BUFFALO, N.Y. — The real life story of Albert Nussbaum reads like a book. A Buffalo guy, Nussbaum grew up in East Buffalo, attending East High School. Those who knew him always said he was the smartest guy in the room.
But, as author Stephen Eoannou illustrates in his new novel "Rook," Nussbaum was a guy whose passion for a challenge often led him to the wrong side of the law.
"It was the challenge of it and I think was the adrenaline rush he always said that robbing banks was like chess with cash prizes," Eoannou said.
After getting into trouble as a teenager here in Buffalo, he joined the Army. Nussbaum moved to California upon his discharge. It was there that he was caught with a machine gun, that he brought across state lines, making it a federal crime, and sending him to federal prison. In Chillicothe Correctional Facility, he met Bobby Wilcoxson, who would become his partner in crime.
After Nussbaum got out, he came back to Buffalo to marry his high school sweetheart, Alecia. They had a daughter named Alison and Nussbaum opened a store with Wilcoxson, but as Eoannou writes, that was just a front for the real business.
"And occasionally he would tell his wife that he's going out of town for business but Al's business was robbing banks," Eoannou said.
The first robbery was in Buffalo, then at seven more banks from 1960 to 1962, hauling in at least $250,000. Roughly equivalent to $2.5 million today. Things began to unravel in December of 1961. They planned to rob the Lafayette National Bank in Brooklyn. Wilcoxson ended up killing the security guard and injuring a NYC patrolman. That put them on the FBI's most wanted list.
Nussbaum was on the run, but eventually his mother-in-law actually called the FBI. They worked with Nussbaum's wife to set up a sting when he returned to pick up Alecia and their daughter. But according to Eoannou, he and Alecia came up with their own plan to throw off the feds.
"He had it all figured out, his wife was gonna take change cabs and go to Central Terminal and then go to the The Statler. He arrived at the Statler and she was there waiting but there were also 30 FBI agents and 30 FBI cars waiting for him too," Eoannou said.
Nussbaum escaped authorities at the Statler, but that led to a high speed chase that ended with his arrest on Masten Avenue. He was sentenced to 40 years, but paroled after 13 and that is when his next life began.
Alison Bukata was 16 when she finally met her father.
"He was not only funny himself, but I found that he brought out the funny in me," Bukata said.
She finally had a real person to put with all the stories she had heard.
"He had buried money somewhere in Nevada, when he went back it had been developed and it was no longer empty desert and then the money was nowhere to be found," Bukata said.
She also had a face to put to the momentos she had, like a suitcase that used to belong to Nussbaum.
"That was the suitcase he used for a, quote, business trip. He returned from this business trip and he opened up his luggage and realized that he had the wrong person's luggage," Bukata said. "He was just beside himself that he had somebody else's luggage and no one could understand. What's the problem, you know, why he's so upset to have somebody else's luggage? Because his was filled with money."
During his time behind bars Nussbaum became an avid writer, he even became something of a pen-pal with popular crime-mystery writer Dan Marlowe. Nussbaum started sending out short stories to magazines and other publishers using his own name as well as a number of pen names. Nussbaum got printed in many of them, including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
Once he was paroled in the mid 70's he didn't come back to Buffalo right away. He went out to Los Angeles and moved in with Marlowe. Nussbaum continued writing for magazines, newspapers and even some TV scripts.
For Bukata, his success after prison often makes her think about the path her father could have taken.
"Every day, absolutely everyday I wonder what could have been," Bukata said.