Breaking the Bank

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Alona Ganer: The only time you should really rob a bank is on a Friday afternoon.

Russell Gewirtz: There still needed to be a way to steal something and get it out of the bank.

Tom Justice: The guiding principle is you do not want to get caught.

Roman Mars: When I go into a bank, especially if I have to stand in line waiting to make a deposit, my mind wanders. And one of the first places it wanders to, is how I would rob the place. I look at the exits and the entrances, the layout of the building, how could it be done? Most of the time, buildings are our friends. But it’s fun to recast the building as the enemy, the obstacle we have to overcome.

Katie Mingle: Well, I guess it’s a good thing we made our last Kickstarter goal.

Roman: That’s producer Katie Mingle.

Katie: The puzzle of how to get the money out of the bank is one that our culture has been obsessed with for a long time. The first recorded bank robbery took place in the 1860’s. And basically, ever since we’ve been seduced by the idea of the heist and the people that do them.

Roman: Today, we’ll meet three people who all tried in their own way to beat the bank. With designs that go from the spectacularly complicated, to the deceptively simple. Oh, and one of them actually pulled it off several times.

Woman 1: Heist one. Mastermind, Alona Ganer. Location, Los Angeles California.

Alona Ganer: So, I’m Alona Ganer, and I’m a designer and artist. I’m based in London. My work relates to the idea that design can be a plot. And I think what I’m fascinated by is the fact that it never has to happen, so you have absolute freedom to fantasize about whatever you want.

Katie: And with this in mind, Ganer set out to make her heist as big and complicated as possible. The sort of go big or go home style heist. And she was interested in the interplay between Hollywood movies about heists, and real-life heists.

Alona: There are these really weird feedback loops that happen in Hollywood. Hollywood being the intrinsic pull on everything that relates to the iconography of a heist.

Katie: So of course, her heist had to take place in LA. There were years, mostly in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, when LA was accurately dubbed the bank robbery capital of the world. In particularly bad years, there were as many as 2,600 bank robberies in LA. That’s roughly one robbery every 45 minutes of the working day. People have conjectured about why this is. Ganer thinks it may be the pull of Hollywood, or the physical layout of LA.

Alona: Well, the way LA’s constructed due to the– obviously all the highways, it’s actually very easy to get away.

Roman: Oh, as long as you’re not trying to get away during rush hour. To be fair to LA, their bank robbery stats are way less jaw-dropping now. According to the FBI, there were only 212 reported bank robberies in 2013. But, let’s get to Ganer’s heist.

Alona: Chapter one’s called The Distraction at One Wilshire.

Katie: Ganer ran a Kickstarter last year to fund her work. This is from the video.

Man: Picture this. A plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday morning at precisely 9:46 AM. Its assignment, to deliver a full-scale replica of a 747 commercial jet to a film set. Whilst flying over downtown LA, the cables holding the replica snap. Dropping the plane 10,000 feet. Crashing into the government building One Wilshire.

Roman: One Wilshire is a 28 story building in downtown LA. Most of it is filled with computer servers and telecommunications equipment.

Alona: The goal of it is to draw crowds of passersby and preoccupy police from what’s really going on.

Roman: And what’s really going on, is that while every emergency responder in LA is busy with the distraction at One Wilshire, five different banks in the surrounding area are being robbed.

Katie: But Ganer’s plan involves stealing the actual safes, or vaults. Because– well, that’s where the big money is.

Alona: It’s become LA law now that they’re only allowed to hold $2,000 at once. So, if say, for example, there were 10 tellers behind each cubicle, you’d need 10 people and the only amount that you’d ever get is a limit of $2,000 in each of those cubicles.

Roman: Ganer’s plan was to drill large concentric circles into the banks and pull out the vaults and then load them on a truck.

Alona: We could carve circles that get smaller in size as you reach the vault. And as you pull the goods backwards, it rips the building in part so that the building could collapse on its own weight after you’ve left leaving no traces or trying to diminish the amount of evidence possible.

Katie: Ganer did a ton of research trying to figure out the size of the vaults, the layout of the buildings. She was working with a group of students from the Art Center College of Design in LA.

Alona: And we had them ask questions in the buildings. Kind of playfully, we’re architecture students. We want to find out how deep the building goes, and so on.

Katie: As of now, she knows the sizes of all the vaults, but one.

Alona: The fifth one, we’re still trying to work out. We’ve contacted the cleaner that has worked in one of the banks. But entering the vault holes is very difficult.

Katie: Not all of the research has been difficult though. Like watching lots and lots of heist movies.

Alona: The only one I haven’t seen ironically is Inside Man and people keep telling me to watch it. And I keep meaning to, and it’s one I’d like to savor because I’m told it’s very good.

Woman 1: Heist Two. Mastermind, Russell Gewirtz. Location, New York City, New York.

Russell Gewirtz: Hello, my name is Russell Gewirtz. I’m the writer of the film Inside Man, starring Jodie Foster, Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.

Katie: In the early 2000’s, Gewirtz was living in New York City. He wasn’t a screenwriter, he had nothing to do with Hollywood.

Russell: I hadn’t gone to film school, I hadn’t read a book on screenwriting or anything.

Roman: He was just a guy working in real estate that like me, and apparently a lot of other people, liked thinking about the best way to rob a bank.

Russell: Part of my daily commute was that I walk from my apartment to my car a few blocks and I’ve walked past an empty bank. And every day when I was walking past this bank that’s what would pop into my head. So it was sort of like this, it was just this few minutes of my day every morning and every evening, where I would end up working on this sort of fantasizing about this story in my mind.

Katie: In fact for about three years, Gewirtz constructed the perfect heist in his mind before he ever wrote down a word.

Russell: For most of that time, I don’t think I ever really intended to write a movie. It was just a daydream.

Katie: He knew he wanted his heist to take place in Manhattan. But it took him a while to figure out what kind of bank it would be.

Russell: If you think about it, the story is dependent upon the architecture if you will or the structure. As I was writing it, I had to have a sense of, “Okay, is this is a modern bank with glass? Can the cops see everything that’s going on? Or is it old? And just has smaller windows and can make some time. Can they only see a little?” Because that was going to determine how, a lot of the action in the film. Sort of the fun of it, the great part is that, as I’m writing it, I really get to build the bank however I wanted it to be.

Roman: The bank that Gewirtz ends up building is a classic old one. High ceilings, marble floors, elegant and uncomfortable in a way that big city banks used to be. And it has no windows in front. So the police have very little idea about what’s going on inside with all the bank robbers and hostages.

Female News Reporter: CBS 2 News. Outside Manhattan Trust Bank where we have just been told by investigators, the bank has been robbed.

Katie: And okay, spoiler alerts ahead, but the heist that he designs is really clever.

Roman: A group of masked robbers enters the bank and takes everyone, all of the customers and all the bank employee’s hostage.

Bank Robber: Everybody get down on the [beeps] floor now!

Katie: The robbers make all of the hostages take off their clothes and put on the same outfits that they, the robbers are also wearing. A kind of blue jumpsuit like a painter would wear, and a mask.

Bank robber: I need all of you to put on one of these suits and these masks.

Roman: So you can’t tell who’s the hostage and who’s the robber. Even the hostages lose track of who’s who.

Katie: Toward the end of the movie, the hostages and robbers all come out with their hands up. But because they’re dressed exactly the same, the police have no idea who was the hostage and who was a robber. They questioned everyone but they still can’t figure it out. And eventually, they had to let them all go. Kind of brilliant. But there was still one problem.

Russell: It became clear to me that as clever as it was to tie them, dress themselves up like the hostages, there still needed to be a way to steal something and get it out of the bank. I couldn’t sneak it out in with the hostages. So, in the end, I decided one of them had to stay behind. And from there it became well, if he stays behind, he’s got to be– he has to be hiding. And if he’s going to be hiding, it’s got to be really clever, and it has to be something that is hinted at.

Roman: Throughout the entire movie while the robbers are in the bank, their doing something in the back room. Building something, digging something. It’s unclear what’s going on. You think that maybe they’re digging a tunnel.

[digging sounds]

Katie: What they’re actually building is a room. A tiny cell with a false wall hidden behind some shelves in the basement of the bank.

Roman: They use the building itself as an unwitting accomplice. One of the robbers, the one who actually has the stolen goods, has to stay behind until all the police are gone until they’re done gathering evidence at the bank. He has to stay in this little room for an entire week.

Russell: You know, it’s funny. It’s hard for me to know exactly how much of my intention actually came through. But when they’re hacking through the concrete floor, they’re building a toilet.

Katie: Because if you’re hiding in a tiny cell for a week, well, you’re going to have to go somewhere. And that’s the thing about this heist. It feels pretty believable.

Russell: There are no black boxes in this movie. And if you’re watching a movie, and a bunch of crooks get to the safe, and somebody just pulls out a piece of equipment from a backpack and sticks it on the lock and bah, bah, bah and the lock opens, that’s called the black box. Those don’t exist in the real world. They only exist in movies.

Roman: But even without black boxes, a highly orchestrated heist with multiple players and lots of moving parts like the one in Inside Man is really different from the reality of how most bank robberies take place.

Katie: According to the FBI’s own statistics, most bank robberies are done by just a single person who presents a note to the teller and walks out without a lot of fanfare.

Roman: Which is a fundamental principle of design. If you want something to work and work well, keep it simple.

Woman 1: Heist three. Mastermind, Tom Justice. Locations, California, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Woman 2: So all of the other people I’m talking to for this show designed bank robberies or bank heists as kind of a creative exercise. But, that’s not the case with you.

Tom Justice: That’s correct. I have unfortunately been convicted of 26 bank robberies in 3 different States. In my case, they called me the choirboy robber.

Katie: The FBI gave Tom this name because during the robberies, he would stand with his hands folded on the counter, and his head bowed.

Tom: When I can’t see someone’s hands, that makes me very nervous. So in order to sort of make myself calm and the bank teller calm, just put your hands, fold them nicely. Just put them right there. Put everybody at ease.

Roman: Tom always worked alone, and he always used a note.

Tom: The note always read, “This is a bank robbery. Put all of your money in the bag. Thank you.”

Katie: And you have to be prepared for the teller to think the note is a joke.

Tom: It’s interesting and it breaks your stride a little bit because you’re sort of in the zone and then the teller, she looks up in me like, “Are you serious?” Yes, serious. Because if you’ve never experienced this before, and who has, you think it’s a joke.

Katie: And like Alona Ganer, the artist that we heard from earlier, Tom did his research. Especially at the beginning.

Tom: Probably took three-four months of research and a lot of observation. The guiding principle is you do not want to get caught. And as such, you want to sort of, envision all sorts of different scenarios. Someone might engage you in the bank, a bank employee, a bank customer, what will you do? If you reach an altercation, what is your escape route because it might be different from your standard route? Everything has to be highly thought out.

Roman: Tom’s getaway vehicle was his bicycle. So the first thing he’d do was to figure out where he was going to leave the bike parked while he was inside robbing the bank, from there.

Tom: I actually physically walked it through in terms of the steps. I would actually count the steps, I would count the moves, I would practice literally hundreds of times. I had a small notebook in which I wrote down every single detail. Would you leave footprints, police patterns, possibilities, high pedestrian traffic areas?

Katie: Tom spent a lot of time observing police patterns. And completely unintuitively, he came to believe.

Tom: Banks closest to cop stations make for the softest targets.

Katie: Tom thinks this is because when cops go out on duty, they tend to drive out away from the station. Which means it takes them longer to get to the scene if they’re called back for a robbery.

Roman: And he tended to rob banks in middle to upper-class neighborhoods.

Tom: So that it would look like it would support somebody riding away on a bicycle. If you were to be in a really tough area, a really working-class area, that would stand out. Now, I did not lock out my bike. Honestly, I was only away from that site, 2 to 3 minutes.

Roman: Over the course of 4 years, Tom stole close to $130,000. So that’s about $5,000 per robbery. He never used a gun, and no one was ever physically hurt.

Katie: Toward the end of his bank robbing career, Tom got careless and stopped putting as much time into the planning.

Tom: Did all of the standard steps of what is the escape route, what is the alternative escape route. But I did not really pay attention to like the police, will hang out and watch police patterns. I just got cocky.

Katie: Tom Justice was eventually caught and spent 9 years in prison.

Roman: Design matters.

Katie: Hey, you want to know what else matters?

Roman: What?

Katie: Heat.

Bank Robber: We want to hurt no one. We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money. Your money’s insured by the federal government, you’re not going to lose a dime.

Katie: In 1995 movie Heat from director Michael Mann. Set in LA, of course, it influenced all three of our heist masterminds.

Russell: Heat to me is, one of the most perfect films I’ve ever seen.

Alona: I kind of have seen lots over the years. My favorite being Heat, Michael Mann’s Heat.

Tom: In prison, Heat is the number one movie amongst convicts. Whenever say, we’re all hanging out on a Saturday and Heat comes on TNT and it’s on at an odd time, whatever it is you’re doing, you sort of sit down. I’m going to watch at least an hour of this.

Roman: Crap projects, shankings, you put it all aside, for Heat.

Katie: And the heist designers in our story aren’t the only ones influenced by Heat. There was a real heist in LA in 1997 dubbed the North Hollywood shootout. You can actually watch and listen to parts of it online.

Katie: It’s a robbery on a Bank of America gone awry. And it all unfolds in a way that is suspiciously similar to the plot of Heat.

Alona: There’s this really weird feedback loops that happen in Hollywood.

Roman: It seems when it comes to heists, life often imitates art. And all these plans are only good as art. I cannot stress this enough, people. Crime doesn’t pay. But if you must embark on a life of crime, remember this, don’t let yourself attached to anything you’re not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat, if you feel the heat around the corner.

[background music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle, with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco, and produced on the offices of Arcsine, in beautiful downtown Oakland, California around the corner from the Chase Bank which has a wall of inch thick lose site between you and the tellers. So you ain’t getting in there. Don’t even think about it.



“No City” — Aesop Rock
“The Dexo”— Populous
“2019III”— Ok Ikumi
“Bring Back Pluto”— Aesop Rock
“Fumes”— Aesop Rock
“Theives”— Aesop Rock
“Bulb”— Freescha
“Force Maker”— Brian Eno
“Sifting in Sand”— Set in Sand

  1. Wally Spyglass

    I think that robbing a bank (or stealing from an art gallery) is an excellent mental exercise. I work for the product security team for a device manufacturer: we’re a very talented group of digital security experts and hackers. And one of my classic interview questions is an in-depth discussion about how to steal a painting from an art gallery.

    The most interesting part of the range of answers that we get is looking at who intrinsically obey the social rules of the art gallery (only open at certain times, have to enter the gallery through the doors, insiders aren’t thieves, etc.) and who immediately rejects the social rules to engineer a more advantageous situation. I think good attackers work out the assumptions that the security designers have made and seek to invalidate those assumptions for a competitive advantage.

    My favourite answers have been flooding the museum with sewage and stealing the painting when it’s being stored at the offsite backup, damaging the painting and posing as an art restorer, buying the painting when the plan became too intricate to be viable, and kidnapping my wife to make me steal the painting as I’ve clearly thought about it quite a lot.

    1. I think the art gallery would be a much easier theft than a bank. Banks do not want you to hang around. Galleries want you to come and visit and enjoy the art. Museums and galleries typically have less security. I seem to recall that there have been a run of smash and grab art thefts.

      The problem is not if you can steal it but what to do with it when you are done. Rob a bank and as long as the money is not marked you are home free. Rob a museum and it is a little hard to sell a Picasso with out bringing attention to yourself. The only way it works is if you already have a buyer.

  2. Create a fake person. Establish a long history of good credit and assets. Apply for and receive large loans based on your good fake name. Don’t pay them back.

    All hinges on that first step though… Not getting any easier.

  3. Lab Coat Neil

    Roman, et all –
    Having listened to the latest episode I thought I would share this with you.
    Its something I’ve been working on since January and has been a runaway sellout success. Basically tickets sold out in 4 hours… It would appear that people really love to live out their dreams of breaking into a building and stealing stuff!

  4. Ted

    I used to work in an art museum. It would’ve been very easy to steal; nobody checked the packages shipped by the museum store and there were no cameras in the back rooms. We could have simply mailed the art.

    1. Jackthesam

      “robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one.” Bertolt Brecht

  5. Shaka

    Great episode! I happened to finally get around to it and was surprised when I didn’t hear the ode to Tom Justice in the end credits. Maybe not actually surprised, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is more than a bit obscure, but a man did write a song for Tom Justice. Presenting “Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL”

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