Bank Shot

The rush - the heart-stopping terror - of robbing a bank was like nothing else on the planet for Keith. Better than a game-winning buzzer-beater, better than the Magic Mountain Viper, better even than a "master-blaster" - a simultaneous mega-hit of base accompanied by the expert ministrations of a cheap hooker.

The crack/hooker combo is what keeps Keith steeled to the day's task, the holdup of a Westside branch of a major bank chain. Keith has done his research well. He learned that this branch was guardless, and his getaway plan is close to a slam-dunk.

He also knows damn well that banks direct tellers to cooperate, discouraging all heroics. After all, a dead teller makes for one hell of a costly lawsuit from grief-stricken relatives.

Knowing all this doesn't make his task any easier, what with his adrenaline level up so high he can taste it, his skull pounding like a house kick drum.

One of the many reasons Keith's so hot under the collar is that he's wearing two sets of clothes: the one he's being seen in and the one underneath, his "change of identity" threads. Before stepping into the bank, he pauses in the adjacent alley to make sure there's a dumpster where he can deposit the outer layer. He laughs to himself, thinking about the shoplifted polyester two-piece he's got on, and how he used to wear the same kind of outfit when he worked on the other side of the glass as a teller himself, before he decided that working eight hours a day was a chump's game.

Keith really needs this money, what with a $100-a-day crack habit and no prospects for regular employment. But in Keith's case, desperation is the mother of innovation. Because he can't afford a car, he's taken a bus to get here, and has an even better public-transportation solution for getting away: a taxi. You might even say it's his m.o., a trait that singles him out from other bank robbers, just like using the two sets of clothes.

Keith takes a final deep breath and proceeds. In he struts with what he hopes is a look of cool confidence. He'd better be cool. As an African-American in this upscale hood, he's already bound to draw more attention than he desires. No one has particularly noticed as he approaches a window, smiles widely at the teller and hands her the note. In clean block letters it reads, "I have a gun on you. I want tens and twenties. Don't be stupid."

Shakespeare it ain't, but then, simple and to the point works best when Keith figures he's got about 45 seconds of lead time. Any longer and he knows the Five-O could be on him.

Using a note is a technique Keith learned from mates in the joint. At sentencing time, civilized, mild-mannered note passers generate more sympathy, not to mention that they qualify for shorter terms. (Believe me, he can recite the Federal Sentencing Guidelines chapter and verse.) The wording of the note matters too. A message that states "I'll kill you" will draw a longer sentence. A note also helps avoid the slight but ever-present possibility of getting shot by a cop, concerned citizen or bank guard. Guns drawn, you see, draw other drawn guns. In truth, Keith isn't even armed.

The teller rapidly fills a canvas bag full of "straps," the bundles of dead presidents. Thirty seconds tops, and Keith's out the door. Made it, he thinks.

Off goes the outer layer into the dumpster. "Let the rats piss on 'em now," he says to himself. Underneath it's chic running gear, pricy sweats - designer all the way. And off goes Keith to the pay phone that he had scouted earlier. Three minutes later, he's in a taxi, headed for a Pico-Union fleabag. Yippie-yi-yo!

Safely ensconced in his room, he drops his swag bag on the fetid little bed and heads over to MacArthur Park. Rock heaven. Five minutes later, he's returning to his temporary Shangri-la with crack coke in pocket and the happy knowledge that Lolita is on her way over. It don't get better than this.

That's about when Keith realizes that he was a little sloppy. Sure, he got away without getting "inked" - that is, having himself or his bills tagged by a dye bomb. But he forgot to look for "bugs," transmitters planted inside fake money bundles. Negative bingo! Sure enough, one strap of 20s is a hollowed-out dummy, with a little metal insect buzzing inside. Damn.

Panicked, Keith races out the door. Spotting an old geezer napping in a convertible Buick, Keith tosses the funny money into the dude's back seat. That's when he knows this job is a success.

Reeling in $1,500 with an hour's labor is cost-effectiveness that any MBA would admire. This is the second heist of the week; more follow in the weeks to come. Still, the money never lasts, and somehow Keith doesn't feel as though he's living the high life. Thirty-two and relatively skill-less, carrying a crack gorilla that's effectively crippled him, and facing a possible third strike, his ass has just about had it. Besides, he's got guilt up the ying-yang over his existence, being a preacher's son with fundamentalist roots. But with pipe in mouth, and hooker hard by, all that seems miles away.  

Well-mannered, articulate and extremely likable, Keith doesn't seem the Clyde Barrow stereotype as we converse in a Westside Italian eatery. Once he trusts you, he discusses his illegal pursuits frankly, sometimes flashing a wide grin that somewhat offsets his habit of staring nervously at the floor when pondering a tough question.

Every response is delivered after palpable deliberation, a trait common to ex-cons who reason that their freedom or survival could depend on choosing words carefully.

Born in New York to parents he describes as attentive and loving, Keith picked up his addiction at 20, in his second year in college. He then chucked his classes and went to work - as a bank teller for a while. He moonlighted as a cabby and burglar to augment support for his coke habit.

There wasn't much to tie him down to New York City, so, like many others, he meandered to Los Angeles at age 27, starting a more or less full-time, but unsatisfying, career as a car-stereo booster. "The most you get for a radio or CD player is maybe 10 or 20 bucks," he says. His daily habit cost 10 times that at least. "Gotta break into a lotta cars for that. I've had guns pulled on me, been chased by maniacs with baseball bats, and worse, gotten busted and sent up."

Nine months in Wasco opened his eyes, but not the way authorities intended. "I really admired the takeover and stickup guys up there," he recalls. "The ones who just marched into a bank with shotguns. That took real balls."

Upon release, Keith was not quite ready for the big leagues, preferring to hone his skills on fast-food joints. "Used notes, just like for banks," he says. "But if you didn't hit the shifts just right, they could be cashless in there, and sometimes I'd only get out with 70 or 80 bucks."

Onward and upward. He was finally ready to apply all he had learned. For about a half-dozen bank robberies, everything went as planned. "I had it down to a science at one point," he says with the pride of a professional. But as he became practiced at his trade, he also got brazen. And it didn't help his thought process to be reeling between narcotic highs and lows.

When he entered the Great Western Bank on the corner of Beverly and Vermont, he hadn't done his homework. "First of all, the dumb-bitch teller fumbled the note and fucked up my order," he says, as if she were a waitress at a truck stop. "Way over the 45-second limit. I get the money, and as I run out the door, I realize, 'Damn, I don't know where the phone is.' So I circle the bank outside, and notice a pay phone in the far corner of the bank's parking lot. I strut over to it and call a cab. I turn around, and there are three or four LAPD cruisers all facing me, and the cops are out with their guns drawn. I was history!"

Despite being a mere unarmed note passer, he drew four years in federal prison. "They deeply frown on bank holdups," Keith comments. "You can kill somebody on the street over nothing and get manslaughter, maybe even be out in three."

During this 34-month stretch, he focused on something other than his admiration for bank robbers. Keith actually got clean; it wasn't easy, but he had to consider the alternative. "I hated prison, and for me it was especially hard, because I'm a black man from the East, and I wasn't down with the homies around here . . . I wasn't black enough for them, and they gave me rafts of shit."

Keith also confesses that he rediscovered some of his religious roots while behind bars. Whatever the motivation, the light went on upstairs for the first time in years.

After nearly a year in a halfway house, Keith became semifree. As a parolee, he's obligated to deposit a sample of his finest for drug tests twice monthly at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. down on La Brea. At one point, an acquaintance volunteered to help him cheat the urine test. But Keith knew better. "If I did that, the next week I'd be robbing banks."  

Keith has landed a legit job, in the lower echelons of a professional trade. Yes, it's back to the chump's game, and he's sort of glad to be there. Keith's asked me not to mention his job specifically. His employer could probably put two and two together - and might no longer want him around.

For now, Keith dreams of getting into the legal end of the entertainment business and eventually learning how to produce movies. "If I gotta get the rush from something, it had better be from something that isn't gonna kill me or somebody else."


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