It was a crime of passion that had every New Yorker on the edge of their seat one hot summer day in August 1972. Three armed men entered a Chase Bank in Brooklyn ready to make off with a very large score. But fate had other plans.
New York City 1972
The year 1972 was an interesting time in New York City.
Twin Towers Still Being Built
What would be known as the Twin Towers would be completed in 1973, but New Yorkers marvel at the buildings well before then.
In June 1972, African American activist Angela Davis was acquitted of killing a white guard during a 1970 event.
George Carlin Arrested
In 1972, comedian George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for profanity after performing "Seven Words" at Summerfest.
New York Cosmos
The summer of 1972 became the inaugural year of New York's latest sports franchise -- the New York Cosmos soccer club. The team had humble beginnings but would soon sign the biggest names in the game including Brazilian icon Pele, Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, German star Franz Beckenbaur, and then Dutch star Johan Cruyff. The club would go on to become a dominant force in popularizing the sport in America as one of the most successful teams of all time.
With the Vietnam War still raging, foreign involvement in South Vietnam started to slowly decline in 1972. The last American combat troops would leave in August but America would remain in the country until 1975.
President Nixon was coming under fire for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Five people were arrested in June 1972 with ties to the event that would shape American politics forever.
No artist in 1972 had more chart topping singles than soul singer Al Green. Green would scored four top ten hits during the year with "Let's Stay Together," "Look What You Done for Me," "You Ought to Be with Me," and "I'm Still in Love with You." The latter would be the one of the biggest songs of August '72 when the heist took place.
A Heist, A Saga
While there was turmoil in the nation’s capital that summer, it was an event in August 1972 that had every New Yorker talking.
On Aug. 22, John Wojtowicz, 27, and two accomplices] spent the night in a New Jersey hotel room haphazardly concocting a plan to rob a bank in the city.
The Chase Bank of Brooklyn
The crew drove around Manhattan to try and rob a bank but had issues at every turn. They then settled at a Brooklyn Chase bank that the mastermind used to work at.
Before trying to execute their plan, the motley crew took in a screening of “The Godfather,” which was released that summer, at a Times Square movie theater that afternoon to get themselves amped up, Wojtowicz said in “The Dog” documentary.
They quickly had their plan foiled when a teller triggered an alarm alerting police.
Within minutes, authorities arrived outside the bank demanding the criminals to come out. One of the men had already fled, and the two inside said no. The robbery then turned into a hostage situation with eight of the bank staff at the mercy of the crooks.
As police set up across the street in a beauty parlor and snipers waited on the nearby roofs with their firearms pointed at the windows of the bank, negotiations with Wojtowicz began.
More than 2,000 people from the neighborhood would eventually come down to see what was happening, BBC reported.
Wojtowicz came out of the bank and spoke to police to negotiate. It was then revealed that the heist was done to pay for a gender reassignment surgery for his lover.
Behind the Scenes
A look inside the Chase Bank during the heist.
Respect the Crook
Wojtowicz also would demand that cops would stop using gay slurs toward him after it was revealed that the heist was done to pay for a gender reassignment surgery for his lover.
Wojtowicz was legally married to Carmen Bifulco, with whom he had two children. The couple got married when he returned home from Vietnam in 1967 but separated two years later.
Robin' the Hood
Wojtowicz also demanded that his hostages be fed. When authorities arrived with pizza, he picked it up at the front door of the bank. He then began throwing money to the crowd. Once word got out that money was being thrown out by the crooks, more people showed up.
Mom to the Rescue?
During what would become a 14-hour-long siege, authorities tried everything to coax Wojtowicz to give up.
The FBI joined in and used whatever influence they had to coax Wojtowicz into surrendering. They brought a former lover to speak to him, as well as his mother, Terry, who came to the door of the bank to try to talk some sense into her son.
A Mother's Emotions
“At one point, his mother was out there, hysterical, ‘My son, my son!’” journalist and gay rights activist Randy Wicker told Inside Edition Digital.
All Wojtowicz wanted was his lover, Elizabeth Eden.
Authorities brought Eden to the scene from Kings County Hospital, where she was being treated after she attempted suicide days before the heist. But she didn’t want to see Wojtowicz. Eden stayed with police at their makeshift headquarters at the beauty parlor across the street from the bank.
With no end game in sight and nothing working, authorities told Wojtowicz that he and his accomplice, Sal Naturile, could board a flight to Europe with Eden so she can get her gender reassignment surgery.
A special van arrived at the bank that was driven by an FBI agent and took the bandits, Eden and the hostages to JFK Airport in Queens, New York. As soon as they arrived at the airport, Naturile was shot and killed by the FBI and Wojtowicz was arrested.
“It's the first time that the media had covered something like that, continuously, and of course, it was an unfolding drama,” journalist and gay rights advocate Randy Wicker told Inside Edition Digital.
The hostages were free and walked away unharmed.
Police found empty pizza boxes and trashed break rooms after entering the bank following the heist.
The mastermind was arrested at the airport.
History of Mental Illness
The New York Times reported two days after the robbery that “the V.A. said he had declined psychiatric help from its hospital in Brooklyn. At St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan, it was reported that he appeared one day at the clinic for an interview and never returned.”
A Mother's Love
“He's not a mean kid. He's not the type who would hurt anybody. He's disturbed,” Terry Wojtowicz told The New York Times.
Celebrity in Prison
Wojtowicz lapped up in his celebrity status behind bars.
Dog Day Afternoon
The media circus around the case had Hollywood calling and in 1973, Wojtowicz was paid for his rights to the story. The film “Dog Day Afternoon” starred Al Pacino in a character based off Wojtowicz. Sidney Lumet directed and the money Wojtowicz got from Warner Bros. would go to Eden’s surgery.
Pacino would recreate many of the real-life moments that actually occurred at the heist like screaming from the front of the bank.
Sentenced to 20 Years
In 1973, Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years in prison but only served five. He would serve the remainder of his sentence on parole.
While in prison, Wojtowicz met George Heath, a “jailhouse lawyer,” who helped him during his appeal process. Wojtowicz and Heath entered into a relationship in prison.
Moving in With Mom
Wojtowicz and Heath were released in 1978 and they moved in with his parents in Brooklyn.
They eventually split up, but Wojtowicz lived with his mother for the rest of his life. He would bring lovers back to her Brooklyn home and she would help care for them for as long as they stayed.
Wojtowicz struggled finding steady work. He even applied to be the head of security at the Chase Bank he held up. They turned him down.
He often stood outside the Chase Bank he robbed and charge people for autographs and pictures, often times wearing a shirt that said, “I Robbed This Bank,” the New York Post reported.
Eden underwent gender reassignment surgery. She said she wanted nothing to do with Wojtowicz in a 1978 television interview that was conducted right after he was released. The pair did come face to face in that same interview where Wojtowicz told her he was proud of what he did because he believed it saved her life.
Eden eventually settled in Rochester, New York, where she worked as a sex worker. She died in 1987 from AIDS.
Things never got easy for Wojtowicz after a brief stint in prison again for violating his parole. In 2001, The New York Times reported that Wojtowicz was living on welfare. A few years later he was diagnosed with cancer
He passed away in January 2006 at the age of 60 due to cancer.
His mother kept his ashes in their Brooklyn home before she passed away just months later in October 2006 at 85.
Wojtowicz and Bifulco officially divorced in the 1980s. She never remarried and passed away in 2013.