For Love and Money
09/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Police took their positions outside apartment No. 906 in a residential building in Cape Town. Behind the locked door: Craig Pritchert and Nova Guthrie, an attractive American couple they believed were cunning bank robbers known internationally as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. Those legendary gangsters wound up full of lead, courtesy of Texas and Louisiana officers. How would this confrontation go? "We just knocked on the door, identified ourselves and made the arrest," says Phuti Setati, head of media relations for the South African Police Services. "They were watching TV at the time."
It was a low-key climax to a whirlwind seven years on the lam, during which, police allege, Pritchert, 42, and Guthrie, 30—brilliant thieves and madly in love—robbed half a dozen banks, made off with an estimated $500,000 and eluded authorities in numerous states and countries. They used their swindled funds to fuel a lavish lifestyle, skiing in British Columbia, scuba diving in the tropics and hopping from one tony resort to another. Pritchert, a former star athlete and the brains behind the heists, "is the best bank robber I've ever seen," says Scottsdale, Ariz., police detective Tom Van Meter, who investigated the 1997 robbery of the city's Norwest Bank. "He is meticulous at what he does."
For Pritchert, at least, robbing banks was more than just a way to get rich—it was the ultimate thrill. Arrested in 1990 for a bank robbery in Las Vegas, he spent five years in a Phoenix jail, time he seems to have spent refining his criminal ways. "He was so excited when he talked about planning the bank robberies," says a friend who visited him in jail. "It was like a high to him. He enjoyed the lifestyle."
Why Nova Guthrie went along for the ride is a more complicated question. The youngest of eight children, she grew up in rural Boone, Colo., where her father, Ralph, a machinist, banned television and forbade his daughters to wear shorts in public (her mother, Delores, taught school). A natural athlete and straight-A student, Guthrie never had a serious boyfriend until, in 1997, her brother Gerald, now 32, introduced her to Pritchert, a charismatic fellow he had just met in a bar. "He was very sociable and had a quick smile," says Gerald. "She finally met someone who could keep up with her, and she fell quite hard for this guy."
Raised in a well-off family in Mesa, Ariz., Pritchert "was good at anything he picked up," says longtime friend Steve Bender. A promising outfielder at Arizona State University in 1982, he seemed destined for a professional career, yet he was soon replaced in the school lineup by future Hall of Famer Barry Bonds—a benching that left Pritchert bitter. After quitting college, he worked odd jobs and "expected things to come easily to him," says a friend. "And he wanted to make quick money."
By the time Pritchert met Guthrie in 1997, he was already divorced from his wife, had left his three children and resumed his bank-robbing career. Now he had a new partner in life—and in crime. Together, Pritchert and Guthrie would carefully plan a job and burn their clothes and evidence after every heist. Police charge that in 1999 Guthrie drove the getaway car as Pritchert robbed $125,000 from the Klamath First Federal Bank in Bend, Ore. "He busted in, fully masked, and he put a gun to my head," says Bill Olsen, who was then the bank's branch manager. "He knew the vault would be open at that time. He knew what he was doing."
In 1999, two years into their life on the lam, an apparently remorseful Guthrie made a deal to surrender to the FBI and help them with their case against Pritchert. Instead, "she fell back in love with Craig, and off they went again," says Colorado minister William Fay, who counseled Guthrie. In October 2000 the couple settled in Cape Town under the names Dane and Andy Brown. There, they apparently stopped their crime spree and lived fairly normal lives. Guthrie managed a trendy nightclub called Bossa Nova, while Pritchert day-traded in the stock market. "They weren't flashy people," says their friend, Bossa Nova owner Giorgos Karipidis, 29. "They would just hang out at the beach or watch movies together. They were living simple."
Last month a South African visiting the U.S. noticed a wanted poster and recognized Guthrie. Police had the couple under surveillance for several days before arresting them. Both have already been deported to the U.S., where they will face felony charges for multiple robberies. Their friend Karipidis, who before visiting them in prison knew nothing of their past lives, says they are genuinely in love and concerned for each other's well-being now that their life on the run is over. "As much as they are sad that they won't see each other again in their normal lives, there is a touch of relief," he says. "They were always looking over their shoulders, and no one can live like that. Eventually, you have to pay the price."
Champ Clark and Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles, Sara Hammel in London and Michael Hamlyn in Cape Town