the two vehicles.
Another area resident refused to confirm what Calcagno said.
A few miles south of Calcagno’s, Bob Clark and a crew of Allegany County Highway workers were patching the White Creek Road.
They noticed nothing until troopers arrived and started asking questions.
“We can’t be 100 percent sure that they didn’t go by,” Clark said. “If they had slowed down and proceeded with caution we wouldn’t have noticed them.”
But Clark is certain that his crew, which was “about half a mile south of the Tibbetts Hill Road,” would have noticed vehicles doing 70 or 80 miles per hour.
The last confirmed sighting of the robbers’ vehicle was at Calcagno’s.
After that they seem to have evaporated.
Neither of the vehicles was ever found, State Police Senior Investigator C. Robert Jackson said.
He added that very little substantial information has been added to the case file in the past two years.
“We still have an open case,” he said. “If there were something substantial, we would have made an arrest. If we had a suspect, we’d be doing something on it.”
Jackson said he is aware of the rumors and scenarios that are circulating about the robbery, but that hard facts are not emerging.
“If there is good information out there, people should come forward with it,” he said.
“But barroom talk is not much good to us.”
At the time of the robbery, the suspects were described as white males, 18 to 21 years old, both slender, one 5’5”, the other 5’7” to 5’8”.
They were both wearing ski masks, and one carried a bolt-action sawed-off shotgun with a brown stock and chrome barrel.
Police noted that one robber called the other “Steve” when they were inside the bank.
One of the suspects used a can of “Whiz-on” spray enamel to paint the lens of the banks surveillance camera.
The paint had been purchased at a Twin Fair store.
The Cordoba was described as having New York plates, one of them sitting on the dashboard.
The letters “AMG” or “AKG” were said to be on the plate.
Hours of legwork on the car and the van turned up nothing, according to FBI Special Agent Joseph Wenger of the Jamestown office.
“We had a computer run of all cars that matched the description from the western New York area,” Wenger explained.
“We spotted each one and we interviewed the owners, but that came up negative.”
“We also ran all reports of stolen cars matching the description from the region. That was negative, too.”
“We checked out the guns, the look–alikes, similar MOs…The fact of the matter is, that we checked out a lot of suspects and they all washed out.”
(An “MO” is the method of operation a criminal uses to commit a crime; investigators find that MO’s can be as individual as finger–prints. Criminals tend to repeat their successes.)
From doing all this legwork, Wenger has developed two beliefs about the Belfast bank job: first, that the robbers were from out of the area, and that they left the region for good that day.
Otherwise, he said, “we would have heard something.”
The second belief: “This was a very well–done bank robbery.”
“We haven’t had any leads on this in a very long time,” Wenger added.
“Not many stones were left unturned…None of the leads went anywhere.”
Could the Belfast bank job happen again?
Most local civilian observers say yes.
“It’s a logical bank to hit,” Sisson said. “We don’t have town police, and the troopers have a lot of ground to cover.”
Former Friendship Police Sgt. John Strouse, who left police work after a dispute with his town board a few months after the robbery, said that the job could be repeated anytime.
“If it happened again they wouldn’t solve it any better than they did this time,” he said.
“This thing was over before it started, and after the first half hour everything was black over pink, red over green until you couldn’t tell what happened.”
Strouse was blocking one of the possible escape routes from Belfast on the day of the robbery.
He spent six hours standing in the snow and saw nothing of interest.
Later tours of the back roads came up empty as well.
The waitress in Metcalf’s Irish Kitchen Restaurant put it this way:
“If he (Metcalf) walked out of here right now and decided to lose himself in the woods you couldn’t find him until he wanted to be found, unless you had been born and raised in the hills around here.”
And so the Belfast bank job passes from police procedure into legend.