We could rob a bank today.
The sunroof is wide open, the windows are rolled down, and the car is speeding north on I-80. We're hugging the rim of the East Bay. "Oh, I know a good one to rob," Joe Loya is saying above the sound of the wind, pointing ahead. "I used to go there all the time. It's a Washington Mutual on San Pablo. I'll tell you exactly why we're going to rob it. ... You always want to pick a bank near a freeway, but more importantly, once you get back on the freeway, you want to be close to a junction, where it splits or crosses with another freeway. Again, contingency -- very important. When you run, you always want to have as many options as possible."
The man sitting in the passenger seat is an expert on the subject. In the late '80s, over a span of fourteen months, Joe Loya robbed between 32 and 40 banks. (He gave up counting at 32 and the FBI stopped at 40.) In all, it's estimated he made off with $250,000 before he was finally caught.
To the agents who pursued him, Loya was the unlikeliest of thieves. Most bank robbers are drug-desperate drifters acting in haste. Loya was sober, calculating, and refined. He was raised in private schools and educated on the great works of literature and theology. He dressed for his heists in tailored suits -- topped off by a fedora on at least two occasions -- or opted for a preppy college look of topsiders and a powder-blue UCLA Bruins baseball cap. He never pointed a gun at any of his victims, and he always worked alone. FBI agents nicknamed him the "Beirut Bandit" on account of his mocha-dark skin and thick black hair -- Loya is actually Mexican American.
Today, at age 41, and five years removed from prison, Loya has assumed a much more ordinary lifestyle. He's a promising writer with a book in the works. He lives in a small home at the crest of a hill in East Oakland along with his wife, Diane, and their dog, Olive. He's got a bit of a paunch. He wears Calvin Klein eyewear and drives a gray Passat wagon. He blends in nicely.
Yet for all of his domestic trappings, Loya possesses the same old charm that helped him succeed as a criminal. It barely fits in the car: Listening to Loya spin tales of his past, which he always manages to make humorous and then edifying, it's easy to understand why even the FBI agents who finally corralled him admit to being smitten. Loya is a well-read sophisticate, but he's also an ex-con who can walk up to a stranger on the street and call him "homeboy" without sounding like a guidance counselor. It makes for an intriguing, if discomforting, combination.
"I wouldn't rob a bank in Oakland," he's saying as the city's skyline passes by on his right side. Sporting a goatee and dark sunglasses, Loya resembles a celebrity, maybe one of the guys from Los Lobos. "See, there's some true things about banks in the 'hood. They're more likely to have been robbed a lot, so they have a lot of guards, and big ol' Plexiglas barriers. They're also policed more, bottom line, and there's less chance, in a place like Oakland or East L.A., of going into a bank and finding some scared-ass, middle-aged white woman." His voice drops to a conspiratorial tone. "You know, a woman who just sent off her kids to college and decided she wants to work a few hours in the afternoon. You ain't gonna find it in the 'hood, nah.
"You're gonna find some tough Mexican girl, or some tough black woman," Loya continues. "You're not gonna find some woman you can just walk up to and say 'Boo!' and scare 'em. In fact, they're gonna dare you to pull out a gun before they're gonna give you any money. You know, because they're immune to a certain level of aggression and violence. So I don't want them. I want the woman in ...Walnut Creek. That's the one I want! I want to rob a bank in Walnut Creek. Man, take me to Walnut Creek!"
The first time he tried it, one day in 1985, Loya arrived at a bank in San Diego's Old Town, ready and waiting as the doors opened at 9 a.m. He walked to the customer counter, removed a deposit slip, and used one of those tethered pens to write the first thing that came to mind: We have a bomb. I have a gun. Give me the money NOW!!!
As he waited in line, the note wilting in his sweaty palm, paranoia crept into Loya's body. He felt exhausted. All morning his instincts had cued him to stop, but he overpowered every red flag and crept closer to the teller's window, a .357 Magnum handgun tucked in his waistband. Suddenly he wondered if the cameras had zoomed in on him as he'd penned his note. If they had, then the tellers were setting a trap, he realized. He also wondered if a guard would pounce on him from out of nowhere.
Before he reached the teller, Loya stepped out of line and headed to a nearby McDonald's. He wrote another note. He set out again in the late morning, passing a string of First Interstates, Great Westerns, and Security Pacifics before he decided to break for lunch. Finally, at about 4:45 p.m., Loya entered a Bank of America determinedly, waited his turn, and handed his note over to the teller. We have a bomb. I have a gun. Give me the money NOW!!!
She looked down at the note and began to read. An eternity passed. She didn't look up. For robber and victim, time stood still.Loya had never robbed so much as a candy store, and here he stood, attempting to rip off a secured cash fortress complete with silent alarms and surveillance cameras clicking his every move.
He'd grown up poor in East Los Angeles, the elder of two sons in a deeply religious family. When he was seven years old, Loya's mother Bessie was diagnosed with kidney disease. For the next two years, Joe and his younger brother, Paul, shuttled between home and the hospital before she finally died. Her passing obliterated Loya's belief in prayer-answering saints and in the tales of miracles he'd been raised on.