Death of a (Really Good) Salesman
He was a powerful executive at some of the best-known companies in the world. Then he started robbing banks. The meteoric rise and dramatic fall of Steve Carroll, the high-flying corporate executive who wanted it all.
A tall man with white hair walked into the U.S. Bank branch in Rolling Meadows, a middle-class suburb 25 miles northwest of Chicago. He wore black shorts and a sky-blue polo shirt and looked for all the world like a guy running an errand on his day off. He asked a teller for a withdrawal slip while making small talk, and then, as if the segue were the most natural thing in the world, asked if she knew bank policies. She did, she told him, at which point he pulled out a small black gun.
“Since you know bank procedures, this is a robbery,” he said. “Put all of the cash on the counter.” The robber turned to the teller next to her. “No funny business. Give me your money.”
The tellers complied, and the man ran out the door with $2,159. It had taken all of five minutes.
Photos of the robber from surveillance cameras soon appeared in the local papers, online, and on TV news. A friend emailed a photo to Ricky Rasmussen in Las Vegas. He and his wife thought it was a gag, and they couldn’t stop laughing. The man in the photo was unmistakably Steve Carroll, whom they had known for years and with whom they’d started a business. Steve was the successful friend in any group he was a part of, a dynamo who had been number two at J.D. Power and Associates and had a long resume as an executive at major American corporations. He was the guy who always picked up the check, the one who had the inside track financially, who inspired pride from those who hung out with him and admiration-tinged-with-jealousy from those who crossed his path on the golf course, at wild parties, or in high-powered meetings. When the Rasmussens realized it wasn’t a joke, they contacted the police and FBI, emailing about 30 photos of Carroll.
They weren’t alone. Steve hadn’t worn a mask or even a baseball cap and may as well have held up his driver’s license to the camera. A woman who worked at another bank called the FBI to tell agents that she recognized the robber as a customer. She sent photos from her bank’s security camera for verification.
The day after the August 2018 robbery, Scott Hamilton, a commercial airline pilot and Air Force Academy graduate living in Texas, answered a phone call from his brother John. “Dude you’re not going to freaking believe this,” John told him as he emailed him a link to one of the photos pinging around the internet. Scott opened the link and agreed it sure looked like Steve, but he offered that maybe it was just someone who resembled him. Another brother, Bob, came on the line and directed them to photos taken from different angles. There was no question: The man robbing the bank was their brother-in-law, their sister’s husband of 36 years. Scott even recognized the Bersa Thunder 380 pistol, which he’d given his sister as a gift. The Foster Grant sunglasses were familiar, too, a present from Scott to Steve the previous Christmas. The revelation left them shocked.
More than shocked: How was this happening? There was Steve, an upper-middle-class guy turned pistol-clutching outlaw. The voice that tells us some things are ours but most are not, that there are rules to follow no matter our whims and moods: This man in the photos seemed to have chucked all that out the window to say, for this bizarre moment, the rules mean nothing anymore. It was confounding, beguiling, a new dimension to a life that had always been lived out loud. And, of course, it was terrifying.
“I can’t believe something like this touched our family’s life. You don’t think the guy who robbed a bank would be your sister’s husband,” Scott says.
When Janet Carroll, Steve’s wife, found out about the robbery, the world seemed to stop spinning for her. Here was the last piece, the unthinkable conclusion to her increasingly urgent attempts to figure out what was going on in the head of the man she thought she knew, a man who existed as a quasi-hero in the eyes of those who knew him best.
Only it wasn’t the conclusion, but the latest in a series of unbelievable turns that started in the executive offices of some of America’s best-known corporations and would end in a manhunt and a burning question: What on earth happened to Steve Carroll?
He was a big guy who oozed charm, confidence, and charisma, and so Steve Carroll was understandably the center of attention strolling through the lobby of the Pebble Beach resort holding court with a cadre of friends. It was 1992, and Kraft, where Steve was an executive, was a sponsor of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach, located on the rocky coast of California’s Monterey Peninsula, one of the most storied courses in the country.
Steve was there to schmooze with clients, but he had invited a group of friends to golf, not only at Pebble Beach, but at Spyglass and Spanish Bay, two other courses at the resort that rank among the country’s finest. Everything was on Kraft. “He was a hard person to dislike,” his friend Mike Meiches says. “People could walk away thinking he’s full of shit, but he’s fun full of shit.” He was the guy from the neighborhood who had made it, and he was fond of showing them how sweet life was at the top. His friends called him Tony Stark, after the billionaire industrialist whose alter ego is Iron Man, and Mr. Fantastic, another comic book hero.
Steve’s rise through the business world seemed a foregone conclusion, as if by sheer force of personality he was destined for corporate glory. After getting his MBA at the University of Illinois, he got a job at the Leo Burnett advertising agency. By the early 1990s, Steve was working at Kraft Foods, and the company had moved him from Chicago to Huntington Beach, California, and then up the coast to the San Francisco Bay Area, giving him more responsibility and more money each time. Steve seemed on his way to landing one of the company’s prize jobs. “He always told me was going to be running a big company,” says Michael Keegan, a childhood friend. No one would have argued the premise.
At Pebble Beach, Steve’s friends spent five or six days at the resort, each with a room overlooking the water. They played 36 holes a day, caddies in tow; got massages; drank expensive wines and ate gourmet meals. Keegan figures each person spent more than $1,500 a day. “Unlimited porno, unlimited golf, and unlimited drink,” says Keegan, laughing. “It was a pretty good boondoggle for me.”
This was the all-access life, and Steve had found the keys. He was a frequent guest at Pebble Beach and once held a bachelor party for a friend there. Several times he had brought Janet, her parents, and her brothers on trips to the resort, where expensive dinners often ended with $100 snifters of port. On one trip, Janet’s brother Bob asked Steve how he could slide all of it past the Kraft accounting department. “I make them so fucking much money,” Steve answered, “they wouldn’t question my expense account.”
That was Steve, a corporate star who could have it all because he earned it all. He was Don Draper a few generations removed, and his was a traditionally American version of success in an era when such things felt increasingly illusory, ungraspable.
It wasn’t long before Janet, who had worked as an administrative assistant, quit her job. “Steve would say to me the thing he was most proud of was that he was able to give me my freedom, and I wouldn’t have to work,” Janet says. It was all part of Steve’s vision of what success looked like, the wife who didn’t have to work. It was quite a change from the days when Steve was in college and Janet paid for his phone bill and meals when she visited and then funded their honeymoon. But Steve had a vision for their life, and Janet would be lying if she said it didn’t sound fun. With his executive salary, along with the perks of the job, money wasn’t a problem and the highlife was open to them.
It was the dream, postcard ready, and they were both proud of how far they had come. Steve had had a middle-class childhood that revolved around the parish church. His mother was a secretary there and his father worked long hours as a crane operator for the city of Chicago. Now he and Janet traveled on corporate junkets to exclusive resorts like Mar-a-Lago and The Breakers in Florida. Steve received a four-day getaway to Monaco as a bonus one year, and the couple stayed at the five-star Hotel de Paris. There were vacations in Hawaii and an Alaskan cruise, which they’d invited Janet’s parents to join. One day Steve came home from work with his bonus check and took Janet and her mother out to buy mink jackets. “We would never do half the things if not for Steve and his generosity,” Janet’s mother would say, which of course made Janet beam. She had made good. They were a team, and they were building this life together.
Janet and Steve drove a pair of Jaguars and Steve kept a turbo charged Trans Am, a limited edition of the Indianapolis 500 pace car. They bought a house in a gated community in suburban Chicago with its own golf course.
Steve’s charisma and energy attracted legions of friends, adding new names to the old crew, to whom he stayed fiercely loyal. “Anything he wanted to do, he seemed to do it,” says Earl Keegan, who grew up with him. The U.S. Open golf tournament, Bears games, the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl when the University of Illinois played, the NCAA basketball tournament. If the Bulls were in the playoffs, he was there. When the White Sox were in the 2005 World Series, he paid $40,000 total for four tickets to each of two games. He flew to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics and stayed in a docked cruise ship. “He lived large,” his friend Jack Parker says. “He liked to party.”
This was all a reward for the long hours Steve worked and the impact it had on their home life. He would show up late to family gatherings and leave early, even on holidays like Christmas and New Year’s. “You’d be there on Thanksgiving and his phone would go off, and he’d answer it and grab his briefcase and say, ‘I’ll be back,’” recalls Scott Hamilton. “It started turning into a running joke.” Janet defended her husband’s late arrivals and early exits. It’s what sets him apart from the other guys and what pushes him up the company ladder, she explained. She was his defender, his champion, and there was no denying Steve Carroll was on the rise.
Which is why his abrupt announcement that he was leaving Kraft, something to do with friction with upper management, was so surprising. He had spent so much energy on his career at Kraft that it was hard to imagine he would walk away. Still, the departure fit easily enough into a broader narrative: Steve was on a rocket ship to success. He quickly found a top spot at A.C. Nielsen, which he parlayed a few years later into the number two spot at the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates. Steve Carroll was mapping his own destiny in the most competitive ranks of corporate America, Janet was by his side, and it seemed like nothing could stop them. Beneath it all, there was real love and an enormous heart, which came out in a hundred kind gestures big and small.
When Janet turned 50, Steve organized a surprise party at a swank restaurant, inviting 80 to 100 people for dinner, some of whom came from out of town. He collected dozens of old photos of Janet, and his sister-in-law turned them into a video spanning five decades that finished with photos of Steve and Janet together to the accompaniment of the song “You’re the One” by Orleans.
“It was an amazing evening,” recalls Janet’s brother Scott. “It wasn’t about him, but about Janet. It was a showering of affection.”
It was completely characteristic of the Steve Carroll Janet had fallen in love with, before the success and all its privilege and many costs, back when they had little more than each other.
It was like a punch to the gut. Janet walked into the study of their Chicago-area home to use the computer. Steve’s usual mess was sitting on the desk, and she started to sort through it. Soon she was staring at a court document incontrovertibly showing the unthinkable: Her husband, whom she had been with since high school, had fathered two children with another woman, a son born in 2003 and a daughter born six years later. She had never even seen him look at another woman, and the impact of the discovery nearly doubled her over.
Steve and Janet didn’t have children themselves, though it’s something they had talked about. She would raise the question with him, especially as time began to run out, but Steve told her that with all his traveling and long hours he just couldn’t be around much; it wouldn’t be fair to the child. They had a good life, though, with freedom and travel, and enough money to indulge the things they wanted, and Janet made her peace with the decision. She was part of the team.
When Steve came home that afternoon, he parked in the driveway, and, as he often did, sat in his car with the motor running while talking on the phone. He said these were work calls, but now Janet wondered if he was talking to his children — or this girlfriend. Janet walked to her husband’s car and threw the pile of documents through the open window. “You asshole!” she yelled. “You have kids!”
She went back into the house and locked him out. Hours went by with Steve knocking on the door and begging for her to let him in. Janet finally relented. In an emotional confession, he claimed the first child was the result of a drunken night after a softball game. He and the woman woke up the next morning and were horrified. Janet asked if that was the night he told her he had been at a casino until 5:30 a.m. and then got breakfast. “I was just crushed,” she says. “I didn’t have the immediate rage that makes you want to blow everything up. I just crawled into a hole.”
One drunken night, awful as it was, made some sense, but Janet was so disoriented it took her a bit to land on the natural follow-up question: What about the other kid? She confronted her husband again. Steve fed her an unbelievable line, explaining that it can be lonely growing up an only child and he didn’t want that for his kid. “This goes to show you how completely entranced or in love I was,” Janet says. “He kept spinning these stories, and I wanted to believe it. I just decided to choose love instead of kicking him out.”
Believing Steve, buying into the image he projected, was the most natural thing in the world for those in his orbit. For Janet, seeing past the mirage would prove a defining struggle in her life, one that not even a painful affair could help her reconcile.
The court papers between Steve and the mother of his children read like a custody agreement between a divorced couple. Steve was ordered to pay $5,000 a month child support and to pay for the kids’ tuition at a Catholic school. He was ordered to pay the mother $1,250 a month for a year. The documents set out a schedule, which included visits every other year on major holidays and two weeks of vacation. He was ordered to give the mother $3,000 per child for Christmas presents and activities.
As Janet internalized the betrayal, she began tallying the many stories he’d used to explain absences in the past — the car locked in a parking garage after hours, the time he was stranded with no phone reception. It was her first deep excavation into a startling truth: Not all was as it seemed in the postcard life Steve had so masterfully staged for them. Other people in their orbit learned about Steve’s secret kids. Friends had spotted Steve with them at hockey games, and he’d even started bringing them to parties and introducing them. When he brought the kids to the South Side Irish Parade one year, he bumped into a couple of his softball friends. “I made a mistake 13 years ago,” Juan Correa recalls Steve explaining. “I said, ‘Looks like two to me.’”
“We all gave him shit,” recalls a female friend. “We’d say, ‘What are you doing? One day your son is going to be old enough to drive and he’s going to be knocking on your door and he’ll say to Janet, What do I call you?’”
His answer was simple: “I can never leave Janet.”
The revelation of the children was bad enough, but there were other loose threads in Steve’s well-woven narrative of success. Janet knew the split with Kraft had not been over a simple dispute or personality clash. The company had caught on to Steve’s improper spending after someone noticed he’d listed a relative as one of his guests on an expense report and that some of the events he put in for expenses at Pebble Beach did not coincide with corporate functions. The spending was so excessive, so utterly out of line with anything resembling normal procedure, that Steve worried he’d face criminal charges. “I could tell he was really nervous, waiting for the hammer to fall,” Janet recalls. Ultimately, he was allowed to leave the company without charges being filed, but he had to give up his rights to a bonus and pension. Kraft agreed not to badmouth him to future employers, and that gave him a lifeline. As long as he had his reputation, some good contacts, and lots of smarts and energy, he knew he could salvage his career.
Janet had all the reason in the world to leave, but she couldn’t. Steve was everything to her, inseparable in her mind from the larger life she had built, and in spite of his betrayal she couldn’t bring herself to walk away.
“When I’m being logical and rational, I know I should have left when I found out,” Janet says. “He tried to deceive me for so many years. It makes me think, Why didn’t you get out of there then? I’d be so much better off.”
J.D. Power was looking for someone to take on its second-ranked job when it landed on Carroll, who was working at A.C. Nielsen. Diane Nott-Kilfoil, then the company’s executive director, human resources, says the company hired an outside firm to complete thorough background checks on prospective executives. “I would have had the file,” she says. “There weren’t any red flags.”
Instead of following him west, Janet stayed in Chicago. Her parents were her best friends, and they had been devastated when she and Steve moved to California for his job at Kraft. Besides, she only expected her husband to be gone for a couple years this time. “He didn’t seem upset I wasn’t going,” Janet says. “I thought he was being very kind letting his wife stay here.”
Steve, feeling he had an image to uphold, spent $1.9 million for a rustic 3-bedroom house on a hill in Malibu with a view of the ocean and access to a private beach club. He told friends that Dustin Hoffman lived next door. When a couple stayed at his house one weekend, they spotted Pierce Brosnan at the grocery store. He would regale friends in Chicago about life by the beach, telling them that Heather Locklear was on the treadmill next to him at the gym, the same gym, he said, where porn stars worked out.
His softball friends came to Malibu on their way to the annual Advertising World Series, a softball tournament played in a different city each year with games during the day and parties at night. The 2007 tournament was in Las Vegas, and his teammates camped out at Steve’s. He paid for a catered dinner and a customized bus that drove them to Vegas. “That was kind of guy Steve was,” his friend Jack Parker says. “It was a blast.”
Janet visited Malibu just twice. Steve visited her occasionally in Chicago, but he usually told his wife he was either traveling or had a business function. Janet’s absence became something of a joke at J.D. Power. Did she even exist? During one of Janet’s visits, her husband arranged a dinner with Jamie Power, son of the company’s founder, and other company executives. Perhaps to project an image of stability, Steve told everyone they were preparing for Janet to move there. “He was lying,” Janet says.
Steve had worked at J.D. Power less than a year when it was sold to McGraw Hill. He knew the company was on the block when he was hired, and he was angling for the top job once the acquisition was complete. But the plan misfired when the new owner brought on its own team, and by 2009, Steve was out. There was a separation package and stock options, and he may have received a retention bonus after the sale. Janet thinks he left the company with $2 million to $3 million, although others believe that’s high. “With this check I’m paying the IRS,” he told one friend after leaving J.D. Power, “I could buy a couple Ferraris.”
The timing turned out to be terrible. The Great Recession was raging. Steve put the Malibu house up for sale but the real estate market had crashed. There were few takers, and he unloaded it in a short sale, losing around $500,000. After J.D. Power, and with corporations reeling from the financial meltdown, the job market he’d so successfully navigated in the past was suddenly dim. Steve eventually found a job in Chicago at Textura, a company that provided construction contracts and payment management services. But he had a contentious relationship with Textura’s CEO practically from the start. It wasn’t long before he returned from a business trip and abruptly quit.
Janet, well-aware of the fault lines in her husband’s character, wondered if something deeper was going on. Had he not told her the real reason he had left Textura? Was his exit similar to the one from Kraft? She knew about some of the stupid things he would do, like bring home a couple cases of Diet Coke and a big box of Splenda from the break room. Was there something bigger? “I just know anybody in their right mind would not have quit without another job lined up,” she says.
His behavior, long skating a jagged edge between flamboyance and recklessness, started to veer in a dangerous direction. His personality, in his mind, was inextricably linked to success and its perks, and now much of that had been wiped out. He had cultivated an image, a persona among his friends and family. What would happen if he failed to live up to it?
Steve had always been a big drinker and smoked prodigious amounts of dope, but across his years of excess he became fond of other drugs, as well. “There was usually a lot of coke when Steve was around,” says one friend who was at a bachelor’s party when Steve showed up with two eight balls. He also was a heavy gambler who would brag about his winnings. “Craps, blackjack, the horses. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t put a bet on,” Rasmussen says. He would tell tales of big nights, like the time he walked out of a riverboat casino with $10,000 or when he had to be escorted out of a casino in Elgin, Illinois, after winning $25,000. He didn’t talk about the losses.
When Jack Parker, one of his best friends, moved to Las Vegas, he set up an account at a sports book so he could place bets for Steve. Parker charged him 3% of his winnings. Steve came to Las Vegas during the Final Four NCAA basketball tournament, and Parker watched as his friend won $35,000 playing blackjack at the Red Rock Resort. “We had some pretty epic times,” Parker says.
But winning streaks, as Steve was learning in the dark days after Textura, turn cold.
Janet was trying to understand what was happening. She didn’t need the lifestyle, didn’t care one way or another so long as she had Steve. But his lie, his projection of the man he believed himself to be, was too great, and he wouldn’t let her in.
When you’re a high-flying executive making several hundred thousand dollars a year, you can afford a wife, a girlfriend, and child support, along with two houses, premium tickets to sporting events, high stakes gambling, and cocaine. But without a job, it’s hard to keep the plane in the air. That’s why his story about quitting Textura seemed so crazy to Janet, who may not have known everything, but knew enough to realize Steve was spiraling downward.
Newly unemployed but full of the same bravado that had carried him so far in the past, Steve tried his hand as an entrepreneur. He and Ricky Rasmussen, who had made Steve godfather to his two children, had the American rights to a Samsung air purifying system. Steve never showed anyone the books, but in hindsight Rasmussen figures Steve made off with $140,000 from the company before they were forced to sell it at a loss.
The next venture was called Your Santa Story, and here the mounting urgency Steve must have felt crested into all-out desperation. To everyone else, however, including the investors he wrangled, he was still the rising star they had always known. Steve cashed out his 401k accounts to finance the project. Janet’s brother, John Hamilton, put in $25,000. Another investor was a friend of Steve’s who had received a settlement in a lawsuit charging priests had molested him as a boy. The company produced DVDs of Santa telling a child where to find her Christmas gift, each video personalized for the recipient. “We were out for a walk one evening when he told me about it,” Janet says. “I laughed. I thought it was a joke. What are you going to do the rest of year?”
As Janet predicted, the project was a disaster from the beginning. Steve hired Santas who couldn’t act and during the first year several deliveries arrived after Christmas. Investors suspected company funds were going to pay Steve’s mounting pile of bills.
Scrambling, Steve hired a headhunter. There were job interviews with big companies, but nothing came of them. He and Janet had sold their house with the golf course when he had moved to Malibu and bought more modest digs in Hoffman Estates, paying $225,000. They had paid off the mortgage in six months, but now Steve took out a line of credit for the entire $225,000. Janet’s mother co-signed and paid the $600 a month interest payment. Leveraging the goodwill he’d banked with them over the years, Steve was hitting up his in-laws for sizeable loans every couple months — $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 — telling them he just needed to cover their bills until he got an executive job. Eventually, Janet’s father, suspecting Steve was using the money to gamble, told him to bring him the bills and he’d write the checks.
Steve was cashing in everything. He had invested about $150,000 as part of a group that owned an inn in Telluride, Colorado. He borrowed money from two partners. When he stopped making payments, they took his share of the company. In February 2017, his sister sued him, asking for an accounting of their father’s estate, of which Steve was the trustee.
With no corporate jobs materializing, Steve applied to manage a pizza joint. He asked his friend Jack Parker, who was working at Nestle, if he could get him a job on the assembly line. “I couldn’t believe it,” Parker says. “That gave me an idea things were really going south.” He started driving for Uber and Lyft.
Steve’s softball teammates noticed his demeanor changing. He was edgier, prone to outbursts. He was hitting on younger women who played softball, snorting coke on his car dashboard. “He was becoming a real jagoff,” says Juan Correa, manager of the team. After one game, Steve approached Correa, who was a comic book collector. He pulled out around 50 comics, including the first Ironman and an Incredible Hulk where Wolverine made his first appearance. He wondered how much they were worth.
Steve loved softball and had played in the Advertising World Series for 34 consecutive years. His team, the Chicago Bad Apples, held raffles and a golf tournament and solicited donations to pay for the trip to the tournament. In 2017, Steve collected the $20,000 but shorted tournament organizer Mike Meiches by $6,000. Meiches sent him nine late notices. Each time Steve offered an apology and an excuse, saying that a check would be sent by overnight mail. Three checks bounced. “Steve, I think people are concerned about you,” Meiches wrote. He banned him from the tournament.
There were other warning signs. Steve asked if he could borrow Correa’s gun because he wanted to go to the shooting range. Correa explained that was impossible because he needed a Firearm Owners Identification Card and would have to show the gun registration at the range.
By the spring of 2018, Steve’s drinking and gambling were flying out of control. “He definitely had turned full alky,” John Hamilton says. When Steve went to watch his son play baseball, the boy’s mother, who had gone to the game separately, watched him park in a hidden area where he was drinking from a bottle in a brown bag. During the game he was loud and obnoxious, and he fell while cheering. A few parents asked Steve if he was OK and offered to drive him home. Steve tried to start a fight with one father who smelled alcohol on his breath and suggested the kids should go home with their mother. Steve swayed drunkenly to his black Cadillac and the man called police. An officer caught up to the car, first turning on his flashing lights and then his siren. Steve failed the field sobriety test. He was handcuffed and taken to the police station. “Steven began belching loudly when he was in the rear seat of my squad car,” the arresting officer wrote. After refusing to take a breath test, he was released on $100 bail.
His car impounded, he was using his wife’s dark green Pontiac Grand Prix the next day. It had a “Pray for Our Troops” decal on the back. An out-of-uniform police officer on his way to work spotted him weaving nearly into oncoming traffic and then onto the shoulder. He followed the car, which turned into a shopping center. The cop walked over and smelled alcohol and saw a partially empty bottle of vodka under Steve’s feet. He identified himself as a police officer and asked for the keys. Steve refused and drove off. After being dragged about 40 feet, with Steve trying to push him away, the cop managed to shut off the engine and pull out the keys. Steve jumped out of the car and began fighting the cop, who wrestled him to the ground. Steve pulled free and chased the officer around the parking lot, punching him, and then ran off when he heard sirens. Police found and arrested him. He was handcuffed and taken to the station, where he blew a .123 on the breathalyzer test. DUI is .08. In the car, officers found a receipt from Jewel-Osco for $6.99 for 80 proof extra smooth vodka. He wasn’t drinking the good stuff. One-and-a-half inches of vodka remained in the bottle. Steve was taken to the hospital with a bloody forehead, bloody right cheek, bruised lip, and his palms scraped up.
From the station, Steve called Janet’s brother, John Hamilton, to pick him up and post bond. He told Hamilton he had been driving for Uber and picked up a fare who was badmouthing the U.S., prompting an argument. When they pulled into the Home Depot parking lot, the customer hit him with a bottle of booze, spilling it all over. When the cop pulled him over, the officer smelled the alcohol.
Steve didn’t have much credibility with Janet’s brothers by now. They had watched his drinking worsen and saw that he was unable to get another job in corporate America, and his story was clearly far-fetched. Janet still loved Steve, was trying desperately to reach him in all his well-concealed vulnerability, but her brothers wanted a quicker account of the man they felt they no longer knew. A few days later, John drove to the DuPage County courthouse hoping to look up the documents filed for the drunk driving case and learn what really happened. He sat down at a cubicle with a computer in front of him and plugged in his brother-in-law’s name. Among the hits that came back, he found the court documents pertaining to Steve’s child custody ruling and more recent filings, which is how he learned that the man married to his sister for 36 years had two children with another woman. The documents portrayed a relationship that had gone sour, fueled by a recent string of troubling incidents. The children’s mother had filed for a restraining order against Steve. During a dinner with their father, her son had called her to pick them up from the restaurant because Steve was loud and belligerent and slurring his words. When she drove to pick up the kids, she found Steve with a drink on the table and a quarter bottle of pineapple vodka in his car. Her son said this had happened before, but he hadn’t told her because he was afraid his father would get in trouble.
On his weekends, Steve would often take the kids to a hotel. One Sunday morning, a fire alarm awakened them. Steve was gone. The children changed clothes and went outside. “My son also stated that this happens alot [sic] when they are with their dad on their visitation weekend,” she wrote. “They get up in the morning or sometime during the night and he is not there.”
Alarmed and concerned for his sister, Scott shared what he had learned from that open computer with his brothers and they approached Janet. She told them she already knew about her husband’s children, but the new information was shocking. She said she felt sick and quickly went home.
Janet woke up around 5 a.m. with a throbbing pain in her chest. She was crying and moaning and believed she was having a heart attack. Steve drove her to the emergency room. Her blood pressure and heart rate had skyrocketed. Doctors gave her an MRI and a barrage of tests but couldn’t find anything wrong.
She seemed to have suffered a major panic attack. The thousands of dollars of emergency room bills that would soon come due didn’t ease the mounting pressure — they hadn’t had medical insurance for more than a year. Their credit cards were no good, either. Steve was bent down in Janet’s hospital room with his elbows on his knees. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I thought I’d always be able to handle everything.” It was the only time Janet saw him scared and defeated.
The next day, Janet told Steve she was hungry and asked him to go to Denny’s and bring her back some eggs. He returned three hours later, without the food and acting oddly. “I have the feeling he didn’t have enough money in his wallet to go to Denny’s and cracked,” Janet says.
That day, Steve committed his first bank robbery, at the Chase Bank in Elgin, about two miles from his house. For his debut he attempted to conceal his identity, albeit in a haphazard and improvised way. He wore a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, black sweatpants, and green gloves. A paper plate with eye holes cut out covered his face. The bank manager heard someone yelling and walked out of her office to see what was happening. She asked Steve if she could help him. He pulled a gun out and pointed it at her head and began yelling for “straps” of 50s. After taking $10,031 from the tellers, he told the manager to walk to the front of the bank and look out the window, where he said an accomplice would be watching her. Steve ran outside, stumbled, and his gun went off, though the round didn’t hit anybody.
Five days later, Steve was playing softball in an over-60 league in Elk Grove Village, where he had grown up. He had a big day, driving in five runs, and he went to a bar to celebrate with his teammates. He walked Jack Parker to his car and repaid him $600 he had borrowed. (Steve had told his friend that his checking account had been hacked and that he would repay him as soon as he straightened things out with the bank.) “You couldn’t have a better friend than Steve Carroll,” Parker said. “The last thing he said to me was, `I love you.’ I look back, and when he said it, he said it a little differently.”
The same week, Janet noticed her gun was missing from the drawer of her nightstand. Steve told her he had sold it for $800. The next day, Steve robbed the U.S. Bank 15 miles west of his house on Interstate 90. No disguise, no gloves to hide his fingerprints. The photographs ping-ponged between his family and friends.
Police set up surveillance outside his house the day after the robbery. An officer wearing what looked like riot gear stopped Janet, who was walking her dachshund-corgi mix. “Is your husband home?” he asked. She told him she hadn’t seen him in three days. The cop said he had robbed a bank. You must be mistaking him for someone else, she insisted. The cop pulled out a photograph of Steve at the bank counter, gun in hand. Officers searched the house, but Steve was gone.
Janet’s phone rang as officers drove her to the police station. She could have not answered it, could have covered for him, but her husband was out of control. All the lies he had sold so well for so long, his obsession with living up to some larger-than-life vision of himself, had tilted completely and dangerously toward a break with reality. Janet still remembered the Steve that threw her the surprise party, the one who would selflessly move heaven and earth to make her feel special. Where was that Steve? He had to still be in there, hidden in the gulf between the myth he had created and the shattered ego he had become.
“Hey honey, how are you?” Steve asked. “Not so good,” Janet answered, explaining where she was. She handed the phone to the detective.
A breath. Steve hung up.
At the police station, Janet, clear now that whatever was happening to Steve, the only way to help him was to help bring him home safely, told officers her husband had called her the day before the robbery. He told her he had “screwed up again” and was trying to fix it, and that she might not see him for a while. In a recent text message, Steve told her that he believed he might have a mental disorder, that he didn’t recognize himself anymore. Later that day, Scott Hamilton told the detective about Steve’s longtime girlfriend. Police drove to her house in Wheaton, where she told them she had last heard from Steve the day before the second robbery when he called from an off-track betting site.
Tunica County, Mississippi, is about a nine-hour drive from Chicago through Indiana and Tennessee. Just 10,000 people live in what was once one of the poorest counties in the nation, although it shed that distinction thanks to its seven casinos. Like so much of America and the beguiling, well-worn notion of the American Dream, the Great Recession hit Tunica hard, and tourism has tapered off. The area has the forlorn, weathered look of grand times gone by.
It was a clear night on August 31, 2018, and Deputy Sheriff Willis McNeil was parked on the outskirts of town when he noticed a green Pontiac Grand Prix drive past him on U.S. Highway 61 shortly before 1:00 A.M. The car’s license plate light was out, and McNeil turned on his flashing lights. Eventually he caught up to the car, which was stopped on the side of the road. He called in the Ohio license plate, and then got out of his patrol car and walked to the Grand Prix. The window was down. The man inside was motionless, slumped forward. The black pistol was still in his right hand.
McNeill called paramedics, who pronounced Steve Carroll dead of a single gunshot wound. He had $3,124 in his wallet, most of it in $100 bills. The license plate came back stolen.
After Steve’s death, Janet, numb and reeling, sorted through financial records with help from her brothers. Even knowing what they now knew about Steve, they were stunned at the utter devastation he had wrecked upon the family finances. He hadn’t paid taxes in six or seven years and owed $221,000, not counting penalties and interest. His 401Ks were gone, the life insurance policies liquidated or lapsed. Janet was in debt more than $500,000.
After decades of marriage and his many years at the highest reaches of corporate America, where he lived large and chased doggedly after the next golden ring, practically the only thing Steve ended up leaving his wife was a death certificate. On it, his occupation is listed as Lyft driver.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (1–800–273-TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
JEFF GOTTLIEB, a former reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News, shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing widespread corruption in the Southern California city of Bell. Along with the Pulitzer, he has won two George Polk Awards, the IRE Medal and the Selden Ring award. He also has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, The Nation and Los Angeles Magazine.
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