Melinda Belleville stood outside a courtroom at Fayette District Court in Lexington, Ky., in 2012, shocked by what had just transpired.
It seemed like something off television, a plot similar to that of “Breaking Bad.” One of her closest friends – one to whom she felt like a surrogate mother – was in jail, being held on $30,000 bond. As she spoke to reporters, she couldn’t help but repeat her bewilderment, often through bursts of tears.
“I could never believe in a million years that she would be involved in something like this,” Belleville told the Herald-Leader. “I want everyone to know this is not Crystal Little.”
But it was Crystal Little, the same woman who worked for the University of Kentucky’s Office of Research Integrity, an organization obsessed with rules and guidelines in the pursuit of “support[ing] the institution in promoting ethical conduct of research.” The same woman who, as a student at UK, worked as an editor for the Kentucky Kernal, earning it one of college journalism’s highest accolades – a Pacemaker Award – for reporting from Africa on the AIDS crisis. The same woman who helped raise her niece when her parents weren’t around, according to the Herald-Leader.
The same woman who served as the primary caretaker for her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis.
In fact, caring for her mother is what she claims led her to rob four banks. Without the money from Little’s first bank robbery, the ailing woman may have been kicked out of her nursing home.
Recently, the 32-year-old sat down with the Kentucky Kernal, the student newspaper where she was once a rising star, to discuss what led a woman who claims to have never so much as smoked a cigarette to become a serial bank robber. She gave the interview from her Casey County jail cell in Liberty, Ky., where she’s been since March 9, 2014, barely two years into a 10-year sentence.
It began in June 2010, she told the student paper.
Little had always been what she called “the fixer” of the family. She took care of her niece when no one else would. While her brothers got into increasing trouble – one finally landed in jail for a drug sentence – she took care of their debilitated mother.
Her mom was in a nursing home and suffered from MS, a disease that interrupts the flow of information between body and brain. It’s incurable and often incapacitating. Little helped as much as she could, but one obstacle loomed large, casting everything else in its shadow: she couldn’t afford to keep her mom in the home. Little hadn’t even begun working for the university yet, when the nursing home contacted her.
She had two days to pay her mother’s bill, or the old woman would be on the streets, the Kernal reported.
“Her family considered her the one to fix everything or take care of everything,” Belleville later told the Herald-Leader.
She decided to do just that – take care of everything. She pulled on a pink cap, mirrored sunglasses and a surgical mask, the outfit WLKY reported she would eventually wear to all four robberies in Lexington, Ky. She grabbed an unloaded David Model D-38 pistol. Before slipping into her gold Camry, she covered its license plate with a pillowcase. Then, she drove to Forcht Bank on Southland Drive, just a few blocks from the campus where she’d soon begin working.
Though she told the Kernal she felt sick during the entire drive, she entered the bank and approached the teller with a blue grocery bag and demanded $10,000. Jason Marshall, one of the bank tellers, led her to the vault and gave her the money. He told the Kernal that Little saw more – much more – money in the vault, but didn’t alter her request. $10,000 would do.
Once back in the car, she remembers feeling the momentary need to vomit, she told the Kernal.
She also remembers how easy it was to make $10,000 in order to keep her ailing mother in the nursing home.
The next time – about four months later – she visited a Fifth Third bank, just on the other side of the campus where she’d work until her eventual arrest. She came away with $50,000. On August 31, 2011, about a year later, it was the American Founders Bank, much farther from campus. That robbery only netted $1,700.
Then, her mother died. The funeral cost $10,000, and Little told the Kernal she used stolen money to pay for it. She also put a down payment on a new Jetta, which she planned to give to her niece.
And now, she just wanted more.
On July 28, 2012, Little was arrested about an hour after her fourth robbery – knocking off a PNC bank for $4,079, the farthest yet from campus – WKYT reported. She was charged with two counts of first-degree robbery and two additional counts of second-degree robbery.
She remembers the Lexington police knocking at the door. She didn’t know a PNC teller had slipped a tracking device into the bag during the robbery. She answered, as her niece cowered in the background. What did they need?
“I think you know,” they said, she recalled to the Kernal.
“Yeah, I do,” she said.
Once in the police car, she immediately confessed. Though she entered a plea of “not guilty,” she was indicted by a Fayettte County grand jury in September 2012, WTVQ reported. She’s currently serving four sentences — two five-year sentences for the robberies she committed without her pistol and two 10-year sentences for those she committed with the weapon — concurrently, which means her maximum time in jail is 10 years. If she gains early parole, she’ll have to pay restitution to the banks.
“I really don’t understand why she felt that she had to go down this road,” Belleville told the Herald-Leader. “She didn’t know what else to do.”
Some, though, don’t see her in any sort of positive light.
Ray Larson, the attorney who prosecuted Little, opposed “long-form newspaper articles” about Little, claiming they can create unjust sympathy for a criminal.
“She’s not the victim, she’s the bad guy,” Larson told the Kernal, adding that he would find it “disgusting” if Little didn’t have to pay restitution.
Megan Kinsolving, another attorney who prosecuted Little, said the robber’s victims were terrified.
All told, she stole nearly $70,000 from banks around Lexington. Now, she spends her days working 10-hour shifts in the Casey County Jail kitchen, where she makes 63 cents a day, or about 6 cents an hour.
Little is up for parole in August.