Local News


The actual truth behind the guy who got stuck in an ATM

Posted at 11:28 AM, Jul 30, 2017

If you are a person who exists in 2017, you've probably heard James Portillo's story.


That's right. About a week ago, James found himself trapped in an ATM in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was freed after passing notes through the receipt slot, and the whole incident became one of the most viral stories on Earth. In a news cycle that included the president's son accused of light treason and new North Korean missile tests, this simple tale of a man and an ATM somehow captured the world's attention. There's basically no news outlet that didn't cover it, including The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and NPR.

But "covering the story" doesn't actually mean getting the details right. Cracked reached out to James to talk about his brush with infamy, and he pointed out that even the New York Times didn't quite get his story right. For one thing, he was not trapped inside an ATM as their article, "Man Trapped Inside ATM for 3 Hours is Rescued by Police", suggests:

"That's a misconception everybody has, that I was stuck in the machine. But it was a room. There's a room that goes into where the ATM was held, so that's where I was stuck. So I wasn't in the ATM myself. But it was pretty tight."

In fairness to The Times, they did mention the "ATM vault" in the text of their article. But since only around 40 percent of people actually read the articles they share, a mistake in the title passes on a lot of misinformation.


It's likely that none of the articles you've read actually featured an interview with Portillo. His name wasn't initially revealed, so most reporters who interviewed anyone talked to people who'd been on-scene, rather than the man himself. I hate to keep picking on <em>The New York Times</em>, but they helped pass on a bunch of incorrect information that makes Portillo sound like Mr. Magoo. The article states: "A worker arrived on Wednesday to repair the 'locking mechanism' of the room, Ms. Pena said. The door shut behind the worker, and somehow, she said, the man locked himself in."

This makes it sound as if a clumsy, oafish ATM repairman bumbled into a little room behind the ATM and closed the door behind himself without thinking.

The reality was less hilarious. James was working on an ATM at a bank that was still under construction. The door didn't lock behind him; it got jammed up with debris. "It was actually stuck on some of the metal and some of the screws."

The true story makes James sound less like Mr. Magoo and, well, substantially more hardcore. "I tried everything else. I tried setting off alarms and whatnot. At the end I was just thinking I had to get out of there soon. So I'm yelling at people, 'Hey, I'm in there, can you get me out,' and they all would leave. That happened four or five times."

See, this was a drive-up ATM, and the sounds of people's engines would drown out James' frantic shouting. He'd left his phone charging in his car, so he couldn't call for help. He quickly realized that his only method of communicating with the outside world was the ATM's receipt slot.

"As they're making transactions, I'm seeing the receipts come out. And I just felt to myself, I gotta find some paper, make a note. Normally I don't have a pen on me. I did have my knife, I figured if I just cut myself, I could write like that." But before he had to resort to writing in his own blood like Sideshow Bob, James found a dried-out sharpie on the ground. He sucked on the end to wet the ink and wrote out his now-infamous note:


The first people he slid a note to assumed this was a prank: "I guess they giggled and took off on me. I guess they thought it was a joke." But the second person who got one of his notes took it seriously: "The person that did hear me, she walked up to the ATM. And her husband was behind her, I guess, she walked around, did her transaction, and that's how she heard me, because the noise of her car wasn't overpowering my voice. After she saw the note, she asked, 'Are you stuck in there?' I said, 'Yes, I am ... can you please call the number on the note?' She said, 'Let me get my husband.'"

James eventually convinced the couple to call for help. The police showed up, verified that this wasn't a robbery gone bad, and then had to kick in the door to free James. They couldn't use a key, because again, the door was jammed, not locked.

"I walked out, and I saw the news van there. And I was kinda like, wow y'know, OK. Once I got home and stuff, they said it was on the news in San Antonio, it started hitting Facebook, and then it went viral, from what I can tell."

Within a day, the story had been covered all over the world by hundreds and hundreds of outlets. None of them bothered to do additional fact-checking.

"Well, y'know, I sit at home reading a bunch of these comments and everything, where everybody's saying, y'know, the guy's dumb, he locked himself in the room, he needs to find another line of work, all this negativity, and nobody knew the situation, that the door was jammed and I couldn't open it from the inside. And I guess that's why I started answering some of the questions online."

In an admirable display of basic faith in his fellow man, James took to the internet's assorted comments sections to clear his name. And the most shocking thing about this story might be that this actually worked out pretty well.

"They were like, 'Really, that was you?' I gave a lot of details about how I got stuck in there, that was one of the reasons they believed me. A bunch of people were just apologetic, like, 'Wow, I'm sorry that happened to you. I'm glad you got out.'"

Once his name was on the internet, James was inundated with interview requests from various outlets. The only two he's said yes to so far are one local news station and Cracked. We're not sure why, and neither was he. But on the whole, he's walked away from his inadvertent fame with a more positive opinion of internet commenters than anyone I've ever met.

"People can be cruel if they don't have the proper information. But once you clear it up, they're like, 'Well, I'm glad you're OK.'"

So, The Internet, James Portillo thinks you're all basically decent people once you've got the right information. If you want to prove him right, this is a great opportunity. See, James is a coach for a charity that teaches football and cheerleading to underprivileged kids in San Antonio. If you had a laugh at his expense last week, why not donate some money this week to help him help little kids?