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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We could rob a bank today, but we can't find a good one. Driving down Locust Street in downtown Walnut Creek at lunch hour, Loya eyes the well-coiffed patrons sitting at sidewalk patios, enjoying the bright autumn sunshine. "See, I wouldn't rob here because they'd spot a brown man walking down the street a mile away," he says. This is a typical Loya observation. "Especially one who's running down the street with money in his hand."

Still, there's an attractive Wells Fargo up ahead with a rear parking-lot entrance that catches Loya's attention. Finding a parking spot isn't so easy. The one-lane streets are choked with delivery trucks and pedestrians for several blocks, backing up traffic onto the freeway ramps. There's no easy way out right now, so we head to Albany.

From the outside, the Washington Mutual on San Pablo Avenue has always appealed to Loya. It's got a back entrance, it's connected to a larger shopping center, and there's quick access to Interstate 80. Once on I-80, the Maze offers multiple choices. Again, contingency, he says.

But with all the recent construction on the mall, the bank's parking lot is surrounded by a ten-foot-high retaining wall. You'd need a rope to scale it. "Not good," Loya says. As we drive down a street behind the bank, a BART cop car cruises past. "That's right, the BART station is close," Loya reminds himself. "That draws the cops." He waves his hand. "I wouldn't rob this place."

Last chance: Another Wells Fargo a block away. Loya likes the look of it from the outside. There's plenty of parking lot between the rear entrance and the neighborhood street where he'd hide his getaway car. He walks inside to case the joint.

A few customers are standing at a perfectly square counter filling in their deposit slips. Loya points out that every piece of furniture in a bank is carefully measured and stationed for the cameras. That way, when investigators look at the surveillance photos, they can precisely determine their suspect's height and width.

Back in the corner, a male loan officer sits behind a desk talking on the phone. Five or six people stand in line between sagging ropes. No one in the bank double-takes the man standing in the back of the line, the one wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and dark glasses. Loya looks around, takes off his glasses, raises them above his head to inspect the lenses, and cleans them with the corner of his shirt. Then he nods to say, let's go.

Once outside he asks, "See that? No good. Plexiglas. You can't do nothing about that. You can ask them for the money but they can tell you, Nuh-uh."

As Loya walks back toward the car he starts in with another story, the one about the female customer who got brave and tried following him out of a bank. "She was the only one who ever chased me," Loya recalls, shaking his head. "And she was old, too."

Loya says he turned to stare her down, hoping to stop her in her tracks. But each time he turned around, she was still tailing him. Finally, he wagged a finger as if to say, go no further. When the woman didn't yield, Loya stopped and reached into his coat pocket like he was going to pull out his gun.

Acting out the scene, Loya mimics the motion of the woman running toward him in slow motion, then suddenly freezes in fear, struck by the realization she was about to die.

"Her eyes got so fucking big, man, you wouldn't believe it!" he says, laughing at the memory. "Big as saucers. Oh man, she thought she was going to get it!"

A few moments later in the car Loya gets quiet. "That poor woman," he says.

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