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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.
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