My parents were 16 years old when I was born. They converted from being Catholic to Protestant. We went to church four times a week. My family was really loving in the beginning. My dad was ambitious to fit in, to be white and middle class. He went to night school and got his degree at age 18. He started teaching himself Greek and Hebrew because he wanted to be able to translate the Bible from its original languages. I was also deeply religious. When my brother would cry, I would say, “Paul, don’t cry. Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’” I was a Bible-quoting little kid.
When I was 7 my mother got diagnosed with severe kidney disease. Her body would have rejected a kidney transplant, so essentially what they did was wait for her to die. This took about two and a half years. They used her as a guinea pig to try new drugs. Some of the medications really made her go mad. Sometimes my dad would drive her to the hospital and she would try to jump out of the car because she wouldn’t recognize him. During that time my dad started changing. He was working really hard to pay the hospital bills. He had to get up in the morning, get us ready for school, go to work early, then go to see my mom after work and bring her home.
The thing is, my dad had been very violent as a kid. He was in a gang before he became a Christian. When my mother got sick it snapped and he started becoming violent again. He started hitting us. Obviously there’s grief and stress, you know, all this shit, but he had no skills to handle it. Once when I was learning my multiplication tables he asked me to memorize them. I was supposed to memorize all 144 equations. He told me that for every one that I missed I was going to get two whips with the belt. I missed five. He took it personally and saw it as rebellion. My mother was at the house at that time and he was like, “Ok pull your pants down and bend over the couch.”
My mom started to cry, “Don’t whip him. He did good.”
My dad was yelling, “He knew what he was doing and he deserves this.” My mom kept crying and begging him not to hit me. Finally he said, “You don’t want me to hit him? Then you come over here and do it.”
She said, “I don’t want to.”
And he said, “Well if you don’t I’m going to hit him extra hard.” He put the belt in her hand and made her hit me ten times. She hit me so feebly because she was sick, and stupidly I didn’t cry. So my dad felt like she didn’t hit me hard enough and he whipped the shit out of me. That was the stuff that was starting to go on when my mother was very sick. When I was 9, she died. She was 26 years old.
We were getting bigger so I think he felt like he needed to subjugate us more. At church everyone thought he was this wonderful godly young man. He became a widow and has these two lovely kids. Then he met my stepmother Brenda. She was 20 when he was 27. She was Irish-American. It was odd to have her drop into a family in a Mexican neighborhood. We were just a sea of brown people and then she showed up. Fifteen months after my mother died they got married. She was wonderful. She loved my dad, thought he was this impressive Bible-loving college pastor. She canned jellies, made curtains for our room, did everything. She was introducing us to all this new food like Key Lime pie and hamhocks, shit that I wasn’t accustomed to eating. We wanted to be as white as possible, so she was very helpful in that way.
The noblest thing he ever did was to quit being a pastor. He said: “You know, if I want to be a servant of God, I have to have my home right before I can go to church. My home life isn’t right, so I need to leave the ministry.” That was the only ethical thing he had ever done in my eyes. He went to work for New York Life Insurance Company. He was very successful, a born salesman. Brenda became his secretary, which was the beginning of the end. She started having an affair with the guy who was in the office right next to her. Apparently there were some pictures taken of her and him so the office knew about this thing and my dad was very humiliated. He stopped going to work. She divorced him. He went bankrupt. He started working bullshit little jobs, when he was working at all.
We just became punching bags. One time, I was 16 and my brother was 14 and we were in the kitchen. My brother was washing dishes and I was drying them. My dad came in and just sucker-punched my brother in the back of the ribs. My brother winced. My dad leapt up and grabbed my brother’s hair and dunked his head into the soapy dishwater. He held it there for a second and then lifted it up. My brother was trying to breathe. Water was coming out of his nose. I was paralyzed. My dad did this three times. Then when he was done, he lifted his head out of the water, leaned in and he said: “You should have died instead of your mother.”
The violence was escalating so much in our home I started thinking that he wanted us dead. I was forced to be something that was very difficult for me to accept about myself, which was a coward. The helplessness that I felt made me consider suicide.
Six months later he got a new girlfriend. She was slow, but super-sweet. My dad could easily manipulate her. She took us out to a steak dinner one night and I begged her to not be with my father. I told her that he beats us. I lifted up my knife and said, “The next time he hits me I’m going to stab him.”
She said, “That doesn’t solve anything. Violence is crazy.” Smarter words were never spoken. But for whatever reason, I had that impulse to pick up that steak knife and say that. My father suspected that I told her something. He said, “Susie told me what you told her and I’m not mad, I understand.” For the first time he was taking the high road. I was so relieved that I wasn’t in trouble, I felt safe for a moment. It was the first and last time I would ever confess to a crime. Because I expressed some sense of relief, he was like, “So you did tell her.” He was fishing and I was a knucklehead. I had given myself up. He picked up the teapot and threw it at me. I ran to the bedroom and then it was on. He started beating the fuck out of me.
I went to the hospital that night with a broken rib, fractured elbow and a massive concussion. He beat my brother on the way out of the house too. Later, when I got back home he went down to 7-Eleven to break up with Susie because we didn’t have a phone. When he left I told my brother to lock himself in the bathroom. I went to the kitchen pulled out a steak knife and put it under the pillow. I sat on my bed and waited.
He came back for round two, he came into the room and saw this long bar with weights on it in the corner of the room. I didn’t know what the fuck he was going to do because the bar was too big to be swung around. I pulled the knife out from under the pillow and stood up. He started coming at me saying, “Put that knife down, put that knife down.” I charged him and swung the knife. He put up his left arm to block it but I had enough power to go over his arm. He turned his neck away from me and I stabbed him in the back of the neck about an inch from his spine. I just drove it into the soft part of his neck, then twisted it and tried to break it off. He screamed out, “You killed me!” and he dropped.
I stepped over him to leave the bedroom and said, “You did this to yourself.” My brother was already at the front door and I yelled, “Go, go, go” and started to run. I was scared to death. This man had been beating me with impunity for all those years and I had this fear that he was like King Kong, that he’d take the knife out of his neck, chase me and kill me. We to my Aunt’s house. I told her that I killed my dad because I thought a neck-shot was a kill-shot. She called the police but when they got there he was gone.
He had picked himself up and pulled the knife out. He didn’t want to live, so he took all the pills that were in the medicine cabinet. But there wasn’t much there. He drove to a park and sat in his car waiting to die. But the LAPD came across him. This was back in the 70’s when angel dust was a big thing, and the justification for beating everyone was that they were on angel dust. So they pulled him out of the car and they beat the fuck out of him cause they said he was resisting arrest. At one point while beating him they realized he was gushing blood from the neck and they were like, “We didn’t stab him! What the fuck just happened?” He told them that his son had stabbed him.
They took him to the psychiatric hospital. I was taken to the police station and interrogated. This was before I knew my dad was still alive. I had a sense of a recovery that was very powerful. The cop started telling me that I was going to be charged with attempted murder. This was 1976 so there wasn’t the understanding of child abuse that happened years later. He had no sense that when you have been beaten like that you’re afraid to leave. I was in a holding room with my brother. The social worker came in. I said I wasn’t feeling well. The adrenaline had stopped and all of a sudden I was in pain. They took me to the hospital and sure enough they found out that I was being abused. There was no more talk about attempted murder shit. We were put into foster care.
My dad went to court to try to get us back. He took it seriously, made us feel safe, would come and apologize. Senior year we went back to live with him. He never raised a hand to us again and was completely submissive. There was this elaborate doubleness when I came back that involved praying every day and family day on the weekend, but I had disgust for my father. I looked down on him for being weak and letting me dominate him. But then I felt horribly guilty because I was supposed to be a child of God.
The other thing that started happening was about every three or four months I felt the urge to do something violent. That feeling of stabbing my father was the most powerful moment of my life. On some cellular level I was re-fashioned. My imagination had completely altered me in a way that humans are not supposed to be altered. I wanted to be a Christian and I wanted to love Jesus, but the only authority above my father was God and I had swiped my father right off the pedestal. I was looking God straight in the face and going, “You know what, you’re not even here.” I became Godless. I also became really materialistic. I was tired of being poor.
I had this new sense of entitlement, like, “I’m big. I’m dynamic.” I wanted the world. There was a dark part of my ambition, “I deserve this. I’m going to get it. And if you don’t give it to me, woe be to you.” I decided I needed to make money, fast. I tried almost every get-rich-quick scheme, and started borrowing from friends. I would hang out with my Christian friends, borrow from them and not pay them back. I became scandalous. I had burned every one I knew so I couldn’t borrow any more money. I started defrauding employers. I was hustling. Eventually I had a Mercedes Benz and a BMW. I was only 23. I was stealing cars. Santa Barbara finally figured out that I was doing something wrong, so they kicked me out.
I went back to Los Angeles and met some guys on a golf course who were making a lot of money in real estate. I told them that my uncle had a chop shop in Mexico and that any time I wanted to invest money he would get me twenty thousand back for my ten thousand dollars. I appealed to the larceny in their hearts and ended up with thirty thousand. Of course I never paid them back. Eventually I had warrants in five counties in Southern California: Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernadino. So I hit the road, took off to Mexico as a fugitive.
I thought I was a bad-ass criminal, but in Mexico I met real criminals. I got robbed. I needed money because I was a fugitive now and only had four thousand dollars left. When you’re a criminal that’s nothing. You’re so impulsive you buy everything. Defrauding was out of the picture, so the next thing was to notch it up to robbery. I had never robbed a liquor store or a 7-Eleven. I’d never robbed anyone with a gun. But I knew at fucking 7-Eleven I was going to get like 73 dollars and 5 cents. I can’t be going back and forth robbing the liquor store every other day.
I was a Mexican, and the idea of the Bandido was in my head. Pancho Villa, the folk hero of Mexico used to cross the border and rob banks and post offices and then return to Mexico. It seemed like it was my only option. I thought I could make a lot of money. So I got into the United States in a stolen car and went to rob a bank one day. I started at nine in the morning walking in and out of banks all day long, scared shitless. I’d write a note, stand in line, tear it up and walk outside. I’d get stomachaches and shit. I would always exit the bank at various stages of the robbery. Sometimes, I would walk in and just walk right out. This went on all day long. Finally, it was 4:45 and the banks closed at 5 so I needed to shit or get off the pot. I had parked my car in San Diego proper, about twenty minutes from the border. I walked into a bank, went to the cashier and handed her a note. It said, We have a bomb. I have a gun. Give me the money now. It was a mistake that taught me a lesson: If you give someone something too scary to concentrate on, they’ll be too scared to go to the next step. She just kept her eyes on it. She must have read it ten times. I finally started pulling the note back, but she was pulling it to her. We were doing this little tug-of-war with the note and I mumbled, “I’m not fucking around, give me the money.” I pretended like I was reaching for a gun. She panicked and gave me the money. It was that easy.
I walked out real quick and started booking. I was running down the street. When I looked back there was like five men chasing after me, in various stages of ill health, so I wasn’t in any fear of being caught. I was putting massive distance between us at very high speed. I jumped in a cab and I had it take me to the border and drop me off. I thought for sure the border would be closed by that time so I went to a Motel 6 and stayed there over night. The next morning I went to K-Mart and picked up a case of Dr. Pepper, my favorite drink, which they didn’t have in Mexico. I got on the freeway, which was clogged with traffic. There’s was no backing up now because all these other cars are behind me. I realized I was fucked. The Highway Patrol closed the border. They were checking for stolen cars going to Mexico. But I thought I was slick and could talk myself out of it. I’ve got whiteness all over me because I went to private schools. But I was a fucking idiot. I got busted in a stolen car. They arrested me for the five warrants. They had no idea I’d robbed that bank. I spent two years in prison. In those years that I was in prison, all I knew was that when I get out, I’m robbing banks. I had elevated myself to Bank Robber.
I got out of prison and waited a month. I wanted to bust a nut, you know, to get some sex. Then for fourteen months I went on a bank-robbing spree. I robbed approximately thirty banks. I robbed two in one day. I robbed four in one day. I robbed a vault for $32 thousand. One day I robbed a bank and I was so mad at the small amount of money I got that I walked into the bank next door, robbed it and walked out. I would typically rob them when I got angry. The time I robbed four banks was because I woke up in the morning and said, “You know what, I don’t want to keep robbing and coming home with ten or twelve thousand dollars. I want to rob one day and make like fifty.” So I told myself, “Don’t come back until you have fifty thousand dollars.” Finally, I robbed this bank in Lakewood and picked up a transmitter. At the time transmitters were new technology. They put them in the center of money and would wrap it with rubber bands.
I had picked up exploding dye packs before. Once one exploded on me when I was walking out of the bank. I barely got away because I was running with this bag with red smoke coming out of it. Tear gas got in my eyes. I was blinking, trying to keep my eyes open. Another time I brought one home that didn’t explode. Normally they would explode twenty feet out of the bank—really explode. The first one that exploded put a big hole in my nylon fanny pack. There was a guy who ran out with it once, put it in the front of his pants and got his left nut blown off. He sued the bank. So after that every time I robbed a bank, I would find the money held the exploding dye pack and set it aside. I went after slim packs of money or, if they were medium-sized, I would pick them up and fan through it.
This time, I opened the bag and all the money was in small packs. So I’m like, “Okay, no dye pack in here.” Several miles away I was surrounded by cops with a helicopter over my head. When I robbed the bank I had three or four sweatshirts on, plus a loud, red madras cotton shirt and bright baby-blue jacket. I wanted them to notice my clothing and not look at my face that much. So I looked really fat because of the sweatshirts even though I was thin in those days. I took off all the extra clothes and put them in a bag and threw it in the gutter. I was left wearing shorts and a UCLA tank top and topsiders. When the cops picked me up, they put me on the sidewalk and brought over the two women who I just robbed. The women looked at me, but I didn’t look anything like the man who just robbed them. So they were like, “No, that’s not the guy who did it.” But I’m still with the money. The police said to each other, “Maybe he’s not the robber but he’s probably an accomplice, because he has the money.” They locked me up.
The FBI came to interview me five or six hours later. I was real cool with them, like, “Sorry for the fuss, but …”
“How’d you get the money?”
“Fascinating story. I’m at May Company. I drive in the parking lot, go do some shopping, but forget that I left my wallet in the car. So as I come walking back to my car, I see this really fat man in a loud red madras cotton shirt and a baby blue jacket. He comes running by and throws something into my car then he takes off. I open it and it’s money. I took off and you guys catch me a few miles later. That’s why those women didn’t recognize me.”
They kinda bought it, but at the same time they didn’t. They had photos of a guy who they nicknamed the Beirut Bandit because he spoke such good English that they didn’t think he was Mexican. But he was dark like a Mexican, so he must have been from Pakistan or India or Lebanon or somewhere. They noticed that the Beirut Bandit looked an awful lot like me. A day and a half later when I went to my arraignment, I was thinking they were going to pretty much have to let me go, only to find out they’d brought to court sixteen pictures of the Beirut Bandit. They said, “Your Honor, we want 100,000 dollars bail because we’re at sixteen and counting. This man is the Beirut Bandit.”
I was fucked, until my Aunt put up her house and made bond. I got out and robbed five more banks. I taught my uncle–who looked like me but was 4 or 5 inches shorter – how to rob banks. He was a complete idiot. But I got what I wanted from him. One time he robbed this bank and was running to my car. He looked like fucking Keystone Cops kind of shit. He had this big crowd running after him. It was like HELP, the Beatles movie where they’re running and everyone’s chasing them. He ran through traffic, almost got hit, crossed this really busy street, so nobody else follows him. This truck that was in the traffic started chasing my car down the street. I took off and I was going so fast on a residential street that by the time I saw this major dip in the road where I’m supposed to be going 15 miles per hour I was going like 85 or 90. By the time I put on the brakes, I hit that thing and was in the air.
The truck driver told the cops, “I think he busted his oil pan, because he went flying in the air when he hit that dip.” Sure enough, I did pop my oil pan. My car had stalled so I pulled it to the side of the road and parked. I crossed the street and went into a Smorgasbord restaurant that had tinted windows to keep it cool so the food on the buffet wouldn’t go bad. Right when I walkedin, I looked out at my car across the street. The cops pull up, look under my car and saw all this oil coming out. I went to the cashier and said, “excuse me, can I use your rest room?”
Instead of going into the rest room, I booked into the kitchen. I ran out the back down this alley, straight into a dead-end fence. But the fence was to the Los Angeles River, and it was dry. I scaled it, jumped down to the cement riverbed and ran. It was fucking hot, but I was able to make it out of the neighborhood because they were looking for me on the streets. I climbed a fence a block away from a high school where the kids were having lunch. I went to a parking lot, where some guys were hanging out by a truck. I said, “Hey listen, my car broke down, I need to get to Del Taco on the other side of the Freeway,” because I had seen a Del Taco. “Twenty bucks just to take me over there.”
One of the guys said, “Jump in the back.” I was in the middle with two guys. We passed my car with all these cops around it and the guys were like, “Wow, I wonder what happened down there.”
We got to Del Taco, I called my brother. “Hey Paul, come pick me up man, I’m in trouble.” He came by and took me home. That night, with my friend, we decided we’d go rent a movie. When we passed my house, I saw the police were there. I said, “Take me back to your house.”
I called my dad. He said, “Turn yourself in. They know you did it. They know you were in the bank.”
I said, “I wasn’t in the bank. I swear on mommy’s grave I wasn’t in that bank.”
He called the FBI agent who said, “Have Joe call me.” So I call him and he said, “Your dad told me you swore on your mother’s grave that you weren’t in that bank. So here’s what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to personally take this surveillance tape downtown tomorrow morning. Call me in the afternoon. There’s not going to be any bullshit about me tracking your call. Just call me and let’s do this.”
So, I called him the next afternoon and he said, “Listen to what I’m going to say. You have a double.” They knew it wasn’t me because they have all these markers in the bank that tell how tall someone is. So in all my pictures the counter’s waist high, and in this guy’s pictures the counters higher because he is five inches shorter than I am. Those little poles that have the rope all measure your legs on the way out. All that shit in the lobby is used to measure your height. He could tell that the guy was much shorter than me, but he looked like me because he was my uncle. When the FBI went to the bank tellers a few hours later they had pictures. They asked, “Did one of these guys rob you?” Both tellers pointed to me. Then they found my car. But now they had evidence that it’s not me. All these tellers had picked me out of the pictures. Now if those two women who had just been robbed picked out me, and it wasn’t me, then all those other bank robbery identifications become suspect, because now there’s a guy who looks like me. So the FBI agent said, “Tell your lawyer what just happened here.”
All of a sudden their case of all those guys who “looked like me” went down the drain. And they scramble and say, “We’ll give you eight years if you plead guilty to the three bank robberies,” because they had me on those three. I was like, “Where do I sign?” Otherwise I was looking at 36 years. That’s how I got eight years. The FBI agent said, “You know what Joe, I still think you were in that car, but I’m not going to pursue that.” He really liked me. In the back of a car once when we were going to the arraignment, he told me, “I never met anyone like you in my eighteen years of doing this. I still believe in you. You’re going to have to do time, but I’m not going to wash you up.” When I came out, I wrote my first Op Ed for the L.A. Times. He contacted me and was like, “I just read your piece today, and I feel good. I knew you would turn around, man.” It was really cool.
Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Travolta, Warren Beatty, all these sex symbols played bank robbers. They’re attractive. They’re likable. Serial killers are always going to be represented as monstrous and demented so you can’t relate to them, eating each other’s eyeballs, skinning them and all this shit. When I talk to people about robbing banks, it’s interesting to me how many would say, “I thought about robbing a bank.” They never said, “I thought about raping someone in the ass” or kicking someone almost to death or kidnapping someone. Bank robbing is a sexy crime. People learn how to be criminals by watching movies. They mimic the posturing of these guys. There is this romanticization even among the criminal class.
After the Civil War a lot of people were suffering; they were very poor. To go and rob banks was to stab authority in the eye. That’s why these guys became folk heroes. Then in the Depression there was Baby Face Nelson. There were Bonnie and Clyde. People were getting into the drama of it all.
There have been some performances where I’ve walk away and said, “That actor really got it.” There’s a movie called “The Believer” with Ryan Gosling about this Jewish kid who was a neo-Nazi. It’s based on a true story. I walked out of that movie and was like, “I knew that guy in prison.” Ryan Gosling could have walked the prison tier with that posturing and convinced anybody. A lot of criminality is performance.
I like to talk to my friends who are criminals about both crime movies and prison movies. We think Shawshank Redemption is a fucking silly movie. On the other hand, most of my friends dig Dead Man Walking. The thing I like about Sean Penn’s character is that he was complicated. You wanted to like him but he was also a fucking crazed murderer. We know all these men have done something monstrous and we have seen ourselves as monstrous at times. Sean Penn’s character dies at the end. He doesn’t end up on the beach in Mexico emancipated. He gets fried. At the end the father of the victim, he doesn’t feel the relief that he thought he would feel. It’s pretty amazing.
I have list of movie scenes that are my favorite scenes. One is the scene with Marlon Brando in The Godfather with the kid, where he’s playing with the orange. Another is in Long Good Friday at the end where Bob Hoskins’ character gets busted by the IRA. For the last 30 seconds of the movie you see his face go through six phases of grieving. When I saw A History of Violence, I thought Cronenberg caught something that violence truly is. When violence makes contact with you, it intersects with you in a way that is so surprising and shocking. And if you’re committing a crime it slows down. When I robbed banks, it was almost an eye-of-the-storm type of moment. You’re absolutely present. Your body is feeling more vital than it ever will. You are confronting your mortality, your life is now completely altered and you will always experience the vibrations of that moment. In A History of Violence, when the robbers come into the restaurant and start robbing the place, that was meditated, so we saw it coming. What we didn’t see coming was that coffee pot, and it killed him, just like that. Through the whole movie you see Mortensen’s character being quiet and passive and peaceful and loving. Then all of a sudden… That was so wonderful. It was so in the moment and alive. More importantly, it showed Mortensen’s character having to grapple with his history. And we, who have changed our lives, we know what it is to be haunted. We know what it is to have to deal with the memories.
I walk in a room and I know what I would do if something happened. I just cannot stop. If I walk into a bank I automatically know where the cameras are, without even intending to. I immediately see what can be turned into a weapon; I was trained to that kind of violence. So when we see this guy trying to be ethical and trying to kill off his past and it comes back, we feel for him. Because there have been moments when we’ve had to wrestle with what we would do if we were in a situation where we needed to bring out our violence.
When I see this movie I am totally moved by how these choices keep coming to him. I also loved the end of A History of Violence, when Mortensen’s character walked into that kitchen. You don’t know if his family life is going to be mended; every one goes into default family mode. He sits down and the mother seems to accept that he’s going to be at the table, but that’s not hope. That’s not achieving reunion. That could be just his last dinner with them before she kicks him out of the house forever. It made me wonder what his redemption would look like. What would the healing in this family look like? I was drawn into the human drama of it, and the lack of resolution, because that had been my life in so many ways.
When I started writing all my friends who are ex-cons, said the same thing: “Joe, let them know that we’re funny.” We’re talking about guys who did serious things. That’s one of the reasons I have problems with Michael Mann. Because there’s never humor. Criminals are funnier than Michael Mann makes them. We’re goofy. Convicts love Elmore Leonard because he makes criminals funny. His characters might not be exactly like criminals are, but they’re humorous, they make fun of each other, they insult each other, they tell jokes that are raunchy, and they laugh at other people. Joseph Wambaugh works too, because he is the other side of the coin; he gets the cops and has them joking. You know cops struggle with suicide, they struggle with alcoholism, but they’re a fraternity, like we’re a fraternity. I also like James Ellroy. Because his mother was killed, he gets it. He gets that moment. He understands the randomness of it, the acute confusion and complete surprise. It’s like he’s just flipping his soul inside out. You can see the scars. You almost get an alcoholic rant. “You’re really suffering, but man is this interesting.” I’ve met men like him. In a way he’s become a criminal on the page. He’s taken the energy that of criminality and turned it into art.
This interview was originally published in Crime, by Alix Lambert