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Jail escape conjures old robbery, fears for a local waitress

Joseph 'Jose' Banks  escaped from Metropolitan Correctional Center 71 W. Van Buren St. Last week Banks told U.S. District

Joseph "Jose" Banks escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center at 71 W. Van Buren St. Last week, Banks told U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, “You’ll hear from me!” after he was found guilty of bank robbery. | FBI photo

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Updated: January 22, 2013 10:06AM



The North Side waitress will never forget the robber’s eyes.

She won’t forgot how the robber stared at her through the slits of his black ski mask as, she says, he held up the restaurant where she worked back in November 2004. Or how his eyes smiled at her through the window of that restaurant one day after a Cook County judge found him not guilty of armed robbery and aggravated kidnapping in the same case.

In a police lineup she recognized those eyes, and authorities charged Joseph Banks with robbing the restaurant — the same Joseph Banks who was caught late Thursday night after an audacious escape from the Metropolitan Correctional Center earlier this week. His cellmate, Kenneth Conley, who escaped with him, was still at large Friday.

Back in 2004, Banks already had a lengthy rap sheet that included convictions and prison time for burglary, theft and unlawful use of a weapon. Then on the morning of Nov. 26, Banks and an accomplice — both wearing masks — strode into a popular North Side eatery minutes after it had opened, Cook County prosecutors alleged. The waitress and a cook were the only people inside the restaurant.

One of the robbers — whom the waitress identified as Banks — “pulled out a gun and pushed it to the side of my body and said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you. All I want is the money,’” she recalled Thursday.

He was the one in charge, the waitress said: “Very smart. He sounded well educated.”

With a gun barrel shoved into her back, the waitress made her way down into the basement, where the owners of the restaurant kept a safe. She frantically explained that neither she nor the cook knew the combination to the safe, infuriating the robbers. At one point, the waitress said she felt sure she was going to be executed.

“I said, ‘Lord, if they’re going to kill us, let them kill us now,’” the waitress recalled. “I thought of my grandson and daughter; that’s what kept me strong.”

But the robbers eventually lost patience, fleeing with only $1,000 in cash and a cellphone, according to a Sun-Times story about the incident.

Before the man she identified as Banks fled, she had a chance to look him directly in the eyes.

“My mother always taught me, look into someone’s eyes — you’ll never forget them,” the waitress said.

She identified Banks in a police line-up and from a photograph — from his eyes. Prosecutors also had DNA evidence taken from a drink Banks left behind at the restaurant.

But during Banks’ bench trial, the cook couldn’t identify him as one of the robbers, and Banks claimed he was a regular customer at the restaurant, explaining why his DNA might be there.

“His defense was that he lived in the area and that he was a frequent customer,” recalled Banks’ attorney at the time, Dave Wiener, who described the waitress’ eyes-only identification of his client as “ridiculous.”

During that trial, Banks displayed none of his now-trademark quirks, including a recent claim that he is exempt from prosecution because of his status as a sovereign “Moorish national.”

“I told him to sit there and put his hands on the table, and that’s exactly what he did,” Wiener said.

Cook County Judge Stanley Sacks found Banks not guilty of the charges in January 2007.

The next day, the waitress was back at work at the restaurant. She was busy, as she’s always been during her 35 years waiting tables – and perhaps her eyes were playing tricks on her – but she’s fairly certain she saw Banks staring back at her from the sidewalk.

“He looked right at me. He smirked,” she said.

Contributing: Rummana Hussain



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