So my friend Ned and I had just acquired a newer model, gray Mitsubishi Eclipse. It was parked nearby Ned’s house on a secluded stretch of side street. We had contacted a potential buyer and were just waiting for him to come by and check it out.
It was April 2002. Otay, California. I was eighteen years old.
Ned and I were playing a friendly game of Halo when hunger eventually set in. We decided to buy a grande combo meal from Taco Bell along with a two-liter Pepsi to get us through the day. We began to gather the needed funds for our planned feast and quickly realized we had only six dollars between the two of us. The meal and two liter would have cost just under ten.
I don’t remember exactly what was going through my head, but I blurted out the first solution to our problem I could think of: “We should hit a bank, homie.” I’m not sure if he was testing me just to see if I’d back down from my own suggestion or not, but he agreed surprisingly fast: “Fuck it, let’s do it.”
That was it. I realized neither of us would back down. Not now that we had both spoken on it. But I’d been waiting for a moment like this for at least four years. Boosting jewelry and candy during grade school and middle school was small time.
I grew up the same way a lot of Americans do—surrounded with gangs, drugs, violence, and poverty. My neighborhood, Otay, pronounced (OH-tie)—located immediately north of the Otay Valley Regional Park area in San Diego—is only a couple miles north of Tijuana, Mexico. If you yourself are from San Diego, you may know it as the area where the bodies and body parts seem to be always turning up in the weedy riverbed.
Growing up in an environment like this as a child was a little stressful. I remember watching commercials and TV shows that would feature families in these huge homes all happy and shit, living with no worries, and I would just want that for me and my family so badly.
I also enjoyed watching informative channels such as Discovery, The Learning Channel, and even PBS. One of my favorite shows The FBI Files aired on Discovery most evenings. Episodes would feature different stories from different criminal cases each night. Each episode covered two to three separate cases, and each episode ended the same way: The bad guy gets caught.
I’m sure this show was intended not only for entertainment purposes, but also as a deterrent for any would-be criminals. However, I personally enjoyed the knowledge I retained from each episode. Their favorite criminals to feature were serial bank robbers and armored truck bandits. They spilled game (gave knowledge) by the gallon, and my young mind soaked it right up. They did this by breaking down each robbery step-by-step and explaining exactly what the suspect did wrong, with great detail.
I learned about law enforcement procedures immediately following a bank robbery and what the Feds would look for. The episodes covered the most common getaway routes for bank robbers, what vehicles they used, what the latest tracking devices were for the stolen loot, and where those devices could be located for removal. All from a braggy TV show.
I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes the stars of the show had made. I would learn from them. Now it was time to use the free game I had received and apply it in a real way.
My parents, Tammy and Manuel, tried their best to keep me on a straight, honest path. In the nineties, my mother, a government employee, and my dad, a local truck driver, did all they could to provide for me and my sisters by regularly working sixteen-hour days. My sisters came into the picture in 1994 (Alexis) and 2000 (Veronica). By all accounts I had a well-structured home with hard-working, honest parents who clearly wanted nothing but the best for my sisters and me.
A few months after my parents had Alexis, their work hours grew longer. Whenever they had a chance for some overtime, they took it. There was no such thing as extra money—we needed it, desperately. I was still in grade school and unable to help much with babysitting duties.
A new addition to our family meant more room and more money was needed, ASAP. We soon moved to a bigger apartment in a more affordable section of the neighborhood.
Affordable and safe usually don’t go hand in hand—at least where we lived. We ended up in a complex on Orange Avenue and Hilltop, walking distance from my school. My aunt was able to move in for bits of time to help with the babysitting, but not for free, and I would fill in when possible. Again, my parents were clearly doing everything they could to provide for us.
Not only were they providers, but very strict as well. My mom would warn me, “Don’t be out past this time. Do your homework. Don’t go play where they find the bodies. THEY’LL KILL YOU!”
To further add to their stress and worries, I fucked up in school regularly. I hated it, passionately. Despite that, I would still make my way there every day I needed to, mostly to avoid pissing off and letting down my parents—with an occasional ditch day once in a blue moon.
I hated school because I saw everyone around me including my own parents struggling just to survive and provide for their families, always stressed, and always worried about money. I figured if that’s the reward that awaits me in my adult life for my long hours of studying and all around stress, then fuck it, why bother?
I had led a life of petty crime like shoplifting and auto burglary until that day I proposed we hit a bank.
So Ned and I discussed who would go in the bank and eventually settled on me since it was my idea. I grabbed a blank sheet of white paper from a nearby shelf and proceeded to cut it down to the size of a check. I continued by putting on a pair of black baseball (now burglary) gloves I had for obvious reasons and removed any possible prints off the paper by wiping it down with a cloth.
Next I grabbed a pen and wrote “SMILE” in chicken scratch (to avoid handwriting analysis) at the top center of my blank-check-sized paper.
Below it I wrote,“Put the money on the counter. No ink packs, alarms, or tracing devices. There’s two more guys outside with guns, hurry up, this ain’t no joke,” also in chicken scratch. I emptied the contents of my wallet and removed any possible fingerprints from it as well. Then placed my new demand note inside the bill area of the wallet. I did this so when I approached the counter it would appear to everyone around me that I was simply attempting to cash a check.
We already had a vehicle outside just itching to be used as a getaway car, so now I simply needed a disguise.
I settled on the bank robbers’ time-honored tradition of a hat and sunglasses—fucking flawless. We then discussed what bank we should hit. Through the teachings of The FBI Files, I knew we wanted to hit one near a residential area that was also somewhat close to a freeway. Most suspects on the show would head straight to the freeway after their heist, and the cops would usually be waiting.
I suggested that a second “legit” car of a totally different appearance than our stolen one should wait for us a few blocks away from our target and in a residential area. That way we could switch cars leaving the stolen one and its vehicle description behind. Then do the speed limit all the way home as I ducked down in back. We recruited another friend to help drive the second car.
We gave a friend I’ll refer to as Bob a call notifying him of an opportunity in the here and now and informed him if he wanted in, to swing on by, like yesterday! Less than fifteen minutes later, Bob was there.
Ned and I presented Bob with the plan. He responded the only way I knew he would: “Hell yeah, I’ve always wanted to rob a bank.”
This was perfect. I’d be getting paid and making my friend’s dream come true.
Bob was a large, dark-skinnedcholo (Hispanic gang member) and came dressed as such with the typical shaved head, oversized flannel shirt with deep, ironed creases up the sleeves, baggy oversized jeans, also with creases front and back, and a pair of Lugs. I was right there stylin’ with him on the apparel, but we’d have to work past it and just keep it cool on the way to our mark. As long as we didn’t attract attention to ourselves, we’d be all right.
I suggested we hit a bank on East H Street and Otay Lakes Road, which is located in the city of Bonita. We were all familiar with the streets there, and I knew we had a good chance of shaking any cops if need be. It was one of those small branches located inside a grocery store, but the location itself was good.
We would be able to pull out of the driveway after the robbery and take a right onto East H. Then we could drive down a few blocks, pull into the residential area where our legit car was waiting on us, and smoothly make our transition to our second vehicle. We went over it a few times, pumped ourselves up with talk of the insane money that awaited us, said fuck it, and headed out.
Ned and I headed to the stolen car while Bob headed to his own. Anytime in the past that we stole a car, a legit ride would follow directly behind us on streets and freeways. If a cop pulled up behind the legit car, the driver would intentionally swerve to entice the officer into pulling him over, letting the stolen car get away clean.
Now that wasn’t something I saw on TV. It was our idea to put a legit car behind just in case the guys in the stolen vehicle had to get out and run. The legit could then come along and scoop them up. But only homies who were not on probation or parole could drive the legit car and risk getting stopped, and by even the ninth grade, most of my friends were not willing to take the risk going back to juvie or boys camp. I was the clean one and often drove the legit car.
We followed our procedure all the way to Bonita. Once there both cars pulled into the residential area, so we could see exactly where to go after the caper. All three of us had cell phones and could easily keep a line of communication open. It was time to rock and roll. We left the residential area and headed to the bank.
I was nervous as hell, but the plan was already in motion. We pulled into the shopping plaza and parked in a row of spaces near the front door of our intended target. The car was reversed into the spot for a quick getaway if needed. I looked at my partner and said,“Fuck it, let’s do it!”
Once I left the vehicle, my eyes were fixed to the front entrance, and then I realized I forgot the fucking bag for the money at the pad. I looked back in the car for anything I could find and grabbed a paper takeout bag from Carl’s Junior that had been on the floor. I tucked the bag in my pocket and began my walk to the store entrance at a steady pace—all the while losing my shit inside my own head.
Ned waited behind the wheel with the engine running, vigorously keeping point for any signs of trouble while he listened to his oldies. Part of his job description was to call me immediately if he spotted anything funny. I could then make my escape through the emergency back-door exit and get swooped up by the legit car a few blocks and backyards down.
I continued my nervous walk and entered the store, passing people as they left with their groceries. I looked to my left where the three bank teller stations were set up and took notice of the long line of customers waiting patiently to handle their banking needs. I wasn’t sure what the right move was, so I just stood in line behind about six other people and waited for my turn.
And waited.I was wearing oversized, creased Solo jeans, a button-up short-sleeved flannel, black sunglasses, gloves, and a white-and-black hat. It was hot that day, I remember that. I tried keeping my hands in my pockets to conceal the fact I was wearing gloves inside on a hot-ass day like a crazy person, but it didn’t really work that well.
Patrons and employees looked my way on several different occasions. I stood out, badly. Seems being dressed like a bank-robbing cholo while in line at a bank was somewhat suspicious.
I questioned myself and the plan at this point. It seemed like a complete bust, but now I was next in line. My nerves were kicking in majorly. I looked around several times to make sure no one was creeping up on me, and then I heard it, a young woman’s cheery voice said,“Next.”
One more quick thought: Walk out and say it was a bust or just fuckingdo it? If I don’t do it, the homies will think I’m a bitch, I thought to myself. Can’t be having that. I looked at the young and very attractive woman, then casually walked up to her counter.
She had noticed me standing in line looking like the poster child for bank robbery, but just smiled as I steadily approached her. Once at the counter I said something to the effect of,“Hello, how are you?” to my new customer service agent. I reached for my wallet, removing it from my back pocket.
She replied with the usual, “Fine, and yourself?” in a soft, sexy voice. I said nothing and continued by opening up my wallet. I then removed the note that rested in the billfold.
I set the note down on the counter and slid it across closer to her. At this point she appeared to know exactly what was happening, even without having yet read the note. The note was slightly bent from having been inside my wallet with me sitting on it, sweating the whole way there. She separated the bend with the index and middle finger of her right hand and began to read.
I literally forgot I had written “SMILE” at the top of the note, and when she did in fact smile at me, it seemed genuine and a little flirty. I realized I was completely wrong, but she was hot and I was nervous. For a brief moment I actually pondered asking for her number since she appeared to be into bank robbers, but ultimately decided against it for the conflict of interest.
After reading the note, she asked,“Do you have a bag, or do you need one?” Now that’s the kind of fucking customer service I’m talking about right there. Friendly and helpful.
I replied,“No, I have one,” and pulled the crinkled burger bag from my pocket. She opened the drawer and began to place the money on the counter. I grabbed the stacks of money as they hit the counter, bending them first to feel for any ink packs (thanks,FBI Files) and placed them in my paper bag.
Once the drawer was emptied, I grabbed my note, said thank you, turned, and walked toward the front entrance. It seemed everyone was staring at that point. About halfway to the doors, my nerves got the best of me, and I took off running toward the car faster than you can say,“Yoquiero, Taco Bell.”
I hopped in and yelled,“GO FOOL, FUCKIN’ GO!” with my heart racing inside my chest. Ned casually pulled out of the space using his fucking turn signal, oldies still playing, and asked, “What took so long?”
“There was a line, let’s get the fuck out of here, fool!”
Ned continued driving at a steady pace passing the entrance doors I had just zoomed out of. We finally reached the driveway and made a righthand turn onto East H Street.
“Let me see the money,” my chauffeur demanded. I reached into the bag grabbing as much as I could with one hand, pulling out nothing but hundreds and fifties with a couple of stale fries hanging out of the clump of cash.
We both stared at the loot for a second, marveling at its glory. I put the cash back in the bag and placed it on my lap, turned to Ned and asked,“When we gonna do this shit again, fool?” with a smile on my face.
He quickly said, “Shit, you tell me!”
As we drove down East H Street, three police cruisers flew by going the opposite direction in more than a hurry. My friend stayed cool and drove at a steady pace. I commenced to sift through the contents of the bag, looking for any tracing devices. None were present. I then ripped the paper bands off the money and threw the bank-stamped evidence out the window.
We pulled into the residential area where our legit car was stationed and swapped rides, locking up our stolen car behind us (there was a high rate of car theft in the area at the time). I lay down on the backseat as low as I possibly could, praying to god we didn’t get pulled over on the way home. Luckily we didn’t.
That was it. I had robbed my first bank for a Taco Bell grande combo meal. In all the world I was the fattest skinny person I knew of. What kind of shit is that?
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