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'Public Enemies' Rekindled Thrills of My Bank Robber Days

New America Media, Movie Review, Joe Loya Posted: Jul 25, 2009

Editor's Note: Joe Loya spent seven years in a federal prison - two of them in solitary confinement - for robbing nearly 30 California banks. He had put that behind until he saw the movie Public Enemies.

I haven't robbed a bank in 20 years.

When I think about some of the banks I robbed, recall the adventure of grabbing the loot out of the vault, the power of having people organize their fearful lives around my violent whim, the thrill of a close getaway, I swear to you that it feels like another guy robbed them. The sheer audacity of my crime spree, close to 30 banks in 14 months, feels too outsized to fathom. I mean, look at me today: I'm a stroller-pushing, diaper-changing, baby bottle-washing, play date-organizing father of a baby girl. But it wasn't domesticity that changed me.

My imagination was altered in a prison cell in the mid 1990s. Joe the Loving Father doesn't feel like Joe the Bank Robber for several reasons. For one, the bank robber was 40 pounds lighter, able to jump counters and march managers to the vault. Today, I don't have the same out-of-control rage that drove 16-year-old me to stab my father in the neck with a steak knife after he beat me (he survived). And Joe the 27-year old bank robber circa 1989 was reckless, cruel, and nihilistic and had no regard for the future. That guy was willing to die like he lived - all of a sudden.

Today, I am pacific. I'm all about loving big and being good. In fact, Daddy Joe almost got weepy the other day at my neighbors' Fourth of July block party. It felt so beautiful to be accepted by the decent society I mocked and despised when I was anti-social, hell-bent, corrupted.

For the past 16 years, I have worked hard not to romanticize my bank robberies, heists that put me in prison for seven years, two of them in solitary confinement. Sure, the bank robberies were brazen, cinematic and colorful - I always tell the stories that way. But in my heart I don't romanticize them like I did back then. For me, the cost of the crime can never be disassociated from the concept of lost time.

But recently, WOW! I saw Public Enemies, the John Dillinger biopic starring Johnny Depp and directed by Michael Mann, known for his intense crime dramas. Mann's other big heist film, Heat is, in my expert opinion, one of the best bank robbery films to date. But Public Enemies surpasses Heat, and is, hands-down, the best bank robbery movie I have ever watched.

Listening to Depp spout the criminal's credo with vulgar clarity, swagger with varnished virility reminded me why I became a bank robber in the first place.

In 1986, I was a 24-year-old fugitive in Mexico. I had committed many frauds in southern California, so I fled the country with stolen cars and plenty of money. I fancied myself a full-fledged criminal, able to blend into the sea of brown below the border. But soon enough, real hardcore criminals in Ensenada saw me for the piker I was. They robbed me of $12, 000.

I felt like a fool. I knew that I still wore bookishness, which made hardcore thieves see me as a youngster who hadn't fully hardened.

After being robbed, I desperately wanted to become a rude, crude and lewd brute. I wanted to be able to adeptly employ poker-table code, be skilled at ordering a man's drink, sport the pimp stroll and employ all manner of argot. Above all, I wanted to be a violent man - not a conniver. I wanted to live and act boldly at all times, not just at the moment of a car theft or a random fight.

Although I remained an ardent reader, I vowed to dumb myself down because I thought only then would I become a real man, a doer - a take-charge kind of guy. I wanted tough men to take me seriously enough to fear robbing me.

I was tired of being a scam artist because I had to establish rapport with my victims in order to burn them. To earn people's trust was a long chore that I didn't have the time or the patience for. I was too impulsive and needed victims immediately, rather than try to know them personally. And somehow that made me feel more principled, to think that I wanted a more accurate relationship with people, instead of one based on insincerity or phoniness.

I believed that I couldn't be faulted for wanting to honestly establish up front to someone that they were the mark, the victim, and I was the man who going to rob them. No pretense. Blam! Right there.

The truth of the moment would be beautiful and ferocious, and in that way my vehemence wouldn't be disguised in passive-aggressive ways, wouldn't lie, and my crime could be more ethical than crummy, lousy, petty deception. It was not as ethical as getting a job, but in the world I lived in, I would elevate myself from a bottom-feeder, dope fiend kind of guy who steals from his grandmother.

I would seize some moral high ground over the low-level, sneaky cowardly criminal who scavenges for crumbs at the expense of his family and friends. And I gotta tell you, I liked this idea of myself as trying to be more fair with people - doing them a favor by not being nice to them before I robbed them. Yeah, this would be better for them and clearly easier for me, since I needed money pronto to replace the $12,000 I lost.

I felt the need to imagine as reckless a life as possible. And maybe because I was in Mexico, my mind was romanced by the notion of the bandito Pancho Villa crossing the border and stealing money from the feds. So one afternoon, seated on the veranda of my Ensenada condo, overlooking the beach, I decided to rob a bank.

It was as if I were possessed to act with exaggerated urgency. As if my fatalism was full tilt. No surprise really. I'd always sensed myself doomed to die young like my mother, who died at age 26.

On the morning of the day that I robbed four banks, I stood naked in front of my bathroom's steamy mirror. I wiped off a circle big enough for to stare at my wet image - my dark face, my clear complexion, my collegiate haircut. I looked at the small scar on my left eyebrow, at my full lips and into my dead eyes and dared my hard self to flinch. My mouth opened slowly and murmured an erotically morbid demand: Don't return without $50,000.

Stephen Crane, the 19th Century American writer, describes a delirium that encounters despair and death and is heedless and blind to the odds. I knew that state. I surrendered my fear of death to the bathroom mirror. Unafraid of consequences, I picked up my .357 Magnum, tucked it into the back of my trousers, drew a deep breath, and walked into those banks fully prepared for a final shootout with police if destiny deemed it.

But destiny never did.

Watching Public Enemies, the lure and romance of bank robbery returned. I recalled the lifestyle of casual violence in a way I hadn't in many, many years. I sat in the theater and was dumbfounded by how I had become seduced by Depp's performance. Wow, bank robbery looks like fun, I thought, forgetting ever so briefly that I had once been that guy on the screen.

I was no Dillinger. But Dillinger's narrative is every bank robber's experience. He and I understood the same themes of good versus evil. We both experienced the adrenaline rush, the supreme vitality of turning the tables and teaching the hunter that it is never any fun when the rabbits get the gun. And we both understood that bank robbery in this country is a sexy crime. Every male Hollywood hunk - from Clark Gable to Robert Redford to George Clooney - has played a bank robber.

Obviously, Dillinger's and my bank robberies underwrote a ton of licentious sex, fast cars, steaks, liquor, cigars and tailored suits - even the trench coat and fedora props I wore into some banks.

There was a scene in Public Enemies that showed what $26,000 looks like, bundled in rubber bands. I recalled how so much money smelled, literally. I once dumped $50,000 on my bed and rolled in it like an idiot.

Depp prowled a dance club before he strode up to his female prey, who didn't know until it was too late that he was a man with well-honed predatory instincts. His aura was like that of a lion strolling the Serengeti. Dillinger also reminded me of me in Pasadena dance clubs. I remember being able to powerfully seduce women with my easy money, my promise of protection, my rough honor code, my muscular prison stories.

Watching the film, I recalled cunning underworld associations and the adolescent thrill of plotting and moving in quick unison with other criminals to circumvent the laws and poke a finger in the eye of authority.

I recalled the way committing crime was a fantasy life where I vaguely knew someone was looking for me, but I didn't care because I was having too much fun. But once I knew the FBI was looking for me, the real life of being a fugitive became hard and every move became desperate. Committing crimes under those circumstances began to feel like a regular job I was compelled to show up to. No longer did the robberies feel improvisational or escapist.

Like Dillinger's, my run ended because of the betrayal of a dame. The FBI captured me behind the UCLA library, where I had gone to meet my girlfriend after class. Dillinger had straight-laced Melvin Purvis hunting him; I had Special Agent Keith Cordes, a true, by the book, dyed-in-the-wool, straight shooter.

Joe, the U.S. Attorney wants to throw the book at you, Cordes told me after my arrest. But I think deep down you are a good kid. So while I have to send you away for 8 to 12 years, you'll still get out a young man. You'll be able to do something with your life.

I was released on bail a few days later and preceded to rob five more banks. When I was re-arrested, Cordes still fought to get me a sentence below 12 years - eight years.

Eight months after I was released from prison, I wrote a commentary for the Los Angeles Times about a dramatic North Hollywood heist where two robbers walked out of a bank in head-to-toe body armor, and with their blazing automatic weapons, exchanged fire with police for 30 minutes. Cordes called me and offered me congratulations. I thanked him for preserving my future.

Well, Joe, someone had to stand up for you, he told me. And since you couldn't stand up for yourself, I stood up for you.

(In October, the Discovery Channel will air an episode of my criminal case as part of the station's Life on the Run series. It will feature an interview with a retired Cordes.)

I enjoyed the hell out of Public Enemies because I saw the truth of the bank robbers' lives onscreen. Michael Mann gets many things wrong about criminals in all his movies. For example, they never have a sense of humor. (To the contrary, every seasoned killer I knew could make me laugh about something.) But in Public Enemies, Mann was able to accurately portray the fatalistic delirium that animates the hardened criminal's soul. I confess it almost made me miss the days of my sexy, dangerous youth.

Joe Loya is an essayist, playwright, motivational speaker. He is the author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber." He is busy writing his next memoir, The 7 Things I Learned in Prison.

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