Homeless and hopeless, David Allen Potchen is the bank robber who didn’t want the money, he just wanted to be caught.
His “career” as a stickup man began in 2001, when he walked into a Lowell, Ind., bank armed with a shotgun and took nine employees hostage. But he didn’t ask for money in the four hours he spent chatting with the terrified tellers and bank manager as FBI and SWAT surrounded the bank. He asked for two Big Macs and cigarettes.
Potchen traded hostages for hamburgers, telling police he hadn’t eaten in a week. He asked for chips and juice and let a few more hostages go.
A working man who brought home $2,350 a month, he was once a welder at Thrall Car Manufacturing in Chicago Heights, a builder of railroad freight cars, the industrial muscle that moves almost everything we buy from one end of our country to the other.
Potchen walked into that bank, shotgun in hand, because he’d gone bankrupt and lost everything — his home, his job, his truck and every nickel he had.
When the 39 year old was brought before a judge, he faced 230 years in prison on nine felony counts of criminal confinement. He wasn’t charged with bank robbery because he didn’t ask for any money.
“My life wasn’t going right,” he told the judge.
His aunt and cousins pleaded with the judge: He needs counseling, not prison. His lawyer sought leniency. One cousin, Karen Potchen of Downers Grove, wrote to the papers in an attempt to explain how Potchen was a good man, unafraid of hard work, unable to ask for help.
“He spent an entire day at my house one day helping my dad dig holes to plant trees. He probably dug 100 holes, in hard clay, and never once complained. David has had some rough blows in his life. Not that it should be — nor is it — an excuse for what happened. David was never the type to ask for help. That day, he was crying out for help and he didn’t even know it.”
Nevertheless, Potchen was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He says he kept to himself, stayed out of trouble, even worked as a welder. In March 2014, he was paroled. He found a room at a Gary motel and another job as a welder, this time at Stanrail for $11 an hour. He’d walk to work, but the work didn’t last long.
Within three months, the 53-year-old parolee didn’t have enough money to keep a roof over his head.
One day in June, Potchen spent the night in the woods, sleeping in the grass, a hoodie wrapped over his head to keep out the mosquitoes. He awoke with a plan. The next morning, he walked several miles to a Chase bank branch in Merrillville, passed the teller a note asking for five-dollar and 10-dollar bills, pocketed $1,650 and then walked outside to sit on the curb.
“I’m the one you are looking for,” Potchen told a cop as he approached the bank. “I robbed the bank.”
Last month, Potchen asked a judge to throw the book at him and send him to prison for eight more years, plus another five for violating his parole.
“Once I ran out of money, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing everything again,” he told the judge. “I begged the guy don’t lay me off. … I said I would forfeit my insurance and not take a raise.”
He tried to find another job, but no one would hire him.
“I don’t even want unemployment because that’s how I was brought up. You gotta get out there and work. And if you can’t find it, that’s when stuff falls apart. You gotta figure, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And the first thing that popped into my head was, ‘Well, I’ll just go to prison.’ “
Judge Clarence Murray admonished Potchen — “you can’t stay in prison forever” — and asked whether he’d accept a lesser sentence if a job and a place to stay could be found for him.
“I hope to God someone reads about this and offers some help to you,” said Murray, the same judge who sentenced Potchen to prison after his first desperate foray into crime. “You’re not a throwaway, Mr. Potchen. You have value, sir.”
Potchen’s attorney, Stephen Scheele, told reporters he’s been talking to businesses in Northwest Indiana since word of his client’s arrest hit the newspapers. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass visited Potchen in jail to tell his story. Scheele may have three potential construction jobs lined up for Potchen.
He will return to court on March 18, where he may learn what comes next for him. Will it be work or jail?
Potchen is a simple man, a man who doesn’t know how to ask for help. He’s a working man without work. And to be without work, for some men, is to be nothing at all.