John Wojtowicz: The Vietnam Vet Who Robbed A Brooklyn Bank In The Name Of Love

Released in 1975, "Dog Day Afternoon" stars Al Pacino as an inexperienced criminal participating in a botched bank robbery. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won Best Original Screenplay and was inspired by a robbery committed by John Wojtowicz. Inside Edition reports that Wojtowicz, a Brooklyn native, was a bank teller drafted into the Vietnam War in 1966. It was during his military service that Wojtowicz realized he was gay. Despite this, he married his girlfriend, Carmen Bifulco, when he returned home from Vietnam in 1967.

Per Inside Edition, Wojtowicz and Bifulco had two children before they separated in 1969. The publication states that this was due to Wojtowicz having extra-martial affairs with men. Wojtowicz subsequently began to embrace his sexuality, and in 1971, he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Eden, a transgender woman. Although he was legally married to Bifulco, Wojtowicz and Eden had a wedding ceremony to officiate their love. However, the BBC notes that their marriage was strained. Eden, whose deadname was Ernest Aron, wanted gender-affirming surgery.

The New York Times reports that Eden attempted to kill herself several times. She desperately wanted the surgery but did not have the funds to pay for it. Wojtowicz gave in and came up with a solution; he would rob a bank to ensure Eden received the operation.

The 14-hour standoff

The BBC writes that on August 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz and his two accomplices, Salvatore Naturelle (or Naturile, or Naturale depending on the source), and Bobby Westenberg, decided to rob the Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn. Inside Edition reports that this heist was not well planned out. The men attempted but failed to rob two other banks that day. Moreover, they took a break to watch "The Godfather" in theaters. At 3 p.m., the three entered the Chase Manhattan Bank and promptly made their intentions clear to the bank teller. However, the robbery went awry quickly. There was barely any money in the safe, Westenberg decided to flee, and someone called the authorities.

With the building surrounded, Wojtowicz opted to take the bank's seven employees hostage, states Avenue Magazine. According to the BBC, the FBI began negotiating with Wojtowicz as 2,000 people convened to witness the spectacle. Wojtowicz requested pizza for his hostages, threw money at the crowd, and gave interviews to journalists. At one point, Wojtowicz revealed that he was robbing the bank to provide his wife, Elizabeth Eden, with her gender-affirming surgery (per Inside Edition). The FBI brought Eden to the scene, but she did not want to see Wojtowicz.

After 14 hours, the standoff ended when the FBI agreed to get Wojtowicz, Naturelle, and Eden on a flight to Europe. The FBI transported Wojtowicz, Naturelle, and the hostages to the airport. However, it was all a ruse; the FBI shot and killed Naturelle and arrested Wojtowicz.

All for love

According to The New York Times, prosecutors charge John Wojtowicz with stealing $38,000 from the Chase Manhattan Bank. In April 1972, they sentenced him to 20 years in prison. His accomplice, Bobby Westenberg, was later caught and received a two-year prison sentence. In court, Wojtowicz explained his motives behind the robbery. He said, "Love is very strange thing." He added, "Some people feel it more deeply than others. I loved my wife, Carmen, I love my son, my daughter, my mother and love Ernie [Elizabeth Eden]. Ernie is very, very important to me and I'd do anything to save him."

The New York Times reports that Wojtowicz sold the movie rights to his story for $7,500. He gave a percentage to Eden for her gender-affirming surgery. In 1975, while Wojtowicz was still in prison, "Dog Day Afternoon" hit theaters. Per Esquire, Wojtowicz demanded that prison officials screen the movie and threatened them with a riot if they didn't. Wojtowicz and the others in the prison watched the film, but according to a letter written by Wojtowicz to the NYT that was rejected, but later printed by Jump Cut, he was unhappy with the accuracy of "Dog Day Afternoon." Among his several complaints, Wojtowicz noted that the film did not accurately portray his immense love for Eden. He did, however, praise Al Pacino's performance.

Inside Edition states that Wojtowicz appealed his sentence and left prison in 1978. Despite what he did for her, Elizabeth Eden refused to see Wojtowicz and died in 1987. John Wojtowicz died from cancer in 2006 (via the BBC).