Paroled Bank Robber Jim Campbell Gives Texas Students a Look at Life on the Wild Side
A parolee since July, Campbell, 55, had been teaching fellow prisoners at the U.S. penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans., where he was serving a 25-year sentence for armed robbery. After compiling a near-A average while earning his B.A. via correspondence courses, he scored 1,520 out of a possible 1,600 points on a graduate school entrance exam. Now working toward his doctorate in criminology, he helps teach a course entitled Social Reactions to Crime. "I can't think of anyone," says sociology professor Dr. Sheldon Olson, "who could give students a better look at criminal justice from other than the usual points of view."
Campbell, who spent 20 of the last 33 years behind bars, addresses his students with unswerving candor and offers no apologies for a lifetime on the wrong side of the law. Discharged from the Army in 1945, he returned home to Hackensack, N.J., became bored with his job in a textile mill and began robbing banks. Arrested in 1946, he served seven years in a New Jersey prison, then moved his wife and small daughter to Mexico. Using that country as a base, he sallied across the border to raid jewelry stores and banks in the West.
"It's almost impossible to explain why I did what I did all those years," he says. "Money wasn't what I was really after. I never flashed it around like they do in the movies. But I liked the excitement and the prestige. To this day I could go to almost any city in the country, make a few telephone calls and get several thousand dollars. People know me, at least in the business. They'd say, 'Give Campbell what he wants. You'll get it back, and more besides.' As a bank robber, even in prison, you get treated with a special respect. That's an attraction I can't deny."
For a time Campbell lived well in Mexico. He owned a comfortable villa and was known as Don Jaime. He told people he was a writer, and many of them chose to believe him. Then, in 1957, while Campbell was away on a crime spree, his wife and daughter were killed in a traffic accident. In his anguish, Campbell grew reckless and abandoned his habit of meticulous planning. As a result, he was shot and nearly killed while holding up a Houston jeweler and was sent to the Texas state prison.
Paroled again after 10 years, he went straight briefly, then returned to Mexico and began a new string of robberies. He worked alone, but used women to drive his getaway cars. "I got young girls from rural areas," he says. "They have a certain element in their makeup that you could depend on, and they aren't afraid. Then, after a robbery, sex becomes the most absorbing thing. Sometimes we wouldn't get out of bed for two or three days. It can ruin you, because you believe the best sex can come only after a brush with death."
Campbell takes pride in never having killed anyone, but one of his drivers bled to death after being shot as they pulled away from a bank, and he himself was wounded seven times. Today he walks with a limp as a result of a bullet that shattered his hip socket. Campbell does not deny that crime still holds a fascination for him, but says he has found persuasive reasons not to give in. "Being a teacher is better," he says. "Besides, I'm too old. I can't run."