Why did Carl do it?

Community activist says severe depression was at the root of his surprising attempt at a bank robbery

Carl Pinkston pleaded no contest to one charge of bank robbery and was given a 60-day jail sentence.

Carl Pinkston pleaded no contest to one charge of bank robbery and was given a 60-day jail sentence.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Carl Pinkston, a progressive political activist and the former executive director of the Freedom Bound Center, isn’t the kind of guy who usually gets nabbed for bank robbery. Fifty-one years old and naturally soft-spoken, Pinkston often has headed projects to improve health care and education for the poor and disenfranchised. His revolutionary streak led him to work with organizations like the Marxist School of Sacramento, but his friends and colleagues were other African-American movers and shakers. David Covin, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, credits Pinkston with helping to organize the Race & Democracy in the Americas project, “which brought to the U.S., and specifically to Sacramento, the largest group of Afro-Brazilian scholars ever to attend a conference in the U.S.” Other community leaders, including Derrell Roberts, co-founder of the Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights, called Pinkston a role model and a mentor.

Bank robbery “is not a normal Carl Pinkston decision,” said Roberts, who defined Pinkston’s crime as the result of extreme stress.

“Running a nonprofit is a pressure-filled position,” said Roberts. “With enough pressure, even a pipe will burst.”

According to court documents, on January 9, 2006, Pinkston burst. He walked into a U.S. Bank in Roseville and handed a note to one of the tellers: “This is a robbery. Be quiet.”

No one saw a weapon, said Roseville Police Department spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther, and there were no reported injuries.

Once Pinkston left the bank with a Manila envelope full of money, the teller said out loud that she’d been robbed, prompting a bank client to jump into his car with another passenger and tail Pinkston’s green Ford Taurus.

When Pinkston realized he was being followed, he slipped off the freeway and into a residential neighborhood. His pursuer got a license-plate number and cut off the chase. He later picked Pinkston out of a lineup, said Gunther. “We sent them a nice thank-you note.”

Identified by name, age and license plate, Pinkston turned himself in to police a few days after the crime. “The total amount taken was $915.00. We will make full restitution in the amount of $915.00 when we receive the court order,” wrote Pinkston in a series of e-mail exchanges with SN&R. He declined to be interviewed.

In June, Pinkston pleaded no contest to one charge of bank robbery and received a 60-day jail sentence and a few years’ probation. He was ordered to report to Sacramento County Jail on September 14 but is still eligible for alternative sentencing.

The Placer County deputy district attorney, David Broady, said the sentence was light. “I believe it’s his first crime,” said Broady. “[Pinkston’s attorney] has letters on his behalf that might have influenced the court’s decision.”

During sentencing, Placer Superior Court Judge Robert McElhany had referred to the “extraordinary circumstances” of the case, which Pinkston defined as his “principled dedication to community service, the lack of personal gain, and the presence of extraordinary heartfelt remorse. Also, I was under immense duress at the time and my thinking was very disordered in the sense that I was more interested in stopping the train—my thought process and life that I felt had speeded entirely out of control.”

Pinkston chose not to go into detail, but through conversations with Freedom Bound Center board members, it was clear that Pinkston had lost his moorings, having left the organization with which he’d been so closely linked in the fall of 2005.

The Freedom Bound Center was formed in the mid-1990s by Pinkston and Eric Vega, another progressive Sacramento activist. “He was much more the hands-on person,” said Vega.

The organization’s mission is to “promote democratic participation, empower economically and socially disadvantaged communities, and improve the health of at-risk communities by providing theoretical education and hands-on organizing experience to community activists, especially young people of color.”

As executive director, Pinkston had trained children, teens and adults as health-care advocates in areas of Del Paso Heights and Phoenix Park. He’d launched public discussions on race and politics and helped bring noted labor leaders like Dolores Huerta to speak to local activists.

In the fall of 2005, the organization began a restructuring, and Pinkston, who’d become difficult to reach, was “let go,” according to Estella Sanchez, the founder of Sol Collective. As a Freedom Bound Center board member, Sanchez has been handling some of Pinkston’s previous duties. She said that “there was a lot of change in [Pinkston’s] personality” before he left his position. “Depression makes a lot of sense.”

Freedom Bound is now finishing up the advocacy projects Pinkston started, said Vega, and refocusing on youth. The organization is also looking into its financial records. “We’re trying to figure out his impact on the organization,” said Vega.

“I realize now that I’ve been suffering from depression for most of my life and that over the past year, my depression became very critical,” wrote Pinkston in an e-mail. “Because I am now in treatment, I feel some light in my life and hope for the first time.

“January 9, 2006 felt, in a way, like a kind of suicide attempt.”

Pinkston called depression a disease that’s increasingly affecting greater numbers of African-American men, and from his personal experience, Pinkston is already constructing a future vocation. “In the African American community in general,” he wrote, “among African American males in particular, we need to deal with the issue of depression. I planned to speak at churches, community groups, and youth group on the issue.”

Pinkston maintains his ties to organizations like the Sacramento Area Black Caucus and to friends and supporters like Roberts.

“Carl made a mistake,” said Roberts, summing up a bizarre and uncharacteristic chapter in Pinkston’s life. “Any of us could have made a mistake.”