Armed with a White Cane, Sightless Robert Toye Tapped His Way to the Teller and Robbed 17 Banks Blind

updated 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

The way Robert Vernon Toye sees it, he had no choice but to live a life of crime. But then the 42-year-old bank robber's hindsight has always been 20-20. It's his eyesight that has failed him. "My eyes got so bad I had to turn to robbery," says Toye.

Blind Bob, as Toye is affectionately known to his fellow inmates, is a veteran of 17 bank heists and 11 attempted jailbreaks—an impressive rap sheet given that he has spent almost half of his life behind bars. Nowadays Toye is a resident of the hospital unit at Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison north of Santa Barbara, Calif. Suffering from the incurable degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, Toye has become completely blind.

Toye's sight may be absent, but as a criminal he has never lacked vision. At age 16, he started his first mail-order scam: Parties interested in an exciting career stuffing envelopes at home would send him a $5 application fee, then wait—eternally—for the work to come in. While serving time in the Springfield, Mo., federal prison on a mail fraud conviction in 1973, Toye heard through the prison grapevine that federally insured banks instruct tellers to turn over cash to robbers without making a fuss. Armed with this tip and a note that said he had a gun (he didn't), Toye made his first heist in March 1974, moments after being released from prison. "I told the cabdriver I had to go by the bank to pick up some money," recounts Toye. And he did—$8,000 that the teller put in a brown paper bag as the cab waited.

His next job was in 1977. "No one knew what was happening," Toye recalls fondly. "The bank guard opened the door for me and thanked me as I left." It took Blind Bob "seven or eight" more jobs to refine his technique: He would focus his badly deteriorating right eye on the back of someone's shoe, then trail that person to the teller's window. "Banks are dark and I can't see," Toye explains. "Young people walk too fast, so I'd wait for older people." When he got to the window, he'd present his calling card—a one-eyed jack on which was written: "Be quick, be quiet or you're dead. Put all the cash in the bag. I have a gun." The note was mostly bluster. If Toye carried a gun at all, it was an unloaded pellet gun.

Then Toye would unfold his white cane and beat a careful retreat to the door. But in September 1977, as he was feeling his way out of a Citibank branch in New York City, he stumbled into armed guards delivering money and was arrested. Toye eventually wound up in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. In February 1983, a bureaucratic snafu—the halfway house to which he had been assigned refused to accept him because he was blind—put Toye back on the street. Shortly after, Toye walked into the nearest Citibank, which he says was renowned in the criminal world for its shortage of guards. (Citibank counters that its security system is "better than adequate.") Using a Coke bottle under his heavy prison-issue coat to simulate a gun, Toye ordered the teller to put the cash in a Saks Fifth Avenue bag and walked off with his biggest take yet—$18,000.

Toye flew to Las Vegas and began to lavish his money on show girls. When not enjoying the nightlife, he would taxi to the telephone company, where he laboriously made a list of all the Citibank branches in New York by using a small telescope to read the Manhattan phone book. For three months Toye commuted between his home in Las Vegas and his bank jobs in New York. He'd fly into New York, take a cab to the bank, cab it back to the airport and return to Vegas. In the midst of one job, a woman tried to wedge her way between Toye and the teller's window, causing the frustrated Toye to yell, "Dammit, lady, I'm robbing this bank!"

During this spree, Toye estimates he was able to sock away $71,000 in loot in a Las Vegas bank under an assumed name. Then on May 24, 1983, he varied his routine, taking a cab to a discount store to replace a damaged valise. This delay gave the task force that had been on the lookout for Toye enough time to spot him as he walked along the street. He was arrested and charged with nine counts of armed bank robbery. Sentenced to 17 years, he planned an escape—his 11th attempt. He made it over two hurricane fences, using his cane to flatten the razor wire, but was captured after running into a pine tree.

Toye always did have a blind spot for trouble. At age 8, while growing up in San Pedro, he was a gang mascot. By 18, he had begun the first of his on-again, off-again prison terms. His parents, Roy Toye, a factory worker who died last June, and Laura, 58, a dishwasher, took solace in the fact that their other three children stuck to the straight and narrow.

Bob does have a good side. He claims he has given (under aliases) a good chunk of what he has stolen to charity, including $35,000 to retinitis pigmentosa research. The rest of the cash he hopes to save for himself.

And if he can't? Toye is not exactly a poster boy for prison rehabilitation. "I'll always have a few frauds running," says Toye, who expects to be a free man by 1993. "If I get in a money bind and need a few thousand fast, I know where to find it."

Mary H. J. Farrell, Maria Wilhelm in Lompoc

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