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.
Loya’s father, Joe Loya Sr., was a strict disciplinarian, a man who believed in God and academia and harsh punishments. A former gang member, Joe Sr had dropped out of high school, but later in life sought out religion to right himself, and converted his family from Catholic to Southern Baptist. He took up preaching at his local parish, and after his wife’s death attended UCLA, where he double-majored in philosophy and the Greek classics. Joe Sr. was so self-determined he taught himself Greek and Hebrew, and Loya still has memories of his father sitting at the dinner table late into the night translating obscure verses from the Book of Deuteronomy.
Loya also remembers the severe beatings. Joe Sr. was the type of dad who taught his boys multiplication tables by delivering two whips for each incorrect answer. After his wife’s death, the turbulence and unpredictability only increased, casting a perpetual air of fear inside the home. On any particular night, Joe Sr. might explode into a rage that would start with him sucker-punching one of his boys in the gut and end with the father kicking his kid to the ground. When Loya lost a schoolyard fight, his father put him in the car and drove him around, saying, “We’re going to find him, and you’re gonna fight him until you win.” Growing up, Loya wished his father dead.
There was refuge. While studying at UCLA, Joe’s father met a young college student named Brenda Joyce Seal, whom he eventually married. Seal, an English major, bonded with Joe Jr. and introduced him to 19th-century novels such as Jane Eyre and Les Misérables, which the teenager found irresistible. He read passionately and aspired to become a writer.
But one night, when Loya was sixteen, his father pummeled him so hard the boy finally resolved to avenge himself. When Joe Sr. stormed out of the house after delivering the beating, the younger Joe rushed to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife from a drawer. Back in his bedroom, he slipped the weapon underneath his pillow and waited. The father returned with a slam of the door, and stomped directly to his son’s room. He headed to a weight bench in the corner and started removing weights from the bar — weapons, the teenager imagined, to be used against him. To this day Joe Sr. contends he was only preparing a late-night workout to dissipate his anger. In any case, the son took out the knife and in one stroke stabbed his father in the neck. “I tried to twist it, too, to break off the handle,” says Loya, suddenly dead serious, gesturing back and forth with his hand. “I really meant to kill my father.”
While Joe Sr. bled and screeched in pain, Loya and his brother Paul ran to their Aunt Gloria’s home a few blocks away. Distraught, their father stumbled back to the kitchen, where he began writing a suicide note. He never finished it. Instead, he left the house and drove to a nearby park where police officers found him before he could kill himself.
From that night onward, the brothers never suffered another beating. The tyrant Loya had feared for so long suddenly cowered to him at home, and the dramatic shift in power both confused the teenager and emboldened him. The boy was left with a new sense of superiority and the urge to assert it. “Once you try and kill your dad,” he says, “no one scares you.”
Loya became a young man of the most dangerous sort. He was intelligent and charismatic enough to manipulate people, and if that didn’t work, he could unleash his pent-up anger and physically hurt them. Along the way he adopted his father’s large, evangelical personality. He read people well, picked up on their codes and mannerisms, and then directly mirrored back their positive traits. It drew people to him.
The teenager eased his way into crime. The first victims were members of his father’s church. He borrowed money from parishioners without a thought of paying it back, or invented bogus charitable causes only to pocket the donations.
Before long, the boy became more brazen — and reckless. He smiled as he wrote out checks for ridiculous amounts, as high as $10,000, on his own bank account. In another stunt, he walked onto a car sales lot to take a test drive; as the salesman walked around to the passenger’s side, Loya punched the gas and sped toward the Mexican border.
His manipulative charm also went far with the ladies. “I didn’t know one woman friend of mine who Joe couldn’t, and didn’t, sleep with,” says Debbie Okada, a woman who knew Loya through a Bible-study group in those years. “He had this electric personality going. He was smart and funny — one of the smartest guys I ever met. Just incredibly smart and witty. People wanted to be around him, and he wanted to be around them. Joe, you could say, had everyone fooled.”
He nevertheless graduated from high school, and then enrolled at a local community college, but soon dropped out. He’d developed a big-spending lifestyle, and scamming and stealing was the only way to maintain it. Unconsciously, he’d also developed a taste for victimizing people, for giving them a little taste of his own inner turmoil.
So here was Joe Loya Jr., now 23, facing a teller paralyzed with fear as she stared down at his carefully written note. After walking around Old Town all day, Loya was angry and impatient, and since she wouldn’t look up at him, the robber leaned forward. “I’m not fucking around,” he muttered. Finally, she passed the thin bricks of money across the counter. Loya slid them into his backpack, calmly walked out of the bank, turned left, and ran a few blocks toward the city’s train station, where he stepped into a waiting taxicab. The driver took his passenger to a Motel 6 in San Ysidro, near the border.
Behind a locked door, finally alone, he counted out $4,300. It was too easy.
A few days later, the young man found himself behind bars, but it had nothing to do with the bank job. He was arrested on charges related to his bad checks and the car-lot stunt, and was sentenced to two years in state prison. But authorities never linked Loya to the Old Town bank robbery. Unrepentant, he couldn’t wait to get out of jail. Following his first heist, he told himself he would never live poor again, as he had done growing up. The bank robbery game had proved so simple and so thrilling that he’d have to do it again.
And he did. Fresh out of lockup, beginning in spring 1988, Loya didn’t go more than a few weeks without pulling a heist. The FBI quickly tagged him as a serial bank robber, and his file fell onto the desk of Keith Cordes, an eighteen-year veteran in the agency’s Long Beach branch. Cordes specialized in bank jobs.
“I knew for certain he wasn’t my typical client,” the agent recalls. “Joe looked like he had things together. I didn’t know why he was doing it, or where the chip on his shoulder came from, but he must have had a big one.”
Southern California at the time had the distinction of being the bank robbery capital of the world, with bumper crops of both banks and thieves. Cordes was swamped with two hundred cases per year, which the agent divided them into two types: takeovers and one-on-ones.
In a takeover, several suspects physically storm the bank, usually with weapons. The tactic was on the rise due to growing Los Angeles gang activity, but it was still uncommon: Planning a coordinated heist is time-consuming, and more suspects mean more evidence and more witnesses, increasing the chances for capture.
One-on-one robberies, though, were an everyday occurrence: one teller versus one bandit, usually a drug addict unfamiliar with grace and ease in times of extreme stress. The one-on-one robber typically was picked up within a mile of the crime scene, and very few went on to rob more than six banks.
Cordes and his boss, Special Agent Bill Rehder, immediately knew they were searching for a one-on-one artist of a peculiar breed. The bank surveillance photos suggested their suspect wasn’t a “hype,” or hypodermic drug user. The tellers interviewed told the agents that this bandit kept his voice down, acted swiftly, and fled without drawing attention. “In Joe’s case,” Rehder recalls, “he was so smooth he could be robbing one bank teller, and the rest of them on the line wouldn’t even know it.”
The feds also knew Loya was striking at the rate of a machine gun. “A bank robber puts his whole life on the line for the one minute he’s in the bank,” says agent Rehder. “It’s got to be an incredible rush. We knew Joe wasn’t addicted to drugs, so he must have been addicted to that rush. That’s why he kept hitting again and again and again.”
The Beirut Bandit got better as he went along. He stopped using a note after realizing it only gave the teller an opportunity to jack him around and waste crucial time, so he started making his requests verbally: “Give me the fucking money now, or I’ll blow your fucking head off.” He also started parking his car on side streets up to a quarter of a mile away from the bank; Loya had learned that when customers ran outside to catch a glimpse of the fleeing suspect, they tended to crouch down and search for a license plate on a speeding getaway car. While they worried about memorizing numbers, Loya simply walked upright through the parking lot, blending in with shoppers, and hustled to his car, where he’d change clothes and head off toward the freeway.
In 1988, two days before Christmas, according to the FBI reports, Loya diverged from his usual routine and started going for the big score: the vault. He walked into a Bank of America in Santa Ana and told a loan officer who was on the phone, “Me and my friend have a problem. We’re robbing a bank. Don’t fuck around. Take me to the vault.” The loan officer obeyed. Loya ordered employees into the vault and forced them to line up on their knees, execution-style, as he taunted them: “If you have a God, pray to him.” He made off with $10,000 that day. Six weeks later, he tried robbing the same bank, but employees couldn’t find the vault keys and he fled. The loan officer positively identified Loya both times.
In one remarkable stretch the following month, Loya hit five banks in one week, two of them in a single day, according to the FBI. The first, a Security Pacific in Tustin, netted Loya just $3,821. When he counted the paltry bounty in his car, he got upset and fifteen minutes later, without even moving his car, walked into another Security Pacific a few blocks away. This time, he reached the vault. Again, Loya ordered his victims to kneel, hands on head, and prepare for death. One female employee was so frightened she pissed herself. And the Beirut Bandit made off with his largest take ever: $32,713.
Loya’s family and friends thought Joe made his living as a sous chef at the Crocodile Cafe, a grubby diner in Pasadena. But outside the kitchen, he dressed like a Mexican Gordon Gekko, even toting around The Wall Street Journal. He must have saved his money and invested smart, they figured. Loya followed politics closely and voted Republican. He played golf every afternoon before work at the restaurant, and drove around town in a blue Mazda RX-7, tricked out with the finest sound system. He took friends on regular trips to Las Vegas. “He always wore the nicest clothes,” Okada remembers. “Always had to be the nicest pants, the nicest shirts, the best watches. He had style and loved to flaunt it.”In the eyes of Cordes and Rehder, Loya didn’t dress so smart. Of all the one-on-ones they hunted, Loya was the only one who wore a powder-blue UCLA baseball cap or a fedora. The number one headwear choice for bank robbers, Cordes says, was a black and silver Oakland Raiders cap, and that tended to blur the suspects together. Loya also had a habit of wearing his Ray-Bans the entire time he waited inside the bank. An alert teller who read the FBI bulletins might have picked out Loya while he waited in line.
On February 27, 1989, Cordes and Rehder finally caught their man. Loya hit a Bank of America in Cerritos and took off with $8,557 in a backpack. He sped away in his RX-7, cranking Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” part of his post-heist ritual. About a mile from the bank, Loya pulled off his clothes and tossed them into a drainage ditch. Underneath, he wore a white tank top and shorts.
He sped onto the freeway, and when he saw three sheriff’s patrol cars zoom past him, carefully signaled a lane switch and merged onto another freeway. The deputies were gone, but now a helicopter seemed to be following overhead. Then more cop cars pulled in behind him. Loya had escaped the bank free and clear, he thought, so there was no way they were coming after him. They weren’t looking for a dude in a tank top and shorts.
What Loya didn’t know was that the teller had passed him a decoy brick of bills spiked with a homing device. The helicopter was directing the cop cars to Loya’s backseat. They tailed the car, pulled him over, and cuffed Loya belly-down on the pavement. Shackled in the back seat of a cruiser, Loya kept asking, “How’d you guys know it was me?”
When Cordes finally met his quarry, he recalls falling under Loya’s spell. “I was in the back seat with him,” Cordes says. “By the time we got to the courthouse, I was already charmed by him. Some of the kids just start talking when they’re back there, and Joe wanted to talk. Most kids don’t have much to say, though. Turned out he was a bright kid, and there were no hard feelings.”
Cordes pleaded with Loya to use the opportunity to go straight. “I told him, ‘Don’t be like all the other dumbshits and step right back in it.’ I could see a real potential in Joe; there’s no denying there was something special about the guy. Joe was the type of person that made you want to go to the plate for him.”
Which is precisely what the agent did. At Cordes’ prodding, the prosecuting US attorney convinced the judge to set bail at a low $50,000. The FBI believed Loya was responsible for at least thirty robberies. The record for one-on-ones was 64 — and it took that bandit fifteen years, Rehder says. Even though Loya brought a gun into the banks, he never pointed it at tellers — legally, that choice spared him several years’ jail time. For the first time, Loya’s family and friends learned where he’d really made his money and they, too, were there for him. Aunt Gloria mortgaged her house to cover the bail, and within a few days, Loya was released.
He went right out and knocked over five more banks.
Cordes caught up with Joe Loya two months later, as the fugitive sat at a cafe table on the UCLA campus reading the daily papers. Loya’s girlfriend was enrolled at the university, and she’d tipped off the agent. Undercover lawmen dressed as students pounced on the robber, who didn’t go quietly. Local papers reported that real students, responding to the cries of the undercover agents, had to jump in and help subdue him. “Joe fucked everybody, and I’m still pissed off at him because he went out and robbed more banks after we’d all given him another chance,” Cordes says. “Everybody stepped up for him. I think he really wanted to tell all of us, ‘You know what? I’m smarter than all of you, and I can get away with it.'” Despite having been burned once, Cordes was still under Loya’s sway. Again, he pulled his punches when it came to preparing a case against the robber. The final federal indictment accused Loya of only ten robberies, for a total loss of $72,759. The other cases attributed to the Beirut Bandit had their ifs and buts, and Cordes and his partner were busy piling through other investigations. The prosecutors offered Loya seven years for a guilty plea, and he took the deal immediately.
Loya was sent to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, where, as during his prior imprisonment, he crafted a hardened shell in order to survive. He trained himself to rush a man in the chow line the moment he sensed danger. In one prison brawl, Loya stabbed a man in the face with a shank. In another, he bit off his cellmate’s earlobe after learning that the man had sold his Playboy magazine without asking. To victimize the guards, he threw his own feces at them as they passed outside his cell.
For his outbursts, including his alleged connection to a prison homicide, Loya was tossed into solitary confinement for two years. Trapped in his cell for 23 hours a day, he began to look inward and start reading books again — large volumes on vast subjects. It turned out his early education and youthful hunger for literature had prepared him well. Some men find God in prison; Loya killed his off and found the process just as enlightening. He looked for answers in his own language, not the Bible’s. “Solitary confinement worked,” he says now. “It’s designed to get you to go a little crazy, to make you start thinking about turning the page in your life.”
It was a transcendent time for him. For so long he’d felt detached, as if his actions were those of another being, a guy in a movie. He began writing for catharsis. “I couldn’t take it out on anyone any longer,” Loya says. “Best I could do was throw my shit on the guard, but I’d get my ass beat, and that happened a few times. As soon as I started getting it down on paper I started realizing, man, there’s a lot of fucked-up shit that’s happened to me. You know, you lose track of it all when you’re going crazy. You start thinking, ‘This is who I am.'”
Loya reconstructed the story of his life from the beginning, scrutinizing his soul from the inside out and reexamining his complicated relationships. He was meticulous. There was the time, for instance, when he swallowed a bottle of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin at age two and was rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. Loya wrote about the incident, teasing out all its meanings: After surviving the near-death experience, he concluded, his father viewed him as Miracle Baby. Living up to the myth proved impossible, and he was therefore doomed to fail in the eyes of his father.
He also had access to television in solitary, a fact that would change his life. One day, Loya was watching the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS and saw Richard Rodriguez deliver an essay. Rodriguez is a well-known Mexican-American journalist and author of two books that Loya had read: Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. Loya identified with the author’s message and wrote him a long letter, confiding that he, too, aspired to become a writer. To Loya’s surprise and delight, Rodriguez wrote back: You already are.
“Joe has the natural gift of narrative,” says Rodriguez from his office in San Francisco. “You could tell from his very first letters he knew how to tell a story.”
Like many authors of his stature, Rodriguez had heard from inmates before, but never from one who’d actually “owned the language,” as he puts it. The intensity of Loya’s stories moved him. “Joe was writing me from the 18th century, in letters of great density,” Rodriguez says. “Letters about God, the devil; letters about staring in the mirror just moments before he’d go out to rob a bank, staring into his eyes, marshalling his will to commit crime.”
For the final two years of Loya’s sentence, the men wrote each other every week. They riffed on subjects from Irish poets to Mexico to violence. For Loya, who’d became a pacifist while he awaited his release, the correspondence brought him a freedom of the soul and bolstered his confidence to continue writing once he got out. “I’d get a letter from Richard,” he says, tilting his head back in reminiscence, “and I’d read it fifteen times before I put it down. Then I’d go back and read it again.”
Rodriguez, too, remembers the correspondence fondly, but recognizes it as the product of unique circumstances that cannot be repeated. “That Joe Loya is gone,” he says, “and I’ll never meet him again because that man doesn’t exist outside of prison. Now, he belongs to this other society.”
By the summer of 1996, Joe Loya Jr. had redeemed himself in the eyes of the penal system, but true atonement didn’t come so easily. The ex-con’s first impulse upon his release was to track down the people he’d victimized to tell him that he’d changed, that he was sorry for dragging them into the path of his chaotic youth.
Then life created a diversion. Rodriguez arranged a job for Loya as a Los Angeles-based stringer for the Pacific News Service, and gave his friend $3,000 to get started. Loya took to his new career with the same élan he’d shown for heisting. He focused at first on prison life, penning op-ed pieces that called for more compassion toward inmates. Much of Loya’s writing, Rodriguez says, still obsesses on the death of his mother and what he calls the “sin against his father.”
Yet instead of writing merely to purge his angry energy, as he’d done in prison, Loya took a more mature, pensive tone, not unlike that of Rodriguez. In one of his first published articles, Loya wrote about the perils of his new life outside prison for the LA Weekly:
The pitfalls for me are the everyday indignities the rest of you have learned to accept. The car that cuts me off on the freeway. The woman who barges into me while I wait in a grocery line. The obnoxious clerk at the DMV. The liar posing as a potential employer at a job interview. Or my devious neighbor.
Her. The one who substituted her clothes in my washing machine because she was in a hurry, and I’d gotten to the laundry room first. Several weeks ago I found my clothes, sopping wet, atop the rumbling machine I’d placed them in.
In prison this infraction would have been solved easily enough. I would have confronted the offending inmate with a sharpened piece of bedspring and I would have made him regret his insult, his foolish underestimation of me.
Instead, in my role as a “free man,” I returned to my apartment and suffered what one writer has referred to as “the rage of the baffled.” I became mousy.
The article received much attention, inviting phone calls from editors and agents hungry for his story. Loya’s career began to gel. He moved up to become associate editor at Pacific News Service, and his articles started appearing in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
In the meantime, he made peace with his father. He had almost come to fisticuffs one evening with a man at a cafe — a near-violation of parole — and afterwards he invited brother Paul and Joe Sr. to keep him company and spend the night at his new apartment. In the morning, while folding up blankets, the three men shared a spontaneous embrace, the kind Loya had wished for as a kid. And when he and Diane tied the knot in 1999, his dad read from the Book of First Corinthians: “Love always hopes. It always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Last year, Loya’s perseverance as a writer paid off. He negotiated a $30,000 advance from HarperCollins for his memoirs, titled The Parole of Buddha Lobo, which he’d pitched as a cross between Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, a story about a bright Mexican kid raised in parochial schools, and Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running, the tale of an East Los Angeles street kid who overcomes his violence to inspire others.
Buddha Lobo is scheduled for publication next fall, and Loya is hard at work. Pages of his manuscript are pinned all over the walls of his office. Meanwhile, a San Francisco documentary filmmaker is scrapping for funding for a film about his life. Loya was also recently voted into SF Grotto, a writer’s co-op that has become a clubhouse for the city’s young literati.
The rapid rise of his protégé has impressed Rodriguez. “He knows more writers and celebrities than I do,” he says. “At parties, I see women slowly edge closer to him, just to get within his range of lawlessness. And men, too. He has an enormous magnetism, one where his mischief coexists within a man of sweetness and softness. The effect is jarring and tantalizing.”
Not content with mere writing, Loya has parlayed his charm into a one-man stage show that debuts November 4 at the Thick House Theatre in San Francisco. Rodriguez won’t be in the audience, though. The author is loyal to the written word, and believes that Loya is an author first — that his tales need to be published before they’re performed. “Frankly, I’m a little appalled that he’s decided to dramatize his life in performance instead of writing it all out first,” Rodriguez says. “And yet I acknowledge Joe is a wonderful actor. So I’m jealous of the theater audience that will get him without having to read him. They’re cheating. These are stories that lend himself to the literary page.”
Loya pauses a moment before responding to his mentor’s critique. “Richard’s old-school,” he says, “but I’m post-modern. I’ll do stand-up, I’ll write about it, I’ll act it, I’ll do whatever. Shit, I’ll give a clinic on how to rob a bank, inside a bank.”
Loya won’t have to go that far to make crime pay. For him, it already has, and that’s still relatively rare. With all his projects in the works, and literary celebrity lurking around the corner, the basis of Loya’s success, talent notwithstanding, is his bad behavior. His ruthlessness toward others. His sociopathic past.
As Rodriguez points out, that’s a Joe Loya who doesn’t exist anymore: The person who’d order you to kneel in a vault and pray to your God; who would jump bail, leaving his own aunt in the lurch; who’d bite your earlobe off if you sold his girlie magazine. That Joe Loya is dead, or simply outgrown. Or perhaps he’s even still alive, exquisitely concealed.
In the eyes of the law, though, Loya is still a two-strike con. Stealing a piece of bubble gum from the corner gas station could land him in prison for life. The high stakes don’t faze him. “I live my life so far from the edge, I don’t have a chance of falling over,” Loya says. “Trouble happens over there, and I’m living over here,” he adds, pointing away and then back at himself. “I’m not even in the buffer zone.”
To illustrate the newfound giddiness in his life, Loya pops up from his living room couch and runs to the back of his home to show off a love letter he wrote to his wife and then taped to the bathroom mirror so she’d find it in the morning. “Look at me,” he says, palms on his chest now, the posture of innocence. “I’m corny as can be.”
Sometimes when Loya spins a tale, and the laughs are coming high and hard — like the time he considered using a getaway driver but opted out after his mush-brained accomplice asked Loya to “write in” a car chase, just so he could get “the rush” — it’s as though no one suffered from Joe’s crimes. The victims worked everything out over the years. Happy ending. Case closed.
FBI agent Bill Rehder doesn’t forget. “Joe’s actions really got to a few people,” he says. “He really messed them up, and he knows that. Who’s to say these people aren’t still feeling the trauma? Who’s to say they didn’t go home that night and bring it home? Getting robbed is scary stuff.”
Loya is still haunted by one particular image: The woman in the vault who was so terrified she lost control of her bladder. But now that he’s been out a few years, Loya has come to the conclusion that an apology would be a selfish act. Tracking those folks down after all this time would only benefit him. Maybe they don’t need to hear it. Maybe one encounter with Joe Loya was enough. Maybe his living a clean life now is enough.
“I understand,” he says. “You do not put that sort of vitriol into the world and not have it reverberate throughout society. But I now contend that my life now is my apology. I will not go track these people down and tell them, ‘I robbed you. I’m sorry,’ because that would only be about me. My apology will be the life I’m living now.
“So if they ever hear of me, and they know that I’ve been out this long, and they hear that I’m doing good, and they see my life, and they realize I have a community of friends and they realize I’m working hard to change my life, and they read the book, and they realize this guy was fucked up and he felt bad and he changed his life because of it, then this is my apology.” Loya is tapping his chest now. “It’s easy to say you’re sorry. But I feel like, ‘Listen, I will give you a life.'”
Rehder hopes Loya will prosper as a law-abiding citizen, but he’s not entirely sold on the Beirut Bandit’s redemption. “Just remember,” says the agent, “at the bottom of a bank robber’s heart, there’s a gene there that most people don’t have. That gene tells them that if things on the outside go sour for them, if they really need to go back and rob a bank, then they’ll go back and do it. Irrespective of how wonderful things are in their lives right now and all the hard work they’ve done to go straight, they know at any given moment they could walk straight into any given bank on any given day and rob it. And I believe Joe Loya has that gene.”
We could rob a bank today, but we can’t find a good one. Driving down Locust Street in downtown Walnut Creek at lunch hour, Loya eyes the well-coiffed patrons sitting at sidewalk patios, enjoying the bright autumn sunshine. “See, I wouldn’t rob here because they’d spot a brown man walking down the street a mile away,” he says. This is a typical Loya observation. “Especially one who’s running down the street with money in his hand.”
Still, there’s an attractive Wells Fargo up ahead with a rear parking-lot entrance that catches Loya’s attention. Finding a parking spot isn’t so easy. The one-lane streets are choked with delivery trucks and pedestrians for several blocks, backing up traffic onto the freeway ramps. There’s no easy way out right now, so we head to Albany.
From the outside, the Washington Mutual on San Pablo Avenue has always appealed to Loya. It’s got a back entrance, it’s connected to a larger shopping center, and there’s quick access to Interstate 80. Once on I-80, the Maze offers multiple choices. Again, contingency, he says.
But with all the recent construction on the mall, the bank’s parking lot is surrounded by a ten-foot-high retaining wall. You’d need a rope to scale it. “Not good,” Loya says. As we drive down a street behind the bank, a BART cop car cruises past. “That’s right, the BART station is close,” Loya reminds himself. “That draws the cops.” He waves his hand. “I wouldn’t rob this place.”
Last chance: Another Wells Fargo a block away. Loya likes the look of it from the outside. There’s plenty of parking lot between the rear entrance and the neighborhood street where he’d hide his getaway car. He walks inside to case the joint.
A few customers are standing at a perfectly square counter filling in their deposit slips. Loya points out that every piece of furniture in a bank is carefully measured and stationed for the cameras. That way, when investigators look at the surveillance photos, they can precisely determine their suspect’s height and width.
Back in the corner, a male loan officer sits behind a desk talking on the phone. Five or six people stand in line between sagging ropes. No one in the bank double-takes the man standing in the back of the line, the one wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and dark glasses. Loya looks around, takes off his glasses, raises them above his head to inspect the lenses, and cleans them with the corner of his shirt. Then he nods to say, let’s go.
Once outside he asks, “See that? No good. Plexiglas. You can’t do nothing about that. You can ask them for the money but they can tell you, Nuh-uh.”
As Loya walks back toward the car he starts in with another story, the one about the female customer who got brave and tried following him out of a bank. “She was the only one who ever chased me,” Loya recalls, shaking his head. “And she was old, too.”
Loya says he turned to stare her down, hoping to stop her in her tracks. But each time he turned around, she was still tailing him. Finally, he wagged a finger as if to say, go no further. When the woman didn’t yield, Loya stopped and reached into his coat pocket like he was going to pull out his gun.
Acting out the scene, Loya mimics the motion of the woman running toward him in slow motion, then suddenly freezes in fear, struck by the realization she was about to die.
“Her eyes got so fucking big, man, you wouldn’t believe it!” he says, laughing at the memory. “Big as saucers. Oh man, she thought she was going to get it!”
A few moments later in the car Loya gets quiet. “That poor woman,” he says.