Back to life

The 64-year-old man sits at the oak table in the dining room of his daughter’s ranch home in East Lansing and speaks about robbing his first bank. It was a cold winter afternoon in early 1992, and he found himself pacing outside the bank in Southfield.

"It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon and the bank is jammed. I get in this long line and wait and wait. I finally get to a teller in the middle and I’ve got like a four-page robbery note. ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ The place is filled with people and I give the young lady the robbery note. Her eyes get big, and she’s reading and reading and reading. I finally say, ‘Just give me the money.’

"It’s no laughing matter, but it’s funny. And I forgot to bring a bag. I’m wearing a big winter coat, and I’m putting money in all of these pockets, inside and out. It was like a Charlie Chaplin movie. And all the time I’m expecting someone to stick a gun in my back or shoot me. But none of that happens. And I turn around and my legs are like jelly. I somehow get out of the bank."

It was the beginning of a headline-grabbing nine-week crime spree that would encompass 18 bank robberies in four states.

This is the story of a Detroiter who became a successful educator and administrator through hard work, dedication and a passion for social justice. He gained the admiration of associates and the respect of his professional peers. This is the story about how drug abuse sent that man crashing down into depravity.

This is the story of Alan Hurwitz, aka the Zombie Bandit.

Rising up

Alan Hurwitz was born in 1940 on Euclid between 12th and 14th streets in what he calls Detroit’s Jewish ghetto.

"I was blessed with the best parents," he says. "I was raised in the liberal Jewish tradition of justice, learning and equality in a household with portraits of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt above the mantelpiece."

Hurwitz graduated from Detroit’s Mumford High School and flunked out of Wayne State after a first semester spent primarily in the student union playing hearts. In the summer of 1959, he joined the Marine Corps reserves. "I needed to mature and I did do some growing up."

While in the military, Hurwitz discovered a passion for reading and children. He put those two together, returned to Wayne and graduated with a degree in English and a teaching certificate.

He got a job at Hutchins Middle School in southwest Detroit. "It was the poorest, blackest, roughest, toughest school in the city," he says.

And through his rose-colored liberal glasses, he says, "I was convinced I was going to save these children."

Instead, he was an abysmal failure. "It was horrific, absolutely horrific. The classroom was chaos." So, after one semester, he decided to apply to suburban schools. A talk with his father turned his life.

"He convinced me that if I left at that point, I could never undo the failure I had experienced."

With help from colleagues, Hurwitz got it together in the classroom, by all accounts turning himself into an exemplary teacher.

But he sought change after four-and-a-half years and, in 1967, went to his principal at Hutchins in search of other opportunities. The principal hooked him up with a new organization, the Michigan-Ohio Regional Education Laboratory, and when the lab’s funding ran out, Hurwitz moved on and up, building a glittering professional résumé over the next two decades. Among his positions were:

• Staff member of the Michigan State University Center for Urban Affairs

• Desegregation adviser for Detroit Public Schools

• Member of Gov. William Milliken’s Task Force on School Violence

• Director of the Detroit Public School’s Office of Safe Schools

• Deputy director of the Peace Corps in Kenya

• Education director for New Detroit

Peggy Case, a teacher in the Pontiac School District, met Hurwitz during his MSU gig while she was a graduate student there and has remained in touch with him.

"He was really good at making people look at issues like racism," Case says. "He was able to give people powerful images from their own lives. He was able to tap into the values that people claim to have.

"He was really good not only in dealing with the issue of racism, but of getting people to look at how they communicate with each other."

But by October of 1989, Hurwitz felt his life crumbling. He quit his job at New Detroit and broke down while giving a speech at a banquet honoring him for his service.

"I couldn’t get through it," he says. "I just collapsed in tears."

Hurwitz says he felt that his life had been pointless.

"Looking back on it now, this is the beginning of my decline," he says. "I got up every morning and I went out there and struggled. I didn’t bullshit. I told the truth as I saw it. I’m beginning to fall apart. I’m beginning to feel that my life was for naught. The lifelong struggle and combat every day was for nothing. The Reagan forces had won. We did some things. You can’t say that we didn’t. But we left far more undone than what we accomplished."

Case says life became simply too much for Hurwitz to handle.

"He burned out," she says. "He spent 30 years of his life trying to save the world by himself and he couldn’t do it."

The descent

Seeking the kind of refuge he had found as deputy director of the Peace Corps in Kenya, Hurwitz took a position as an education adviser with Trinidad and Tobago. He moved there with his second wife, his marriage to the mother of his children having ended in divorce in 1984. Instead of East Africa, he says, Port of Spain was more like a mini-New York City. He found no solace.

"And so I continue to decline," he says. "I have been in a rage all of my adult life. I am always enraged about how things are. And all of my life I had been able to use this to fuel an engine of purpose and struggle. But as I begin to collapse, the rage becomes destructive of self and destructive of others."

In July of 1990 there was an attempted coup in Trinidad by a group known as the Jamaat al Muslimeen. Rebel forces had some initial successes, but were beaten down after a few days. The old guard declared martial law. Hurwitz and his wife were confined to their house.

"A Trinidadian fellow comes by the house and says, ‘Want to try some of this?’ And he’s got rocks of cocaine. I had smoked a lot of weed in my life. Marijuana is my Valium. I knew about crack. I remember that day vividly. I hit that pipe and the sweat started pouring out of my head. My heart is going, ‘thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.’ I thought it was going to blow up. I went in the bedroom and I lay down and I’m making deals with God, although I’m not a religious person at all. And I’m telling God, ‘Don’t let my heart blow up and I’ll never touch that shit again.’ And 20 minutes later, my heartbeat slows down. And what do I do? Pick the pipe up, and I’m off and running."

Hurwitz returned to Detroit in 1991 with a drug habit that would quickly consume him.

Although jobs were scarce, he picked up consulting work with the reform HOPE slate that had taken the helm of the school board the year before and hired Deborah McGriff as superintendent.

"They gave me $15,000 or $25,000, I forget, to work on the transition. And I just take the money and go to the crack house. I’m off the charts. I don’t know how much I’m spending. Everything I had. I went through everything I had, everything I could get, all my possessions. A typical crackhead story. And by June of ’91, I’m a homeless person in the Cass Corridor, a crackhead.

"I crash at my father’s house — my mother was dead at that time. And I lie to my father to get money. I lie about what I’m doing and what’s going on. I’m lying to everybody and I know a lot of people have a lot of regard for me. I’ve been a pretty decent fellow and done a lot of good things. A lot of the people I’m lying to, they know I’m lying and some of them try to grab me and tell me, ‘Al, you’ve got a problem.’ But I bullshit them."

Hurwitz says he would typically go to East Lansing and tell friends there that he had just gotten into town, lost his wallet and needed money to get a room. Then he would reverse the process in Detroit.

"This destructive pattern goes on and on and on and on. I was sleeping on the floors of crack houses. I think I really did have a death wish. But I never thought about stopping. I didn’t."

Friends found him worse near the end of the year. At the start of the first semester of 1992, Hurwitz was supposed to return to the classroom at Hutchins Middle School.

On New Year’s Eve, Hurwitz was living in his car, parked outside the Sweetheart Bar on Third Street in the Cass Corridor. As midnight approached, he and a fellow crackhead with the street name of Hollywood slouched down in the car anticipating Detroit’s traditional hail of gunfire to welcome the change of calendar.

"As the gunfire abates after midnight, we put the seats back up. And there’s a guy walking down Third, and I remember this vividly. A kid runs up behind him and shoots him in the head. Kills him. I have the memory of an elephant. And I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, to remember what happened between seeing that murder on early Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon and I don’t know what happened to those days.

"My next memory is that it is Friday afternoon and I’m supposed to go to Hutchins the following Monday. I know I can’t go back into the classroom. I’m a crackhead. I’m dirty and I’m skinny and I’m very messed up. So my next memory is I’m pacing the sidewalk at Evergreen at 12 Mile Road in Southfield in front of a bank. And I say to myself, ‘I’ve either got to step onto Evergreen in front of a speeding truck or I have to go in and rob this bank.’ Obviously, I did not step into the path of a speeding truck because I’m here."

Crime and punishment

Hurwitz says he robbed the Southfield bank of about $1,500, which he immediately took to the Corridor to buy crack for himself and his street friends.

"I woke up Monday morning mostly broke, drove to Cleveland, robbed another bank and I was off and running. In the next nine weeks, driving essentially between Detroit and Chicago, I robbed 18 banks." He robbed in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, once hitting two Chicago-area banks just hours apart.

"It was a sad case," says FBI Special Agent Terry Booth. "He was not a typical bank robber, for sure. A typical bank robber, at least in this area, is usually jobless and is not a professional person."

Booth says he cannot remember whether he gave the Zombie Bandit his nickname or if it was someone else on his team.

"He was nicknamed the Zombie Bandit because he had a kind of expressionless look on his face … nothing behind his eyes," Booth says. Or as one FBI agent at the time put it: "The robber has a zonked-out expression on his face, like he’s been hit over the head with a baseball bat."

"We nickname them for two reasons. First it helps us keep the serial robbers apart, because you can have seven or eight going at the same time. And also the media likes it and a lot of times we’re kind of at the mercy of the media to put out surveillance photos. The media enjoys those kinds of nicknames."

As Hurwitz robbed more and more banks, media coverage of the Zombie Bandit increased exponentially. Booth says this kind of crime almost inevitably ends up with an arrest.

"When you keep going like that, usually something bad happens," Booth says.

What happened to Hurwitz was that video of his robberies ended up on the popular television program America’s Most Wanted. After he was recognized, the end came quickly.

"We got some tips and he was arrested on March 16, 1992, at the Best Western Hotel in Fowlerville by FBI agents," Booth says.

When he was apprehended in the small town between Detroit and Lansing with the cash from the final robbery of his crime spree, Hurwitz had 139 pounds spread over his 6-foot 2-inch frame, giving lie to the axiom that you can’t be too rich or too thin.

Hurwitz also had a loaded .380 semi-automatic pistol when he was arrested. News accounts at the time said he typically opened his coat to show tellers the gun tucked in his waistband.

"At the end I was carrying a gun," Hurwitz says. "I was armed, but I never pulled the gun out. The only person who could have gotten hurt was me because, even in my manic craziness, I am not capable of hurting other people. I hurt people psychologically. I certainly frightened people — mostly young women — who were bank tellers making minimum wage, and I deeply regret that. They thought that they were at risk. I knew they were never at risk."

Hurwitz says that after his arrest, he fell into despair.

"Life is over. I don’t care. It’s done. Nothing matters. I don’t remember being frightened. I know that the first few nights I cried. I detoxed in Wayne County Jail for a couple of weeks and part of me started coming back."

Hurwitz pleaded guilty to robbing 13 banks and was given a sentence of 12 years and three months in federal prison — a term that might seem light for such a series of crimes.

"They have prosecutor guidelines and they look at a number of things including the criminal record," Special Agent Booth says. "And I don’t think he really had a criminal record."

Hurwitz spent the first six months of his incarceration in Wayne County Jail where he says he worked to improve the literacy of other prisoners.

"We have study sessions and I’m teaching guys to read. We read the book of Job. That makes sense."

In 1993, Hurwitz was shipped to the federal prison in Milan, south of Ann Arbor. There he began to regain his physical and mental well-being. He was then moved to the federal prison in Oxford, Wis. His second wife divorced him while he was in prison.

"At Oxford, my mental and emotional and psychological recovery was completed, and I began to tutor and teach in the prison schools. I felt pretty good. I got a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. One of the things I had been all of my life was a bridge between groups. In prison, that’s a pretty interesting role because prison is different from the public perception."

Hurwitz says that prisons — at least the prisons he served his time in — are not the widely perceived hellholes inhabited by psychotics and sociopaths.

Milan and Oxford are medium-security facilities and Hurwitz agrees that conditions in the Level 1 maximum-security prisons are different.

"I was never in a ‘gladiator school,’ the ‘super-max’ prisons where the really evil members of our society are incarcerated. But absolutely and overwhelmingly, prison is populated by people who made bad choices and are paying the consequences of those choices. But they are not different from anyone else we would find every day walking around. I literally interacted with 3,000 guys in 12 years and I can count on my fingers those who need to be confined forever because they are dangerous.

"We are in a confined space and people give each other their respect of their space. They absolutely do. If someone had a problem — let’s say a white guy had a problem with a black guy — you could go to the black leadership and get it worked out in a very positive fashion."

Hurwitz says that he never had a frightening physical confrontation in his years in jail and that he witnessed only three — a near riot over a call in a soccer game and two individual altercations involving weapons.

"Other than that, in 12 years in the joint I saw a couple of fistfights — and I mean just a couple."

And, he says, prison rape was not widespread at Milan or Oxford.

"There’s homosexuality in prison, but it’s between homosexuals — consenting adults. This doesn’t mean that there are not homosexual rapes in prison. There are. But it’s not epidemic."

Hurwitz says that these misleading images of life in prison rankle him.

"It troubles me when I’m listening to talk radio and a guy calls in and starts telling these stories because I know it’s not that way. One of the great tragedies in America right now are the 2 million-plus people who are behind the razor wire and the walls. They are the most forgotten Americans, and they are burdened by myth and misperception."

In November 2003, Hurwitz was sent to a halfway house in Detroit. Six months later, the Zombie Bandit was released.

In search of peace

Alan Hurwitz says he now leads a quiet life, spent largely at the pleasant ranch house in East Lansing where he lives with one of his two daughters; a son lives in nearby Lansing. He talks frequently with friends and former colleagues. He revels in his five grandchildren. He is a huge Pistons and Lions fan.

"I spend my days with the children; I read a lot," he says. "I want to organize my thinking on paper. I’m going to write. I’ve led a very privileged life in the sense of the diversity of experiences I’ve had. I’ve been a very, very lucky man.

"I’ve learned some things in my life and I’d like to write about some of the things I’ve learned. I’ve learned that all of us are smarter than any of us. I’ve learned that there are more differences in any one group than there are differences between any two groups."

His plans for the future are clouded by the terms of his supervised release, which will restrict his ability to travel for the next three years. He says he eventually wants to join his youngest daughter, Laura, and her two daughters who "live off the grid in the mountains of Northern California." Thin and gaunt still, Hurwitz has a nagging cough abetted, no doubt, by the fact that he smokes unfiltered Pall Malls.

Although Hurwitz never brought the subject up, Pontiac teacher Case says that his health was precarious while he was incarcerated.

"He had several major heart attacks in prison," she says. "He almost died. I’m sure he wouldn’t say a single thing about it."

Hurwitz does not view himself as an innocent bystander. He understands that he is to blame for letting himself become a drug addict. Others agree.

Gerald McIntosh is director of the Center for International Programs and Services at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga. His career paralleled Hurwitz’ in the 1970s.

"Sometimes we all make mistakes and get involved in situations — some worse than others," says McIntosh. "I’m not saying he’s a victim. He just got caught up in something he couldn’t control that took him down a different path."

Adds Case: "No, he was not in any way a victim. But he was burned out. He really did give 30 years of his life trying to make the world a better place. And he fell apart."

Hurwitz is adamant that while he wasted the 15 months he spent addicted to drugs, the years he spent in prison were valuable. Citing the work he did educating his fellow inmates, he calls those years "absolutely a positive experience."

McIntosh was a close ally during that time.

"I don’t think Al has ever stopped doing good for people," he says. "I visited him frequently when he was incarcerated and prison guards had great comments about Al. The guards would tell me he’s doing fantastic stuff for other inmates."

Says Case: "I would describe him as someone who is very dedicated to having a fair and just world. He’s devoted his life to that cause. The whole time he was in prison he worked as a teacher, which is what he is. He taught a whole lot of people to read and write, and they wouldn’t have been in prison if they’d had those skills."

As he sits at the oaken table in East Lansing on a warm spring afternoon, the Zombie Bandit turns reflective. Alan Hurwitz wants to live out his years in peace and harmony.

"If I had it to do over again, I hope I wouldn’t be a crack addict and I hope I wouldn’t be a bank robber. I don’t have it to do over again and I can’t undo it. I wasted the period from the beginning of 1991 through the arrest in March of 1992. I was a selfish drug addict. I was either smoking crack, looking for more crack or sleeping. The prison time was not wasted time. One of the things I would talk about with the guys inside was that it’s not where we are, it’s who we are. I can’t walk a mile in a straight line, but I can conduct myself like a man with love and compassion and caring."


See Also:

Dealers don't take credit cards
Bank robbery remains a popular crime in America and, according FBI officials, there’s no way to stop it.

Take the money and run
A short list of some of America's more famous bank robbers. Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. Send comments to [email protected]

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.