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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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."

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