When I first heard the story of Bernard Patterson in the 1980s, I saw the makings for a book and even thought about writing it myself. Fortunately, a far more able writer grasped the opportunity before I did.
The result is “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery: The true adventures of Maine’s zaniest criminal” by Ron Chase of Topsham, released this year.
In the late 1980s, I was staying in Westfield on a farm next to the property Patterson occupied in the last years of his life, aware that the helicopters occasionally hovering overhead were searching for the marijuana crop for which Patterson was well-known in the area. But I learned from a neighbor that the feat that made him even more famous had occurred nearly 20 years earlier.
On Nov. 12, 1971, he walked into the Northern National Bank in his hometown of Mars Hill dressed in a clownish outfit and announced it was a holdup. As my Westfield neighbor Ida Curtis told the story, the bank teller recognized him immediately, having known him all his life, and was not fooled by the long, dark trench coat, reddish wig, oversized sunglasses and bandanna covering his face.
“Oh, Bernard,” teller Ola Orser said, thinking the holdup must be a prank. When he pulled a gun, she realized he was serious. He got away with $110,000.
As Chase described the events that followed, “he conducted one of the most daring, spectacular bank robberies in the history of the state of Maine, managed a miraculous escape and lived out an implausible succession of wild escapades that spanned three continents for more than seven months before he was captured and imprisoned. Returning to the area where he’d grown up after prison, he continued living life in the extreme — albeit not with the same reckless abandon of a bank robber. He’d learned not to get caught most of the time.”
What makes Chase particularly qualified to tell Patterson’s story is Chase’s experience as a Vietnam-era veteran, as well as other parallels in his personal history. While he did not see the brutal combat Patterson encountered, Chase is sensitive to its effects and his narrative is set in the broader context of the Vietnam era as experienced by a boy from a broken family in northern Maine.
“In truth, I related to him,” Chase writes in the prologue to his book. Like Patterson, he was born in 1947, grew up in a working class family in rural Maine, had a “checkered” public school experience and ended up in the army at age 19. While he calls his assignments in Korea and Alaska “benign” compared to Patterson’s, he writes, “we both returned disillusioned, distrustful of our government institutions and with an abiding sense that we no longer fit neatly into the society we had left.”
Throughout the book, Chase refers to Patterson’s army assignment as a “tunnel rat,” described as “a select cadre of mentally and physically tough, daring volunteers who were sent into the extensive, elaborate underground tunnel systems created by the Viet Cong … [with] one mission: to kill the enemy and destroy their tunnels with explosives.”
Patterson earned four Bronze Stars for valor, four Commendation Medals, the Air Medal and was nominated for the Silver Star. He volunteered for two additional years of service after his first in 1966.
But by the time he died of a heart attack at age 56, “Vietnam had been but one violent chapter in his adventurous life,” Chase wrote.
His military service also educated him in a subculture that included black markets, drugs and prostitution, and he developed an uncanny ability to analyze a situation that served him well as a soldier and as a criminal.
“He was not only fearless; he was exceptionally intelligent,” Chase said in an interview this week.
A tax consultant with a 33-year career with the Internal Revenue Service, Chase first learned of Patterson and the Mars Hill bank robbery from a series of Bangor Daily News articles he read in the fall of 1973.
“I remember thinking his story would rival the most exciting, compelling adventure novel,” he wrote in the prologue to the book. “He seemed to be a real-life version of Don Quixote, Butch Cassidy and Robin Hood all rolled into one implausible package.”
A former Registered Maine Guide, Chase frequently told the story to skeptical companions as he drove them through Mars Hill for canoe trips in northern Maine. It was not until 2013 that he finally resolved to turn the story into a book. On a winter mountaineering trip in New Hampshire he met a man who had worked and socialized with Patterson and who added new details to the story. By the end of the conversation, a book was in the making.
Chase found the BDN articles, written by John S. Day in collaboration with Ronald T. Bean, who had interviewed Patterson in prison. He listed the names of all the people mentioned in the series — friends, teachers, a principal, municipal officials, bank employees — and began a search to locate and interview them.
“After 40 years, a number of the people had passed away,” he told me, but he found many with vivid memories and valuable leads.
“It was written primarily for entertainment, but there is a serious aspect to it,” Chase said of the book. “Underlying the story, he was dealing with [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We will have soldiers coming back who appear normal but who are not. They are dealing with issues no one knows.”
Fay Fitzherbert, acting police chief at the time, “had an excellent memory of the robbery,” Chase said. He would remember that Patterson had a friend call in a fake fire report, which drew police and fire crews away from Main Street Mars Hill just before he entered the bank.
Although he never met Patterson, Chase said after talking with about 40 people who did, he feels as though he knew him. A theme that often recurred in his conversations echoed a comment made by the neighbor who first told me the story: Bernard was a likeable, loyal friend.
As Brian Blanchard, a lifelong friend who chauffeured Chase around the Mars Hill area for his research, put it: “Bernard was my friend, and I won’t be part of anything that denigrates him.”
A significant person Chase did not meet until after the book was published was Patterson’s daughter, Emma, 13, who was an infant when her father died. After a book signing at the Mars Hill Library on March 10, she introduced herself to him and asked, “If they make the book into a movie, can I be in it?”