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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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.

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