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Unearthing Alapaha’s eye-popping shootout with Jesse James Roberts

Always-on-the-go Bank of Alapaha Senior Vice President Sylvia Roberts coolly squeezes the trigger of the genuine Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver used by former Vice President Charlie Matthews to thwart a failed robbery attempt by Jesse James Roberts. Image Credit: Photography by Jeremy L. Roberts

Ex-convict Jesse James Roberts robbed the Bank of Lenox in South Georgia of $38,000 on January 10, 1966 and thought it might be a wonderful idea to also relieve the Bank of Alapaha of its invaluable assets. Unfortunately, he had never made the acquaintance of bank president J. P. Culpepper.

According to a vintage Chicago Tribune interview, after driving the 18-mile distance to Alapaha (pronounced uh-lap-uh-haw like the ending syllable of country music institution Hee Haw) and sitting down in a chair across from Culpepper’s office desk, the beefy 45-year-old asked him if he knew of any land for sale in Berrien County. Culpepper said he didn’t and continued with his work. “I thought he was walking out,” said Culpepper. But I looked up and he was waving his hand at me, holding a gun, and telling me to ‘get up and get out of here.’”

The president replied, “I ain’t going to do no such damn thing,” bolted around his desk, and grabbed Roberts’s arm. Struggling down onto the floor, Roberts overpowered Culpepper and quickly exited the bank.

Vice President C. A. “Charlie” Matthews was in the next office, heard the commotion, grabbed the bank’s Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver, ran out the door, and began shooting at Roberts. At which time Culpepper instructed cashier Willis Nash to get his gun and pursue him also. Alvin Riner had borrowed Nash’s truck during lunch and had not yet returned, so the cashier was unable to join the pursuit.

By this time Roberts just wanted to “get outta Dodge,” so he fired one shot at Matthews which grazed his temple, miraculously only taking an arm off his horn-rimmed spectacles, and fled the bank after the foiled robbery attempt. Placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, Roberts was apprehended in Mexico roughly a month after terrorizing South Georgia. He admitted to U.S. authorities in Laredo, Texas, that he had spent over $62,000 in cash and travelers’ checks during his south of the border sojourn and had “not a penny” left to his name.

Ninety-four-year-old Edwin Gaskins recalled to current Bank of Alapaha Senior Vice President Sylvia Roberts —this writer’s mom who incidentally bears no relation to the infamous bandit — that he asked Culpepper after the epic gun battle why he didn’t just give Roberts the money and let him leave without incident. Culpepper looked him straight in the eye and replied, “I’ve never let anybody talk to me the way that man did, and I’m not about to start now.”

Facebook memories from Alapaha residents…

Donna Kay Barfield: “I remember that day very clearly. I was 10 years old and helping my daddy mend a fence on a dam across from the Alapaha-Lenox Road and down a piece at a little water hole because some hogs had gotten out. A car sped by on its way to Alapaha and got our attention. Later we learned of the robberies and put two and two together — that was Jesse James Roberts we saw speeding by!”

Bonnie Horton Owen: “My late husband Eddie and I were entering Western Sizzlin’ steak house, where Ole Times Country Buffet is now [in Tifton, located 30 minutes west of Alapaha], when Eddie saw this old, almost crippled man trying to get out of a car. Eddie stopped to give aid. The man asked where Eddie was from. Eddie said, ‘Alapaha.’ The old man replied, ‘And you still want to help me?’ When Eddie said, ‘Why not?’, the man told Eddie he had served time for robbing the Bank of Alapaha. He also said if his gun had not clicked the first time the banker would have been killed. That banker was Charlie Matthews. He then told Eddie his name was Jesse James Roberts. We met Jesse probably the summer/fall of 1996 as he died not long afterwards” [i.e. April 11, 1997, at age 76].

Sandy Harper: “After Jesse got out of jail, my husband George and I and our three kids( they were little) were also at Western Sizzlin’ and met him. Jesse lived in Tifton at that time and wanted to know where we lived. We told him, ‘Alapaha.’ He asked George if he knew Charlie Mathews. When George said, ‘Yes, he was in the banking business,’ Jesse added, ‘I was too.’

A circa 1966 mug shot of contrite-looking bank robber Jesse James Roberts. Note the misspelling of his forename. Image Credit: Courtesy of Edward Smith / Find a Grave
Vice President C. A. “Charlie” Matthews was employed by the Bank of Alapaha on November 15, 1930 and became a director on January 8, 1953. Thirteen years later he would be caught smack dab in the middle of a fight for his life in hot pursuit of notorious bank robber Jesse James Roberts. Image Credit: Courtesy of Bank of Alapaha
Jesse James Roberts should have known better than to hold up the imposing J. P. Culpepper, who joined the Bank of Alapaha as cashier on December 1, 1926, and rose up the ranks to become president on Jan. 12, 1965. Image Credit: Courtesy of Bank of Alapaha

© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2016. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without express prior permission of the author. Do not copy or paste the article text — instead share the URL or headlines with links. Thank you.

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