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Unearthing Alapaha’s eye-popping shootout with Jesse James Roberts

Updated on October 19, 2016
The always-on-the-go Bank of Alapaha Senior Vice President Sylvia Roberts coolly squeezes the trigger of the genuine Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver used by former Vice President Charlie Matthews to thwart a failed robbery by Jesse James Roberts.
The always-on-the-go Bank of Alapaha Senior Vice President Sylvia Roberts coolly squeezes the trigger of the genuine Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver used by former Vice President Charlie Matthews to thwart a failed robbery by Jesse James Roberts. | Source
A mug shot of 1960s bank robber Jesse James Roberts (note the misspelling of his forename). Image Credit: Courtesy of Edward Smith / Find a Grave
A mug shot of 1960s bank robber Jesse James Roberts (note the misspelling of his forename). Image Credit: Courtesy of Edward Smith / Find a Grave

Ex-convict Jesse James Roberts robbed the Bank of Lenox in South Georgia of $38,000 on January 10, 1966 and thought it might be a wonderful idea to also relieve the Bank of Alapaha of its invaluable assets. Unfortunately, he had never made the acquaintance of bank president J. P. Culpepper.

According to a vintage Chicago Tribune interview, after driving the 18-mile distance to Alapaha (pronounced uh-lap-uh-haw like the ending syllable of country music institution Hee Haw) and sitting down in a chair across from Culpepper’s office desk, the beefy 45-year-old asked him if he knew of any land for sale in Berrien County. Culpepper said he didn’t and continued with his work. “I thought he was walking out,” said Culpepper. But I looked up and he was waving his hand at me, holding a gun, and telling me to ‘get up and get out of here.’”

The president replied, “I ain’t going to do no such damn thing,” bolted around his desk, and grabbed Roberts’s arm. Struggling down onto the floor, Roberts overpowered Culpepper and quickly exited the bank.

Vice President C. A. “Charlie” Matthews was in the next office, heard the commotion, grabbed the bank’s Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver, ran out the door, and began shooting at Roberts. At which time Culpepper instructed cashier Willis Nash to get his gun and pursue him also. Alvin Riner had borrowed Nash’s truck during lunch and had not yet returned, so the cashier was unable to join the pursuit.

By this time Roberts just wanted to “get outta Dodge,” so he fired one shot at Matthews which grazed his temple, miraculously only taking an arm off his horn-rimmed spectacles, and fled the bank after the foiled robbery attempt. Placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, Roberts was apprehended in Mexico roughly a month after terrorizing South Georgia. He admitted to U.S. authorities in Laredo, Texas, that he had spent over $62,000 in cash and travelers’ checks during his south of the border sojourn and had “not a penny” left to his name.

Ninety-four-year-old Edwin Gaskins recalled to current Bank of Alapaha Senior Vice President Sylvia Roberts — incidentally this writer’s mom who bears no relation to the infamous bandit — that he asked Culpepper after the epic gun battle why he didn’t just give Roberts the money and let him leave without incident. Culpepper looked him straight in the eye and replied, “I’ve never let anybody talk to me the way that man did, and I’m not about to start now.” Unless you knew Mr. Culpepper personally, you can’t fully appreciate that quote.

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