There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Modesto in Robert Redford’s latest — and, reportedly, last — movie as an actor: “The Old Man & the Gun.”
Director David Lowery said the moment in the “very fictionalized” story of career criminal Forrest Tucker comes when he is stashing stolen money beneath his floorboards. “We get a look at the spoils of his career,” the director said via email. “There’s a box of rare and antique coins in there — something I bugged our prop guy about incessantly. I was adamant about having them, even though you can barely see them!”
The coins are a reference to a robbery Tucker and a partner pulled at the Modesto Coin Center in McHenry Village on July 5, 1978. The floorboards scene is among the fictional elements, as Tucker and accomplice John Penrod (initially identified as James Thomas, the fake name he gave police) never made off with the coins. In real life, they were arrested after engaging in a gun battle with Modesto Police who responded to the store’s silent alarm.
Modesto Bee coverage of the robbery said at least 11 officers descended upon the shopping center, and three engaged in gunfire with the robbers. Penrod, 23, was shot three times — in the right eye, right shoulder and left leg. Tucker, 57, wasn’t shot, “but his face was cut by flying glass when the police officers blasted out the rear window of the stolen getaway car,” Bee reporter Daryl Farnsworth wrote in the July 6 edition. “He was booked into the Stanislaus County Jail on charges of attempted murder, armed robbery and auto theft.”
In a related article, witnesses described the shootout as like something out of a movie or TV show. “The cop was down on one knee with his gun extended and he was shooting,” one man said.
But dramatic as it was, the coin store job didn’t make Lowery’s movie — or even the final screenplay. “Early drafts of the screenplay included the coin robbery, but over the course of the film’s development, I must admit that many of the facts of Forrest Tucker’s life fell by the wayside,” the director said.
“There was so much to choose from in telling his story that we ultimately decided to distill his essence down to a few key components that were featured in the New Yorker article on which the film was based, and to try to honor the spirit of his biography, if not necessary the letter of it. As a result, much of the film is very fictionalized, and many chapters that would be amazing films in their own right were left out — including the Modesto one.”
The trailer for “The Old Man” brings to mind a combination of two other fact-inspired movies — Redford’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and actor Richard Farnsworth’s gentleman stagecoach/train robber tale “The Grey Fox.” Lowery (“A Ghost Story,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) said the assessment is “pretty spot-on — just imagine it in the 1980s instead of an earlier decade!”
Onetime Bee crime reporter turned attorney Steve Ringhoff, a Modesto resident who represented Tucker in the coin store robbery case, said Redford’s character in the trailer comes across much the way he remembers his client. In the courtroom, to his jailers and in private, the man was unfailingly polite.
After first slipping out of jail in 1936 at age 15 or 16, Tucker also already had gained some notoriety as an escape artist. Ringhoff recalls that at his first meeting with Tucker, the jail captain told him not to take anything sharp into the interview room.
“So I went in with a felt-tip pen to take notes, and Tucker caught that and expressed some surprise,” Ringhoff said. “… So I told him, ‘They said if you took me hostage with something sharp, they weren’t going to let you out.’ … He laughed and said, ‘I don’t escape that way. If I try to escape that way, they’re right on me.’”
Tucker never wanted to break out, he told Ringhoff. He wanted to slide out, so he had a head start.
Ringhoff remembers Tucker, who ended up in Modesto after being released from Folsom State Prison, as an ideal client, probably far more sophisticated in criminal law than the young attorney was at the time. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to plead to things that would not get him ‘buried’ in prison, is the way he put it.”
So Ringhoff and the District Attorney’s Office agreed on a deal, he recalls, in which Tucker pleaded guilty to the robbery in exchange for charges of shooting at the police being dropped.
Tucker had a big, nickel-plated .45 he would shoot into the air, hoping to keep cops taking cover while he made his getaway, he told his attorney. But that’s not how things went. Police, all with .38s, opened fire.
Tucker told Ringhoff to look at the bullet holes — there wouldn’t be any from his .45. The evidence supported that to the DA’s satisfaction, the attorney said, so “that’s the way we went.”
What Tucker did for a living was not pleasant, Ringhoff said, “but he did it in a pleasant way, I think — at least from what I saw. I never was at the other end of a gun, so I don’t know about that.“
Former Modesto Police Department officer J.D. McDaniel was on the other end of the gun, and he has a much different recollection of Tucker than Ringhoff has. In a recent interview, he described the robber as a “pretty scary individual” with “cold, black eyes.”
McDaniel, who then went by “Jesse,” said the events of the robbery and subsequent court proceedings “bugged me for quite a while” and will live with him the rest of his days.
He had been with the Modesto police force a little over a year by that summer. He happened to be nearby at Norwegian and McHenry avenues, clearing a traffic collision, when the robbery went down.
“We received the call just before shift change, and I happened to be the only officer on the street at the time, as far as patrol,” McDaniel said. As he hit McHenry Village, the dispatcher updated the robbery call to say it was a possible hostage situation.
He arrived separately from Officers Chuck Nicolls and Jerry Sanders as Tucker and Penrod were getting into a parked car. “The officers said they shouted at the men to ‘halt,’ but one of the men fired four shots at the officers,” The Bee reported.
The ensuing gunfight — reportedly, more than 20 shots were fired — was the only time in his 30-plus-year career that he fired at a person, McDaniel said.
Nicolls and Sanders were behind him, and the suspects’ car in front of him. McDaniel fired, then ceased while the other officers did. “Then when they were empty, I started again and got a couple shots through the windshield. All you could hear was this stuff zinging by you, I couldn’t tell if it was friendly fire” or the robbers’.
McDaniel took cover behind a parked car the robbers crashed into while trying to drive away. He suffered a minor leg injury when the collision pushed the car into him.
It took about six months to reach Tucker’s plea deal (Penrod was represented by a public defender), Ringhoff said. He recalls that his client was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
When Tucker would face McDaniel and the other officers in court, “He just gave a death look to us,” the officer said. “... He told all three of us he was gonna kill us when he got out of jail.”
Well, Tucker didn’t make good on that threat, but he did escape.
The Modesto robbery conviction landed him in San Quentin State Prison on the Marin County shoreline. From there, he made his most famous escape in the summer of ’79.
According to David Grann’s January 2003 New Yorker piece, Tucker took a job in the prison industries, and he and two fellow inmates secretly gathered wood scraps, Formica sheets, poles, buckets, tape, paint and other materials.
They fashioned a 14-foot kayak they dubbed the “Rub-a-Dub-Dub.”
“They wore sailor hats and sweatshirts that Tucker had painted bright orange, with the logo of the Marin Yacht Club, which he had seen on the boats that sailed by,” Grann wrote. “When the guard wasn’t looking, they hurriedly put the kayak into the water” and made their escape.
According to Fox Searchlight, “The Old Man & the Gun” follows Tucker from that “audacious escape from San Quentin ... to an unprecedented string of heists that confounded authorities and enchanted the public.” Tucker died in prison in 2004.
McDaniel clearly is not among the enchanted. “It makes me sick, it really does,” the retired cop said of having Tucker’s story romanticized and seeing him played by Redford.
Still, he added, “I’d like to see the movie and see how they portray him.”
“The Old Man & the Gun” opens in limited release on Friday, Sept. 28, but not in the Modesto region. It will run at the State Theatre In Modesto from Oct. 19 through Nov. 1. For more information, including showtimes, see www.thestate.org/calendar.