Margaret Messerschmidt : “Untold Stories: The Infamous Bank Robbery in Moorhead, 44 Years Later”

Death – Obituary – Accident and Crime News : MOORHEAD — It was a bank robbery that featured armed gunmen, locked up workers, an employee’s vehicle used as a getaway car and hypnosis. It took place 44 years ago in Moorhead. Those working at the bank will never forget it. Neither will one of the bank robbers. They have never publicly told their stories before. Until now.

It was a quiet morning at the branch location of the American Bank and Trust Company in Moorhead on Dec. 5, 1979. Located at 30th Avenue and 20th Street South, the bank had only been open for business for two weeks. Working there were manager Margaret Messerschmidt (now deceased), 35-year-old assistant manager Elaine “Cookie” Ebsen, 25-year-old teller Marsha (who declined to publicize her last name) and 19-year-old teller Stacey Foss.

The quiet was shattered at about 10:30 a.m. Two men walked in wearing ski masks.

“I was shocked to see them come in with their ski masks,” Stacey said.

“One of the men pulled out his gun and said, ‘This is a robbery,’” Marsha said. The other man then pulled out his gun. Cookie was sitting at her desk, which had a button on the desk to set off an alarm.

“I didn’t push the button because they had guns,” Cookie said. “We didn’t know if the guys were on drugs. If I set off the alarm, there was a good chance we would be killed.”

The robbers were later identified as Robert Frey, 23 (now deceased), and Robert Trkula, 24, from the Pittsburgh area.

“We chose this bank because it was near a highway,” Trkula said. “We never cased it. When we looked in the window and saw there were no guards inside, we decided to rob it.”

“One of the men stuck his gun in my chest and said, ‘We’re going to take a walk,’” Marsha said.

So, Marsha and Cookie walked into branch manager Margaret’s office. At that time, a police car drove by.

“The man said, ‘You pushed the alarm, didn’t you,’ and I said, ‘No, I didn’t,’” Marsha said.

“I got scared when they blamed us for alerting the police,” Stacey said. “They thought we had set off the alarm. I stood there with my hands up waiting for the next orders.” Guns were pointed at all four of the employees.

“I was close enough to see the serial numbers of one of the guns,” Cookie said. “I tried to memorize those numbers.”

In Margaret’s office, they were asked who knew the combination for the vault. Margaret said she did. Marsha then opened the door to the teller area.

“I said, ‘Please don’t hurt us. We all have small children,’” Marsha said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re not that dumb.’”

“I was frightened,” Cookie said. “I thought we might be shot or killed. I thought, ‘Just do what they say. Give them what they want. It isn’t worth it to be killed over this.’”

“I was numb,” Marsha said. “He had a gun pointed at my chest. I was afraid I wouldn’t see my husband and six-year-old daughter again. I thought, ‘We should do what they tell us to do,’ while I was praying for a good outcome.”

“I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” Trkula said. “I could see they were terrified. I feel terrible that I put so much fear in them. I put them through Hell. All we wanted was the money.”

Marsha then headed to the outer vault with the combination. One of the men was holding a garbage bag. “He started pulling the money out of the vault and sticking it into his bag and then he moved over to the teller drawers,” Marsha said. “He told me to open the drawers, which I did. When I was pulling money out of the drawers I didn’t take the bait money. He said, ‘Smart girl.’”

All the bait money is recorded. The robber knew where it was located in the drawer.

“He told me to get away from my drawer, so I just backed up,” Stacey said.

“I emptied the drawers, he put the money in the bag, and he said, ‘I want you to open the inner vault,’” Marsha said.

That could not be done right away.

“I said, ‘I can’t open the inner vault because I have to set a timer,’” Marsha said. “I told them it would take 15 minutes. He said, ‘I don’t have enough time.’”

So, the two men asked for the keys to a car of one of the bank employees.

Two weeks earlier, Cookie was driving her yellow 1975 Fiat on a snowy day in Moorhead, when a service truck hit her head-on. Cookie was not hurt, but the car’s front hood suffered severe damage, and it had not been repaired yet. “We all looked at Cookie, whose car just got smashed,” Marsha said. “We thought, ‘They won’t get far with that car because the hood would fly open.’”

Cookie gave the robber the keys to her Fiat.

The four bank employees were then put in the bank’s mechanical room. Frey and Trkula then barricaded the door so the workers couldn’t get out. After leaving the bank, the robbers quickly returned and opened the mechanical room door.

“One man said, ‘We need a different car. The one you gave us is smashed. We want the Chevy,’” Marsha said.

So, Marsha and Margaret walked into the lobby with the two robbers.

“One of the robbers asked, ‘Who has the Chevy?’” Marsha said.

Actually, Marsha and Margaret both owned Chevrolets and both cars were in the parking lot.

“I was determined that they weren’t going to take my husband’s new Chevy Blazer,” Marsha said. “So I said, ‘Margaret, they want your Chevy.’ Then Margaret said, ‘I think they want your Chevy.’” At that point, the telephone rang behind the teller line. Because it was a private phone that rang, it had to be a call from the bank’s main office.

“I said, ‘if I don’t answer this, they will send the police,’” Marsha said.

The phone wasn’t answered. Marsha and Margaret were ordered back into the mechanical room to join Cookie and Stacey. The room was barricaded again. Frey and Trkula left with $28,000 and Cookie’s car.

“We were all wondering if we were going to get out of here,” Stacey said. “We wondered if anyone was going to find us.” While locked in the mechanical room, Margaret started banging the electrical panel and pulled some wires. Unbeknownst to the four workers at that time, Margaret had set off the silent alarm.

“We thought the robbers were still in the bank and would come back and start shooting,” Cookie said.

The two men were actually driving Cookie’s smashed car at the time.

Moorhead Police Officer Mel Zepper received the emergency call. “I went flying over to that bank,” Zepper, now 89, said. “I’m driving as fast as I can go.”

It took Zepper a few minutes to get to the bank. Shortly before arriving, Zepper saw a yellow Fiat speeding by in the other direction, but didn’t realize at the time the car’s connection to the robbery.

“I missed them by one minute,” Zepper said.

Zepper moved quickly throughout the bank building.

“I yelled, ‘Police! Police!’” Zepper said.

Zepper then banged on the door of the mechanical room. He opened the door, saw the four employees and asked if everyone was OK.

“We were very frightened, but we were fine,” Marsha said.

The bank robbery was over, but the impact on those involved would last a lifetime.

“We all had nightmares. It took a long time to get over it,” Cookie said.

“I went through years of counseling,” Marsha said. “I still check the doors and windows before I go to bed.”

The robbers were eventually caught. Frey was killed in a shootout with police in 1980. Trkula was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was released in 1984. He now lives in the Pittsburgh area and has turned his life around.

“I wanted to apologize to these people. I wanted them to know I was sorry,” Trkula said.

Marsha and Stacey met with Trkula in Pittsburgh in October 2019. It was the first time they had seen each other since the robbery.

“It was emotional. We all cried,” Marsha said. “It was a chance for closure.”

The bank robbery may have been a traumatic event for those involved, but it also brought them together.

“We were family. We went through something together that nobody else could understand,” Cookie said.

“And we still keep in touch,” Stacey said.

Dec. 5, 1979, will always be a day etched in their memories, but they have moved on and built new lives for themselves.

“There is life after this,” Marsha said.

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