The Great Fake
Bank Robbery

The Great Fake Bank Robbery, Provo, Utah, 1949

This prank is a classic. It may be one of the more humorous stories to come out of BY High (or any other high school for that matter). It could not happen today because a fake robbery would probably end in much more serious consequences, including death. This story has been told and retold by and to countless graduates across the generations. When asked to recall the story for this website, I was a little hesitant since I was not one of the “originals” and wasn’t sure how much I could remember accurately after fifty years. But I could not resist giving it a try. After all, it deserves to be preserved in some form.

So, is this the only version? Of course not – there are literally dozens, but the essence of what happened is consistent across most of them. Is it the most accurate version? Probably not – my memory is faulty at best. Is it a fun story to recall? I hope so – certainly I had a lot of fun writing it. Mea culpa if my version differs from yours – or if my recollected “facts” don't hold up. Like the Japanese movie Roshamon, I fear that the details differ depending on each story teller’s perspective. Please enjoy, forgive, and let us know if it triggers other memories.

It was nearing 10:30 a.m. on a slow but beautiful Saturday in May 1949 in downtown Provo, Utah. The sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, and most of the people in the business district were taking things easy.

In those days some of the banks had begun to stay open on Saturday mornings to accommodate the banking needs of the local working folks, but now the employees of First Security were getting ready to close up for the weekend.

The bank president, Mr. F.V. Nichols, was out of town. The manager, Mr. Frank Canfield, Sr., had already gone home for the day at the urging of his son.

Into this peaceful scene cruised a second-hand black 1940 Cadillac sedan. It pulled up at the curb near the bank. A group of nervous-looking men dressed in dark suits stepped out onto the pavement. They wore black fedoras pulled down low over their eyes. The driver of the car was also wearing a dark hat. He stayed hunched behind the wheel, kept the motor running and occasionally revved up the powerful engine.

Men in dark suits were not that unusual in Provo, so few people took any special notice – until all in the group donned sunglasses and hurried single-file into the bank. Witnesses later remembered that several of the men carried black violin cases under their arms, and the others kept one hand in their ominously bulging jacket pockets. One, they recalled, carried an empty black satchel.

Customers inside the bank reported that the men with violin cases positioned themselves around the bank lobby, held their cases nervously and used them to signal the group of frightened people to stay out of the way.

The first two, who were overheard calling each other Dan and Dave, walked briskly to an open teller’s window. Each of them kept one hand conspicuously in a jacket pocket, clearly implying they had a hidden weapon. The one called Dan slipped a five-dollar bill plus a hand-written note to the teller.

The dumbfounded teller silently read: “Please give me five dollars worth of pennies.” Offering no resistance, she opened her cash drawer and handed over ten rolls of pennies.

One of the men broke all ten rolls open noisily onto the counter, then dramatically swept all of the coins into the black satchel. People who stood away from the teller’s window heard the coins rattling and saw the commotion, but couldn't really see what was going on.

The one called Dan snapped the satchel closed, and the first two men backed their way from the teller’s station all the way out of the bank. The others, still brandishing their black violin cases, quickly followed through the heavy front doors.

At this point one of the tellers fainted.

The gang jumped into the “getaway car” which raced away with tires squealing. This left a fair-sized cloud of smoke hanging in the air. Onlookers said the gang in their black car disappeared down University Avenue. No one had the presence of mind to copy down the license tag number.

Word of the daring daylight bank raid quickly spread by radio and newspaper. Police arrived with sirens blaring. Investigators, however, were completely puzzled by the cryptic note and the teller’s story. They dutifully slipped both the note and the five-dollar bill into an evidence bag, but as proof of what?

No one outside of the vanished gang seemed to know what had happened.

The perpetrators might have gotten away with it forever, if only they had been able to resist bragging about their raid to their friends during the following week. Instead, one by one they were apprehended and dragged before the authorities – school and civil.

What really happened was diabolically simple. Of course, this group was not made up of Mafioso. Instead it turned out to be a group of Brigham Young High School ne’er-do-wells who, following spring track drills, spent two weeks diligently planning and rehearsing this “sting” operation.

The “brains” of the gang was none other than Dallin Oaks. Because he played oboe in the high school band, he had been able sneak three violin cases out of the band storage room after hours. Ironically, he later became senior class president, a law clerk to Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court, president of BYU, a justice on the Utah Supreme Court, and eventually a General Authority of the LDS Church.

On that Saturday in May, however, Oaks was a 17-year-old kid nervously watching his unpredictable bank robbery scam unfold. He would have been even more nervous if he had realized that one of the bank officers kept a gun in his desk drawer, and later said he had briefly considered reaching for it during the raid.

The “inside man” was Frank Canfield, Jr., son of the bank manager, who provided such essential data about the bank as layout, location of security devices, and the probable positions of the tellers, guards and officers. He also made sure his father and Mr. Nichols, the bank president, would not be in the bank during the event. Mr. Nichols was the father of Mary Faye Nichols, one of their classmates at BY High.

The black Cadillac getaway sedan was provided by Dick Spencer, who borrowed it from a friend who worked in a used car lot. It was so well suited to its job it might have come from Central Casting. Spencer was also the designated getaway driver.

Danny Vance, who played drums in the band, was able to commandeer a small black satchel from somewhere, to be used for the loot. It had to look empty on the way in, and full on the way out.

One of the perpetrators, violin-case carrier Dave Young, provided his house and garage as the place the gang could hole-up following their dramatic escape. It was during that day at the Young hideout that many different versions of this story were born; this is only one of them.

Yes, punishment was decreed for all involved. Administrators assigned long essays and they were written. Coach Jokey Dixon ordered suspensions from several track meets or baseball games for the athletes involved. Each of the guilty parties paid their debt to society and once again became free men...but also free to tell this story.

By Jon Katzenbach, Class of 1950


[How many pranks have their own Epilogue?]

The most difficult part of writing this version has been getting the players right. Some I had forgotten about, some are no longer with us, and others are unreachable or just not talking. As a result we cannot be completely sure who played what roles. Unfortunately, a lot depends upon on the story teller’s memory and on his or her particular vantage point. But here is the latest list we could assemble with reasonable confidence:

Those key players identified in the story above: Dallin Oaks, Richard Spencer, Danny Vance, Frank Canfield, Jr., and Dave Young.

The supporting cast has many likely suspects, but may include Norm Kimball, Kent Lloyd, Jim Webster, and Albert Christensen. If you were there or think you were there, let us know. We’d rather include than exclude.

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