"Red" Rountree shuffled into the bank and surveyed the teller windows.

He had done this twice before and knew the best way was to pick a bank within a full gas tank's drive of home, hit it early before there were too many customers and then never, ever return to that city.

He walked slowly up to an open window and handed two manila envelopes to the teller. On the first, in red marker, was written "ROBBERY." The second envelope, he told her, was for the money.

"What do you mean?" the teller asked the bespectacled man with nearly translucent skin and wrinkled, knotted hands. "Are you kidding?"

"Hurry up and put the money in the envelope or you'll get hurt," Rountree told her.

As the teller complied, Rountree became the oldest known bank robber in U.S. history. He was 91.

Sitting in a wheelchair now at the Dickens County Correctional Center, at the edge of the Texas Plains, Rountree puts his hand to his forehead, coaxing memories from a brain fogged by age. He's reached 92 and is serving a 12-year sentence, the equivalent of life for someone his age.

He can't remember when he decided to rob the First American Bank in Abilene. Or even what he planned to do with the loot -- $1,999. But he does have one answer.

"You want to know why I rob banks?" Rountree said. "It's fun. I feel good, awful good. I feel good for sometimes days, for sometimes hours."

It was one last adventure for a man who'd had others years ago.

He once made millions as a businessman, once had a family.

But time has a way of erasing things, and if you stick around long enough, the world you know can disappear.

That's what happened to "Red" Rountree.

As he tells it, J.L. Hunter Rountree was born Dec. 16, 1911, in the family farmhouse near Brownsville in the days when farmers charged items at the dry goods and grocery stores.

"When they sold the crops and got some money, they went and paid. We didn't have a very good crop one year, so J.L. Hunter Rountree is my name. J.L. King was the dry goods man and Hunter was the grocer," he says.


No, he says. "But it makes a real good story."

Rountree loses track of many names, events, dates. But the man -- who resembles a bit the late actor Hume Cronyn -- can remember the important details.

The good ones revolve around Faye, the woman with whom he had a "50-year 1-month love affair."

The bad ones -- the death of his son and then of his beloved wife -- marked the start of a second, lawless life. "I behaved as long as she was alive," he says. "After that, I went kind of crazy."

As he tells it, he met Faye, a striking brunette, in the early 1930s at a honky-tonk in Freer, Tex. She had a son, Thomas, from a previous marriage, whom Rountree later adopted.

"When we looked at each other, something told me I was going to marry her," Rountree said.

Together, they worked to create a small boat-building and shipyard business, Corpus Christi Marine. It turned a nice profit and allowed Rountree and his wife to live what he calls "the good life."

In 1965, he was approached by a company to build three boats, for running supplies to offshore oil rigs. To purchase the steel needed to build the boats, Rountree said he took out a bank loan with the understanding that he would repay it when he finished the boats.

"They let me buy the steel," he said, "and then they called the note."

Though he can no longer name the bank, disgust still clouds his face as he recalls that time. The incident forced him into bankruptcy.

"Every nickel I had was gone. They almost took my furniture," he said.

Rountree eventually recovered, making more than a million dollars with his Houston-based Rountree Machinery Co., salvaging hoist winches from retired warships and refurbishing them for oil rigs.

But he always resented banks.

"They are thieves," he said.

That bitterness blends in his mind with another loss, even more grievous, at about the same time.

Thomas Rountree, just returned from a tour of duty in the Army, was killed in a car accident following a father-son dinner in Galveston.

"When he was 12 years old, he asked if it would be okay to have my name. He said I was already his dad, and he wanted to make it official," Rountree said.

"He was a good, smart boy. . . . When he got killed, Faye went crazy. Maybe I did a little, too. For years, I wouldn't leave her alone. We made it through because we had each other."

Time eased the pain somewhat, but then it created more. At age 75, after years of smoking, Faye was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Rountree said he spent every moment possible with his wife. She died in October 1986.

"After the funeral, I stayed in the house a week. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do," he said. "Then maybe a week later, I went to a beer joint. People were nice to me there."

That's where Rountree's second life took hold.

Never much of a drinker before, Rountree says he began spending a lot of time in bars. Then, about a year after his wife's death, he met a woman "down on her luck." She had a dark side -- an addiction to drugs.

At age 83, he says he experimented with a few drugs. "I tried it, marijuana mostly. I even tried some of the other stuff, cocaine. I didn't care for it much," he said.

After that affair ended, he married another woman he met in a bar.

"You know how she got me? She gave me a hug," he says. "She was a nice woman. She had two kids, and I just loved them to death."

Texas marriage records show Rountree married a Juanita Adams in 1989 and that they divorced in 1995.

It was some time during this period that Rountree visited his nephew Buddy Rountree at his home in Goldthwaite, a speck of town on the back roads between Abilene and Austin.

"He showed up one day wearing a purple and black running suit, the kind that had baggy pants, and he had his hair in a ponytail. This old man with a ponytail," said the 72-year-old nephew, shaking his head.

It took a moment for the younger Rountree and his wife to register who this was. Red, nicknamed for his once red shock of hair, had never been close to his family.

It was a brief visit, a few hours, the family says. The elder Rountree said he was on his way to visit a girlfriend, who was in jail for drugs.

Rountree estimates he spent thousands on booze and drugs, and on entertaining women. He burned through his money and found himself broke, on Social Security, and living in a trailer in Alabama.

Truthfully, he can't remember when he came up with the idea to rob a bank.

"I guess I was just mad at them for what they had done to me with my business," he said.

Whatever the prompt, on Dec. 9, 1998, a week before his 87th birthday, Rountree entered the SouthTrust Bank in Biloxi, Miss.

"I was kind of dumb about it. I just walked in and told the gal behind the counter to give me money," he said. "Then I told her not to say anything until five minutes after I left."

But as the old man was making his getaway, someone followed him and he was arrested within minutes, according to police records. He was eventually given three years' probation, fined $260 and told to leave Mississippi.

Rountree clearly enjoyed retelling the tale. In fact, he went on, the judge was lenient because he said it would be "like sending my mother to jail."


No, Rountree allows. Really, he got a break because "I didn't have a record."

In jail awaiting sentencing he met a man who knew how to rob banks -- successfully. This part, he insisted, is true.

During hours of conversations, the man -- whom he would not identify -- taught him "the rules."

Always rob a bank in a city with lots of roads, escape routes. Hide your car and cover the license plate. And don't get greedy.

Less than a year later, Oct. 18, 1999 -- near the anniversary of his wife's death -- Rountree walked into a NationsBank in Pensacola, Fla.

He looked for the youngest teller and gave her a note with the word "robbery" written in red ink.

"Give me the hundreds," he said, handing the teller a black bag.

She stuffed the bag with $8,000.

But before he could get out of the bank, she screamed: "We've been robbed!"

Two customers chased Rountree as he headed across the parking lot to his idling truck. One knocked him down with what felt like a karate kick. "I went out. I went away from this world," Rountree said.

He was convicted and sentenced to three years. At age 87, he became the oldest inmate in the Florida prison system.

Rountree hated prison. There were too many rules and bad food. When he got out in 2002, he said he never wanted to go back.

Approaching 90 now, he had a wheelchair but little else. "I didn't have two cents to rub together," he said.

Prison officials gave him a one-way bus ticket to Texas. Rountree called his nephew in Goldthwaite.

For years, Buddy had wondered what happened to his uncle. Then, about a year before he was released, a reporter in Florida telephoned while working on a story about the elderly inmate.

"Him being dead is something we thought was possible. We had thought of just about everything that could have happened. But to rob a bank, that was nothing that we knew about him," said Buddy's wife, Betty.

The old man stepped off the bus in Goldthwaite with an "itty-bitty duffel bag" that contained a change of clothes and a nearly empty address book. His other belongings were gone. Family photos, Faye's jewelry and his son's Army medals were auctioned off after he failed to make payment on a storage shed while in prison.

The man who arrived in Goldthwaite was a sliver of the one Buddy and Betty recalled, but they welcomed him.

"You don't put your foot on a man's head when he's this far from being face-down in the mud," Buddy said. "We told him, 'We don't want to interfere in your life. We want you to enjoy the rest of your life.' "

For a time, it seemed to work.

The Rountrees found a large travel trailer for their uncle to live in, and set it up near a hill that overlooked the town and the plains. They celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and the birth of Rountree's great-great niece together.

Buddy Rountree helped his uncle open a bank account and get an ATM card. Red told people his nephew was a retired director of the town's bank. (Really? No, says Buddy. "I retired from the Department of Agriculture.")

Later, the nephew helped Rountree buy a used car, a 1996 Buick Regal with more than 78,000 miles on it.

Red loved to drive. He once bragged that he'd driven on every two-lane road in Texas and nearly all the dirt roads, too.

One of his best memories, he said, was driving with Faye and Tom. "We just drove and drove."

It was a four-day vacation that went from nowhere to nowhere, one of those trips where the destination mattered less than the time together.

So when Rountree got his car, it didn't surprise anybody that within the first month he put more than 3,600 miles on it.

One day, he turned to his nephew and said he wanted to buy a plot of land atop the town's hill.

"Buddy, I'm going to spend the rest of my life in Goldthwaite," he said.

Instead, one day two months later, he got into his car and drove more than 100 miles to the bank in Abilene.

Time has eaten away the substance of Rountree's life, his federal attorney believes.

"Everybody he's loved significantly is gone. What do you do?" says the lawyer, Sherylynn Ann Kime-Goodwin. "Do you have much of a future if you're sitting in a travel trailer waiting to die?"

Sitting at the correctional center, Rountree made no excuse for the Abilene robbery. He even told authorities within minutes of his arrest that he was guilty.

"I know I'm going to die in here. That's okay," he said. "I've led a good life and I have no regrets."

Although Rountree is appealing his sentence, he says he's not sure he wants to get out.

"What would I do at my age? Rob another bank?" he says, laughing.

Police arrested 91-year-old Red Rountree on bank robbery charges in August. But there was a time, back in the '70s with wife Faye, right, when Rountree led the life of a law-abiding citizen.Rountree was arraigned on bank robbery charges in August, left. Only months earlier at nephew Buddy's house, he had celebrated his 91st birthday, above, and at Thanksgiving, held his great-grandniece.