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Benzonia — In a jail cell awaiting trial, Bill Minore told anyone who would listen he had nothing to do with three bank robberies in northern Michigan.

Few people believed him.

Not the local police and FBI, who had a video of him allegedly stealing a car just before it was used in the latest robbery in 2016.

Not even his family, who wonder why his life had taken an inexplicable turn.

For one thing, Minore's alibi sounded preposterous, police said. He claimed the real bank robber had set him up by asking him to move the car, knowing it was being watched by a surveillance camera.

But then, in a shocking twist, a federal magistrate dismissed the robbery charges after a preliminary hearing in April, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to send the case to trial.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan refused to comment but, according to local prosecutors, it will seek an indictment from a grand jury.

Minore, who was eventually released from jail, declined to be interviewed but wrote The Detroit News a six-page letter entitled "My Northern Michigan Nightmare."

The note tells the same tale he told during his 20 months in jail, the one about a string of circumstances that led to him being wrongly charged with bank robbery.

“I had 10-15 FBI agents investigating every aspect of my life for months finding no evidence of my involvement,” he wrote.

With his sandals and pony tail, Minore, 71, looks like an aging hippie. He even walks like the loose-limbed men from the 1960s' comic, Keep on Truckin’, a prosecutor said.

An avid tree-hugger, he rhapsodizes about the glory of nature, said acquaintances. He likes to commune with the earth by walking barefoot and lying on the ground.

His other passion is personal health, lecturing people about proper eating. Despite his age, he runs wind sprints every day. He also likes to jump into the freezing rivers and lakes of northern Michigan in goggles and a black Speedo.

“He was strange, but so is everybody else. It’s Northern Michigan,” said Dani Lubbers, a former neighbor who bought Minore’s property just before his arrest in 2016.

Minore, who is single with two grown daughters, earned a little money by selling marijuana and doing odd jobs, like painting, he told police. He had never been charged with a crime before.

He lived in a dilapidated camper trailer on a dirt road in a heavily wooded part of Benzonia, which is 30 miles southwest of Traverse City.

His major possession was a 2010 Dodge van worth $1,000, according to his application for a court-appointed attorney. His main income was $336 a month in Social Security. His savings account had $23.

Two towns, three robberies

The three bank robberies occurred in two small towns west of Traverse City. The Honor State Bank in Lake Ann was struck twice in 2015 and the Huntington Bank in Empire in 2016.

Each theft was preceded by calls to 911 that sought to divert police, according to records in Leelanau Circuit Court. A male voice, sounding frantic, reported false crimes happening elsewhere before the line abruptly went dead.

Most bank heists are done quietly, with the thieves slipping notes to the tellers demanding they empty their trays, the FBI said. In the Michigan robberies, however, the lone robber was loud, obscene and threatening, witnesses told police.

Wearing a ski mask and bulky clothes, he walked into the living-room-sized lobbies and pulled a short-barreled silver revolver from his pocket, they said. He forced the staff to open the bank’s vault or safe and dump the money into a black bag.

He was gone within a few minutes, taking $45,000 in one robbery and $37,000 in another, according to the court records. The amount stolen in the third wasn’t disclosed.

Of the 55,000 bank robberies in the United States in the past 11 years, only 23 involved an armed robber demanding access to the vault or safe, according to FBI statistics contained in a court filing.

“It just got to the point, show me too many coincidences and I’ll show you an absence of happenstance,” said Doug Donaldson, chief assistant prosecutor for Leelanau County, which handled the Empire robbery.

Clue leads to suspect

The police and FBI were stymied after the first two robberies in Lake Ann. They had few clues and fewer suspects.

But they thought they caught a break after the third one in Empire.

Bartender Tom Taylor was folding T-shirts at Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor when a customer said she had just come from a roadblock. They didn’t know a bank had just been robbed.

Taylor looked out the window to check on his car but the silver 2014 Kia Soul was missing, he testified during Minore’s preliminary examination in 2017.

“What's that brown SUV doing there?" he said about the spot where his Kia had been parked. "Somebody stole my car.”

He called the police, who viewed footage from the bar’s surveillance camera.

It showed Minore, wearing shorts and orange T-shirt, walking back and forth past the Kia several times before donning a pair of gloves, hopping into the car and driving it away, according to the court records.

It was 1:10 p.m., 26 minutes before the bank robbery in Empire eight miles away.

Taylor always kept the keys in the ignition, he testified.

An ATM surveillance camera on the outskirts of Empire showed what looked like a silver Kia Soul entering and leaving the town just before and after the robbery, the court records show.

As police investigated the case, they sought to tie Minore to the 911 calls made before the three robberies. His sister, daughter and ex-girlfriend all said the voice belonged to him, according to trial testimony.

“I mean, I lived with him. I know his voice,” ex-girlfriend Kerri Wosek testified during the preliminary exam.

She said Minore’s daughter, Chloe, 20, after hearing a tape of the 911 call during one of the Lake Ann robberies, laughingly told her it sounded like her dad.

When Minore learned his sister, Shelia, planned to testify it was his voice on the tape, he wrote her a threatening letter, she told The Detroit News.

"I am not sure what my brother is capable of," she said about the threat. "I do not believe he is a victim."

Minore's shifting story

Minore, who was arrested the day after the Empire robbery, was interviewed by the police five times over the next week.

He first said he didn’t take the Kia, according to a police synopsis of the interviews, which was contained in the court file. Then, after being shown the video of him entering the car, he told the police a different story.

He said he was walking among the shops in Glen Arbor when he came across a man in apparent distress, according to the police synopsis and his letter to The News. The stranger said he was having liver problems and waiting for his brother-in-law to drive him to the hospital.

The man was supposed to meet his wife at nearby tennis courts so he asked Minore to drive his car over there so she could find it, Minore said. The stranger was afraid of infection so he gave Minore gloves and shoes before he entered the car.

“I’m beginning to believe I was set up,” Minore told police.

In reference to the Kia Soul, he laughingly referred to the stranger as Soul Man during the 5½ hours of interviews.

Minore lamented the fact the car had been parked within view of the surveillance camera, according to the synopsis. He allowed he might need an attorney.

Saving Earth obsesses Minore

With the trial delayed by various pleadings, Minore spent the next 20 months in jail.

He gave several interviews and wrote a dozen letters to reporters protesting his innocence. His lawyer tried to muzzle him with little success.

Minore’s letters seemed more preoccupied about saving the environment than the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

In his six-page missive to The Detroit News, he finished by asking the paper to mention his efforts to make a movie about how the Earth is being destroyed by pollution.

“If you could get it in to let people know who I am and what I am about,” he wrote, “I and our planet would be forever in your debt.”

During his arraignment in 2016, he placed a sign on his table facing the TV cameras giving the address of a GoFundMe page for the making of the environmental film.

The page has since been taken down but a version on another website said the movie would hopefully shock people into action. Entitled "One Planet No Second Chances," it envisioned returning the world to an Eden-like state through measures such as massive tree plantings.

“It’s way past time to repay and repair this wonderful planet for all the blessings and bounty I has given to us. We owe it everything,” he wrote.

Minore even brought up the proposed film while being interrogated by the police.

He encouraged detectives to view his website and hoped they could help him publicize it, maybe find a producer for it, according to the synopsis of the interviews

He said he was on a crusade, that his environmental message was all he had.

“I don’t have a future. The only future is that paper,” he told police. “This is my message. I have to do this.”

The detectives weren’t the first people he tried to enlist to his cause.

Before his incarceration, he had written to filmmaker Michael Moore and the Forbes list of The World’s Billionaires to seek funding for the movie. He hoped it would be narrated by actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Suspect catches a break

Minore was charged with the Empire robbery but not the two in Lake Ann, which occurred in another county and would have to be tried in a different court.

Lake Ann prosecutors, conceding the evidence wasn’t as strong in their heists, said they would wait to see what happened in the Empire trial before moving ahead with their cases.

Minore was preparing to go on trial on the Empire robbery in April when the case was suddenly dropped and he was charged by federal authorities with all three heists.

In the Empire trial, local prosecutors had planned to use evidence from the Lake Ann robberies but worried it could later be used by the defense in a possible appeal. A federal trial would eliminate that concern by trying all three cases at the same time, said Donaldson, the Leelanau prosecutor.

But two weeks after the federal charges were filed, they were dismissed.

After a two-day hearing in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, federal magistrate Ray Kent said the prosecution failed to prove probable cause, where the burden of proof is much lower than during a trial.

Minore’s attorney, Bill Burdette, said the charges never should have been filed.

“They have no evidence,” Burdette said. “They don’t have the gun, don’t have fingerprints, don’t have hair samples, don’t have any fiber samples.”

With federal prosecutors pondering their next move, Minore’s victory may be short-lived.

In his letter to the paper, he didn’t say whether he felt vindicated or was worried about returning to jail. Indeed, his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. He wants to save the world.

“No matter what happens the rest of my life, it will be devoted to getting this (environmental) message out,” he wrote.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

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