1980 'hat bandit' bank holdup spree stunned community
Pat Wilson looked at police surveillance photos of a suspected bank robber in 1980 — dubbed the “hat bandit” — and thought she recognized the man.
But it couldn't be her boss, the man who hired her at the Jeannette News-Dispatch and later at a weekly publication, The Spark, could it?
“I was flabbergasted when I saw this picture,” said Wilson, of Jeannette. “I looked at it, I thought ... that's gotta be Gene Miller. We were all laughing and joking. And it turned out to be Gene Miller.”
It was a shocking news story at the time — Eugene D. Miller, then a 53-year-old veteran Westmoreland County newspaperman, was arrested for a two-year, three-county bank robbery spree that netted him $44,500 from 11 banks, according to newspaper accounts.
Miller typically wore a variety of disguises — mustaches and his calling-card fedora and bucket hats — in bank surveillance photos that police circulated in hopes someone would recognize him. The spree came to an end in December 1980 when he was arrested by a state trooper after an aborted robbery attempt outside Westmoreland Mall.
Miller, 89, died Wednesday, May 24, 2017, at Westmoreland Manor in Hempfield. When contacted Tuesday, his daughter, Linda Kenney of Scottdale, said the family had no comment.
Until the bank robberies, Miller's resume was impressive; a degree from Dartmouth College, military service, an executive for JC Penney and, finally, editor at the Mt. Pleasant Journal, Jeannette News-Dispatch and The Spark.
Miller, who lived in Mt. Pleasant, was an intelligent, well-respected man in the community who had a quick wit and wore sport coats with wild designs, according to those who knew him. His arrest was stunning and out-of-character, said longtime borough Mayor Jerry Lucia, a councilman at the time.
“He was a straight-up guy,” said Lucia, who recalled that Miller had a wonderful family. “People looked up to him. He was a motivator. It was just a really hard situation to adjust to for the town.
“It was a shock to all of us,” he said.
Miller's luck ran out in December 1980 when state police Sgt. Thomas Tridico was patrolling banks between Pleasant Unity and Hempfield. He noticed a man acting suspicious outside Dollar Savings Bank in Hempfield about 11 a.m., according to court documents. The man's car had a cardboard license plate.
As Tridico watched from his police cruiser, the man drove around the parking lot time after time. Tridico double-checked the surveillance photos of the “hat bandit” he carried with him, then arrested Miller at 12:40 p.m.
“This (case) was driving (Tridico) nuts,” said District Attorney John Peck, who prosecuted the case as an assistant district attorney. “He would go out looking for somebody that might be a suspect.”
Federal authorities later connected the “hat bandit” to bank robberies in Hempfield, Donegal, Delmont, Lower Burrell, Jeannette, Greensburg, Connellsville, Plum, Pleasant Hills and Oakmont.
A federal judge called the notorious spree one of the most brilliantly executed he had seen, according to newspaper accounts.
Miller pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June 1981 to 20 years in a federal prison, but records indicate he was released from custody three years later. During a 1981 hearing, Miller told a federal judge that he previously had refused to get psychiatric help for depression.
Miller's trial on the attempted robbery charge ended in a hung jury, and a county judge later dismissed it, according to court records.
Peck recalled the arrest being an “extremely unusual” situation, given Miller's stellar reputation and status in the community.
Phil Wilson of Jeannette was a photographer at the News-Dispatch and worked for about two years under Miller, whom he described as a level-headed jokester.
“We loved working at his newspaper,” said Wilson, who is a retired Tribune-Review photo technician.
But when the absurdity — and reality — of the situation sank in, the newspaper staffs had to connect the man they knew to the one who appeared in a police mug shot.
It was as though Miller had an “alter ego,” recalled Pat Wilson, who met her husband at the News-Dispatch.
“(Miller) was very good to me in the news business,” she said. “He cared about the newspaper. He cared about the ethics of the newspaper. He cared about the quality of the product.”