By Brad Dison
On the afternoon of January 6, 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into a bank in the Swissvale borough of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to make a cash withdrawal. However, Wheeler had no account at the bank.
Wheeler had planned the robbery carefully. He learned of a chemical which would render his face invisible. His whole plan hinged on the use of the chemical, so he devised a test. He purchased a small amount of the chemical and returned to his home. He carefully smeared the chemical on his face. His eyes teared up as a side effect of the chemical. Wheeler looked straight into a Polaroid instant camera and pressed the button. The camera ejected a single instant photo. He shook the photo as to quicken the development process. Within seconds, an image began to appear. To his amazement, Wheeler did not appear in the photo. It only showed the wall behind him. He watched the photo for a short time and expected to see his image appear at any second. Wheeler never appeared in his test photo. With his new discovery, Wheeler would change the remainder of his life.
On the afternoon of January 6, Wheeler smeared the chemical on his face and headed toward the bank in the Swissvale borough. He wore gloves to ensure that he would leave no fingerprints, but he wore nothing to cover his face except the chemical. He carefully watched to see whether or not anyone looked at his face. Just as before, his eyes teared up. No one looked at him. Wheeler entered the bank brandishing a semiautomatic pistol. He ordered the teller to put all of the money in a bag. The teller complied. Wheeler glanced around the bank’s lobby and looked directly at the security cameras. Wheeler was unconcerned because his face was invisible. A minute or two later, Wheeler ran from the bank with a bag full of money. He had made his withdrawal.
The first bank robbery went so smoothly that Wheeler decided to try his luck with another bank. He drove for about twenty minutes until he reached a bank in the Brighton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He smeared more of the chemical on his face just in case some of it had worn off. His actions in the Brighton Heights bank were essentially identical to those in the Swissvale borough bank. He had made another successful withdrawal.
Wheeler was euphoric. He had just robbed two banks and gotten away with it. As he drove, he watched his rear-view mirror for police cars. He watched side streets for policemen ready to pounce. He watched for roadblocks in front of him. He heard sirens and saw policemen heading toward the banks, but none of them paid Wheeler any attention. Not wanting to try for a third bank, Wheeler returned to his home in the city of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
Wheeler watched the news that night and learned that detectives were searching for the robber whom witnesses described as being 5 feet 11 inches tall, about 275 pounds, and wearing a blue parka. He was relieved that the news segment did not include any photos or even a sketch artist’s image.
For days, Wheeler’s heart raced when he heard a siren in the distance or saw a policeman. January passed into February, February passed into March, and March passed into April. Wheeler thought he had pulled off two perfect bank robberies. For reasons unknown, Wheeler did not rob any other banks.
On April 19, Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers Inc. broadcast a segment on the two bank robberies during the 11 o’clock news and asked that anyone with any information contact their tip line. Within minutes of the broadcast Pittsburgh detectives received tips which identified Wheeler as the bank robber. Within an hour of the broadcast, detectives arrested Wheeler.
Still confident that he could persuade detectives of his innocence, Wheeler sat across from Sergeant Wally Long of the robbery squad in an interrogation room. He denied having any involvement in the robberies. Sergeant Long continued questioning Wheeler, but Wheeler was adamant that he was not their man. The detective explained that he had been identified from surveillance photos which were taken by security cameras at both banks. Wheeler assumed they were bluffing and continued to deny his involvement. Finally, Sergeant Long slid several photos across the table. Wheeler was in disbelief. He thumbed through several pictures which showed his face in perfect detail. “But I wore the [chemical]. I wore the [chemical]!”
Sergeant Long was puzzled by Wheeler’s response and asked him to explain what he meant. During his explanation, Wheeler inadvertently confessed to both bank robberies. He told of his learning about the chemical which would make him invisible, testing the chemical with the use of a polaroid camera, planning the bank robberies, and successfully pulling off the heists. Within months, Wheeler was convicted of bank robbery in federal court. Detectives were never able to fully explain how the photograph from the polaroid instant camera failed to capture Wheeler’s image. They surmised that he bumped the camera when he pressed the shutter button, which moved the camera just enough not to capture his image. The chemical Wheeler thought would render him invisible was nothing more than… lemon juice.
For more Real Stories about Real People …with a Twist, get your copy of “Remember This?” wherever books are sold.
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 7, 1995, p.12.
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 21, 1996, p.37.