Mallory Mnichowski was nervous. Nineteen and pregnant, she had never robbed a bank before. Robert St. John was worried, too. He was her pimp and, on this morning, her getaway driver. He was sure she would screw it up.
"Mallory's, like, the last person you would send in a bank," he confides.
But he wasn't about to go in himself — not with all the cameras in there. And neither was Kadara Kilgo, the streetwise hooker who had helped him cook up the idea.
In the car, Kilgo wrote out the demand note on a sheet of spiral notebook paper: "Don't step away from your drawer or else I will start shooting customers. No dye packs." Kilgo said she would talk Mnichowski through the whole thing on her cellphone.
When Kilgo and St. John let the teen out near the Bank of America on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, St. John was so jittery he was "shitting bricks."
Kilgo, on the phone, relayed what was happening inside the bank.
"She's at the window."
"She got the money."
St. John did a double take.
"She got the money?"
"She's coming out," Kilgo said.
Mnichowski climbed back in the car, her zebra-print purse stuffed with stacks of cash.
"Fuck," St. John said, impressed. "This is good shit." Mnichowski had walked out with $5,685 — as much as St. John's prostitutes could earn in a week, or even more, on the street.
Back at home, they divided the money. Mnichowski got $400, which wasn't much, considering the risk she took, but she didn't complain.
"I'm like, 'OK, it's a good day,' " St. John recalls.
But of course the story could not end there.
"I thought it was a one-time thing and it wouldn't work," he says. "But when it worked, it ruined everything."
Henry McElvane grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His father was a U.S. marshal. His mother worked at the Pentagon. It was like, he says, The Cosby Show.
His idol was Eddie Murphy — the most successful, confident black man around. That's who he wanted to be, but his parents had other ideas.
They were pillars of their community, and they wanted their only son to follow their example: Go to college, maybe start a business. But Henry wanted to blaze his own trail to wealth and fame.
He grew to be 6 feet tall, with green eyes that made him stand out from the crowd. After high school, he changed his name to Robert St. John, moved to Hollywood and started doing stand-up comedy.
The trail did not lead to stardom. Instead, it led into the darkest realms of exploitation. He would do things that would be impossible to forgive — not that he was asking for that.
The trail would run through prison and parole, ending in a string of bank robberies across Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley — so many that he lost track. The robberies fueled an addiction more elemental than either narcotics or notoriety.
"Everyone was on money," St. John says. "That was the drug. The drug was money."
Along the way, he met a woman who became his wife and raised his sons, who remained loyal to him despite everything. She went to work every day, trying to build a respectable, middle-class life, even as he did everything he could to destroy it. After the arguments and the absences, she was left to wonder how he could be so stupid — and how she stood by him for so long.
"We're not Bonnie and Clyde," she says. "How do you go from having this great family life to the complete opposite?"
St. John, 43, remembers the exact moment he knew he had to come to Hollywood. He was deejaying in a club in D.C. when a Redskins player walked in. All of a sudden, he says, "I was invisible." To compete with that, he realized, he would have to get on TV.
"I don't want to be a big fish locally," he thought. "Let's go to L.A. How hard could it be?"
His parents were adamantly opposed. They wanted him to be like his sister, a lawyer. But he had attended American University only briefly before deciding it wasn't for him. He also sold Nissans for a while but felt underappreciated and underpaid.
So, despite his parents' objections, he drove cross-country with a few thousand dollars to his name and found an apartment smack in the middle of Hollywood.
He read a lot about Richard Pryor and started to do stand-up and work as an extra. It was harder than he'd thought. It took a year and a half to get a SAG card — the longest he had worked on anything. He struggled to get by, working at Marshalls department store until he settled on an easier way to make money.