HomeNewsNews 2Confessions of a bank robber: Ex-con reflects on heists and life

Confessions of a bank robber: Ex-con reflects on heists and life

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Sean takes a quick hit of crack and a snort of heroin, a mixture that will make him feel invincible, like he’s got all the power in the world, but it won’t last long. He’s about to rob a bank on Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven and he estimates he has about two minutes to get in and out before the cops arrive. Outside a taxi is waiting for him, but since he has no money to pay for it, he’s hoping that it won’t leave before he gets back outside.

He goes in, straight to the teller. “Give me the f–king money!”

He points his 12-gauge shotgun to the bulletproof glass and shoves his .38 in the tray, his bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head. The teller looks scared but says nothing and starts to pack up the cash quickly. Sean grabs it and rushes to the door, looking for police. It’s all quiet.

It’s 1997, he’s 31 years old and he’s just made $6,000.

Juvenile delinquent

Sean Martin Dalton was born in 1966 into an Irish-Catholic working-class family in Woodhaven, Queens. The second of five children, his father, Maurice, was an FDNY firefighter and his mother, Noreen, a stay-at-home mom from Belfast, Ireland. He says he was always intrigued by money and from a young age he realized that “money brought happiness. At first, it’s candy from the corner store. Then it’s movies, clothes, girls.”

He got his first job at 12, working at a pizzeria. He looked up to the wiseguys, mobsters and the older guys who were big shots in the neighborhood. It was the Gotti era of the 1970s, and Sean remembers seeing men beaten in the street by the mob.

Sean Dalton father
Dalton’s father Maurice was an FDNY firefighter.
Stephen Yang

“I seen John Gotti’s son crack people’s heads open, f–king bust people up on Jamaica Avenue. They had to, you know? People deserved it — you take something, you pay for it. You don’t pay? You pay.”

At 14, a man approached him and offered him a job selling pot in Forest Park.

“They ran it like a business, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. I was making $10 an hour. If I had a good day I’d sell 200 dime bags. That’s $2,000 a day. The guy was making a lot of money.”

Sean Dalton
Dalton looked up to the wiseguys, mobsters and the older guys who were big shots in the neighborhood.
Stephen Yang

The park was full of drugs: Quaaludes, Valium, black beauties, heroin, acid, mescaline, angel dust. Sean tried it all. The drug market was known to police, and Sean says he’d have to “run through the woods at night, the cops creeping through the trees with their flashlights ready to tackle” them to the ground.

The first time he was caught by the police, they took him in cuffs to his home where his father told them to “take him to f–king jail — he wants to be a tough guy, let him go to jail,” but his mother pleaded with them to leave him at home, which they did.

The first time he went to court he was 17, but the drug dealers he worked for posted bail, helping him avoid Rikers. Despite this, he kept selling, getting high and missing his desk appearances, which resulted in bench warrants for his arrest.

One day the warrant squad arrived, blocking the entrance to his father’s house and Sean had to think quickly, so he grabbed his brother’s mailman uniform and answered the door. “Can I help you officer?” The cop looked at the photo of the wanted picture and he looked at Sean. They looked just enough alike. Sean stared him down. The cop looked at the photo again and Sean said, “Yeah you’re looking for my f–king brother Sean. He’s probably up in Forest Park selling drugs.” The cop responded, “Yeah, we got a warrant for him,” then left, taking one last look. Sean closed the door. “I took the hat off and I f–king ran.”

Sean eluded the police a few more times over the years, but he eventually ended up in Rikers.

“Rikers Island is the worst f–king place in the world. The minute you enter that f–king place, you have to turn into becoming a savage animal. If not, you are f–king prey.”

As a street kid, Sean had learned to fight and knew the rules of the game: “The minute you got in there, you had your fights and that’s it. You stood your ground.” He didn’t always win, but “there was nobody [he] wouldn’t fight.”

By 1989, Sean’s drug use was becoming a liability and he owed money to dangerous people, so he left for Ireland, where he had family on his mother’s side. He met a girl and got her pregnant, but had to flee the country after getting into a bar fight and beating a man nearly to death who was in the IRA. He was given 24 hours to leave Ireland or the IRA would blow his knee caps off with a pistol. He wouldn’t meet his son, Ruairi, for another 12 years, when he came to visit his father in Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in 2002.

Sean’s first heist

The bank robbing began in 1993. He was broke and homeless. He was on drugs. Some days he’d just ride the subways back and forth, sleeping on the benches. He went to stay with his cousin in the Rockaways for the weekend to get cleaned up, and on Monday she asked him what he was going to do.

“I’m going to go rob a bank,” he said.

Sean Dalton
He committed a string of 18 bank robberies over five years.
Stephen Yang

She didn’t believe him, but later that day he went around the corner and passed a note to the teller and she handed him the money. It was the beginning of a string of 18 bank robberies he committed over the next five years. He estimates he stole a total of $196,000, all of which he spent.

He says he “never valued money” and was always giving it away, spending it on lavish hotel rooms, drugs and escorts. “I liked to stay at the Doral, the Waldorf, the Plaza. Five Star places that offered the best service from pillows to blow jobs. I didn’t care about money — if it ran out I went to get more.”

In between robberies, he would check into Daytop Village, a rehab in the Rockaways, to avoid the police. “Some people go away for 28 days, 90 days, 30 days. I went to treatment for 54 months.”

Sean was able to stay clean for periods of time, though it didn’t stick. He tried working at a law firm belonging to Douglas Menagh, a powerful Park Avenue lawyer who saw himself in Sean, but left after a few years. “I felt trapped in an office, like a mouse” and took a job cleaning sewers.

“Oh boy, it’s big cash money — I used to rob people and made thousands of dollars. Terrible scandals — I feel very bad. But it was a great cash business — I’d walk into people’s houses and tell them they had bigger problems than they had. And I’d make them pay me cash. And then I wouldn’t give the correct amount to my boss.”

One day he got a call to unclog a sink on 115th Street in Queens in a shopping center. While clearing the line he looked up only to see his own wanted poster on the wall. It was a bank he had robbed two years earlier.

sean dalton
Sean, center, and his mom, Noreen, right, at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in 1998.
Stephen Yang

“I thought I was the stupidest f–king criminal in the world. I’m going to get caught doing the right thing.” He called his boss and tried to get out of doing the job, but his boss said no. No one noticed, and so he finished the job and left.

Jobs gone awry

Not all the robberies went smoothly. At Queens County Savings Bank on the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard, he’d just smoked some crack and was making his way to the teller window when he heard his name. “Sean . . . Sean . . .” It was his elderly childhood neighbor, Mrs. Christof, asking him to help her carry her groceries out the door. He pretended to not know her and rushed to the teller.

When he got to the window, he passed the teller a note for the money and made his way to the exit door. It was locked. Panicked, he was about to draw his .38 to blast through the bottom panel of the glass door and crawl out when the bank manager approached him. “Sir, is there a problem?”

“I’m trying to get out of here,” Sean replied, hand on the gun in his pocket. The manager unlocked the door and let him out, not knowing he had just been robbed.

sean dalton
Dalton didn’t meet his son Ruairi, for another 12 years.
Stephen Yang

Sean began dating a woman who worked as a teller at a bank and he would ask her questions: How much money they had at the window, how the dye packs worked and the bank protocols (they were supposed to surrender the money, not try and fight).

Sean’s brother Michael was in the NYPD, and Sean talked to Michael’s friends who worked in the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn about the sectors the police work in to get a better idea of how the response times would vary and how to slow them down.

“When you know how many cops are in what sector and you send them somewhere else now you got another two minutes, and that’s everything. Yeah, a minute is everything.”
One day he wandered into a bank on Myrtle Avenue.

“I was f–ked up on drugs. It was a bad choice because it was in a black neighborhood. It’s not like today. Back then it was very segregated. And to have a white guy come in a bank in a black neighborhood, that should be a red flag right there. You know, what the f–k is this guy doing here? You know I didn’t belong in that bank in the first place.”

The teller handed over the money, but it was only 1’s and 5’s. “I f–king screamed at her, ‘Give me the f–king money!’ And she screamed back, ‘You robbed the wrong f–king bank!’ So I left there with like $600.”

Later that day he robbed another bank and got nothing when the teller refused to cooperate, and he had to leave before the cops showed up.

Crack and escorts

By 1997 he was smoking $500 worth of crack and doing $100 of heroin every day. “It makes you feel invincible, like you can leap from building to building, but you can’t. And it’s a quick high. It’s gone in a second.”

It was taking its toll. He knew the cops were after him, and it was just a matter of time before he was caught. He’d check into multiple hotels at a time to evade capture. “I used to have five, six hotel keys in my pocket. I’d be bouncing in and out of hotel rooms like I owned them.”

Sean, left, at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in 2002.
He estimates he stole a total of $196,000, all of which he spent.
Stephen Yang

After robbing a Banco Popular, Sean netted $22,000, his biggest take. He went straight to Atlantic City, hiring escorts, spending thousands on drinks, fancy restaurants and, of course, drugs.

“I went to Atlantic City in a stretch limousine and came home on a f–king bus.”

The end of his run came down to a hotel clerk at the Doral. The police had been circulating his picture and knew his penchant for five-star hotels, so it was only a matter of time before someone recognized him.

Sean, second from right, and his brother Michael, far left, after he was released from prison.
Dalton and his brother Michael, far left, after he was released from prison.
Stephen Yang

On Jan. 30, 1998, Sean checked in, went up to his room and turned on the TV only to see his face on the news and the building surrounded. News crews had learned of the raid by listening to police scanners and had gone to the hotel, arriving before some of the police themselves. Sean heard the chopper outside — they were closing in.

An NYPD Emergency Service Unit banged at the door and someone shouted “Sean open up! We’re going to send the dog in!” Sean, sniffing at his bag of heroin and smoking a crack stem, yelled back, “I’ll f–king shoot it!”

It got quiet. Then more banging on the door and a voice, this time quieter, “Sean . . . open the door . . . it’s Dennis.” Sean paused. It was his brother’s old partner. They’d had dinner two months before at Sean’s mother’s house. Dennis had just been made sergeant of Midtown Detectives Squad. Sean knew it was over. “Give me five minutes,” Sean said.

Sean Dalton, 56, with his son Ruairi, 32, in Woodhaven, Queens.
Sean Dalton, 56, with his son Ruairi, 32, in Woodhaven, Queens.
Stephen Yang

“You have one minute,” Dennis replied. Sean threw the rest of the drugs in the toilet and opened the door.

“You got any weapons?” Dennis said.

“A ton,” Sean replied.

He had a 12-gauge shotgun, a .38, knives, handcuffs, Mace, a bat — “I was like a cartoon character the more you shake him the more comes out.”

sean dalton
Dalton says he doesn’t regret the past. “It was some ride man. That life I lived, it was a f–king ride.”
Stephen Yang

The police took him to One Police Plaza, where he was booked, and then to Queens Criminal Court for his first of many arraignments.

His brother Michael, a sergeant in Brooklyn North Narcotics, was waiting for him underneath the courtroom and got him out of the main holding cell and into a smaller, single-person cell. He told Sean to write him a letter if he needed money, clothes, but he could not have any contact with him and he could never visit him because of his job with the NYPD. Sean asked if Michael could get him a pack of cigarettes, some gum and an orange juice. When Michael returned, Sean was high again, having smuggled the last of his crack into the holding cell.

“What are you doing?” Michael asked. “Better I smoke it now than they find it and throw it away,” Sean replied.

Michael wasn’t surprised or even hurt, he knew his brother, gave him a blank stare and walked away.

sean dalton
“There ain’t much time left. I wanna die free. It may not be everything that I once had, but it’s mine.”
Stephen Yang

When Sean made it to his arraignment, he was so high he asked the judge if he could be let out to go to the bank to get the bail money. His own lawyer told the judge he should be remanded.

The next few years, Sean bounced between Rikers, Shawangunk Detention Center and criminal courts in multiple jurisdictions. He was detoxing, taking methadone to ease off the heroin, but the crack was the worst of it. He had terrifying, hallucinatory dreams for four years that he was high on crack again, only to wake up in a panic, sweating, alone in the dark. He knew how to carry himself from his years as a street kid, and he mostly kept to himself. “The bigger the circle, the bigger the problems.”

His first long stay was at Shawangunk, a maximum security prison north of the city, where he was greeted by fellow inmates who delivered him soap, coffee and deodorant, a gift from Joe Sullivan a fellow white Irish Catholic inmate from Queens who was the “shot caller,” a prison gang leader of sorts who “has the keys.” The shot caller would settle scores and keep the gangs in line across the state prisons.

The violence was real. “If you think somebody’s looking to slap you, they’re not. They’re looking to stab you. They’re looking to kill you. A fight is not a fistfight. Every fight is a fight to the death.” Sean learned how to exist in prison by lifting weights and reading. “I matured in prison. When I was a kid I would say ‘F–k it’ and I meant it. Every day I was ready to die. You can’t be a coward if you’re going to be in this game. You’re gonna make money, and you probably will die. Very few live.”

Sean found his niche in a small group of guys who liked to lift weights, smoke cigars and eat well. Using an underground network he was even able to smuggle fancy Thanksgiving dinners into prison. Other days just a meal from McDonald’s.

He focused on trying to avoid time getting added to his sentence. “You adapt, you know. You never really get comfortable but . . . it becomes your home. And I knew I had a chance of possibly making it out of there. I told myself one day I’m gonna be free again.”

‘I wanna die free’

Sean Dalton served 10 years and three months in prison and became a free man in 2008 at age 41.

Today he has the same union job with Local 638 Steamfitters United Plumbing Mechanical he got through his brother-in-law who hired him when he got out 16 years ago. He likes working outside and says he fits right in with the guys from the other unions on work sites.

sean dalton
The police had been circulating his picture and knew his penchant for five-star hotels.
Stephen Yang

“Local 79 is mostly criminals, ex-cons,” Sean says with a belly laugh. “Tough motherf–kers who can do hard work and not tolerate s–t. I feel comfortable. You mouth off, you very well might get punched in the mouth. No children there.”

He lives a more modest life than his bank robbing days, but he says he has what he needs.

“There ain’t much time left. I wanna die free. It may not be everything that I once had, but it’s mine. I worked for it. I don’t say ‘f–k it’ no more. I just wanna make a few dollars and go fishin’. Make a few dollars and enjoy what little of life I have left.”

He says he doesn’t regret the past. “It was some ride man. That life I lived, it was a f–king ride. The story, the people, it never ended. It just never ended. It was drugs every day, money every day. It just never ended. You know, people ask, ‘Do you regret what you do?’ Yeah, I regret what I did. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Because I’m the type of person who believes if you change something you might not be here today. And I’m here today for a reason.

“Because I did rob those banks, and I did get away. And the cops didn’t kill me. And I went to prison, and I served my time. And I’m still here today. I pick and choose what I want to do today. You know, I pick and choose my fights.”

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