The Coral Gables Bank Robber

The Tale of a Coral Gables Attorney Turned Bank Robber 

The Coral Gables bank robber usually struck in the late afternoon. He brandished demand notes – “Empty all of your $50s and $100s and put it in an envelope” – and never showed a weapon. Still, tellers in the downtown business district were terrorized. 

Detective Sgt. Ted Nguyen thought he knew how to catch him. Noting that the bandit struck in the Gables every five days, Sgt. Nguyen set up a perimeter of officers around Alhambra Circle near Salzedo Street. The robber had already held up tellers at two bank branches on Alhambra, that of Chase and Citibank, so the detective thought this was a good area to watch for the man they’d seen on bank surveillance videos: tall, blue-eyed, with dark shorts and black sneakers that had distinctive white soles. It was a Tuesday afternoon and they waited.

At about 3:30 p.m., Nguyen was patrolling the area in an unmarked car on Alhambra Circle when he spotted a man in the crosswalk at Salzedo Street. He pulled over and watched. The man fit the description to a T. His actions were “furtive,” the detective said, with the suspect standing on the corner and looking around. When he ducked into an alleyway off Salzedo, Nguyen radioed Det. Jimmy McKee, who was positioned at the end of the alley. “He’s going to walk right into you,” Nguyen told McKee. 

Detective Sgt. Ted Nguyen
Detective Sgt. Ted Nguyen in the alleyway off Salzedo street. The alert police officer spotted the suspect acting “furtive” and laid a trap to catch him by radioing detective Jimmy McKee who was at the end of the alleyway.

The suspect turned into a parking garage, but McKee was on his tail. Within minutes McKee and Nguyen had the man cuffed and in custody. He offered no resistance. He was, said Nguyen, “very polite.” 

The identity of the man nabbed by police that day in 2020 could hardly have been more shocking. His name was Aaron Patrick Honaker. He was a 41-year-old attorney, a well-respected corporate litigator who had once worked for powerhouse Greenberg Traurig and the Coral Gables firm of Martinez Morales. 

But Honaker’s life had been in freefall. No longer pulling down $170,000 a year to handle complex bankruptcy and merger cases, he was sleeping in the stairwell of a parking garage, foraging in dumpsters for food, and in the grips of an addiction to cocaine, according to his attorney Paul Petruzzi. 

He needed money. And banks, as stick-up man Willie Sutton famously said, were where the money was. 

Honaker’s first stop was Citibank at 396 Alhambra Circle. On Sept. 30, 2020, a tall, athletic-looking man wearing a black shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes walked in and sat down in the lobby. After about 15 minutes, the man approached a female teller and handed her a note that read “don’t touch the alarm or call police.” He de- manded $10,000, the teller told the FBI. When she said the money was “in the machine” and that she had no access, Honaker took his note, turned and walked out, never saying a word. 

The Coral Gables Bank Robber
The would-be bank robber passing a note to the teller

As his attorney would later tell a federal judge, Honaker was “a lousy bank robber.” In five attempts – four at Coral Gables banks – he was successful only twice. Total take: $1,850. 

The Fall From Grace

The story of a young, high-flying corporate lawyer turned inept serial bank robber made international news. How could an honors graduate of a prestigious law school, a man who just eight years earlier had been named a Rising Star by the Super Lawyers rating service, fall so fast, so far? 

Not long before he began robbing banks, Honaker’s client list included Merrill Lynch, Bell Canada, Florida Gaming Centers, Inc., and Casino Miami Jai-Alai. He was a man of means, he had connections, he had the advantages of education, profession and resources. What happened? 

“This case is certainly unique,” says Petruzzi, who found his client to be “incredibly bright, very personable, humble, generally a nice guy.” But troubled. “Whenever you see a lawyer charged, it usually involves some type of fraud,” said Petruzzi. “But this – walking into a bank – said to me, this young man must have had some mental health issues he had been going through.” 

The Coral Gables Bank Robber
Police mugshot of Honaker in custody

These days, robbing banks no longer carries a cachet of glamor or derring-do. The outlaw profession that once turned some of its flashy practitioners into folk heroes is deep in history’s dust. Forget Bonnie and Clyde. John Dillinger? No way. According to the FBI, bank robbery is fading in popularity. Bank hold-ups today are crimes of the desperate and hopeless, often committed by those with drug problems or mental illness. 

“Nobody in their right mind goes into a bank to rob it,” says Shon Hopwood, whose career path resembles Honaker’s in reverse. Hopwood served nearly 11 years in prison for armed bank robbery and then became an attorney. “You have to shut down rational thought to do it,” says Hopwood, now a law professor at George- town University. 

In some cases, holding up a bank can be a cry for help. That’s what Petruzzi, Honaker’s lawyer, suggested when he asked the court, “So was he robbing these banks to get money, or was he robbing these banks to get help?” 

From Education to Downward Spiral 

Honaker’s road from Super Lawyer to super busted was a decade-long journey. Born in Virginia, Honaker was the elder of twin boys raised in rural Tennessee. Aaron was “the leader,” his mother, Patricia Honaker, wrote in a letter to the judge, someone who “always wanted to be the best that he could be in school and in sports.” 

Patricia Honaker, a retired teacher, taught her twins Aaron and Joshua in second grade, she told Coral Gables Magazine. “They called me mom in class,” she said. Aaron loved baseball. He played Little League and for two years in high school, she said. Dennis Honaker, the twins’ father, worked for a telephone company and was active in his local Church of Christ. In court, Petruzzi described Dennis Honaker as a strict disciplinarian. 

Aaron Honaker graduated in 2001 from East Tennessee State University, summa cum laude, with a degree in finance. He went on to Wake Forest University law school, graduating in 2006 at the top of his class. 

One of Honaker’s first jobs out of law school was with the Jacksonville firm of Stutsman Thames & Markey (now Thames Markey). From there he went to Miami-based Greenberg Traurig, one of the largest and most prestigious U.S. firms, where he worked from 2008 to 2011, handling a series of high-profile cases. 

In 2012, Honaker joined other Greenberg Traurig alums in a new firm, Salazar Jackson. Partner Linda Jackson says that Honaker was “a good lawyer, polished, well-dressed, smart. I enjoyed working with him.” 

Yet before long, Honaker began to mystify his colleagues by frequently asking to borrow money, spinning heartbreaking family stories, and telling outright lies, according to Jackson. After being caught in one whopper, the firm fired him. 

By 2013, Honaker had grown “miserable” practicing law, he told authorities, and, in the words of Petruzzi, “hit a brick wall.” Now twice divorced, he spent parts of 2014 and 2015 at home in Tennessee. There he was accused of taking “over $10,000 from his father’s church by stealing his father’s checkbook…,” according to Lauren Astigarraga, the prosecutor. 

In 2017 Honaker sought counseling and was prescribed medication, his lawyer said, “but obviously it wasn’t good enough to stop that downward spiral.” He landed a job at Martinez Morales in the Gables, but eventually just stopped showing up for work, the firm said. 

By 2019 Honaker began to travel the world, with “trips to Colombia, trips to Panama, trips to foreign countries, where he was able to obtain drugs on the cheap and he was able to engage in philandering,” Petruzzi told the court. 

When the Covid pandemic took hold, Honaker was in Colombia, living with a woman he intended to marry. He was there from January 2020 until he returned to the U.S. in September of that year, prosecutors said. Back in Miami, Honaker was a man without resources, deep in debt, and without a home. He had been evicted from his South Miami Avenue condo, his possessions sold or discarded, Petruzzi said. 

Honaker was living with his Colombian fiance in 2019.

Honaker “was here for less than two weeks before he started committing crimes,” said Astigarraga. As Honaker told the FBI, he read a book on how to rob a bank. One tip: tuck a hammer into your waistband, “because the bank robber in that book said you could use it to break glass mantraps,” Astigarraga told the judge. (Mantraps are defined as interlocking doors at secure locations that open one at a time, causing the user to be temporarily “trapped” inside.) 

The hammer was apparently never used. But when Honaker was arrested, it was in his possession, along with “a green pocket notebook, instructions on how to commit bank robberies, and folded-up demand notes similar in description to the notes that were used in other robberies,” Astigarraga said in court. 

In the garage where he was arrested, Gables police recovered a backpack containing toiletries, a cell phone charger, one change of clothes, and his passport. At the police station, he confessed to five robbery attempts, adding that he was on his way to a sixth, at the TD Bank at 255 Alhambra Circle. 

At the time of his arrest, Honaker asked the FBI not to notify his parents. But Patricia and Dennis Honaker quickly learned the news when someone sent them a surveillance video of their son inside a bank he was trying to rob. “His daddy and I couldn’t speak when we first learned about it,” Patricia Honaker said. “When I saw the pictures, I just lost it. I don’t know what got into him. He felt there was no way out.” 

For 17 months Honaker was locked up in the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. There, through the tiny windows of the high-rise prison, he could look outside to the world he’d lost. He could see the 42-story condo where he once lived, as well as the courthouse where he once practiced. But he didn’t like to look out the windows, spending his time instead as a lawyer – not a jailhouse lawyer, but a real, albeit disbarred, lawyer – helping fellow inmates. “Aaron is kind-hearted, respectful, extremely smart,” one inmate wrote in a letter to the judge. Prison, he said, “is a place for people like me, not someone like him.” 

During his incarceration in Miami, we spoke to Honaker once by phone and exchanged two emails with him. He said he had family support. “I talk to my mother by phone every day,” he said. He seemed willing to tell his story. But Covid-19 restrictions and a system-wide lockdown of all federal prisons interrupted communications. In February he was moved from Miami to a series of other prisons outside the federal system, pending his final assignment. 

Honaker, who just turned 43, surrendered his law license, but thanks to a decision from the Florida Supreme Court, he could reapply to the state bar if, after five years, he can show rehabilitation. “I don’t know if he’s going to do that,” said Brian Tannebaum, who represented Honaker in giving up his law license. “It is a strenuous thing to do right out of law school, you know, but being a bank robber, being a convicted felon, having your rights restored, and then going before the bar again is ten times as hard. But he has that opportunity.” 

Paying the Price

In August 2020, Honaker, held in the Miami lockup and appearing via teleconference, pleaded guilty to two charges of bank robbery and three charges of attempted bank robbery. “Do you understand, sir,” U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke asked him, “that by pleading guilty to the counts I have just described, that you face up to 20 years in prison followed by a term of supervised release?” 

“Yes, your honor,” replied the defendant. 

On December 1, the former lawyer, dressed in khaki scrubs and wearing a Covid-19 mask, faced Judge Cooke in person in the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse, to learn his fate. Astigarraga argued for the maximum penalty allowable under the guidelines, a sentence of five years. Honaker “had every access to every privilege that life has to offer, and, yet, nonetheless, he chose to commit this particular offense,” she said. The prosecutor urged the judge to “send a message in terms of how this court will treat these kinds of defendants, defendants who did have a leg up on everyone else.” 

Judge Cooke asked Honaker if he wanted to speak. Sobbing, he offered a string of apologies to his former colleagues, his mother, and his ex-fiancée. “I lost so many people because of my lies and stupidity,” he said. He also apologized to the five tellers he’d admittedly terrorized with his demands for money. “While it was never my intention to inflict so much as a modicum of harm, I failed to consider the emotional and psychological toll that would result from my selfish crimes,” Honaker said. 

Rejecting the government’s argument for a maximum penalty, Cooke sentenced Honaker to 40 months in prison, ordering him to repay the money he stole, remain on supervised release for four years, and perform 125 hours of community service. 

Patricia Honaker said her son is slated to serve his time at a minimum-security facility in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Given the time he has been locked up, and with continued good behavior behind bars, Honaker could be freed well before his scheduled August 2024 release date. 

“I realize that he has made an enormous mistake,” Honaker’s mother wrote to the judge. “He understands this as well and he is willing to pay society for his actions. Aaron has a kind heart and I pray that when his sentence is over, he can return to a happy and productive life.” 

Patricia Honaker said she sent her son a copy of “Law Man,” bank robber-turned-lawyer Shon Hopwood’s memoir of redemption. “He turned his life around,” she said. “It can be done.”