About The Time I Made Around $165,000 By Robbing Banks For Two Months
The first time my brother James approached me about robbing a bank, I just laughed him off. We were discussing the fact that I had a two-month old baby, my rent was past due, I had lost my job. Things were looking bleak. James said to me, “Bro, this guy I was locked up with, told me how to get away with bank robbery.” I thought he was joking.
“His old lady worked for Bank of the West for years. She says that from the time they know they’re being robbed until the police arrive is about three minutes. Do you know how much money you can grab in three minutes?” He was serious. “If I think of a better way to help you feed Stephanie, I’ll do it, but I say we hit this bank.”
Two weeks later, we took my Dodge Dart about two and a half blocks to the California Bank and Trust. James went in while I sat with the car running. He was back out about 30 seconds later, looking nervous, walking fast. He jumped in the passenger seat and said “Go man, but don’t speed, go like you’re leaving your business.” I complied, my heart racing out of control. It was an effort not to put my foot to the floor and get out of there as fast as possible.
We pulled the car into the covered garage behind my apartment building, left it there and went into the house. I noticed as we walked in that the sirens were just starting to wail. James pulled $3,500 out of his shirt and split it with me. I told him it didn’t seem right.
“Hey, when we get caught, driving is the same as going in, and everyone gets caught,” he said. I thought he was wrong.
“Besides,” he said, “you’re going in next time.” My Dodge was never driven by anyone I knew, ever again. It was eventually towed away, but was never identified in a robbery.
$1,750 in less than half an hour, start to finish. I paid my rent and filled the house with groceries. I spent pretty much the rest on drugs, because that’s what we did — if it hadn’t been for drugs, there wouldn’t have been bank robberies, lost jobs, and hungry kids. Of course, I couldn’t see that then. I was still very young.
Three days later, James had a cool new ride. He didn’t have a wife or child to worry about. He showed up at the door, ready for the next one.
This time, we went to the 7-11 at six in the morning. James’ car couldn’t be used for a robbery — we would need that later for drugs. So we waited at the phone booth, pretending to make a call, until a guy drove up, left his car running, and ran inside for a coffee. We jumped in the car and drove it to my apartment, stashing it for the bank run later.
The take was much more that day. We drove the stolen car to the First California Bank at the corner of Pine Meadows Ave. and Lafayette Blvd. I got out of the car, went in the bank, and came out the back door with $17,520. All were brand new bills. A new stack of $100 bills is one hundred hundreds — $10,000. That went in my jeans. I told James that we had gotten $7,520, which we happily split. And that was all it took; I no longer had cold feet. I looked forward to my turn. I became convinced we’d never be caught.
We became unstoppable. Sometimes I robbed banks with two grand still in my pocket from the last one. I bought my first Chevy truck. I bought my friend his first Chevy truck, too. Everyone I knew had new Levis and Red-Wing boots. My wife and kids weren’t hungry anymore. My dope dealer was in heaven. I told everybody I knew I was doing it. The story about the bank robberies would be broadcast on TV every evening and my house was always full of people. I’d shush everybody and listen seriously, telling them “That’s me and James, man, really, we’re real-life gangsters.” I’m not sure they believed me, but it didn’t matter. I was a generous guy — I could say anything I wanted.
One day James showed up at the house real early. He was ghost pale. I couldn’t imagine why. We had stopped doing the robberies after about two months or so. We later found out it was 21 banks — about $165,000. We hadn’t done any in a couple weeks. James had a newspaper in his hand. When he motioned me upstairs, I knew it had to be serious. He started tearing through the pages of the paper but I saw what he was trying to show me right away. They had composite drawings of the both of us. The one of James was eerily accurate — I felt the fear in me — and they had tied the robberies together, which was new. The story said it was two guys working together, taking turns going in and driving the getaway car, which was also new, and really scary. The story said the suspects might be brothers, which was horrifying. Most frightening of all was that the authorities were offering $2,500 for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprits. Everybody we knew had heard me bragging. Any one of them, with a couple of exceptions, would take that $2,500 and run, no problem.
But my composite was the biggest reason yet for me to remain cocksure I’d never have to pay any price for the robberies. The witnesses had seen me as 5’9” to 6’0” with an olive complexion, boldly suggesting, even, that I might speak with a Spanish or Cuban accent. In my mind, I was practically pardoned. Being so naïve was a comfortable place; I rested there. But James was a different story. The paper had him so good he might as well have posed for the drawing. The artist had gotten every detail, from his thin lips and lazy eye, all the way to height, weight, and almost unnaturally red hair.
About a week and a half later, James showed up early again. “Man, I’m broke,” he said. “We’ve got to do another bank.”
I was not broke. I was good, and I was back at work at a warehouse making nine bucks an hour. For a 20-year-old kid in 1980, that was okay. I had a vehicle, my little girl was about five months old, and my wife was recovering slowly and painfully from Toxic Shock Syndrome. We were going to be OK. There was no way I intended to rob another bank. I felt like I had just dodged a huge bullet. But, instead, I said, “We aren’t using my car,” banking on the fact that he was too much in love with his car to dispose of it after a robbery. I was wrong, of course.
“Bro, I’m wanted for parole violation, probably for the robberies, and I’m going to lose this ride anyhow,” he said. “I got some stolen plates we can put on before we head to the bank.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
A perfect bank for robbing has some very important musts. It must have two opposite entrances. It must be on a main thoroughfare, but just in front of a neighborhood. It must be federally insured, and the parking area cannot be restricted in any way. Full access from at least two sides, preferably three.
At some point in our search for the right bank, we found ourselves at a traffic light, waiting for it turn green, when James says to me in a frantic voice, “Bro that cop just recognized me, I know him, and he’s busted me before. He’s turning around!”
He started to pull over to the side of the road. I rolled down the window and tossed the plates right in front of the officer.
“Go!” I said, “don’t stop, we can lose them.” I guess I suddenly grew some nuts or something, because I was in charge. Telling James where to turn, where the cops were (now there were a lot of them), and to stay calm, we would get away; I knew it.
We went top speed through the financial district, on both Broadway and Spring. We ran red lights in the middle of morning rush hour and didn’t cause one accident. We would make it if I could just come up with a destination. As it was, we were just guessing, driving faster than we were thinking and getting lucky. Then we hit a dead end. We were suddenly stopping, so we jumped out of the car and ran — in different directions (planned — one of us would escape). I found myself heading directly for some old rail yards behind a large industrial building. I had no idea which way James went. Fortunately I can run; with a dose of primal fear and adrenaline on the side, I was gone. Because James had been the reason for the intended traffic stop and he was the main target, they mostly followed him. While I completely immersed myself in a loose mountain of gravel, my brother was caught, beaten severely, and arrested.
After three hours, during which time I actually slept, I crawled very slowly out of my gravel cocoon and simply walked home. I told my beautiful wife what had happened and complained about how wrong the police were and went right back into my fearless, ignorant bliss.
The days following James’ arrest, I learned about my situation. I received many calls from the county jail so that James could update me on the investigation. The charges for robbery had not been filed against anyone, but they felt they had their man, and questioned him endlessly for several days. They wanted to know who his partner was. They offered leniency if he were to cooperate and give them a name. We laughed at that — obviously James was the criminal. Whoever this mystery person turned out to be, he was just a follower, if not a reluctant participant. But I was advised to lay low, because they had some evidence having to do with my apartment building. Apparently James had previously used it as his home address, leaving a trail that could eventually lead to me. Scary. But still, I hadn’t yet been considered a suspect. I was not a known criminal. I was ghostly white and painfully thin and almost seven feet tall. Hardly the description of the man they were after.
Now enter into the story one Stephen May. He had been a close friend of ours for several years. A bit older than me, but very much a regular in our crowd. During the time of feast — while the robberies were still paying off and going well — Steve had driven a second getaway car for one of the bigger heists. James and I had robbed a City National Bank at a shopping mall, and when we left, I had jumped into the driver’s seat of the first getaway car. We had careened away while removing overshirts and makeup, and drove only as far as the other side of the huge mall parking area, where Steve had been waiting in my baby blue El Dorado. We left our “disguises” in the throw-away vehicle and Steve drove us calmly away. He was a trusted ally. After that robbery, as a matter of fact, I had bought him a small travel trailer that he and his girl could live in out at the fairgrounds trailer park. We were close.
After James was arrested, Steve had been using the El Dorado quite often. I allowed this because I had my Chevy pickup truck, and he needed wheels. One night while he was driving down the freeway to deliver some drugs in the El Dorado, he was pulled over. He was found to be on parole and was subsequently searched and detained in a police car. The officers at the scene proceeded to tear the car apart. They found three $20 bags of methamphetamine. As an ex-convict, he was going back to prison, guaranteed. As a man, he was broken. He stated, without being asked, from the back seat of the cruiser, “I know who’s been doing all those bank robberies.”
The officer turned and asked how he knew.
“I drove this El Dorado as a getaway car for one of them.”
Now the officer was really interested.
“I would look at Lloyd Miller,” was all he had left to say.
Obviously, I wasn’t there that night to hear the exchange, but I didn’t have to be. I know it all word for word. Every detail. I’ve read it in every court document, every arrest report. Every piece of evidence against me started with that conversation in the police cruiser between officer Brian Alexander and Stephen May.
The police now had a starting point to find James’ partner — I lived in the right apartment complex, I was his brother and semi-constant companion, and I was the registered owner of a confessed getaway driver’s vehicle. They put my apartment, my family and I on surveillance. They took my photograph to every eye-witness and asked if I was the guy. My proverbial goose was cooked.
I’ll leave out a few details, but my arrest was even more dramatic than James’. They didn’t hurt me though. They surrounded my sister’s house with helicopters, newsmen, FBI agents and lots of guns. They lured my wife out of the house with a weird phone call from her sister and went in and showed me who was boss in a quick, efficient, no-bullshit way. They had in their possession a Federal Arrest Warrant with none other than the stamp of the president of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan.
I was formally charged with four open counts of bank robbery. James too was served charges for the robberies. We were considered co-defendants and were to be tried jointly in Federal Court. We were being held temporarily in the City Prison.
The morning of the third day of my incarceration we were taken into a chamber room that had barely enough standing room for the 10 or so occupants. I expected more cameras, more fanfare, but it was cut and dry. We were formally charged. Each side had a few words to say, then the judge stated, “In the interest of justice, these charges are dropped.” I was astounded. My attorney turned to me and whispered, “Don’t get excited.”
Federal Marshals took us out of our handcuffs and left the courtroom. I was still standing with my mouth open, not knowing what was going on. Apparently, federal courts at this time didn’t choose to prosecute bank robbers unless they had either used automatic weapons or taken hostages. Neither of those circumstances were involved in our case.
But the federal courts relied on the arresting counties to prosecute these cases. So within about 45 seconds of being released from one set of cuffs, I was put into cuffs belonging to the County’s Sheriff Department and transported to the jail in up north, where I remained for the next 16 months.
County jail would make prison easier, but not easy. In county jail there are no “contact” visits. I watched my oldest daughter learn to walk and talk through a 3/4 inch piece of security glass. I consider this the saddest part of my story. The relationship that could have been between my first-born child and I was irreversibly damaged.
The county-level trial was going to last a long time. There were so many witnesses. Not only every customer in every bank we had been into was an eligible witness, but people in banks that were robbed by other people also showed up on the stand. See, we weren’t the only bank robbers in the city. We were just the only ones on trial, and we would be tried for every robbery that was yet unsolved.
150 witnesses. Some were scared, some angry, and a lot of them didn’t realize what they were saying when they testified against me. One was a friend of mine named Rachel Fitz. Her misguided effort to help on the stand went something like “Lloyd said he was robbing banks, but I didn’t believe him, he would never do that.” Thanks, Rache.
One of the first robberies we had done had proved to be timely. The cameras hadn’t been working and there weren’t pull-alarms in the money drawers — we would have been fine if we stayed and made coffee. The bank’s manager was a memorable witness. She was asked if she could identify the robber in the courtroom. She stated that her post inside the bank was such that she was facing a wall. All she saw was that he had “long thin legs and a small butt.” I was asked to stand in front of the courtroom and walk away from her so that she may look at my ass and perhaps identify me. If you think this was humiliating, you’re probably right. My ass did not convince her. I was not convicted of that robbery. What I came to find out was that a conviction really comes down to one thing — if I could be positively identified by one bank employee or customer that was proven “reliable.”
One such witness was a young man who had proved himself reliable by stating that he had just finished airline pilot school. The prosecutor went on and on about how significant that was. How his eyesight had to be perfect. He positively identified me and gave me what would become my nickname in jail. He testified that the bank robber in question was well over six and half feet tall and had “aquiline features.” My attorney stood and asked if he could explain “aquiline features.” The gentleman responded by saying, “His nose was large, and appeared birdlike.” I was instructed to stand in front of the jury and allow them to examine my beak from all angles. I was convicted of that robbery, and was called “Bird” for the remainder of my time spent in jail. Even now I occasionally run into someone who will say “Hey is that you, Bird?”
I was eventually convicted of four counts of robbery, no weapons, no enhancements. I can never be tried for those robberies again. I’m safe to write about them. My brother James, who I still love, was convicted of only one. Come to find out, I was a little scarier than James; people seemed more inclined to remember me once they got into the courtroom. I was sentenced to 15 years in prison. I served just fewer than 11.
Winston Churchill once said, “A society must always be judged by the way it treats its prisoners.” Interesting thought. I went into the big house scared — the prospect of being put into a cage with other misfits is terrifying. And at 21 years old, 15 years seemed like forever.
I was given a green uniform, a toothbrush, and some bedding at the reception center. I was escorted down a huge hallway toward a cell block where I was put into a small cell that had two bunks attached to one wall and a toilet/ sink thing at the far end.
I had a cell mate. We ate together. We showered together. We shit in the same room. We had to smell each other. It wasn’t always pleasant.
I was taught by some of my more experienced peers how to live in prison, and I did learn a lot. The convict mind was a different animal than any I had ever dealt with. Eventually, I would be better at being a convicted prisoner than anyone I knew, but first I had to be the fucking new guy.
I was lucky in a lot of ways. James had been there before, and we spent as much time as possible doing the student/teacher thing. I also knew some guys from the neighborhood — and the county jail — and so was respected enough to not get fucked around with too much. I had a long sentence, too. Most people in prison, at least then, had less than five years to go. I had over 10 years until my date, and I’d be going “Behind the Wall” — to one of the largest and most dangerous mainlines in the system, designed for the worst of the lot. Murderers, rapists, predators of all kinds, and I guess, me. It’s where Death Row is — it was built to house prisoners until death. Thirteen steps between each tier. Thirteen-foot thick walls surrounding it.
Someone told me early on that I would survive if I stayed clear of three things: gambling, drugs, and homosexuality. There is not one man with whom I’ve ever spoken who has gone through any similar experience and not been involved with each and every one of those things. It’s a way of life. It’s the way that world operates. There is no staying out of it. If anyone, ever, says different, I challenge them to explain how they have done that to my face because I call him on it now.
I went into prison 6’7″ tall, weighing about a 180 lbs. Very thin. Almost skeletal. I came out 6’7″ and about 290. I lifted weights, I ran for miles. I did push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. I read every book I could get my hands on for 10 years. I read Tommy Knockers by Steven King in one day. That book has over 700 pages.
Once I found a book I really enjoyed, I would read everything by the author until I felt I knew him or her. After reading all of Stephen King’s books, there are certain things I know about the man and the part of the country he comes from. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has no idea who I am, but he has made me a different man, if not a better one.
I still have a bit of a convict mentality. I’ve been out longer than I was in. I wish that I could have the time back that I missed with my children. I wish I could look in the mirror and see the kind of person that I’ve always respected — the man who works his ass off and pays his bills and taxes so that his family will sleep comfortably for one more night.
For now I have to be comfortable with who I am. I like myself a great deal but I know that I’ve made decisions that make me far less than the person I could have been. I have no animosity for Stephen May. He could never have hurt me had I not been guilty in the first place. When I hear someone bitching about getting snitched on, it’s my opinion that it’s probably about time they take responsibility for their own actions. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
You should follow Thought Catalog on Twitter here.
A | A | A
It’s unfortunate, but we’re creatures of habit and we’ll hold onto our convictions until we’re literally forced to stop.
You basically have to walk a perfect straight line at all times in Japan because if you veer off at any moment you will almost definitely get mashed by a Japanese lady on a mamabike with three kids strapped to it.
Come on people, as if other people’s choices of love affected you in the least. Penguins don’t pull this crap on fellow homosexual penguins.
3. You’ve searched Etsy or eBay for a cute and inexpensive fez.