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I have been with my wife for one decade. I chronicle this life with similar markers as the average person: our first date; our wedding; our first house; our baby girl. I have a pleasant, suburban life. But before this incarnation as a pacific man, there were different watershed events that marked my life: the loss of my virginity at age 12 to a 22-year-old neighbor; my first expulsion from school; stabbing my father in the neck at age 16; two dozen bank robberies in Southern California; and my last arrest.

How My Life as a Bank Robber Came to an End - Story by <strong>Joe Loya, Illustration by Ray Frenden

The teller stood there paralyzed, stunned by what I just said. So I spoke again.

Give me the big bills first, or I’ll blow your fucking head off.

The words jarred her from her frightened stupor. She opened the money drawer and began to pass hundreds and fifties across the counter. When she was done, I ordered her to turn around, walk away, and not look back.

The getaway began as usual. I took ten steps outside the front doors, then I broke into a run to my car parked in a large mini-mall parking lot across the street. Then I drove a half-mile to a side street where I could undress.

I tore off a baseball cap, baby blue windbreaker, a loud red plaid shirt, and a heavy XXL brown sweatshirt. I tossed everything in a shopping bag and tossed the bag out the passenger door and down a drainage ditch carved into the curb.

I peeked into the money bag as I pulled away from the curb, and saw many small stacks of bills wrapped with rubber bands.

When I got on the next freeway on-ramp, I quickly moved over to the fast lane.

All of a sudden, I had to jerk the car back to avoid sideswiping one of three sheriff’s cars that zipped by me, their red, yellow, and blue roof lights swirling. I looked ahead. A helicopter was hovering above the traffic about a half-mile up. It appeared to be headed my way. The traffic was flowing pretty well, but I suspected that a roadblock was being set up, so I got off the freeway at the next off-ramp.

I turned right into a mass of herky-jerky traffic, where cars from the off-ramp and spillover from two side streets were all angling to make the light. Making matters worse were the cop cars nudging between civilian cars. They’d stop beside a vehicle, look at the driver, then pull up and repeat the procedure at the next car. One patrol car scooted up next to me. I turned and looked at the young blond cop in aviator sunglasses, a Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike with a butch haircut. He stared at me for a moment, and then proceeded to the car in front of mine. I figured I was safe from detection. The cops were looking for a fatter man, one in a red windbreaker and a bright red Madras cotton shirt (the costume I had worn in the bank). I was wearing a white tank top and Ray-Ban sunglasses.

The light turned green, and the traffic moved awkwardly down the boulevard. I continued driving straight ahead, mentally checking off the things I needed to keep clear about. My registration tags were current. There were no outstanding warrants for failure to appear in court for traffic citations. My blinkers were in working order; whenever I made a lane change, I used them.

At one point the helicopter was right overhead, able to see through my open sunroof that I was wearing shorts and that no gun or moneybag was visible. Nobody lay scrunched up on the floor below the dashboard. But as I passed cop cars coming to the chase from side streets, they slowly began to drift in behind the clear caravan of sheriffs’ cars forming behind me.

My funeral procession. I’d been singled out.

I tried to play it cool. DiCaprio pulled up on my left side again. I looked at him, then back at the road. He dropped back into formation. Then another cop drove up on my right side. Same thing: I looked at him, and he dropped back. In the end, at least twenty cop cars were behind me. I knew I was screwed when I saw their lights go on, and the helicopter began to hover low in front of me.

Pull your car over, and put your hands on the steering wheel.

I was surrounded. So I pulled over. I knew that they didn’t stop me because I fit the description of the thief. There was just no way they could have caught me by sound police work. I was too gifted. No, they were making one of their notorious racist rushes to judgment. I thought, These fuckin’ fascists can’t treat a brown man like this. I swear to God, I was actually offended.

Fuck it, I thought. I’m going to make a big deal of this stop so I can use it against them in court.

My rearview mirror showed deputies out of their vehicles, kneeling behind their patrol car doors, their pistols and shotguns aimed at me. Like Hollywood would do it. A bullhorn blasted directions.

With your left hand, reach for the keys, pull them out, throw them out of the car, and keep your arm outside where we can see it!

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

Shut the fuck up and reach out the window with your right arm, and open your door from the outside! Slowly!

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

I said shut the fuck up, so shut the fuck up! Now step out, and face away from us! Put your arms in the air!

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

If you don’t shut the fuck up ... put your hands behind your head, and clasp your fingers together. I said clasp your fingers beh–

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

Stupid motherfucker, better shut the fuck up before you get shot! Now start walking backwards to us. Slowly! Keep walking.

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

Keep walking. Keep walking.

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

Keep walking. Okay. Stop! Now take two steps to your left. Freeze!

WHY’D YOU STOP ME?!?!

You’ll find out. Now get down on your knees, yeah, down on your knees. Now lay down, and put your arms out away from your body.

As soon as I was down on the hot afternoon asphalt, they rushed me. One sheriff, hyped up from the adrenaline of the chase, fell hard with his knee on my back. I felt gun barrels on my arms and legs, and a shotgun barrel on my neck. One cop yanked the back of my hair and raised my head back so that I thought my neck was going to break. Then he leaned down close to my ear.

You wanna know why we stopped you, you piece of shit? We stopped you for being so goddamn ugly in Norwalk.

From the back seat of a patrol car, I watched a group of deputies creeping up on my car with their guns drawn. No one was inside, so they searched the vehicle. One of the deputies stood up and held my moneybag up in the air like a prize fish. I got it! The deputy in the front seat looked at me in his rearview, through the bulletproof glass between the front and back seats.

You fucked up. You decided to rob a bank in the wrong city.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but there’d been a transmitter in with the money. Smaller than a checker piece, inside a small wad of fives. The technology had been imported from Nevada, the deputy told me, and could be traced by every law enforcement car and copter in the vicinity. That’s what their patrol cars were doing when they were driving up on both sides of me: They were verifying the coordinates with the red indicator lights on their dashboards.

We’re the city in California that got to test the transmitter first. And guess what? You’re the sixth bad guy we’ve caught in two weeks.

The deputies held me at the scene, in the back seat of the patrol car, because they wanted to do a sidewalk lineup. About twenty minutes after I was caught, I was told to get out of the car and stand on a spot on the sidewalk and not to move. Another patrol car drove up to the curb. Two women were in the front seat.

Don’t look at the passengers in the vehicle. Turn to your left and stand still.

I turned to my left and glanced at the car. One of the women was the teller I robbed.

If I have to tell you again not to look at them, then you’re gonna be in big trouble when I get your smart ass to the precinct. Now turn to your left again.

A call from his walkie-talkie distracted the deputy. I looked at the women trying to ID me, and was relieved to see them looking at me but shaking their heads, as if saying to the deputy in the vehicle that I wasn’t the man who’d robbed them.

I hated the teller for her idiocy. There I was, the most traumatic event of her life, and she was certain I wasn’t the guy.

On the other hand, I was pissed that I was finally busted by technology. I could best the brightest beat cop with my criminal antics, but I knew I wasn’t smarter than circuit boards full of diodes and resistors and transformers, or any of the burgeoning digital security protecting everything from cars and homes to computers and money vaults. I felt small and stupid.

Some men in prison will tell you they were rescued, not arrested. I always thought they were weak cowards in the face of a long prison sentence that is, until I became one of those men, halfway through a seven-year prison bit. Fatigue set in and I gave up trying to be a bad-ass bank robber.

But in the back of that patrol car, I could only feel an intense rage that I had been duped by my enormous ego into thinking I was too smart to get caught.

On our way to the station, a call came over the radio: a 211 in progress. Another bank robbery. The chase was on for the next schmuck. White male. Late fifties to mid-sixties. White hair. Approximately five foot eleven. Beige pants. Blue windbreaker. A description of almost every retired white man on golf courses from Pasadena to Miami.

The cop looked at me again through his rearview mirror.

Watch. I bet we get grandpa, too.

Joe Loya

Joe Loya an essayist, playwright, and contributing editor at the Pacific News Service. His work has appeared in the LA Times, Newsday, and the Washington Post. His memoir, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, was published in 2004 by HarperCollins. See joeloya.com.

Ray Frenden

Ray Frenden is a self-taught illustrator. He now makes a living drawing monsters and robots. He can’t believe it either. Pinch Frenden if you come across him in the wild. You can find him online at frenden.com.

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