Confessions of the Beirut Bandit 

Joe Loya ripped off dozens of banks in the late '80s, netting $250,000. Now he has a book deal and a starring role in his own show. Who says crime doesn't pay?

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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."

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