Johnny “The Shootist” Williams was born to steal.
He swiped pens from his school teachers, snatched diamond rings from Zale’s, hotwired automobiles and drove off with them. But his favorite thing to steal was cash. And he loved taking it out of banks.
Aided by his getaway-driver wife Carol Williams, he robbed a total of 56 savings and loan institutions between 1986 and 1993. As recounted in the new documentary, “Carol & Johnny,” premiering online Tuesday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, that makes him America’s most prolific bank robber.
One heist stands out as his favorite. He remembers it as No. 11, the holdup through which he earned his nickname.
It took place at a bank drive-through in Solano Beach, Calif., in November 1987. Johnny was in a foul mood as he waited for the teller to begin exiting her booth so that he could push his way in.
“I was delayed getting into the drive-up teller and was pissed off,” Johnny, now 71, told The Post. Once inside, “I told her to give me the money. She said the drawer was locked and she did not have the keys. I saw the key around her wrist. I said, ‘You f–king b–ch!’ Then I shot a bullet into the ceiling. It sounded like a cannon going off. The color drained from her face. She got the money — $920 — and I knew I was on to something.”
Shooting a bullet into the ceiling became Johnny’s signature move.
“After firing that first shot and putting everyone on the floor, I’d press the gun to the bank manager’s head and ask if he wanted to be shot or wanted to cooperate,” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘The choice is yours. Open the drawer and give me the money.’ It usually took less than a minute.”
Then Johnny would hustle out, with his head down and carrying the cash. Carol waited in their getaway car. As she explains in the doc, “I’d pop the trunk with my left hand, turn the key with my right hand. He gets in [to the trunk], closes it gently. I put it in drive and I go. The thing about getaways is you have to go slow. I was always good cover for [Johnny]. He’s the star. I was just an accessory. I was a damned good getaway driver.”
Initially, Carol, now 62, was not exactly an enthusiastic participant. As described in the documentary, Johnny saw the need for her involvement as simple common sense: According to him, many thieves go down because their spouses get angry over something and turn them in. So he short-circuited that possibility by making her an essential participant.
Nevertheless, he warned Carol, “If I get caught, I’ll know you told [the authorities] and I know your family. I can take them one by one.”
The couple met through a boyfriend of her sister Cindy in 1979. Nine years Carol’s senior, Johnny told The Post: “I was 11 months out of jail [for armed robbery] and she was 15 months out of high school.”
They fell for one another — he describes the experience as “like getting set loose in a candy store; it was fantastic” — and got married, in 1980, after just a year of dating. “The wedding,” Johnny said, “was just us, a preacher and a witness.”
Carol’s family was unimpressed by the ex-con. Her father tried to kibosh the relationship. In the film, sister Cindy describes Johnny as “an ugly son of a bitch.”
When documentary director Colin Barnicle asks Carol why she stayed with Johnny, despite his threatening to murder her family, she says, “I guess I loved him … He was really neat.”
And it’s not like Johnny didn’t try to go on the straight and narrow. When they met, he was working as a carpet cleaner. But soon he was struggling to make rent and, after totaling his truck, considered a new occupation. That was when Johnny went to the Dallas library and started researching bank robberies.
But things did not begin smoothly. The couple’s first hit was in 1986, at a bank in Plano, Texas. Johnny got out with $10,000 and hopped into the waiting car with Carol behind the wheel — only for an implanted dye-pack to explode, rendering the suddenly pink dollars worthless. The second attempt was another disaster by dye-pack. The third time, in Abilene, Texas, Johnny accidentally shot the bank manager.
“I thought she was dead,” he says in the documentary. “I beat feet. I was out of there. I get in the car and Carol said, ‘How did things go?’ I said, ‘Not very well.’” (The manager survived.)
But the fourth bank-job was the charm. “Fast forward to ’87,” Johnny remembered. “It kicked off with $43,500. I made more in 30 seconds than I had made the whole previous year. It was just a matter of timing.”
Very quickly, profitable heists became the norm. “After a job was successfully completed and over, I was pumping with adrenaline,” he told The Post. “But while it went on, I viewed it as a job.”
Johnny and Carol would land in a targeted city and scour the Yellow Pages for lists of banks. Then they’d begin staking out spots. “Day by day, I went through the banks,” Johnny said. “I looked at them and eliminated them, one by one.”
They would spend weeks on the quest, seeking soft targets that allowed for easy getaways and limited exposure. The couple’s work ethic even impressed FBI agents, who were quickly on the tail of the robbers.
In a 2005 episode of the TV show “The FBI Files,” a Fed marvels over the ingenuity of Johnny loosening fence slats behind a bank, prior to a heist, so that he could make a smooth escape to Carol in the waiting vehicle.
FBI agent Don Glasser was assigned to the case and, in the documentary, he tells director Barnicle about being frustrated by “The Shootist,” who usually wore fake facial hair, a hat and sunglasses. He also never left fingerprints.
“He was a ghost,” said Glasser. “He disappeared. You play the waiting game” until the next heist.
In the meantime, Johnny and Carol lived it up, traveling the country. He enjoyed nude beaches on the California coast. She was taken by Sea World and a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. When they hit White Sands National Park in New Mexico, where park regulations forbid visitors from removing the sand, Carol took some anyway but fretted about it being “against the law.”
Heists were followed by celebratory trips to Las Vegas or Reno, where they used unwitting casinos to launder their ill-gotten gains. Johnny even had a credit card under the alias Robert James Hall.
And the life was romantic. After a robbery, they’d repair to a hotel, lay in bed together and watch as the local news detailed the day’s heist. “They talked about my daring daylight robbery. They said I had 50 hostages,” he recalled of one report in La Jolla, Calif. Carol was so star struck she “levitated out of bed.”
“We weren’t billionaires but it was a very enjoyable lifestyle,” Johnny said. “We ate filet mignon in nice restaurants, drank wine, lived in a home that overlooked the ocean.” Ironically, “Our landlord was a prison warden.”
After taking up bowling and winning some tournaments, he contemplated going pro. There were also thoughts of getting into Cuban cigar smuggling, trading stock or doing computer crimes. But bank robbing paid the bills — until an overly ambitious scheme led to the couple’s undoing.
This ploy was unusual in that it required the participation of an outsider, an acquaintance named Bob. In 1993, the two began planning what Johnny described to The Post as “a three-way robbery. You take the bank manager and his family hostage [at their home]. Then my partner, Bob, would have stayed with the family. I would have gone with the manager to the bank [before opening hours] so I could rob the vault. Carol would cover the police scanner.”
The kidnapping/robbery never got past the planning stages but, according to Johnny, “Bob turned me in.” Asked how he knows it was Bob, he exploded: “I got the godd–n transcripts! He did it for a $35,000 reward.”
Finally, FBI man Glasser had The Shootist’s real name and his alias. Agents traced a getaway car to Carol, registered under her maiden name. Following a bank robbery in Kirkland, Wash. — the couple’s 56th — on July 1, 1993, they holed up at a Residence Inn near the crime site.
“I was going to stay in the area through Labor Day,” said Johnny. “I needed to rob at least three more banks.”
After he paid for the room with his credit card, the hotel was swarmed with law enforcers. As Johnny exited the room, Glasser had a gun leveled at him: “Freeze, asshole … You’re under arrest.”
Johnny later confessed to everything. According to the documentary, he said to Glasser, “Just shoot me. Save the government money. I know I am never going to see the light of day. Just don’t hurt my wife.”
He received a 92-year prison sentence in 1995. Carol got 20 years. She suffered a stroke behind bars and emerged in 2011, worse for wear. As the movie ended, she was living with the sister who helped introduce her to Johnny so many years ago.
Johnny was released in early 2021, due to compromised health during the Covid outbreak. He briefly jumped parole for a jaunt to Vegas, where he won some $11,000 on the slots, and is now back on parole, hoping for a career in cloud computing. The couple remains married, but estranged. Ever optimistic, Johnny told The Post: “Carol and I are planning to get back together … It just hasn’t happened yet.”
“I don’t know who the real Johnny is. I don’t know that he really knows who he is,” Glasser told the doc’s director. “But he’s the perfect bank robber who just happened to get caught.”