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John Wojtowicz
John Wojtowicz’s mugshot taken in 1972

The man who robbed a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change

John Wojtowicz held up a bank to finance his lover’s transition and inspired Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino

John Wojtowicz’s boyfriend wanted a sex change, but neither could afford to pick up the $2500 bill. So in August 1972, Wojtowicz and a motley crew robbed a bank. Or at least, tried to. He held the bank’s employees hostage for 14 hours while thousands of Brooklynites gathered outside, jostling for space next to TV cameras and watching pizza get delivered to the bank on 3rd and Avenue P. His lover’s mom even turned up to talk him out of it.

The robbery was totally botched and Wojtowicz – aka The Dog – was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. But not before it was sensationalized to an absurd degree. His former wife Carmen compared it to the round-the-clock airing of 9/11. And all to front the cash for a sex change? His story became the catalyst for the Oscar-winning Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon (1975), documentaries The Third Memory (2000), Based on a True Story (2005) and a 2013 doc combining interviews and archive footage called The Dog. However many times the story has been rehashed, whether hailed as a precursor to the gay liberation movement or as an anomalous crime that was broadcast nationwide, it’s never a simple one to tell.

Wojtowicz was a self-described perv. He loved sex. “In those days we did a lot of getting down,” he said in The Dog. A lot of that “getting down” took place during the Vietnam war, where he had his first gay experience. “I met a hillbilly by the name of Wilbur. One night I was dreaming that I was getting a blowjob and instead it was the real thing and Wilbur was blowing me. And just before I came, I woke up and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Well, doesn’t it feel good?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, it feels good.’ He said, ‘Well?’ I said, ‘Well, keep on going.’ And then we kept having this relationship because he blew great, he was like a summer breeze.”

He had many wives and lovers of both sexes. Before enlisting in the military, he’d begun dating Carmen Bifulco. They’d married upon his return – a wedding where he fully mouth-kissed as many guests as possible – and had two kids. Later, he met Liz Eden (née Ernie Aron) after getting involved with the gay liberation movement after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Liz snared his heart with her “titties and little dick”. The pair got as legally married as you could in the 70s, and despite Wojtowicz’s aversion towards the concept of a sex change operation, he eventually relented after Eden attempted suicide. The operation, he hoped, would save her life. When he couldn’t scrounge up the money necessary for the operation by any other means, he decided a quick fix would be to rob a bank. Being a former bank teller at Chase Manhattan, he had a leg up on amateur robbers.

“I grabbed a hold of Bobby Westenberg. I said, ‘I want to fuck you.’ ‘Well, I don’t want you fucking me.’ I said, ‘I’m giving you $50,000, right? You’re telling me I’m not gonna get a fuck out of it?’” – John Wojtowicz

The night before the heist, Wojtowicz rented a hotel room in New Jersey with accomplices Robert Westenberg and Sal Naturale. During their overnight stay, The Dog got horny and had sex with his friend, although his account of it doesn’t make it sound consensual, or pleasant. “I grabbed a hold of Bobby Westenberg and I wanted to fuck him,” he revealed in The Dog. “’Cause he used to dress up as a girl with a dress, right? And he goes, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I want to fuck you.’ ‘Well, I don’t want you fucking me.’ I said, ‘I’m giving you $50,000, right? You’re telling me I’m not gonna get a fuck out of it? You’re out of your fucking mind! Because I’m getting a fuck out of this!’ So then I fucked him.”

The morning of, Wojtowicz watched The Godfather, where he got some ideas for the holdup. At the first bank that they’d singled out, one of them dropped the rifle they’d planned to use on the ground. It went off, scaring passersby. They drove off to find another location. At another bank, they ran into a family friend of Naturale. When they came to Chase Manhattan, the bank they would finally rob, Westerberg backed out. The Dog saw it as his only chance, so he went in with the rifle and held up the bank.

What ensued played out over 14 hours on media outlets everywhere. Like a dummy, Wojtowicz picked up the bank’s phone when it rang and gave an interview to one New York Daily News reporter. Wojtowicz only had one request before he would let the hostages go: bring his lover Liz Eden to the door of the bank. Once the public found out his request, shouts of “Queer!” and “Faggot!” went through the streets. Catering to his demands, they brought Eden to the door where they had a makeout session and then they brought a limo to take the thieves and hostages to JFK airport. The limo driver was from the FBI, and it was a slick ambush that ended up in Sal Naturale’s death.

While in prison, Dog Day Afternoon came out. Sidney Lumet’s inspired-by-a-true-story thriller dominated Oscar talk that year. Inside the clink, The Dog was somewhat of a celebrity. He forced The Warden to screen it for the rest of his inmates, who tired of the incessant talk that a film was being made about him. "The warden said, 'We're not showing this.' And I said, 'If you don't show this in the prison, I'll go to the press and I'll hang you by your fucking cannolis. And I'll start the biggest prison riot you ever saw.”

The money he received from the movie paid for Eden’s sex change. She subsequently distanced herself from him before dying of Aids. He fought a court battle that lasted until his death in 2006, trying to get more money from the deal he’d signed with Hollywood. He signed autographs up until his death. Although he didn’t intend it, his unabashed ownership of homosexuality at a time when it was still a taboo was, in its own way, a silent revolution. Still, no crime or criminal has matched the oddball sensationalism this sparked in America. And however you choose to spin it, a story about a gay man robbing a bank for his boyfriend’s sex change is true love incarnate.

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