Saturday, September 24, 2016

Akron’s ‘Flying Bank Robber’ passes into history

The stolen airplane that Frank Sprenz abandoned near Coshocton after robbing a bank in this 1959 Associated Press photo. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted flyer from February 25, 1959, features Frank Lawrence Sprenz, who was born in Akron. 

Nobody seemed to notice, but one of Akron’s most notorious criminals died a month ago at the age of 86.

The obit was a mere eight sentences long.

It said he died in his sleep, but it didn’t say where.

Turns out Frank Sprenz took his last breath at the Grafton Correctional Institution.

Which is preferable, I supposed, to at least one of his previous residences — Alcatraz, where he was inmate No. 1414.

As criminals go, this guy was top-of-the-line. He not only made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List, but eventually worked his way up to the most-wanted man in the land. Legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally took over the hunt.

Sprenz’s death came exactly one month after he was denied parole in Columbus.

Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh argued against him during a hearing before the Ohio Parole Board, saying he “has not shown any remorse or taken responsibility for what happened. He is a lifelong criminal and needs to remain in prison.”

Well, that’s not exactly true. His criminal record didn’t start until the ripe old age of 11, when he wound up in juvenile court after throwing rocks at another kid in his East Akron neighborhood.

Sprenz started making headlines in 1958 when, after robbing a bar, he led an escape from the Summit County Jail by fashioning a key to his cell out of a piece of metal. He and four others then fled after throwing hot coffee on a guard.

Within a week, the other four were accounted for — one killed by police, the rest captured. By contrast, the slippery Sprenz was able to stay at large for a year and three days.

During that period, he used 35 aliases and countless disguises, and stole 29 cars and three airplanes.

While on the lam in October 1958 — after two months on the FBI’s Most Wanted list — he had the audacity to land a pontoon plane in Baltimore Harbor, taxi to a pier, tie up and walk into a bar. When a patron suggested the act was so unusual they should call the newspaper, he quickly departed.

Four months later, he stole a plane in Scranton, Pa., and flew to Vermont, crash-landing on a snow-covered strip to elude authorities.

Law enforcement was chasing him all over the country, earning comparisons to a Keystone Cops routine.

Earns nickname

In March 1959, Sprenz robbed a bank in the southwestern Ohio city of Hamilton, snagging $26,000 and escaping in a stolen plane. That’s when newspapers started calling him “the Flying Bank Robber.”

His flying time ran out after he used bank-robbery money to buy a second-hand Piper Cub in North Dakota and fly it to Mexico. Shortly after arriving, he took an acquaintance on a ride and hit a cow and a tree while landing.

An American pilot flying overhead reported the damaged plane, and authorities were able to track Sprenz to Cozumel.

Sentenced to 25 years in Alcatraz, he was transferred to Atlanta when the infamous prison closed in 1963 — the last prisoner to leave.

The stolen airplane that Frank Sprenz abandoned near Coshocton after robbing a bank in this 1959 Associated Press photo.

After nine years in federal custody, he was sent back to Ohio to serve time for the holdup of a local bar and a junkyard, three car thefts and the jailbreak.

Partly because of a legal technicality, his Ohio sentence was commuted and Sprenz was paroled in 1971.

But he couldn’t stay away from banks.

Back in business

In 1976, Sprenz helped two other men rob the Harter Bank and Trust Co. branch near Belden Village Mall, escaped via a commercial flight out of Akron-Canton Airport, then rented a plane and flew into a private landing strip in Vermont, dodging authorities who were expecting him to land in Burlington.

He was busted for that one only a couple of weeks later.

Residents of little Richmond, Vt., were shocked when they learned that Sprenz and his wife, Sandy (from Stow), had been living there quietly for four years. The town of 2,500 had known him as a friendly, unassuming TV repairman — a skill he learned in prison.

After serving three years for his minor role in that robbery, he remained in Vermont until at least the mid-1980s before returning to Akron.

The last part of Spenz’s Sept. 9 obituary, written by a best friend identified only as “Bud,” read: “Flaps and wheels up and head to Heaven to get your wings forever.”


But there’s nothing funny about Sprenz’s worst crime, which came much later in life.

In 1996, he was convicted of paying a man to “scare” an Akron prostitute he was extorting money from. An employee at a massage parlor he helped run on Arlington Road, she drew his wrath by keeping a log of customers and prices.

The man he hired, Ramon Wright, did a lot more than scare the woman. He set fire to her house, killing her and a 15-year-old girl, and seriously injuring the girl’s stepmother, who broke her back jumping out a second-story window.

Sprenz was still serving time for that offense when he was denied parole.

Talks to Beacon

Throughout his many decades in the headlines, the Flying Bank Robber talked to only one reporter: William Schlemmer of the Beacon Journal.

During the first interview, a lengthy Q-and-A conducted in prison in 1970, Sprenz came across as bright, well-educated and humble, but not particularly repentant.

In Alcatraz and Atlanta, he studied things such as plane trigonometry, differential calculus and advanced engineering math.

He also took up oil painting and cartooning and produced some impressive work.

When asked how he mentally survived prison, he said the key was looking forward and not just sitting around.

“Why, I might spend a whole day working on one calculus problem to keep me busy,” he said.

As for his flying career, “I did enjoy being up in the air, the feeling of it. But all that’s in the past now. You should hear the ribbing I take from other convicts about that ‘Flying Bank Robber’ stuff.”

In the end, he was completely off the radar.

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