When Shelby native Eddie Dodson died 11 years ago in California, his Hollywood hipster days had ended, but the FBI still ranked him as the most prolific bank robber of all time.
His crimes on the West Coast embarrassed many in his hometown, and few people came to the funeral.
Finding the grave today in Sunset Cemetery can be a challenge because erosion sometimes covers the flat stone with mud.
But Dodson’s name will be back in the public eye soon with the debut of “Electric Slide,” a movie based on his remarkable and often dark life.
British actor Jim Sturgess plays Dodson, and the story is set in Los Angeles, where Dodson ran a stylish Art Deco furniture store, partied with rich and famous celebrities such as actor John Belushi and became addicted to cocaine and heroin.
To support the habit, Dodson started robbing banks in 1983 – six in one day, 64 banks in seven months. Known as the “Yankee Bandit” because of the New York Yankees ball cap he wore, Dodson always dressed well, charmed female bank tellers and never resorted to violence. He carried a blank pistol in a Gucci bag.
After serving two prison terms, the 54-year-old Dodson died Feb. 21, 2003, at UCLA Medical Center of liver failure related to hepatitis C, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Produced by Santa Monica-based Myriad Pictures, “Electric Slide” is described on the company’s website as a story about Dodson and his girlfriend, played by Australian actress Isabell Lucas, going on a bank-robbing crime spree to pay off his debts, dodging loan sharks and police.
The film premiers at the Tribeca Film Festival that opens Wednesday in New York City.
On his website, Sturgess called Dodson a “fascinating character.” Sturgess also said the director, Tristan Patterson, “was very clear that this was a movie about Eddie ... not a documentary or a biopic, but an all out movie that in a way celebrates the life and times of Eddie Dodson. A colorful celebration rather than the gritty, more harsh reality.”
Two of Dodson’s cousins are concerned the movie will present a fictionalized version of his life instead of sticking to the facts, bad as they are.
“If it’s a Bonnie and Clyde story, it’s not true,” said Janice Wilson, 73, of Blacksburg, S.C. “There was no woman involved. If they use Eddie’s real name, they should get their facts straight. But it is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do.”
Describing Dodson as a kind and charismatic person brought down by drugs, Wilson said, “It’s sad his life was that way. He did it to himself. But I still loved him. He was family.”
“Electric Slide” is based on a Gear magazine article, “The Rise and Fall of the Yankee Bandit,” by Dodson’s friend Timothy Ford, and the script was written by Patterson.
Ford, who attended Dodson’s funeral, died in 2007.
‘A great actor’
Word about “Electric Slide” has circulated among those who knew Dodson, a 1967 Shelby High School graduate.
Mal Brutko, who met Dodson in the fourth or fifth grade, remembers him as “a normal, everyday person when we were growing up.”
“He was a happy-go-lucky type of guy,” said Brutko, who lives in Kings Mountain. “I had no contact with him after high school. It was a shock to find out everything.”
Dodson’s cousin, Margie Bass, 79, of Statesville, said he was only 2 months old when his father died of a heart attack. The youngster was raised by his mother, Bernice, and his grandmother.
Bernice Dodson never owned a car and walked to jobs at Shelby Cafe and Lily Mill.
“Eddie was the light of her life,” Bass said. “He was a typical teen, and he was raised in a Christian atmosphere.”
Charles Guy was 13 when he and Dodson became close friends.
“At 13, we didn’t know it, but we had a mutual desire not to be defined by a small, conservative, Southern town,” said Guy, a musician in Ashland, Ore.
Dodson was a sharp dresser “and needed to keep abreast of his peers,” Guy said. “Weejuns, Madras shirts, khakis and Canoe cologne being the required dress.”
When the Beatles hit the U.S., Guy said Dodson fantasized about being an English rocker.
“He didn’t have any particular musical talent,” Guy said. “But he could play the part, which he did exceptionally well. He had a great eye for detail and would probably have been a great actor.”
The two friends shared an apartment in Charlotte.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, “we were a couple of Charlotte’s few hippies,” Guy recalled. “We were very much a part of the anti-establishment movements ... of course, there were recreational drugs and dealings with such things.”
One day, Guy said, Dodson announced he had to get out of town because the police were after him.
“Soon we had my old hippie bus, held together by rust, loaded, and we were off to California, a place we had often talked of going,” he said.
They ended up in Hollywood. Before long, Dodson “was going into a lifestyle I did not feel a part of,” Guy said. “Everything was magnified: more drugs, more small-time theft and a dose of glitz. Soon I felt I had to leave.”
In time, his friend would spin out of control.
“I know he never really wanted to hurt anyone,” Guy said. “He just wanted what he wanted. He was an artist but without a particular medium; his life became the art of the outrageous, the theater of the absurd.”
Hobnobbing with stars
William Rehder, a retired FBI agent, knew Dodson’s artistry firsthand.
As head of the FBI’s bank robbery squad in Los Angeles, Rehder helped catch Dodson twice – in 1984 and 1999.
After Rehder retired, he co-authored the book “Where the Money Is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World.” During research, he had long phone conversations with Dodson when he was in prison, and there’s a chapter on the “Yankee Bandit” in the book.
According to Rehder, Dodson’s pricey furniture store on Melrose Avenue catered to the cream of Hollywood celebrities and did a booming business. As Dodson hobnobbed with such stars as Jack Nicholson, he also went out on the town with beautiful women.
“Eddie was living the life,” Rehder said. “He was on top of the world.”
But drugs were part of his lifestyle, and Dodson graduated from cocaine to a $1,000-a-day heroin habit. By 1983, he was broke and started robbing banks.
“Bank tellers thought he was quite attractive,” said Rehder, who was a technical consultant on the Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can.” “Women were drawn to him. And he was polite. He’d always say thank you.”
The “Yankee Bandit” sped away from banks in a restored 1965 black Lincoln.
Rehder said Dodson always worked alone – there was no girlfriend involved.
How did the bandit manage to elude authorities?
“Sheer luck,” said Rehder.
Dodson’s luck ran out in 1984 after he had robbed 64 banks and more than $280,000. A bank teller followed him after a robbery and called police.
Rehder said Dodson served 10 years in prison, got out, worked as a caretaker at Jack Nicholson’s Malibu home, and stayed clean for about four years. Then he relapsed into drugs and robbed eight banks before his arrest in 1999. Sentenced to 48 months in prison, he served three years and was released early because of poor health.
When Dodson died, Rehder spoke at a memorial service – as the “Yankee Bandit” had requested.
“He was a very charming guy, the ultimate gentleman bandit,” Rehder said. “Eddie was the life of the party wherever he went.”
Janice Wilson recently visited her cousin’s grave beside his mother and grandparents. In the solitude of the Shelby cemetery, she remembered him as “a troubled soul but a wonderful soul.”
And she knew what he would think about the new movie. Whether fact or fiction, the story was about Edwin Chambers Dodson, who saw himself as the world’s greatest bank robber.
“He’d love it,” Wilson said.