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By Jeffrey Scott Hunter

I’d been robbing banks for close to a year when I came to the realization that it wasn’t about the money any more.

I was hooked on the adrenaline rush, the preparation, the recon that went into laying out the perfect score.

When we’d steal the car (the hot box) we’d use, we went as far as getting a set of 150 master keys with which to steal them, so we wouldn’t damage the steering column or the ignition. Sometimes we’d have to leave the hot box in an apartment complex for a few days, and the last thing we needed was to show up armed to the teeth, truculent with adrenaline dripping from our ears, ready to go to war, and the hot box is gone because some do-gooder damaged the steering column and called the cops.

Sometimes I’d be in a car for 10 to 15 minutes trying every key. But in the long run, it was worth it. My partner always had my back. We’d be walkie-talkied up, and he’d be listening to the police scanner. So I was pretty safe.

It was all a big power trip and my ego loved it.

I remember this one time, I’m sitting inside a mall, packing my 9 mm, with lots of cash on me, eating a bag of popcorn and feeling proud of myself. As I watched people move around me, I started to notice that they all looked like drones moving with no real purpose, shuffling along. I began to glance around, taking a harder look. Cashiers mindlessly checking people out. None of these people were living, not like me. I was on a higher plane, experiencing life to its fullest, sticking it to The Man. I was a rebel, unplugged from what society dictated was normal behavior. I was an outlaw.

There were times when we really needed to know certain things about a bank. And there are only two ways to do it. One is to walk inside and have a look, which is out of the question. No way was I getting caught on tape. The second and my personal favorite was to do recon.

(Order Jeffrey Scott Hunter’s crime novel, Paragon, available on Kindle at Amazon.com.)

My partner would drop me off on the side of the road well before dawn. I’d be dressed in camouflage from head to toe. Most banks we did were in rural areas so there was always some vegetation around to lay in. I’d bring my trusty high-powered binoculars, a gallon of water, and some food. Sometimes I’d see how close I could get to the bank, but that really wasn’t necessary. As long as I could see in through a window, I was fine. Most times I’d be fifty to a hundred yards away, watching everyone arrive.

One morning, while laying on this one bank, I watched the manager show up first and go inside. Five minutes lat4er, she removed a plant from the front window. At the time I thought nothing of it. The next day she did the same thing, only this time I was in a different spot getting a better view and saw a cop car sitting across the street in a gas station. After she removed the plant, the cop drove off.

I went back every day the following week, and each morning within a couple minutes of the manager arriving, she’d remove the plant. Sometimes the cop would do a slow drive-by, and it was always at the same time.

That was the whole point of watching the bank in the first place; I needed to know everything. You can’t control everything, but if on Friday at 10:30 a.m. there are no cops around two weeks in a row, chances are good there won’t be any on that third week.

I’d usually watch a place from Wednesday to Friday because that’s when the big money was dropped off. The recon would last maybe three weeks. I’d be hiding for up to 16 hours a day, loving every minute of it.

Another ritual was on the eve of a score, my partner and I would go out to dinner – a nice steak and lobster joint, have a good meal and a few drinks while going over the last details of our plan.

After that he’d drop me off at my girl’s place for some lovin’ and on those nights it was always the best.

My girl wasn’t stupid. She knew I was an adrenaline junkie who liked to carry guns, sometimes disappearing for a month to do a score out of town. She never questioned me. Once I had thirteen grand stuffed in my jacket and when she went to hang it up, she saw it. She only looked at me, not saying a word. And she knew when my partner and I would go out for dinner that the next day something was going to happen. I think that was one of the things the kept our relationship so passionate – a little danger in the uncertainty of not knowing if we’d see each other again. We lived our lives in the moment a lot more than other couples.

After dinner, we’d head over to my partner’s place and get ready to do the score. This was another rush in itself. I’d always have my Walkman, listen to Judas Priest’s Painkiller or an AC DC song called Shoot to Thrill over and over. The combination of cranking those tunes while loading clips to my AK-47 and 9mm, strapping on body armor, making sure the scanner was properly programmed – now that’s exhilarating.

Now here’s where it all started to unravel. It’s a winter day, so it gets dark maybe by 5 p.m. My partner and I were out cruising when I spot a pretty good-sized bank sitting about 30 feet off the road. It’s all lit up with what looks like a few people inside.

“Is that place open?”

My partner glances as we pass. “No, must be cleaning people.” (Back then all the banks closed at 5 p.m.)

“I need confirmation,” I say. “Pull over at that gas station.” I get out and go to a pay phone, call information, then call the bank.

“Hello, Independent Bank. How can I help you?” a girl cheerfully answers.

“Are you still open?” I ask.

“We’re open til six.”

“The drive through?”

“No, you can walk in.”

“Thanks, I’ll be right there,” I say.

I tell my partner the good news, only he’s not as excited as I am at my plan to rob it before it closes. He likes the rush, but he’s more about the money, and we’re out of town. We don’t know the area, have no body armor, no heavy fire power, no scanner, no hot box. Nothing. But I reassure him that this bank will be a walk in the park. I have a 9 mm, a ski mask, gloves. All I need is a pillow case to carry all the cash. Best part is, it’s dark out. He reluctantly goes along.

We drive around. We find a couple of outs for me to run in case the cops chase me, find a place for him to park, and buy a set of sheets to the pillow case, of course. Then I walk up to the bank, take a quick look around, pull down my ski mask and blast off through the door like a Tasmanian Devil. I vault the chest-high counter like an Olympic high jumper.

Two tellers are in shock. They can’t believe what’s happening.

“What are you doing?” one of them manages to say.

“What do you think I’m doing? Open the drawers.”

I clean them out in record time. But before I do, I look at the drive-up teller window and decide to get a little extra cash. So I blast over to her drawer and clean it out, too. This takes maybe 20 seconds, then I fly out of the place and down an alley to the pick-up spot.

Within 30 minutes of coming off my best high ever, I knew that if I didn’t start to control myself I wouldn’t last much longer. I needed to get back to acting like a professional. I had to put my ego in check. But, when you’re getting off like that, it’s hard to control.

It’s like diving into frigid ocean water in the dead of winter. Your heart is pounding harder than you could imagine possible, your vision is clear, hearing impeccable. The raw adrenaline takes control. Suddenly, you’re released from everything, leaving you with a God-like feeling of pure power.

That’s how I felt every time I went charging into a bank.

The feeling should be illegal and in my case it was.

About six months later, the FBI caught up to me and I’ve been locked up every since.

_____

*Jeffrey Scott Hunter is serving a 29-year federal prison sentence for bank robbery. (BOP# 11557-014) This is his second story for Tell Your True Tale.  His initial piece was titled My First Bank Robbery. He is the author of the crime novel, Paragon, available on Kindle at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at Oakdale FCI federal prison.

More fab TYTT stories:

Me and Stan Getz by Jonathan Bellman

Planting Flowers by Betsy Klee

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By Hugo Garcia

The intersections near MacArthur Park were congested as commuters traveled to downtown offices from the Westside of the Los Angeles.

The morning sunrise made its way through the window of my bedroom in our second-floor apartment. As the alarm clock went off, I hit the snooze. Then I heard a loud Bang! on my door downstairs. Was somebody trying to break in my house? This early in the morning?

I peered through the window, then rolled out bed, threw myself on the rug and ran to another window in my room to get a clearer view of the scene unfolding downstairs.

About twenty army-green helmets clustered together, surrounding my doorsteps, guns drawn. Fifteen yards from my door in each direction stood a sheriff agent, helmet and vest on, pointing a sniper rifle right at me as I looked down from my window. Across the street plainclothes agents spoke through their portable radios.

Then I heard the loud knocking down of my front door and the officers call out my name.

“We’ve got an arrest warrant!” one of the officers shouted. They forced their way in. I was sure they awoke the entire neighborhood.

My heart pumped fast. My mind raced. My stomach churned.

I threw my Nikes on and rushed to the back door next to the second bedroom. I’m not going out like a sucker. In a few seconds the unit will be all over this dump of an apartment like hound dogs that haven’t been fed for weeks. I look out the back window. Two officers were right outside. I could almost swear I hear the helicopter right above the building. What have I gotten myself into?

I realized it’s no use. Then the questions began, What could they possibly think I committed? Robberies? Burglaries? On second thought, Maybe they want my dad? Or my brother? He moved out months ago! This only happens in the movies. This is how Henry Hill felt when they raided his family in Goodfellas. Maybe they want drugs?!! Are there any drugs in my room? I can’t remember.

Suddenly my mother broke my train of thought, she hurried to the doorway in the living room that gave way downstairs. From the doorway she turned back with a preoccupied look, and whispered, “Oh baby.”

In my mother’s eyes I saw agony.

One morning, when I was five, in a different apartment I woke up to my mother sobbing in her bed. My older brother’s room was a mess, everything had been tossed around, like a tornado had hit. My brother wasn’t there. I learned later that policemen had stormed into our dwelling and had taken my brother while I slept. The tornado hadn’t interfered with my sleep that morning. I didn’t see my brother again until I was ten years old. Even after, the reason for his incarceration was never discussed.

My mother made her way down the steps.

“Don’t do anything foolish, baby. God’s going to take care of this,” she said. The officers shouted orders.

As she opened the door, I paced the living room. They shouted my name again.

“STEP INTO THE HALLWAY WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”

Petrified, I stared at the red laser dots floating around the doorway leading to the steps. This wasn’t a nightmare and any stupid mistake would be my last. The sheriffs made it very clear that they were “ready to shoot!”

I stepped into the doorway.

“Put your hands on your head! – Turn around and face the other way! – One step at a time – Make your way downstairs!”

I just thought of mom, and it hurt to feel like the greatest disappointment. I didn’t deserve to be her son.

Three agents grasped me and cuffed me. The squad stormed upstairs, and a policewoman interviewed my mother. Neighbors watched from their doorways. Rubberneckers stared as they drove to their morning shifts.

“Suspect’s in custody, the location has been clear – bring vehicle over,” ordered the cop who identified himself as Sgt. Kyle.

“Ten four,” another officer replied over the walkie-talkie, within seconds, a caravan of fifteen patrol cars emerged from side streets and parked in front of the apartment complex.

Still in my sleepwear and Nikes on, I was escorted to one of the unmarked police cars. I watched my mother, teary-eyed, wave good-bye. The sheriffs carried out boxes filled with my belongings. I kept wondering whether there were any stashed drugs in the apartment. They carried out my laptop and PC. Also, they brought down posters that I had framed on my wall — posters that I had stripped from metro buses, that displayed a one-eight-hundred number, urging commuters to report any tagger activity that they witnessed. These were the posters that hung from my wall; no high school diplomas, no sport trophies, and certainly no recognitions.

“I’ll have my partner come speak to you in a second to state you your rights and formally charge you with your arrest warrant.”

“That’s fine,” I said, feigning disdain for authority.

I looked at my apartment for the last time. How beautiful does my street look now that I face much uncertainty. Funny how things seem different under nerve-racking circumstances. I chased my thoughts away. I’d always thought of this place I called home as a dump. It had gone through so much misery through the years, more drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, and guilt than any teenager could bear.

That misery laid a path for me to the streets and I knew it had everything to do with the raid that morning.

I recalled my attempts at trying to assimilate to my social environment at school. Home and family were ideas that I didn’t want to be identified with. So I tried identifying with my immediate friends at school. My peers all had issues at home and they had joined a tagging crew called The Rejected Crew. This name the crew would tag on private properties across the city. It was the name that we felt represented our place in society. Although my interest was not graffiti, I was enthralled with the sense of brotherhood I attained from the crew. We looked out for each other during fights with other crews and often times experimented with liquor and cigarettes. This certainty and reassurance I received from my brotherhood was what I had read in The Outsiders and what my home had failed to provide. I joined their missions. Sometimes I would be a photographer; other times I’d look out for landlords while crew members tagged. I became apathetic about school and my older peers had already become involved in burglaries and drug dealing.

The lifestyle, however, had led me to this point in my life — with the sheriffs knocking down my door.

The next few days are one big blur. I was charged with numerous counts of vandalism, each ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 dollars worth of damage to private property. The investigators knew that I was just a scapegoat for graffiti damages caused collectively by several people. The investigators understood that I knew it too, so they put their cards on the table and asked me to give up names of people that I was in cahoots with. When you grow up in the bleaker side of town you learn early on that you shouldn’t give up other people. I refused to cooperate.

By the end of the week, I traveled among the hard core, those who told their war stories of drugs, murders, and power in the county jail bus.  One of the younger inmates was boasting how active his neighborhood was. He told of an incident that had occurred two weeks prior, he spotted a rival gang member inside an arcade in the corner of a disputed neighborhood block. As soon as he recognized him he became heated and ran home on a back street to get a shotgun he had just acquired from an arm dealer. He had to rummage through his mom’s clothes looking for what he called a “coat like the one Sherlock Holmes wears.” He used the trench coat to disguise the shotgun. He described how he had a hard time rushing back to the arcade because the gun was too long. Before reaching the main street he heard three gunshots and commotion nearby. He heard sirens wailing and the helicopter above. He fled back home but he struggled with the shotgun, so he decided to dump it in an alley. He later heard that his close friend got to their rival first and shot him three times and was caught when the police searched the area.

Suddenly, his boastful manner of this crude reality made me want to puke and I knew then that I didn’t belong in that circle of people who remained frozen in a time when they are teenagers and never quite grow. His stories will involve himself as a teenager even when he’s in his 40’s.

In shackles, I waited an entire day in the holding tank, which is a large holding cell where inmates wait to be seen in court. Finally the court bailiff called me in. But instead of directing me towards the courtroom, he escorted me to the release-processing center.

“What’s going on officer?” I asked.

“Don’t ask any questions, buddy, unless you want to go back,” he replied.

My heart raced. I’ll shut up, I thought to myself.

Eventually, a stern, yet beautiful, female sheriff explained to me that the District Attorney had rejected my case. My heart almost jumped out.

“Do you have any idea why?”

She gently smirked. “Lack of evidence it seems.”

I went home and everything in the neighborhood felt the same. Neighbors continued their day-to-day activities. Street vendors kept on their routes, and children played. For a moment, my life had stopped in time. Yet life kept going for everyone else. It reminded me of the defiant youth I met inside the walls, and how they knowingly went in there to serve 25-to-life prison sentences. Is any of it worth it? Their world gets stuck in time, yet society keeps moving.

It made me reconsider my philosophy. Although, the easy way out for a youth facing adversity is to give in to the social norm and succumb to delinquency, it takes real courage to change for the better and therefore I did.

____

Hugo Garcia is a Ralph Bunche Scholar Honor student at Los Angeles City College, completing his second year of undergraduate studies.

 

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By Gerry Hadden

I’m idling at a red light on a Mexico City street when my car starts to rise onto two wheels.  A stubby green and white public bus is trying to squeeze ever so slowly between me and another car.   It’s not working.  The bus’s driver side door handle scrapes sickeningly along the right side of my little Volkswagen GT.  I watch my side-view mirror twist and pop, then fall from sight.   Then he’s past and I’m back on four wheels.

The light turns green and I pull out in front of the bus, blocking its path.

Hiiiiiiijole manito,” calls the bus driver.   “That was my fault back there.”  He orders his passengers off his bus but I am tired and do not recognize this for the clue it is.

“We’ll have to call the police,” I say.

“Of course,” says the driver.  Then he says, “Hermano?  We should pull over past the intersection.  So we’re not blocking traffic.”

“Good idea,” I say.  We climb back in our vehicles and moved forward.  And that’s when the clue I’ve missed begins to bother me.  I am halfway across the intersection when I think, a bus driver who’s emptied his bus is not going to pull over anywhere.   I have him in my rear view mirror and am already leaning on my brakes as I see him swerve sharply to the right and speed off down a side street.

As I slam into second gear I figure I’ll catch his top-heavy green vehicle within a block.   But I’ve underestimated his skill behind the wheel.  He’s already crossing oncoming traffic to the left and disappearing down another street.  As he takes the turn the left wheels of his bus come off the pavement and several cars skid to avoid him.  When I reach the intersection I hesitate.  My car is new.  I’ve had it for three days.

Soon the bus driver has put three full blocks between us.  When I glimpse him banging a right on a street far ahead of me I think, I’ve lost him.  I speed to the corner and take it hard.  Then I brake.  It’s a dead end.  At the end of the cul-de-sac sits the bus, lights out, parked behind a light pole, facing us.  An elephant hiding behind a tree.  I swing my car around to block his exit.

“You’re trapped now, you bastard!” I yell.

He pulls out from behind the pole, but has nowhere to go.   He revs his engine, the grill of his green vehicle just inches from my car.

“Move your car or I’ll plough straight over it!”  he yells.

After a long moment it must become clear to him that the dramatic effect is waning.  He turns the bus off, jumps down to the sidewalk and starts off down the street in a wobbly arc and disappears.

(Click to buy Gerry’s book)

Several people from the large surrounding houses watch from their stoops.  One man, dressed in khaki pants and a polo style shirt, approaches.

“Do not call the police,” he counsels.  “They will only arrest you.  The other man is already gone.”

“But he left a small piece of evidence behind,” I say, pointing toward the bus.

I’m not worried about the cops.  I have my press credential issued by the Mexican Interior Ministry.  The Interior Minister is the cops’ boss.  When the police come I hand it to them.  They discuss the situation in murmurs.

A captain tells me I’ll have to accompany them to the precinct headquarters.   Then two officers come walking around the corner with none other than my friend the bus driver. He is sweaty now and looks displeased.

“That’s the bus driver,” I say.

“I can call my lawyer,” the neighbor whispers.

At the precinct house I am told to wait in the crowded lobby of the station.  A  representative from my insurance company shows up.  He urges me to settle with the driver.  But the driver is nowhere to be seen.  At dawn an officer leads me to a desk in a corner of the great hall.  The bus driver is already there, seated.   A policewoman sits behind the desk, typing on a computer.   She asks me to explain what happened.  She gives me a sheet of blank paper and asks me to draw the accident scene.

I make a hasty sketch of the street.  She asks me how many lanes it had.

“Four, I think,” I say.

“You think.”

“Or six.”

“What sorts of buildings were nearby.”

“They had doors and windows,” I say.

“Were they restaurants, homes?”

“I can’t remember,” I say.  “But I don’t see how that matters.”

“We need to establish where the accident took place.”

“But I told you the name of the cross street.”

“Yes, but if you cannot remember what it looks like…”

(Watch the trailer to Gerry’s book, Never the Hope Itself.)

“Look,” I interrupt.  “I was waiting at a red light right here.”  I draw a little squiggle on my road map.  “Then this guy comes along in his bus and scrapes the entire length of my car.”  I push the pen along my drawing, ripping the paper in the process.

“Is this what happened?”  the policewoman asks the bus driver.

“No, señora,” the man says.  “El señor hit my bus.”

“That’s a lie,” I say.

Then two men in long white smocks come out through a door behind her desk:  they are car crash forensics specialists. Their conclusion:  the bus hit me.  One of them cuffs the bus driver lightly on the back of his head and laughs.

“Listen up, fool.   You might as well settle with the Gringo.”

“I agree,” says the policewoman. Then to me:  “I implore you to reach an agreement with this man.  If you file charges you will regret it.”

I turn to my adversary.   “My insurance rep tells me there’s about 4 thousand pesos (400 dollars) worth of damage to my car.  Pay me and our business is finished.”

The driver fishes through his pockets.

“I have 400 pesos,” he says.

“Arrest this man,” I say.

The bus driver asks the policewoman if he can speak with his boss who’s arrived at the station.  She assents.

“Please settle with the man,” she says.

“If he won’t pay for the damage I’m not going to settle.”

“But it could take years,” she insists.  “And I think it will end badly for you.”

“I don’t see how,” I say.

My insurance representative interrupts.

“I have just spoken to the driver’s boss,” he says.  “They are going to offer four thousand pesos.  Do not accept it.”

“Why not?”

“Because the owner is offering to meet with you tomorrow to settle this.  But he will never show up.”

The insurance rep leaves me his card and leaves.  The policewoman and I finish the details of the report.  She gives me my car keys and says I can go.  Outside it is already light.  Sticking to my guns has cost me half a day of red tape but it’s worth it.  I swear to myself that I will get the entire four thousand pesos from that drunken son of a whore liar.

A week later the policewoman calls to say that I have won.  I know, I say, how do I collect the money?  She tells me that I will first need a copy of the favorable decision.

“Shall I give you my mailing address?”

“It must be picked up in person,” she says.

“You’re joking.  What’s the exact address of the police station?”

“Your insurance rep has it.”

“But I need it.  To pick up the document.”

“You cannot pick it up.”

“I cannot?”

“Your insurance rep must claim it for you.”

Fine, I say.  I hang up and dig about for the business card the young man left me the night before.  But I can’t find it.  After searching in every conceivable place I give up and call the insurance company.  Two days pass before I get through.  I explain to the customer service person that I need the name of the rep who has responded to my case.

“Who was he?” she asks.

“That’s what I am asking you,” I say.  She says she can find no record of the incident.

The following night I dine out with friends.  I arrive home about midnight.  As I pull on to my street I notice an old model Buick double parked and idling under a tree just before my house.  To squeeze past it I have to slow considerably.  I make eye contact with the two men sitting in it.  They are scruffy but alert-looking and appear very interested in how I look.  I decide to continue down the street. The idling car pulls out.  This time I’m the chased.  After 10 minutes I manage to shake them.  I drive home, my heart racing.

The next morning I call the policewoman.

“You said that my insurance rep was the only one who could claim a copy of the police report, right?”

“Correct.”

“Did the bus guys pick up a copy?”

“Yes. Yesterday morning.”

“How were they able to do that?”

“They came down and picked it up.”

“What?  How could they?  Do our addresses figure in the report?”

“Yes.  The addresses of both parties appear in the report.”

I hang up.  I call back the insurance company’s toll free line.  When I get through later in the day they still cannot locate my case.

Several weeks pass without word either from the insurance company or the police.  No more goons have returned to stake out my house. But the incident has shaken me.  Then quite unexpectedly my insurance agent calls.

“I’m sorry to inform you that we’ve lost the case,” he says.

“Come again?”

“The police have found in favor of the bus driver.”

“First of all, where have you been?  Second, that’s impossible.  You must have your cases confused.”

“I’ll look into it,” he says.

Two more months pass.   One afternoon my front doorbell rings.  I peek down from the roof terrace.   A Mexico City police cruiser is parked in front of my door.  Two officers in brown uniforms and caps stand on the sidewalk.

“Si?” I yell.

Don Gerald Hadden?”

“Who are you?”

Don Gerald?”

“Who are you?” I repeat.

Don Gerald?” says one of the two cops.  “We need to take you with us.”

I go outside.  I have my cell phone on with the number of the U.S. Embassy ready to be dialed.

“What is this about?” I ask.

“You, sir, filed a traffic complaint following an accident involving a bus.”

“Several months ago, yes.”

“Your testimony is apparently filled with inconsistencies,” he says.  “Contradicciones.  You must come with us to the station to clear this matter up.”

I stare incredulously into the man’s dark eyes.  There’s hatred or indifference hidden in them, who can tell.  He is a frog playing poker.  But it’s his voice.   It has suddenly and most powerfully deflated me.  The sham seriousness of his tone, the all too familiar deadpan absurdity of a shake-down in progress. I look at the other cop, nonchalantly chewing gum, his eyes fixed on his partner.   And I give up.  I have no fight left in me.

Sabes que?” I say.  “I drop the case.  You win.”

The officer watches me.

“I’ve had enough,” I say, waving my hand before his eyes.  “Hello?  Case closed.”

The cop smiles wryly, then places a hand on my shoulder.

“Better for you,” he says softly, “Much better.”

And he is right.  He and his partner do not ask for a penny and I never hear from them again.  And I never get back through to my insurance rep.  Nor does the case ever appear in the company’s system.  I stop calling.  Because the truth is I feel relieved to have gotten all these crooks off my back.   It’s painful to admit because I criticize Mexicans all the time for the same passivity.  I won’t anymore, because now I get it.  Accommodating injustice here is a hell of a lot easier than fighting it.

____

Gerry Hadden is an author and radio foreign correspondent. For several years, he worked NPR’s Mexico, Central America and Caribbean correspondent. He now lives with his family in Barcelona, where he is Europe correspondent for Public Radio International’s The World. Contact him at www.gerryhadden.com.

 

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