Longform specialist Jeff Maysh has a penchant for telling genre-breaking stories about people with secret lives. There’s the mom who assumed her daughter’s identity to return to high school; the Michigan farmer who made millions smuggling rare Pez dispensers into the U.S.; the undercover cops whose sham marriage helped nab a dozen drug dealers.
And then there is the story of the Bombshell Bandit, Sandeep Kaur, a twentysomething Sikh nurse from Sacramento who robbed a series of banks to repay gambling debts.
Although his subjects could not appear more different, Maysh says that at their core, his stories are essentially the same.
“All of the people I write about are leading double lives, so I kind of know where to look,” Maysh said. “I’m just drawn to that kind of character, living a double life, and always trying to figure out why.”
It all began when Maysh was growing up in south London around the police and crime. When he was 14, a close family member, an undercover cop, was sent to prison, and Maysh visited him there often.
One thing I have an issue with is that I tend to write about criminals, and I’m very wary of presenting them as heroes. And when you write things in a three-act structure, you have a protagonist. I always struggle with that, because traditionally you’re rooting for that person.
“I guess it kind of exposed me to both worlds — both law enforcement and the criminal fraternity,” Maysh said. It was also his first exposure to journalism. “When this family member was arrested, the phone started ringing in the house and it was reporters from The Daily Mirror. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool. How’d they get the house number?’ Because we weren’t listed in the directory.”
Despite winning numerous awards and writing for outlets like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and Playboy, Maysh still has no formal journalism training. But he does have a long history of studying crime on his own time, so perhaps it’s no wonder that the Bombshell Bandit, published by BBC News, won Longform.org’s Best Crime Story of 2015.
This interview took place over a series of phone conversations with Maysh, who’s now based in Los Angeles. It has been condensed and edited.
I think I’ve learned a lot about unreliable narrators—and almost all of the characters I am drawn to are unreliable (criminals, admitted liars, etc.). It is stressful. I’ve written two big stories recently where my primary source had multiple mental health conditions. I used to lose sleep over it, but now I’m not afraid to alert the reader: ‘Hey, not everything is what it seems here.’ I guess, in a way, all sources are unreliable to a degree.
One thing I have an issue with is that I tend to write about criminals, and I’m very wary of presenting them as heroes. And when you write things in a three-act structure, you have a protagonist. I always struggle with that, because traditionally you’re rooting for that person. Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has had a different reason for leading a double life: desperation, greed, vanity. There’s no central thing. I guess leading a double life is a form of escapism, and on a human scale, that’s really appealing.
What was it like to interview Kaur, and what was the fact-checking process like on this piece?
It was an emotional interview. I was also fortunate to see a copy of the discovery file, which is a pre-trial document that sets out all the evidence. I’ve never seen one before. It was a treasure trove. When I sat down with Sandeep, I said to her, ‘I’ve tried to contact your family and I’m getting nowhere,’ and she or her lawyer gave me Amundeep’s phone number.
The main thing was that it quickly became evident that I wasn’t just interviewing a bank robber but I was also interviewing a victim, and there’s a whole separate set of things to take into account when speaking to the victim. I was told by the lawyer that I couldn’t publish before the court case — which was obvious, because it would affect the trial — and Sandeep knew that too. And that was important because she wasn’t trying to get off. She simply just wanted to tell her story. Nothing she told me would help or hinder her case.
You’ve reported quite a few bizarre stories in the past, especially in the crime genre. Do you find them? They, you? How about this one specifically?
It’s really just luck. I wish there was a formula or an algorithm on Google Alerts. All of the people I write about are leading double lives, so I kind of know where to look. I fish in those waters. Undercover cops, crime, robbery, fraud. Those areas tend to bring up those kinds of characters. I do get FBI alerts. I love microfiche. I’m at my happiest in front of a micofiche machine. I love old People magazines, which might be the worst-kept secret for journalists in this town. People magazines from the ’70s and ’80s are an absolute gold mine for longform ideas.
The narrative unfolds more or less chronologically. Why did you choose that format as opposed to interspersing the robberies with her family and gambling history?
That type of structure worked really well for the recent “Uber Killer” story in GQ; I like reading those stories! But I like a straight shot. I do want to write more complex narrative structures — I’m always reading the book “Storycraft.” by Jack Hart, which spends a lot of time on structure. I’m still trying to do the three-act structure right, to be honest.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
By Jeff Maysh
Originally published on BBC on April 28, 2015.
Sandeep Kaur pulled on a wig and adjusted her designer sunglasses in her rear-view mirror. June 6, 2014 was a typically sunny afternoon in California’s Santa Clarita Valley and a quiet one, except for the screams of passengers on a nearby roller coaster. Thirty-eight miles northwest of Los Angeles, the First Bank sits in a hamlet of Spanish-style shops just off Magic Mountain Parkway. The busy road leads to Six Flags, a theme park billed as the Thrill Capital of the World. Can you talk about your decision to use the theme park in the lede? I wanted the reader to hear the screams. Also, ‘the thrill capital of the world’ offered a little foreshadowing that the robber might be committing the crimes for the thrill. I also liked that in the 1990s, Los Angeles used to be the bank robbery capital of the world.
Kaur, 24, had been using her iPhone to research bank robberies. It was clearly a high-stakes pursuit. Some robbers escaped with fortunes, while others were captured or even killed by police. She opened the car door and stepped out into the mid-afternoon heat. At just five feet three inches tall, the slender Indian nurse did not boast the muscle of typical bank robbers. She had no weapon or getaway driver. Instead she gripped a hurriedly written note that read:
TICK TOCK. I HAVE A BOMB.
If Kaur didn’t look like a criminal, she certainly didn’t fit the profile of a bank-robbing desperado. Kaur and her family are devoted Sikhs, a religion that steers followers away from the selfish pursuit of wealth. A prodigious student, she graduated from nursing college several years early, while still a teenager. She had three jobs, tirelessly caring for elderly cancer sufferers, for patients at a Sacramento hospital, and ironically, for inmates at a jail. But as she walked towards the bank, she prepared to do the unthinkable and join their number as a violent criminal. Why did you choose to start the story with her first robbery? Chronologically, it would fall somewhere in the middle of the story you tell. An editor once asked me, when you go to the Natural History Museum, what’s the first thing you see? The answer is the T-Rex. They put him in the entrance—give the people what they want! To me, this was a bank robbery story. So we start with a bank robbery. After beginning a story like this, ‘in medias res’, traditionally you then go back to the very beginning, but I revealed the ending: her arrest. I considered telling the whole story ‘from the egg’, but the tension throughout would have been ‘is she gonna get caught?’ I wanted the narrative instead to be driven by ‘why did she do it?’ Which was more interesting.
At 2.30pm, Kaur arrived before the bank’s faux-Roman pillars. White lettering on its glass doors read: “Please remove hats and sunglasses before entering.” Her reflection looked like she might be going to a costume party as Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Inside, a greeter jumped out and said: “Hey, how can I help you?” This technique is called SafeCatch, and it’s taught by the FBI to put potential robbers off their stride. Kaur panicked, and fled.
Back in her car, Kaur sipped a bottle of water she had stolen from a nearby grocery store. Across the square of terracotta-coloured businesses, she spotted the logo of the Bank of the West, a bear walking on all fours – like the bear on the Californian flag, supposed to have been modelled on a grizzly captured in 1889 at the behest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kaur pulled open the green doors, her heart racing as she felt the icy blast of conditioned air. A stuffed toy bear stared down from a shelf. She approached the cashier, and told herself: “I just have to do this. It’s this or nothing.” She slid the note over the counter. Were you tempted to tell more of this opening anecdote before zooming out to talk about Kaur, her spree, and where she fits into the larger criminal and media landscape? I wanted to tell just enough of the story to create intrigue. I didn’t think Kaur fitted into the criminal landscape, which was why she was so hard for the police to catch. And so interesting to me.
Bank robbers are becoming an extinct species. The rise of electronic payments is creating a cashless society, and since 2003, bank robberies have fallen 47%. The crime is also an overwhelmingly male activity. According to the latest FBI figures, just 8% of America’s 4,347 bank robberies last year were committed by a woman. “Traditionally women have been involved in bank robberies only as getaway drivers, or accomplices to male robbers,” says Dr Richard Schmitt, a US criminal psychologist who has evaluated more than 50 bank robbers. Schmitt says that a robber who is an educated professional female, and a Sikh, is, “a highly unusual case… in the history of the United States you will not find another bank robber with this profile.”
When Sandeep Kaur ran from the Bank of the West in Valencia, she had risked her life and liberty for little more than $21,200. Yet she then embarked on a one-woman, five-week crime spree, robbing banks in Arizona, California, and Utah. Inspired by Kaur’s bomb threats and glamorous disguises, the FBI named her “the Bombshell Bandit”, and appealed for help from the public. The bureau prides itself on its catchy robber nicknames, like the “Bad Rug Bandit,” “Attila the Bun,” and “The Boom Boom Bandit,” (his note read, “No drama, no boom boom.”) A good nickname creates notoriety and gets people talking, says the FBI’s Laura Eimiller. And with the Bombshell Bandit, she says, “The press just ran with it.”
Last summer I watched the Bombshell Bandit story unfold like a bizarre crime drama, never sure when the next episode would air. Did you feel you had to insert yourself into the story since you were conducting the jailhouse interview? Would you have done the same if you had written the story for a U.S. or West Coast publication? I usually try and insert myself into every story! However, this part is the first thing an editor chops—a good editor, that is. My personal rule is, I’m in the story if my reporting turns up something that changes the course of the story, or I discover something revelatory. In this instance, I was the first person Kaur spoke to about her motivations, and I wanted to put the reader in the room with us for that.
It was a spectacle that culminated in Kaur’s arrest on 31 July 2014, after a desperate police pursuit. The 65-mile chase crossed three states and two time zones, reaching speeds of 130mph. Finally unmasked in the press, Kaur created headlines across the United States, and in her native India. Reporters besieged the Kaur family asking why an educated young woman would turn to bank robbery. But no-one in the tight-knit Indian community would talk.
Then on 28 January 2015, she responded to my letter, asking for answers. Her attorney wrote: “Ms Kaur would like to meet with you.”
Sandeep Kaur, now 25, rests her thin hands on a table in the visiting room of the Iron County Jail in Cedar City, Utah. A prisoner has etched the word “BONES” into the wood. “My mom is still under the delusion that people don’t know about it,” she says, in a disarming Indian-American accent. Her olive-coloured prison uniform catches a flood of tears. “People ask about me, and she says, she’s working,” Kaur says, laughing and sobbing at once. “She wanted to die out of the embarrassment.” This is the main theme of the story: The pretense, the guarding of secrets. You nicely introduce that with a quote. Does that mean you belong in the show-not-tell camp? Yes, I am a show-don’t-tell merchant, where possible. Right away, we know what this story is about: Secrets and lies..
Over the next four hours, Kaur will tell a tragic story that a federal judge will later call “complex”, before describing the nurse as “one of the criminal minds that the court does not understand”.
Her story begins in Punjab, north-west of Delhi on the Pakistan border. It is one of the smallest but most prosperous states of India. Sandeep Kaur was born on 11 November 1989, in Chandigarh – India’s first planned city, sometimes called “the city beautiful”. She says her name means the “first ray of sunlight”. Aged seven, she moved with her mother and brother, Jatinder, to join her father in America. They arrived in San Jose, California, as the area’s Indian population was exploding. But for as long as she can remember, Kaur says she felt like an outsider.
“My mom would go to the store and if the guys’ clothes were on sale, she got all of us the same thing. My little brother would be wearing Pocahontas sandals. She didn’t understand.” The children were bullied relentlessly and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, racial tensions developed. “I was called a terrorist at school. They were like, ‘Did your Dad do this?'” Kaur and her brother skipped school to escape their tormentors, but were suspended and sent away to a boarding school in the Eastern Himalayas, as punishment.
Back in America, Kaur says her parents banned mobile phones, television, and friends, isolating the children. “We would have to stand there with a chair up in our hands for like an hour until our arms hurt,” she recalls. “That was how [we] were raised, we knew not to go tell the school, we were beaten with a stick. This is how parenting is.” Was any of this childhood trauma confirmed by other members of Kaur’s family? Yes, by Amundeep. I was wary of this being a single-source story, given the circumstances, so being able to cross reference details with Amundeep was valuable. Also, I was struck by how ‘normal’ these two girls were. When you say ‘normal,’ I assume you’re distinguishing them from the other criminals — and specifically bank robbers — you’ve interviewed before? A lot of criminals, they’re bad people. I don’t know if this made this into the piece, but in the piece it says there’s good criminals and bad criminals. And I agree with that. There are some really bad people in the world, and then there are good people who make bad decisions. And I really believe in Sandeep’s case, it was the latter.
Kaur’s closest confidante became her cousin, Amundeep Kaur, 27, whom I interviewed at length on the telephone. When did Amundeep agree to talk? Did any others from her family? I persuaded Sandeep to help me speak to her family. Amundeep was the only one who would talk to the media. I sensed that the rest of the family were very much in denial. I was hoping to meet the family in court, and was surprised that they did not show up—I believe they were avoiding the media, as there were a number of journalists trying to speak to them. The whole community were very closed.
Their mothers are sisters, and though Kaur was two years younger, she played the role of older sister. Amundeep admits she was the naughtier of the pair. She sneaked Kaur to the movies, and in return, Kaur covered for her cousin’s illicit teenaged romances. She liked to joke that trouble was Amundeep’s middle name, as in, “I’m-in-deep trouble”.
When her mother fell ill and went into hospital, the 14-year-old Kaur was inspired by a friendly nursing manager to take up nursing. “She even gave me some nursing textbooks,” Kaur says. Galvanised, she graduated from high school early, starting college at the remarkable age of 15. By 19 she was a Licensed Vocational Nurse, eager to escape the family home she describes as “a prison”. Quickly, Kaur earned up to $6,000 a month, working for a health care agency, nursing a terminally ill businessman, and back-to-back shifts at various Bay area hospitals. “She lived with her mom, so she had no bills, she had a very used, beat-up car… her money was piling up,” says Amundeep.
It was 2008, and the American economy crashed. Kaur says she started investing in the stock market. “I was really into it. I put all the money I had saved up, and [some] from my parents… the stocks [were] really low, these are the biggest banks of America there are. It can’t get any lower than this, Bank of America was at two dollars fifty-three cents.” It is a topic I was not expecting from this jail visit. Kaur gambled on America, and won. “I invested in the insurance banks, AIG and Prudential,” she says. “I ended up making $200,000.” Were you aware of any of the details of her story prior to the interview? If not, how did you adjust on the fly? Was it difficult to get her to talk about these things? Were you able to follow up with her? I had very little. I made my request through her lawyer, and was granted one interview, for three hours, with no chance for follow up. Her lawyer Jay Winward was present throughout, and was a very interesting guy. We spoke at length—he is a Mormon, and Sandeep is a Sikh—there was something very interesting about that; he told me the Mormons are big on forgiveness and salvation. I guess Utah was the best place Kaur could have hoped to have been arrested and tried. Before the interview, Winward told me that her story was amazing, but that she would have to tell me herself. I had a hunch about the gambling.
Then, like any college-aged American girl she started to enjoy parties, boys, and everything forbidden by her parents. She wore party dresses under her hospital scrubs, to fool her mother, and began leading a double life. Aged 20, Kaur left home and moved to Sacramento, where she studied for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. “I even worked at… Sacramento County Jail. [Taking inmates’] blood pressure, giving them pills… the diabetic inmates, getting their blood sugars.” With a glance at her current surroundings, she says: “It’s kind of weird now I’m on the other side.”
Kaur says her 21st birthday in November 2010 was the turning point. This is the legal drinking age in the US and her cousin planned a celebration holiday. The girls lied to their mothers and fled to Sacramento airport – but before Kaur told the story, I had already guessed where they went. Back when the Bombshell Bandit was a fugitive on the run, I plotted her bank robberies on a map, and noticed how her heists circumnavigated America’s city of sin. When did you get this hunch? How did being right on that affect the jailhouse interview? I didn’t say anything about it, because my role in that interview was really to listen. Like I said, I plotted the robberies on Google Maps. This is when I was trying to find her, because I started following the story before she was arrested. At first I thought she was Armenian. I started plotting them so I could find her, and quickly saw there was a pattern there.
Like a flotilla of metallic icebergs, the Crystals shopping mall towers above the souvenir shops on Las Vegas Boulevard like a giant geometric puzzle. It claims to be the world’s largest collection of designer fashion stores under one roof, boasting a Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and a Jimmy Choo. To Kaur, it was a retail heaven full of daring, Western styles that would boil her mother’s blood. Inside the Gucci store, the designer clothes seemed to transform her.
“It was my favourite brand, it had the style I liked. Louis Vuitton was too flashy… Gucci is more forever lasting.” She says the girls bought “killer outfits” – heels and short dresses they had never been allowed to wear. The cousins click-clacked towards the casinos and clubs in their expensive new shoes. Kaur had found freedom.
“I gambled. I won a couple of thousand and it was pretty fun. I played blackjack and I kept winning,” she says. “Everyone else at the table was getting mad.” With a dizzying streak of beginner’s luck, Kaur says she won $4,000, and was “instantly hooked”. That first trip became two, then three, and soon she was flying to Vegas monthly, accompanied by her brother and a revolving cast of friends. “After a few trips, they started comp-ing everything,” says Kaur, of the free hotel rooms and perks. Then she discovered baccarat, and suddenly nothing else in the world mattered. “I can walk past roulette,” she says. “But if I even see baccarat, my heart leaps.”
For decades, the game of baccarat was played privately, in lavish high-roller pits for the enjoyment of millionaires, and James Bond in the movies. In this simple card game, players bet on which of two hands will add up closest to nine. “Baccarat is not beatable… it’s a lottery,” says US gambling journalist Michael Kaplan. “When you see these people writing down the progress of the game… it’s idiotic.” Kaur played a progressive game, doubling her bet after each loss to earn her money back. It is this type of aggressive play that has seen baccarat revenue in Nevada triple since 2002. Today it earns $1.4bn a year, more than blackjack, craps, and poker combined. “When I gambled it was like an escape from everything,” Kaur says. “The pressure from my mom to do this and that, she wanted me to buy a house… I would go there for an escape.” Were you tempted to talk to any mental health experts on how these addictions (gambling, shopping) develop, and how they can be connected to childhood trauma? Kaur didn’t identify as a gambling or shopping addict (I did ask if she was utilizing any of the twelve-step programs available in prisons and jails, and she said no). That might have been denial, but I just didn’t feel there was room in the story for it. I did find a place for a court psychologist who specializes in bank robbers; and gambling experts.
Inside Kaur’s penthouse suite at the Bellagio hotel and casino, RnB music throbbed from a sleek Bose stereo. The two-bedroom, five-bathroom luxury suite became a private club, strewn with bottles of Patron tequila, Don Julio, and Hennessy. Downstairs, she played behind the frosted windows of the Baccarat Bar, a ballroom-style gaming lounge with chandeliers the size of a family car. Kaur had grown a reputation as a fearless but fortunate gambler: She was known to play until she had chips worth $10,000, before spending it all in the designer stores.
“I had a weakness for designer sunglasses,” she admits. “I would first go and see how much the pricing is… then I would go make a bet for that same amount. If I win, I’ll go buy it, if not then I’m not meant to have it.” The casino treated her like royalty, and she played next to foreign dignitaries and celebrities. Kaur says she decided to get a credit line at the casino. “So that way I don’t have to bring the money there.”
“A marker is a fancy word for a cheque,” explains casino super-host Steve Cyr, 51. “If a cheque bounces in Nevada, it’s a criminal offence.” Yet Kaur still kept to a strict lunch budget of $15, and enjoyed her winnings. Soon, the casino agreed to raise her marker to $20,000, and her bets increased.
Kaur was on a roll. She was making money almost out of thin air, and had gained entry to the inner sanctum of the seductive nightlife of Las Vegas. But then things started to go wrong.
A year after her first gamble, in November 2011, Kaur confided to Amundeep that she had lost $60,000. She said she had lost it on the stock market but her brother revealed the truth. “She gambled it all in like three hands on the table, I saw her,” he told his cousin. After that, Amundeep says, “I knew she had a problem.”
Kaur says she quit nursing and left her studies at Sacramento State to concentrate on gambling. “I stopped working. I can’t focus and be going to work for this little amount of money,” she says. She wired more and more money from her investment account. “It started off at like $250,000,” she says. And all of it dripped away. In late March 2012 she was seen walking the casino floor in a daze. Outside the Baccarat Bar, she walked past the banks of slot machines like “The Jewel of India”, and “Bollywood Babes”, as their discordant sirens sounded an internal alarm: her life savings were gone – and she was in debt to the casino.
That was when a stranger approached, Kaur says. The man had watched her gambling from afar, and was impressed with her talent. She says he told her: “I can get you some money.” The man, she says, was not a member of casino staff, just one of the game’s many hangers-on. “I’ve seen you win before, you can win your money back,” he told her. Kaur says he led her outside and introduced her to more men. “I told them I need $20,000. He said, ‘I can get that for you.’ I wanted to win… I got sucked into it. They were really big guys, but at the time I thought I could pay it back. They said it would be a high interest rate… and I agreed.” Kaur describes the men as, “a Mexican guy, and the other guy was like a mix maybe… Puerto Rican, he had braids.” She gave them her details, and in the casino’s parking garage they handed her the cash. “OK I’ll pay you back, it’ll probably be a couple of hours,” she said. Then she marched back through the casino’s monogrammed doors, ready to win.
The heels and expensive dress were gone. Kaur wore a sweat suit, as she played to pay off her debt to the Bellagio and the loan sharks. She says she needed $45,000. “I ate at that table. I only took bathroom breaks… I was sitting at the table for 16 hours.” But the cards were cruel, and her chips quickly depleted. The host encouraged her to try a lucky drink, perhaps a Louis XIII cognac, or an expensive cigar, which she accepted. “I’m sitting there…hoping it’ll all change,” she recalls. Puffing on a cigar in her sportswear, Kaur cut an unlikely figure in the mahogany-panelled Baccarat Bar, with its modern art and exotic flowers, but soon her pile of chips began to grow. “At one point I had $38,000,” she says – just a few thousand dollars from safety. In a few more hands, she might be up – perhaps she’d even win enough for a shopping spree?
“Then it all just went down the drain,” she says of the last few hands that wiped her out. “I can’t believe that I’ve done this,” she told herself. Then Kaur says she fled Las Vegas and her creditors, vowing to give up gambling. In May 2012, she moved with her mother to Union City, California, for a new address and new start, always with one eye out for her creditors. Kaur maxed out her credit cards to pay the deposit for a family home, and to cover for her losses, told her mother she bought the house outright. She worked 96-hour weeks as a nurse to pay her secret mortgage. But by 11 December 2012, there was a warrant for her arrest, for failing to pay her casino marker and it wasn’t long before Kaur’s mother discovered the truth.
“Indian parents are very nosy, they like to look at your bank statements,” Kaur says. “She went ballistic on me. ‘Where is the money? Why did you do this? How bad does this look, you being a girl?'”
There were other secrets in the Kaur household. Kaur says her parents had divorced, which is unusual in the Indian community. She says her father, who travelled to and fro to India, still attended family functions and pretended nothing had happened. “I just felt like my whole life I’ve been living a lie,” she says. “Just an image for people.” Kaur describes her father as “not involved” in their lives. She says he is “retired” and that “he used to work for companies”. Amundeep tells me he is actually a taxi driver in Union City.
Kaur says she stayed far away from Las Vegas “for a year” to dodge the loan sharks and casino debts, but Amundeep’s account is different. She told me that Kaur was “back and forward to Las Vegas” until July 2013, and she even boasted of turning “$1,100 into $25,000”. Whatever the real timeline, it is clear that Kaur did not repay her debts. And at this point, Kaur’s mother began to arrange her marriage.
Potential suitors were invited to the family home, but Kaur was not impressed. “What guy doesn’t have the balls to tell their family they want to get married on their own?” she says. And anyway, her parents’ own arranged marriage was a charade. By September 2013, Kaur had eloped with a man of her own choice. When we talk in the jail, she will not discuss her husband, other than to say: “I was a prisoner in my own home.” Amundeep tells me that Kaur was given a $1,000-a-week allowance from her husband, but gambled it in Las Vegas. Would Kaur confirm her cousin’s account of this kind of thing? One of the barriers to the reporting was my one shot at speaking to Kaur. Amundeep and Sandeep’s stories do vary, especially in the time line leading up to her robbery spree. While I couldn’t track down the husband, he did call my literary agent when the story came out, and we connected briefly. I would say his version of events matched Amundeep’s closer than Sandeep’s. Her cousin also says that in January of 2014, Kaur’s car was impounded for unpaid bills, and in April, her marriage was over. Amundeep says her husband stopped paying her allowance in May. Then Kaur’s mortgage, heavy gambling debts, and web of lies became a ticking time bomb.
Memorial Day, Monday 26 May 2014. Kaur says she noticed a mysterious black vehicle following her car, during a trip to visit friends in Freemont, California. “I thought my father had hired someone to follow me,” she says. When she paid for gas, she says she returned to find two strange men sitting in her car.
“Oh, you’re in the wrong car,” she told them.
“We need to talk to you. You’re Sandeep,” she recalls one of them saying. “You owe us $25,000 but that’s not enough, we need more.”
Kaur says these were not the men who had loaned her the cash. It is not unusual for so-called “bad debt” to be bought for pennies on the dollar, by unscrupulous collectors. I asked who they were. “One was darker… one guy was black. Medium size… they called him by some nickname, I forgot what it was.” Kaur says they demanded $35,000 and that she had two days to get it. “My family still doesn’t know any of this.” Was this a red flag for you, that you were the first person hearing these details and they seem so scripted-for-TV? I wasn’t the first person to hear these claims—I believe Kaur had told FBI investigators the same story. I wouldn’t say it was a red flag. Her story was completely believable according to two people I spoke to closely connected with Las Vegas and debt. The FBI didn’t believe her. The judge did believe her.
“They said, ‘Where are you gonna get the money from?'”
Kaur pulled out her phone. “I’m gonna make some phone calls,” she said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you make those phone calls right now.'”
When no-one would lend Kaur money, the men threatened her family, she says. They told her she had a choice – to pay the money, or work for them. “I didn’t know what working for them meant. I was thinking some drug stuff, I don’t know, prostitution… They said, ‘You can rob a bank. Go rob a house, do this do that, we need the money.’ They tried to give me a gun.”
When they suggested bank robbery, Kaur says the idea didn’t seem ludicrous. “It’s do or die. If I did this, and anything did happen then at least the police would be involved,” she reasons. “Or you know, I could just kill myself.” But why didn’t she just tell the police? “Ever since we were kids we had to lie,” she says. From the punishment she suffered at the hands of her parents, to partying, and her parents’ divorce, anything shameful had to be hidden.
Eleven days later, Kaur escaped from her first bank robbery in Valencia, on to Magic Mountain Parkway and on to the I-5 freeway towards Los Angeles. As she tossed away her wig, a police car flew past in the opposite direction. “I kept looking backwards, thinking, ‘They’re gonna be here now… Or now?… Now?'” But after a six-hour drive, Kaur realised she had got away. She arrived outside a restaurant near the pier at Santa Monica, where she says her creditors were waiting.
“I met them in Santa Monica like I was supposed to, the day after. I told them what I’d done.” Kaur says she handed them the cash. “They said, ‘This is not enough.'” The men gave her a week to come up with another $20,000, she says. With the interest increasing at an extortionate rate, Kaur says she scraped together $5,000. Then she drove to Las Vegas on 20 June, 2014, to make another payment. But the moment she arrived, the familiar flutter of excitement rose in her stomach. She parked at the Aria casino, a sister hotel of the Bellagio. What if she could turn that $5,000 into a larger amount, she thought, and solve her problems forever?
There is nothing more intoxicating than a lucky run on baccarat. Her $5,000 became almost $10,000 in a matter of minutes. The buzz was back. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, perhaps a congratulatory friend, she thought. But it was a huge security guard, who told her: “Can you come with us? You have a warrant out for you.” Soon Kaur was staring into the camera at the Clark County Detention Center, on Casino Center Blvd. Her marker had finally caught up with her. “I thought, the bank robbery is gonna come back on me too now… this is it for me,” she says. But luckily for her, they didn’t connect the dots. On 26 June, Amundeep helped find $15,000 bail money, and Kaur was free – but deeper in debt than ever. And with a “felony” charge on her record, Kaur knew she would not be allowed to work as a nurse again.
Soon Kaur was looking at her iPhone again for directions to another bank. “What are the chances of me getting away with another robbery?” she thought. “Maybe I should just kill myself, end it all… no they’d go to my family. I have to do this. I was very close to [suicide]. I kept thinking… pills. But no, there’s a chance of surviving. But then… if I’m already thinking of ending my life, why not go rob the bank? The debt was increasing every day. It’s gonna keep going on for life. If I got another $20,000 from this one, I’m done.”
The Lake Havasu City branch of Wells Fargo is 58 miles past the Nevada state line, in Arizona. It was 8 July 2014. Sandeep Kaur walked into the bank wearing a skin-tight black dress, a flower-print scarf, her trademark sunglasses, and unusually for bank robbery, open-toe sandals. It was 5.30pm when she handed a bank employee a note which said she had a bomb and that she wanted $100,000. According to investigators, the note also claimed five men were making her rob the bank, and that she didn’t want to do it. The cashier handed over the cash, and Kaur sprinted to her car. “I’d parked by [sandwich shop] Jersey Mikes,” she recalls. “There’s people that even saw me running from there. That day I just got lucky.”
A terrific rainstorm hampered her getaway, she says, forcing drivers to pull over and wait it out. As the rain crashed against her windscreen, she counted the money and was frustrated to find it amounted to just under $2,000. She turned on the radio, and in the car parked next to hers, a man smiled at her. She politely smiled back. “I’m normal to the rest of the world,” she says. “My mind just tells me it’s OK.”
The next day, Sgt Troy Stirling of the Lake Havasu City Police Department told the press he was comparing notes with other law enforcement agencies: “Typically some of these bad guys like to do the same thing in other areas,” he suggested. The net was closing on the Bombshell Bandit.
The day after that, on 10 July, the Kaur cousins met for dinner. Amundeep was astonished at her cousin’s weight loss. They often dieted together, sharing meal plans and encouragement. “How do you do it?” she asked, enviously. “She was 150 [pounds]… in a month she had gone [to] 115.” Kaur said nothing about robbing banks and was clearly broke, Amundeep says. She couldn’t even afford to pay for dinner.
But Kaur was already planning her third robbery, this time in San Diego. “I looked it up and there were already so many robberies there that people had gotten away with. They had this one guy called ‘the Geezer’ that had never been caught or anything. The people in San Diego were kinda for it,” she reasons, because “nobody was telling on him.”
The Geezer Bandit is San Diego’s number one serial bank robber. Some believe he is a younger man wearing a Hollywood special-effects mask to disguise his age. After 11 successful heists, he has never been stopped, and Kaur was catching up on him. But was bank robbery getting easier, now that she was experienced? “Each one’s like… different,” she says. Did you at any point get the feeling that robbing banks may have just become Kaur’s latest addiction, the latest thrill? Before I met Kaur, I thought she might be doing it as a thrill, and I foreshadowed that as a possibility at first (“The Thrill Capital of the World”) But no, she was terrified and desperate. Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote my favorite bank robbery article, ‘…Cowboy Bob’, wrote that bank robbery is a kind of public performance art. I don’t doubt that it was for Kaur too —she had Googled the Geezer bandit who is infamous on the West Coast for his robberies and is still on the run. (Note to the Geezer Bandit: call me.)
July 14 2014 was a Monday, the most popular day for bank robberies, according to FBI statistics. At approximately 2.50pm, she held up a Comerica Bank in San Diego’s Midway District, her second robbery in six days. Again, she handed the teller a folded piece of paper, which demanded money and threatened a bomb. This time her disguise was a colourful headscarf.
“I got $8,000, and the next day I go see [the creditors] at the same place in Santa Monica,” she says. “I gave them the money, but it was still not enough… They said ‘You’re running out of time. By 1 August, if you don’t have the money, we are gonna take you. You’re gonna work for us.’ So then I said, ‘OK, I’ll go rob this last bank, and give them this money by the first of the month, get this over with.’ I decided on Utah, I guess. I started to feel like they were going to keep increasing the money. The hole kept getting bigger and bigger.”
The US Bank in St George boasts a drive-thru teller, so few customers actually walk into the branch. Inside, the friendly staff keep bowls of sweets at the front desk. At 4.50pm on 31 July 2014, Sandeep Kaur entered the bank with a hoodie pulled over her head. Wearing sunglasses and a surgical mask, the manager’s first thought was that she was a germaphobe. But quickly that thought turned to, “This is not good.” Kaur passed the female cashier a note that read: “YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO GIVE ME 50K OF CASH OR I WILL SHOOT YOU. THIS IS NOT A JOKE.” She did not have a gun.
The manager watched Kaur run to her car carrying the cash, and telephoned 911, with a description of her silver Nissan. The Bombshell Bandit was on the run, peeling out of the parking lot at top speed. Officer Mark Biehl of the St George Police Department was at a nearby fire station when the bank robbery call came in. His Dodge Charger patrol car roared towards the freeway. “Suspect possibly armed,” said the dispatcher. Biehl staged his car at Exit 2 of the freeway, just as the promised silver car sped past, the driver too short to identify. “As soon as he was following me, I knew,” Kaur says. “It was like, ‘OK. It’s the end of it.'” But she still didn’t stop.
The police car followed her patiently across the state line into Arizona. Then two white local police Ford Explorers joined the chase, their blue and red lights flashing. The orange desert here turns almost Martian, as St George disappears, before the road is swallowed by the massive vermilion rocks of the Virgin River Gorge. The police radios died, and the caravan of vehicles became toy cars, dwarfed by the enormity of the canyon. “I thought about going off the side,” says Kaur. “But I didn’t know if I’d hurt others.”
When the pursuit raced through the dusty city of Mesquite, local officer Brad Swanson joined the chase. Three police departments were on Kaur’s tail now, lights blazing. They sped past the casinos that line the freeway, offering “$10,000 LUCKIEST SLOTS IN TOWN,” as Las Vegas approached. Did you recreate the chase in your own car to elicit these details? Yes. I visited each of the banks, and followed the chase route. Incidentally I take photos to help me remember colors and details, and the BBC ended up using them, which was unusual. The detail of the toy bear watching from a shelf in the bank was nice, the kind of thing you only get from a visit—I loved learning how William Randolph Hearst ordered reporters to chase down and capture the grizzly on the California flag—especially as the media [in this story], and the police were chasing an endangered species, a bank robber. Reconstructions are important: My translator Dee Murphy and I were almost arrested in Greece reconstructing a bank robbery a couple of years ago. I also realized during the reporting of this story that I have interviewed bank robbers face-to-face in three countries.
At 4.26pm, Kaur’s car flew over the time zone into Nevada, travelling at 130mph. Officer Swanson alerted a police officer waiting ahead to deploy his spike strips. But Kaur swerved, and her tires survived. Then 25 miles later, the road narrowed to one lane, and a waiting Nevada Highway Patrol trooper slid out his spike strip to greater effect. At 4.48pm, Kaur’s spree was over. Officer Swanson ordered her out of the car.
“Just shoot me,” she begged.
More police cars arrived and a TV news helicopter buzzed overhead. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer Troy Benson shouted instructions at Kaur through the PA system in Swanson’s patrol vehicle. The stand-off lasted two hours until the police persuaded the robber she was going to hospital, not to jail. But they lied.
Amundeep Kaur was on a treadmill when her phone buzzed with the text message:
‘I ROBBED A BANK.’
She stepped off the treadmill and stared at the screen. Another green speech bubble appeared:
‘I MESSED UP.’
Transported to the Clark County Detention Center, Kaur sat in a bleak prison cell. “I’m back in this hellhole. I thought, I can’t do this.” She decided to slit her wrists. “I try… but my roommate told on me,” she says, crying. “I got put in this psych [cell] where they strip away all your clothes, and you’re just sitting there naked.”
Special Agent Seth Footlik of the FBI interviewed a sullen Sandeep Kaur on 14 August. “Kaur was neither remorseful, nor completely honest in her interview,” he told me. I asked if she told him about the loan sharks, and Footlik said: “Kaur has proven to be dishonest and could not provide corroborating information for her claims. This office has not conducted any further investigation into Kaur’s claims of violent loan sharks.” Because Kaur readily admits to living a life “full of lies”, her story is hard to verify. However, I discovered that both her Arizona and Utah robberies coincided with the court’s demands for restitution for her gambling debts. Whatever her real motives, this is a story of a woman desperately trying to hide her shame. This is a telling sentence, but pretty far down in the story. Were you tempted to reveal your view of her plight earlier? This isn’t my view. Parts of her narrative didn’t add up, either from bad memory or another motive, but I just reported that. Kaur told me the story about the loan sharks, and she told investigators too– in telling her story I had a duty to report her claims. And I think this was an important part in the story to put that forward: just before we go to court.
The Punjabi newspaper, Ajit, is read on the steps of the Sikh temple in Union City, California, before service. As her trial approached, it speculated that she faced up to 20 years in federal prison on each of the four charges against her, and fines of $250,000. Kaur says her mother read the story and collapsed. You switch to present tense for the trial. I understand the present for the interview, but wonder about this. Was it deliberate? A lot of it was deliberate, but mainly to signify time passing. I also wanted the court day to feel like a self-contained scene. I flew from LA to Vegas and drove a couple hours to Utah, and back again all in one day. I probably could have reported this using court transcripts, but stenographers don’t report the jangling of the shackles or a prosecutor’s unusually snappy suit.
Not one member of her family attends the Fifth District Court in St George, for her sentencing on 7 April 2015. Emotional letters from her brother Jatinder and cousin Amundeep are handed to the judge, begging for leniency. Moments before Kaur arrives, I hear the jangling of her arm and leg shackles. Then she shuffles into the small courthouse, wearing a bright orange prison jumpsuit with “small” printed on its back. She shoots me a nervous smile. At 2pm, her attorney, Jay Winward, a tall, court-appointed defence attorney, tells District Judge Ted Stewart, “There are good criminals and bad.”
He describes Kaur as educated and of “great worth to society”, and says she was “trapped” by her culture. “Trapped?” returns prosecuting attorney Paul Kohler, who is wearing the snappier of the two suits. “Speak to those who were really trapped… The families travelling on the freeway when Kaur sped at 130mph… the bank employees… These are crimes of a violent, serial nature.” Yet at times Kaur’s actions were almost comical. The court hears how she robbed the bank in St George by pretending her finger was a gun. And then there was that ridiculous wig.
Next, the real courtroom drama begins. In an unusual move, the judge seals the courtroom and orders the press to leave. It is reported that “sensitive” evidence was heard relating to her treatment at the hands of loan sharks. If the FBI agent in charge of her case did not believe her, it appeared the judge did. “She amassed a large gambling debt and, in order to repay a loan shark, she robbed the banks,” he concludes. “That conduct explains why she did what she did, but by no means justifies what she did… It cannot be used as an excuse in the court’s mind.” The irritated journalists are allowed back in time for the prosecutor’s closing argument. “She was willing to gamble,” Kohler says, “not only her money and money she won at the casino. She was willing to gamble other people’s safety.”
The judge sentences Sandeep Kaur to 66 months in jail, and orders her to pay back every dollar of the money she stole. Kaur wipes her eyes and thanks the judge, saying her arrest was “a relief”.
During our prison interview, just before our time is up, Kaur tells me she has been helping other prisoners. Some are “in and out”, often for the same small crimes, and Kaur says she urges them to change their lives while they still can. She also says she has rekindled her interest in religion – and that she had an epiphany that night in solitary confinement in the Las Vegas jail. “That’s when I stopped the thinking of killing myself,” she says. “OK, I did it to myself… Now, it’s like, what can I do to help others? That’s my motivation now.”
And as the heavy door slams shut, and I watch through the reinforced window as Kaur shuffles back to her cell, I find myself wanting to believe her. Now that you’ve got some time between the reporting and publication of this story, how do you look back on all that she told you? Does the story still stay with you? Does it influence the way you approach your sources or your search for the truth? A lot of people read and liked this story. I got an email from a reader in London who complained that I’d made him miss his station on the train. This story helped me realize that sometimes you don’t have to make the decision on who is telling the truth, or why. I hope I did a good job writing the story with that in mind. You learn something in every story. Because I haven’t had that formal training, I’m learning in public, and the kind of stuff I tend to write tends to be widely read, so I feel my journey has been very public. I think the big thing I learned here is really alerting the reader that someone is unreliable. I think you’ve got to be very clear that someone is an unreliable narrator, and allow the reader to make their mind up. That’s a tool from fiction, because some of the best fiction uses an unreliable narrator.