Transcript

135:

Allure of Crime
Transcript

Originally aired 07.23.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/135

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Danger is all around us, in ways we do not even suspect.

Matt Malloy

Crime blotter. The Athens Daily News, Athens, Georgia. Athens-Clarke police investigated several weekend burglaries, including one in which a burglar stopped to prepare a sandwich. A Cobb Street resident told police someone cut out the window screen between 10:00 AM and 10:45 PM Saturday. But nothing appeared to be missing inside, except enough bread and sandwich meat to make a sandwich, the resident told police. The incident is similar to several other break-ins in the past few days, including one Wednesday in which a burglar drank a bottle of beer, and another Tuesday, in which a burglar prepared a turkey sandwich.

Ira Glass

We think of crime as a kind of monolithic, menacing presence, a shadowy threat, lurking, faceless. But there are many kinds of crimes and many kinds of criminals. Take these crimes, ripped from today's headlines.

Matt Malloy

Crime blotter. The Anacortes American, Anacortes, Washington. A woman's persistence rewarded her with a shoplifting citation after she attempted to steal four 40-ounce bottles of beer, one at a time, from the Old Salt's convenience store on Skyline Way. The owner of the store told police that the woman, who appeared intoxicated to begin with, entered the store and went to the beer cooler, where she selected a 40-ounce Lucky Lager and left without paying. The owner quickly followed the woman and brought her back in the store. Undaunted by her apprehension, the woman again returned to the cooler, selected another Lucky, and again walked out, closely followed by the owner, who once again returned her to the store.

When the owner went to her phone to call police, the persistent woman again jumped to the beer cooler, this time selecting a 40-ounce bottle of Milwaukee's Best, and started drinking down the brew as she left the store. The owner followed and once again returned the shoplifter to her store to wait for police.

Apparently still a little parched, the woman returned to the cooler for a fourth time, and grabbed a 40-ounce bottle of St. Ides. This time, however, she didn't bother leaving the store and chugged it down where she stood. The woman was cited for third degree theft, and then taken home and turned over to her husband.

Ira Glass

Stories about crime, no matter how simple, are a kind of snapshot of someone's life and their problems at a certain moment. Through our crimes, we express who we are.

Matt Malloy

Crime blotter. The Anacortes American, Anacortes, Washington. Police arrested a 22-year-old Anacortes man Saturday morning, July 11, for causing a disturbance after he allegedly hurled potato salad at kids attending a festival, and, in the presence of a police officer, threatened to kill the operator of an inflatable obstacle course. The man told police he was upset because the festival, which started at 10:00 AM, was disrupting his sleep. The man was booked into Skagit County Jail on a charge of disorderly conduct.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio program, stories about crime and the many varying reasons for committing crimes. Each of the people on today's show chose a crime that is particular to him or her. And it's actually impossible to imagine any of them committing the crimes that the others committed. When we choose to break the law, we choose carefully. It's as much a Rorschach test as anything in our lives.

Act One of our program today, Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad, the story of the kind of criminal who somehow believes, through all her crimes, that she's a good person with good intentions. Act Two, You'll Pay, a man who says that part of the thrill of robbing banks is the pleasure of scaring people. Act Three, Grandma Takes a Fall. Her kids don't know. Her grandkids don't know. But hanging around with a bunch of old people at the senior citizens center turns out to be much less interesting than going out and stealing. Stay with us.

Act One. Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad.

Ira Glass

Act One, Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad. When she was 21, Julia Sweeney moved from Spokane, Washington, to Los Angeles to follow a dream, a dream so many people have, of landing a job in accounting. She had a fresh, new accounting degree from the University of Washington.

But the dream accounting job that she had been promised at MGM Studios fell through. And she ended up working as an assistant bartender at a downtown hotel, meaning at various parties and events in the hotel, she sold tickets for drinks. And then customers would carry these tickets over to the real bartenders, who were all young, African American men, and not deemed trustworthy enough to handle cash themselves.

Among other things, this turned out to be a bad piece of judgment on the part of hotel management. Julia estimates that she herself stole between $10,000 and $15,000 in cash in this job, though she started as an honest employee.

Julia Sweeney

I started out very conscientiously. And there was some accounting involved, because you would write down the number of the first ticket and the number of the last ticket. And then you had to have the amount of money for the amount of tickets you sold. And I had--

Ira Glass

Did you actually think that at the time, well, there is some accounting involved in this? Was that a thought?

Julia Sweeney

Yeah, actually I did. I thought, well, I like numbers. Now, I'm such a different person than the person I was who liked numbers, that it's hard for me to even believe I ever had that thought. But yes, at the time, I was looking forward to the number part of it. So I had three different kinds of tickets. I had beer and wine tickets, I had soft drink tickets, and I had mixed drink tickets. And they were like $2.75 and $2.50 and $1.25 or something. And they were different colors.

And so I started selling these tickets. And it was just many, many hours of sitting at a card table. And people would come up, and you'd just make change and sell tickets. And well, to me, what started it was that they wouldn't pay for my parking at the hotel while I worked.

Ira Glass

And I bet parking was really expensive.

Julia Sweeney

Well, it was $3.00. But still, it made me mad that they wouldn't pay the $3.00 for the parking. So I justified taking $3.00 every time I worked because I thought they should pay for parking.

Ira Glass

You felt like an injustice had been done. And you were just righting a wrong.

Julia Sweeney

Yes.

Ira Glass

And that set you on the path of crime.

Julia Sweeney

Yes, it did. So I discovered that if you sold a ticket from inside the roll, for example, at the beginning of the roll, like if you pulled out the little cardboard insert that started the roll of tickets and pulled the ticket out of that part of it, that number on that ticket wouldn't be part of the numbers that you would be reporting. So I would just take one ticket from the middle and sell it. So I'd just take $2.75.

But it did require me having to pocket the $2.75 when I was in the room counting the money with all the other cashiers. So you're kind of in front of people. So you have to be able to get that money in your pocket without them seeing. So I had to learn how to do that, which actually was very easy.

Ira Glass

How do you do it?

Julia Sweeney

You just wait till no one's looking or just dumb things, like you cough or look the other way, and then you put $2.75 in your pocket. But then, I was working long shifts that were like eight hours. And I would get hungry. And I didn't have enough time to leave the hotel. And they didn't provide a meal. So I felt it was their responsibility to buy me lunch. So I thought, well, maybe I'll just take six more dollars' worth.

OK, it's all a blur now, where it went from $6 to, oh, $500. But somehow, it just started increasing and increasing, because I started taking a little more and a little more. And then, things would happen like, oh, my car insurance would be due, and I was like $80 short.

The thing that, looking back on it, is interesting to me is that I started getting really high from it. I would get a huge rush when I left the hotel and knew that I was safe with the money. And I can honestly say I've never really had that particular feeling of high again since I did that. And then I started doing really kind of nutty things where I would increase the danger, like I was flirting with getting caught or flirting with the danger of it.

For example, I stopped parking at the hotel, and I purposely-- and this is like downtown LA, so it's a little scary and empty at night. And I would purposely park my car on the street under a tunnel, like seven blocks away with no streetlights. And then I would have like a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. And I would come out, and I would run as fast as I humanly could, for me, to my car. And I'd be drenched in sweat and as high as I've ever felt in my entire life.

Ira Glass

Was it just like, I'll do the riskiest possible thing I could do?

Julia Sweeney

I think it was that I got really high from feeling like I was in danger. And I kept putting myself in more danger because it was so exciting. The hairs on the back my neck would be sticking up as I would leave the hotel. And sweat would be running down my back, and I'd be shaking. But it was like getting away with it. You got away with it.

Oh, and then I would drive home. And often, I'd drive home at 2:00 or 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. And there would be, oftentimes, policemen chasing people along the road. I would drive down Sixth Avenue home. And lots of times, like most of the time, someone would be getting arrested. And it all felt very intense and exciting to me. I was in the big city, and I was part of everything. And I had this money, and I'd taken it. And I was driving down the street, and there were cops right there.

Ira Glass

At its highest point, how much would you take a night?

Julia Sweeney

My biggest night was $1,000.

Ira Glass

And when you were taking that much, how would you pocket $1,000?

Julia Sweeney

Well, that doesn't take up that much room.

Ira Glass

But isn't it a big wad of $1 and $5 bills?

Julia Sweeney

No, no, I would take the bigger bills. Oh, my god. I'm in a confessional. And you're Father [? McGrann. ?]

But I'd know that I was getting reckless. I was taking too much. I would flirt with the moments that I could actually pocket it. I would push the envelope of when it was really-- like at the beginning, it would be $3, and I would make sure it was totally safe. And then 10 months later, it would be like $300. I remember thinking, I could pocket money while my supervisor's staring at me, and they'll never notice it. I'm that good.

Ira Glass

And did you do that?

Julia Sweeney

I don't know if I did it that blatantly. But I definitely was doing it in front of other people where they weren't noticing it. Then I started to realize that that's exactly when you do it. It's when people would never think anyone would do that. That's when you do it. You do it right in front of their eyes. You do it while you're talking to them and you're counting out money.

But I justified it because I'd think, I'm not buying drugs. I'm not buying drugs. You know why other people steal? To buy drugs, which is disgusting. You know what I use this for? My rent and car insurance, and my student loan. To me, it meant that I was being honest and good with the money. It's not like I was paying some drug dealer for drugs. Like somehow, that made it OK.

Ira Glass

I don't know why, but somehow, I can imagine that at the height of this, you would be somebody who would actually find herself giving away some of her stolen money to charity. Did that happen?

Julia Sweeney

Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, I was going to mass every Sunday and making-- I think I was giving them $50 to $100, or something, a time. Oh, and I'm telling you, I would not miss mass one Sunday while I was doing this.

Ira Glass

It made you go to mass more, the fact that you were stealing?

Julia Sweeney

Oh, yeah. Well, because, for one, I got a high off of being able to put so much in the money container thing. I really felt good about it.

Ira Glass

That's sick.

Julia Sweeney

It's really sick. But then, I felt-- first of all, I liked being around God. And at that time, I felt like being around God meant being in church. And I didn't really-- OK. I'm almost as if I'm talking about someone who is so far away from me, they're not me. But I didn't really think of it as a sin at the time. I thought of it as an opportunity. Almost like God had given me this opportunity. And what was I going to do, not take the opportunity?

I think it was really potent for me when I was in mass because here I was with God, and I was giving money. It was like, so see, God? Here, you get your own cut. It was that we were thrown in together. It was almost like, if the only person who knows I'm doing this is God and me, we have a pretty intimate relationship going on right now. And it's very, very intimate and personal. And it's between me and God. And that made me feel, at that time, in my 22-year-old brain, like I was having a close relationship with a deity, which now I think is insane. But at the time, that all made sense to me.

Ira Glass

I have to say, you saying this, it explains this thing that, when I've seen it in fiction, when I've seen it in the Godfather movies, I have never understood and I just assumed was a literary device or something, the notion that these mobsters would commit these crimes, but then consider themselves to be Catholic guys, and go to mass and this and that. I was never able to understand. And I always thought, oh, well, that's just made up, that part.

Julia Sweeney

No. Oh, I understand that completely. And also, if you had gotten into a discussion with me about the Catholic church at that time, I would defend it to the end. It was almost like, that's my family you're talking about. I had much more allegiance to the church while I was doing bad things.

But you know what is really even more sick about my experience? I felt like God was a little bit of an accomplice with me. I didn't feel like I needed God to say it was OK. I almost felt like God was my pimp or something. I had to go pay God off. That was a weird thing I was doing in my head then.

And see, the big night, that's when I took the $1,000-- I can't believe I'm saying-- well, I was in Spokane for Christmas, visiting my family. And I had to get back for New Year's Eve, because New Year's Eve was the biggest night of the year for alcohol sales. That would be my biggest chance to make the most money. There would be--

Ira Glass

At the hotel, yeah.

Julia Sweeney

Yeah. We'd probably count $60,000 in cash, at night, at the hotel on a New Year's Eve. So there was so much chance for the money not to be noticed. And I was in Spokane, and there was this terrible storm. And the airport closed down. And it was frozen. And no one was able to get out of the city. And they didn't even want people on the roads. And my parents said, "Oh, well, I guess you're just going to have to stay with us for New Year's Eve." And I said, "No, I have to work on New Year's Eve." And they said, "Well, call the hotel and tell them you can't make it." And I said, "No, I've got to make it. I've got to make it." And they said, "Well, but you can't make it. The roads are bad. No planes are leaving the city."

And I got on a Greyhound bus that took, I think, 15 hours to get from Spokane to Seattle, so I could get on a plane to get back to LA, so I could work on New year's Eve. And to me, that was when I realized it was out of control. Because my feeling of having to get there-- It wasn't even about the money that much then, because I didn't even need the money that much then. It was more like, the big score's going down. I've got to get there. I've got to get there. Damn it, get me on a-- I'll walk to Seattle, but I can not miss this night. And of course, I was getting paid minimum wage. So it seemed absurd to everyone I knew that I would go to those kinds of extremes to get back, so I could go to a job where I got paid $3.50 an hour or something.

Ira Glass

Julia Sweeney is a writer and actress, who says she stopped stealing in 1984, after the whole thing started to make her sick. Then she quit her job. She hasn't stolen since. She wants you to know that she understands that stealing is wrong. Under California law, the statute of limitations for her crime, grand larceny, ran out in 1987. The CD of her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, is out this month.

[MUSIC - "SATAN IS REAL" BY THE LOUVIN BROTHERS]

Act Two. You'll Pay.

Ira Glass

Act Two, You'll Pay. Some criminals do not see themselves as basically good people getting away with something bad. Some people do not believe that God is on their side when they commit their crimes. They have a point they want to make about God, but that is not the precise point they are trying to make. We have this story from reporter Marilyn Snell about an ex-con who lives in Oakland, California.

Marilyn Snell

Joe Loya spent two years in prison for grand theft auto, strong arm robbery, and bounced checks. He did another seven for bank robbery. He robbed a lot of banks.

Joe Loya

The official number is 24. When I was arrested, they said, "This is a bank robber who robbed 24 banks." But I know I counted once and lost count at 30 or 32.

I was not born with a criminal mind. I don't think anybody is born with a criminal mind. I was raised in a very religious environment. My father was eventually a minister. My parents got married when they were 16. My mother was pregnant.

And my dad, real early, decided that he wanted to serve God. So he started teaching himself Greek and Hebrew. And he also learned Latin along the way, all these languages so that he could interpret the scriptures. We were a family of the text. Everything in our life, every morality, every decision had to somehow be validated by scripture. I read the Bible from cover to cover every year, because there was this program my dad had where every day, we read a little bit of the New Testament and Old Testament. And by the end of the year, the entire Bible was read.

My parents loved God so much. My mother was this little Sunday school teacher at the church. So that in my baby book, my mother writes when I was-- I was born August 11, 1961. And three years and four months later, on November 3, 1964, my mother wrote that I "accepted Christ as his Savior." And she wrote, [? "Faith Gurlack ?] led him to the Lord." In the baby book again, when I'm four years old, the next year, 1965, October 10, on a Sunday, she said that, "Joey feels a call to the missionary field, to tell the parents and preach in India the Gospel. He is four years old," she wrote.

Marilyn Snell

Joe's mother died when he was nine. His brother Paul was seven. Their father was suddenly alone with two young sons, not much money, and zero coping skills. It was around this time that he began to get violent with his boys.

Joe Loya

My father, regular, when he would lose his temper, he would hit us severely and beat us. And then afterwards, he would cry-- like an alcoholic in a way, even though he wasn't-- but he would cry and beg our forgiveness. It would be this heavy emotional scene, where we'd cry and we'd forgive him. And we'd go to him, we love you Daddy. Don't cry. God forgives. And we'd pray. And everything would be-- supposed to be fine and dandy. And then it would happen again.

When my dad finally got a church when I was about 12 years old, I couldn't understand how the people in those pews could believe in this man, when he was obviously, to me, such a fraud. And that's when I began to doubt. I began to doubt the flock, the wisdom of the flock.

I was being raised by a deceptive person. So I became sort of deceptive. And when I was in eighth grade, I was able to jimmy the lock in a cabinet that he had in his bedroom. And I would pilfer dollars out of every offering envelope that-- they kept the offering in there. And I would take my friends to go eat at Foster's Freeze. I would take a bunch of friends over there. We'd get ice cream, chips, we'd get burgers and fries and--

Marilyn Snell

Courtesy of the Lord?

Joe Loya

Courtesy of God. This picnic is on God. Thank you, God. Amen.

And he started dating Susie. And the same pattern began, where she thought he was a spiritual man. I despised that. I despised that he could get away with it. And what I did is, I went to this woman, and said, "Hey, listen, my dad beats us. Run far and fast as you can." She took us out to dinner one Sunday evening. And in my bravado, I said, "You know what? Next time he does it, I swear, I'm going to stab him." And I held up a steak knife.

And so a week later, within a week, he had sensed, picked up from Susie, that Susie was starting to pull away. And he assumed that maybe I had told her something. And so he called me into the kitchen. He says, "Hey, listen." He played this trick on me. He said, "Hey, I've got something to say. You told Susie that I've been a little violent with you guys and stuff. It's not a problem. I already know you told her. She told me you told her that. She was kind of concerned. So it's no big deal, but you did, didn't you? I just wanted to see if you'll admit to it." It was the first and last time I ever confessed to a crime.

I see him saying that everything's fine, everything's going to be all right. And I want to believe that everything's going to be all right. I want to believe that he's going to take the high road. I want to believe in forgiveness, too. I want to believe that things can be all right. And as soon as I tell him, "Yeah, OK, I did," he throws a teapot at me, chases me around. And he proceeds to beat me, so that by that evening, in the hospital, they would X-ray me and find that I had a broken wrist, fractured elbow, and broken rib.

At one point, he stops beating me. And he left the house. He went down to 7-Eleven. We didn't have a phone at the time. He went down to 7-Eleven down the block, about a mile away, calls Susie, breaks up with her, and comes back home. But it was during that time, in this state of concussion that I had-- what was later diagnosed as a massive concussion-- I'm sitting there in a daze. But I know enough to say, "Paul, go to the bathroom. Lock yourself in. Don't come out until I say."

I walked to the kitchen. I pulled out a knife. I went back to the bedroom. I sat on my bed. And I put the knife underneath the pillow. And I waited for him, for my father to come home. And he did. He came in the front door, walked over to my room. And he had this maniacal look on his face when he walked to my door. He looked at me. Then he looked at the other side of the room. And he saw weights there. He looked at me again. And I could tell, something's going on in that demented mind of his. And sure enough, he walks over to the weights, and he begins to disassemble them. They were cement weights that had plastic around them. And I have no clue what he's going to do. This is a new level of improvised savagery even for him.

But I wasn't about to find out what he was going to do with that, if he was going to hit me with the weights or with the bar. So what I did was, I pulled the knife out from underneath the pillow. I stood up. He said, "Put it away, put it away." And I continued to stay there. He started walking at me. And I could tell-- he started demanding that I put it down, like, "Put down the knife, put down the knife." And I lunged at him. And when I did, he put up his left arm. But I was able to stab him in the neck. And I came down hard. And I started twisting it, trying to break it off in his neck. And he screamed. And he grabbed his neck. And he said, "You killed me. You killed me." And he fell to the ground.

And I remember that I stood over him. And I said something. I don't quite remember the verbatim. But it was essentially, "You did this to yourself," in the sense that you brought it on yourself. Almost like a biblical thing, this is what your sin hath wrought kind of idea.

There's this great line from Auden, where he says, "I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done do evil in return."

This is the man I feared the most in the world. After him was God. And when I knocked him off his pedestal, there was nobody who could replace him. Not the police, not teachers, not politicians, nothing. The only person I had to fear after I knocked my dad off was the heavens. And that was God. And I couldn't see him. So that meant that I had primacy of my life on this planet. I became my own God here. I did not fear authority anymore.

Marilyn Snell

Joe's father survived the stabbing, but lost his sons to foster care for several months. After Joe graduated from high school, he attended Bible college for a semester, but dropped out. He didn't want to work, so he supported himself by stealing from his friends. After a while, he moved on to bigger targets. He stole cars, passed fraudulent checks, and finally began robbing banks. In 1988, after being released from a two-year prison sentence, he went on a 14-month-long bank robbing spree.

Joe Loya

Well, I'd wake up and say, "I don't know what I want to do today. I just know I want to look good, and I want to go spend a lot of money. And I want to have fun. Maybe I want to spend $10,000 today. I want to go to Vegas. I want to fly all my friends someplace, buy them all nice clothes, and eat. That's $10,000 I'm going to lose. Maybe I should go rob a bank or two tomorrow."

Marilyn Snell

So that was your notion of living from check to check?

Joe Loya

My idea of living check to check was, I have $40,000 here. That means it's going to be gone in three months. That was my idea, yeah.

Marilyn Snell

So where would you keep your money?

Joe Loya

Always under my bed in a gym bag. $40,000 of smelly dough. Money is very smelly.

Marilyn Snell

I was going to ask you this. Did you smell the money?

Joe Loya

Oh, yeah.

Marilyn Snell

Why?

Joe Loya

You can't not smell the money. Because you're intrigued by the fact that money is putrid. It's like-- I don't want to say it's disgusting-- It's like you smell the money, and you'll be like, "Is that you?" And you put your face in it. And you're like, "Oh, yeah, it is you. You stink." It's disgusting.

On my way to a bank, I'd have this conversation with my body, where my body would start to rebel naturally because it was frightened. It knew I was putting itself into harm's way. I always had a gun. So I knew that there was a possibility of using the gun. My stomach would get knotted. I'd feel like I had the runs. I would start to shake. I'd violently shake sometimes. My hands almost want to bounce off the steering wheel.

If that couldn't stop me, then this intense wave of fatigue would come over me. And if I pulled over to the side of the road and I wanted to, I'm sure I could've just gone to sleep right away. My body just wanted to shut down. And when I pushed through that with my will, then this incredible calm would come over me. And that's when I was in control.

I would walk in there, wait in line, get up to a teller and lean forward, speak very clearly but low. And I would tell them that we have a bomb, I have a gun, and this is a bank robbery. Give me the money now. And even though it was only me, I wanted to give the impression that, listen, the all-seeing eye of horrors is out there, kind of thing. There's somebody behind me who sees you and sees me, and I have backup. And I came with that kind of confidence.

Asian women and black women were the most difficult to rob. What I thought about Asian women was, these are women who just came over from Vietnam. And they saw bodies strewn all over the village. They are not afraid of a little guy like me coming up without a weapon. I thought that.

And then, with the black women, I felt like, these are women who talk to black men a certain way. There is this certain aggression between them, this, "You don't have a gun. What are you going to do, reach across here and slap me? Uh-uh. I don't think so." I kind of got that feeling like, you're not going to do anything. And that's when I had to-- it took too much work. I had to pretend like I was ready-- I put my hand real fiercely on the counter. And I'd say, "I'm coming. Don't make me come over. I'll shoot you." It was just way too much work.

Who I found were the easiest to rob were these middle class white women who looked like their daughter and son just went off to college, and now they finally get to go to work again. And they decided to work from 1:00 to 3:00 every day at the bank, get a little money in, so they could buy their stuff for ceramics or something. They would always greet me very cheerfully. And they were the easiest ones to rob. In fact, a couple times, I was embarrassed at the ease. I'd say, "This is a robbery," to one woman. And she just looked down, opened the drawer, and started giving me the big bills first. I didn't have to finish my spiel. And I almost felt like, "Hey lady, you do this any faster, they're going to think we were in cahoots."

To the tellers, what I felt I was introducing them to was the same notion of hazard that I had known as a child, which is, I was going through life fine. Everything was going good for me. And all of a sudden, my mother's dead. Whoa, what happened here? All of a sudden, my dad can't deal with his anger, and he's beating us. Whoa, what's happening here?

Life is not what we think it is. And there are these violent intersections where, when your life intersects with hazard or contingency, it's something profound. And that's what I felt I was introducing them to. It's like, now you know. Now I can live off of your terror. It's what I did to my father when I stabbed him and I heard him crying. I loved that. I said, "Now you know how I feel."

Violence helped me recover a sense of my lost self. I could look at somebody else and say, "Ha ha, you see. Now you're a fool. You thought you could just go through life and everything was going to be nice if you behaved a certain way. And look at, now you've met me. And look at how frightened you are. And now look at how frightened you're going to be forever. And this experience is not-- you're never going to recover from it." It was validating. It made me feel like, this is the world I know. This is the way experience really is. And now all I'm doing is educating people.

Marilyn Snell

Joe Loya was released from prison in 1997. He's gone through big changes since his days as a bank robber. Now he's an editor at Pacific News Service. He's married. At the wedding ceremony, Joe's father, who he's reconciled with, recited from the book of Corinthians, chapter 13, "Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing."

Ira Glass

Marilyn Snell is a reporter in San Francisco. Joe Loya has published a memoir called The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber.

Coming up, they took Europe back from the Nazis. They raised the flag at Iwo Jima. And they'll be damned if they're going to spend their golden years sitting around playing Pinochle. Sticky fingers, wrinkled hands. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of people to take a whack at that theme with documentaries, interviews, performances, found tape, found documents, anything we can think of. Today's program, The Allure of Crime, how people express themselves and their personalities through the way they steal. Let us begin the second half of our show as we began the first, with a review of criminal activity from around the nation, in this case, from Colorado, Washington state, and Georgia.

Matt Malloy

Crime blotter. The Athens Daily News, Athens, Georgia. A recent immigrant to Athens, whom police initially suspected of driving under the influence Wednesday, turned out to be merely unfamiliar with traffic laws, according to the Athens-Clarke county police report. A police officer spotted the man, 24, driving a white Pontiac Grand Prix on the Atlanta highway late Wednesday night, having trouble staying in one lane. The officer turned on his lights and siren, and pursued the man, who did not stop, according to the report.

Police finally stopped the man on Epps Bridge Road, beside the Lowe's hardware store. The man explained to officers in broken English that he came to the US six months ago and had started driving a month ago. Officers noticed a card with written instructions on driving, explaining to put the key in the ignition, press the accelerator, and other basics, taped to the dashboard of the man's Pontiac. According to the report, the man told officers he did not know the light and siren of a police car signified that he was supposed to stop. The man was ticketed and released.

Crime blotter. The Pueblo Chieftain, Pueblo, Colorado. Mike Baca 37, was eating at Phil's Diner, 2225 Lake Avenue, about 2:30 AM Thursday, when he told police he asked William Baros for a cigarette. And Baros became enraged. "You want a cigarette?" Baros reportedly said. "What kind of sucker do you think I am?" Baca said Baros then started to call him names and threw two sugar dispensers at him. They shattered when they hit a wall. Baros also threw a salt and pepper shaker set and an ashtray, according to police reports. Baros then tried to hit Baca with a chair. Baros was arrested and faces charges of third degree assault and criminal mischief.

Crime blotter. The Athens Daily News, Athens, Georgia. Two juveniles mugged the Easter bunny at Georgia Square recently as he left the stage for a break. "They came up to me, gave me a hug, and knocked my head back," said the battered bunny, a 19-year-old drama student at the University of Georgia. "From what I was told, they were trying to take off the head," the bunny said. "I experienced disorientation and a severe headache, resulting in a contusion." Police took a dim view of the incident. They rounded up two suspects, ages 12 and 13, and booked them on charges of simple battery. "It's a sad day when the Easter bunny can't appear in public without a security escort," said police sergeant [? Mike Brenner ?].

Ira Glass

Crime blotter reports written by local reporters John Bauer, Juan Espinosa, Ben Deck, Stephen Gurr, and Joan Stroer. Thanks also to Gail Mann and Duncan Frazier, Jim Thompson and Greg Martin. Our police blotter was read by actor Matt Malloy, who recently played a cop in the movie Cookie's Fortune and another authority figure, the vice principal, in the movie Election.

Act Three. Grandma Takes A Fall.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Grandma Takes a Fall. Let's start this act with something that a 19-year-old shoplifter from New York State said in an interview for today's show.

Woman 1

I really don't think-- I can't imagine myself at 28 or 30, or definitely not like 40 or like 60 years old, and stealing something, just because I think I'll be at a place in my life where I'll be maybe more comfortable with the boredom. I won't be as restless. I'm just a really restless person.

Ira Glass

Well, meet Stanley Rosenthal.

Stanley Rosenthal

I want to tell you, this golden years is not that great. Ask, "Tell me." I'll tell you about it. When you're a senior, every day is something else. You get an ear ache, you go to sleep, it's fine, you'll get up with a toothache. When the toothache disappears, the next day, you get up with a toe ache, or the arthritis gets to you. These are things that happen to you as a senior. And sometimes, people get aggravated with the world. And that's why they go out and steal. They're just pissed off. They don't care. "What the heck? Why did God do this to me?" Why can't-- They'll get revenge. It's revenge. It's a way of getting revenge.

Ira Glass

Stanley Rosenthal runs a program in Broward County, Florida. There are programs like it all over Florida, and in fact, all over the country. If you're over 60 and arrested for shoplifting in Broward County, the judge sends your case to Stanley. Stanley sees an average of 600 senior citizens a year. He spoke with Jeanne Finley and Doug DuBois.

Nobody knows how much theft is committed each year by senior citizens. One study found that seniors comprised 15% of people apprehended for shoplifting. Seniors, of course, tend to be poorer than other Americans. But counselors who work with senior shoplifters say that many of them are not stealing out of need. About half of senior shoplifters, they say, have stolen all their lives. Stanley sends offenders to do community service. He does a healthy business.

[TELEPHONE RINGING]

Stanley Rosenthal

Stan Rosenthal, can I help you? Listen, Jane. I've got you. You're in the program. Listen, you do something. You've got to go into your church or something and do 20 hours of community service-- Yeah, well, yes and send a-- I'm going to tell you, be careful, be good. Because we get arrested the next time, honey, you're coming with your pajamas and your toothbrush, because you're going to go to jail. So I'm just telling you, that's what. A second time, they don't stand for second offenders. OK, dear? All right, give me a call in a couple weeks. Bye-bye.

When they first come in, when they come in here, their head down to the floor. They're miserable. They have no hope. They're terribly concerned that the kids, their grandchildren, are going to find out. And then I encourage them. I tell them what the program is all-- "Nobody's going to know. Keep your mouth shut. Don't tell anybody. The worst thing to do is tell your friends. Your sympathy, looking for sympathy. First thing you know, your friend is telling 68 people. And the first thing you know, 900 people know about you. You go over to a restaurant, say, 'Oh, you got arrested for shoplifting the other day, didn't you?'" This way, I tell them, "Don't even tell your mother. Don't tell your kids. Don't tell anybody. That's right. Keep your mouth shut. Never open up your mouth because people stink."

Woman 2

The place was very crowded because they had a sale on. And when I went to the door, I started to go out the door, and then a woman came and grabbed my arm, and took me by the elbow, and turned me around, and began to take me into the store again. And she said I had taken something that wasn't mine and without paying for it. And I said, no I hadn't.

Ira Glass

This woman asks that we not give her name over the radio because, you know, people stink. We can say that she lives in another big state that is far from Florida. She talked with Jeanne Finley.

Woman 2

Oh, I wanted to run away. I couldn't believe it. I tried to run away, as a matter of fact. But she had such a tight hold on my arm, she steered me back into the store. And it was very embarrassing with all the people watching. And I felt terrible. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I thought I was going to faint. And I was so upset that when I got into the little room, they gave me a glass of water to drink because I was so upset.

Jeanne Finley

And when the police came, what happened?

Woman 2

When the police came, I had to empty my pocketbook. And I had to show them what I had in it. And they immediately pounced on the aspirin and said that this was what I had stolen and taken away without paying for it. And I said, "No." And finally, I had to admit that I had done it. I offered to pay for the aspirin, but they said, no, it doesn't work that way, that I had taken it. And so I had to suffer from the consequences of having taken the aspirin.

And I said, "What's going to happen to me now?" And they said, "Well, you have a choice. You can go to jail, or you can take a course to stop you from shoplifting." It was a program specifically for senior shoplifters. And we were supposed to look into ourselves and find out what made us shoplift.

Jeanne Finley

What did you come up with? What did you learn from it?

Woman 2

Well, I learned that I enjoyed the shoplifting beforehand. But I don't know why. I didn't really learn that much from the sessions. I always enjoyed shoplifting. I always enjoyed taking things. But we were told that that wasn't the way we should feel, that we should feel guilty and ashamed of what we had done.

This is a drugstore similar to the one where I was caught shoplifting. But I can't go back to that one, because they don't allow you to go in once you've been caught shoplifting. Well, this is the candy aisle. But I don't ever go down the candy aisle. It's too open and too many people in this area. I like to go down an aisle where there are not many people.

I've shoplifted most of my life. I started when I was quite young. And it was a way of getting back at my parents because they were so strict to me. And I would take things. They didn't allow me to have candy, so I took candy. They didn't allow me to wear my hair in a fancy style, so I took bobby pins. They didn't allow me to dress in a certain way. I couldn't have earrings. It was so easy to just go to the store, and whatever I wanted, I would just slip into a bag that I had with me. And then it began to be a question of I felt I could pull something off that other people couldn't do. And I felt very good about that. And then I began to be happy that I could get something for nothing. And that was great.

I didn't shoplift so much when my children were young, because I was busy and very involved with the family and getting meals and things like that. But once in a while, when I would be in the store after the children were in school and everything, I would go and pick up a thing or two. But it was much less frequent when I had my children.

Jeanne Finley

Did your husband or your children know?

Woman 2

Oh, they never knew. I wouldn't have told them for anything. I would be afraid to tell them.

Jeanne Finley

Have you told anybody about the fact that you were caught recently?

Woman 2

I haven't told anybody but you. And you said you wouldn't tell anybody.

I held the basket on my arm just like this. And then I had my purse on my other shoulder. And as I went down the aisle, I had stopped and looked around to make sure nobody was watching me. But there are so many mirrors in this store. There are mirrors over there, there are mirrors over there. And I imagine there are a lot of TV cameras that I can't even see.

Well, actually, I shoplift whenever the mood strikes me, whenever I feel sad or depressed in any way. I can't tell you exactly how many times, because I guess I don't keep that careful track. But I would guess at least once a month, if not more often. And I do it because it gives me such a lift to be out among people and to be pulling this off on them.

You know, when my husband died, I got very lonely. And I didn't like to be so lonely. I wanted to get out and do things. But I couldn't get out because I didn't know anybody. See, he worked and I didn't. And he went out and had a lot of friends. And I didn't have many friends because I stayed home. Only the neighbors. And sometimes, the neighbors were younger than I was, and they were all busy and involved. And after my children grew up, I didn't have much chance to meet people.

I feel quite lonely as a senior because my children moved away. And then, they weren't nearby. And they were all involved in their own doings and lives. And I felt very sad and lonely. And when I get out and go to the store and go to the sales and look at the merchandise, it gives me a great deal of happiness to do this.

Well, I held my purse in this manner and opened it up. And I was looking things over, taking them off the shelf and looking them over. And I got my Kleenex out of my purse. And I would, a-choo. And then, I took the Kleenex to wipe my nose and slipped the aspirin in my purse so they couldn't see it.

That's the trouble with those senior centers. They're all seniors, and they've all got the same problems and the same difficulties. I like to be out shoplifting or going to the market or going to the store and looking at the sales and doing things like that, being among all types of people, all ages and all kinds.

And in the senior center, another thing. All they do is to play bridge. And I don't know how to play bridge. I started taking lessons. But the lessons were kind of difficult. And you had to keep your attention on them, and you had to keep playing. And I didn't always want to go to the senior center, because I have arthritis, and my arthritis began to hurt. And I didn't want to go there and play bridge with a bunch of people that I didn't know very well. It was much more fun to go shoplifting.

I need to get some bandages today. But I'm not sure I want to do it here. I feel very open and exposed here.

When I was young, I took things that a young girl would take. I took things like makeup and things like that, that would make me prettier and more attractive to other people. But as I grew older, I began to take things that I needed more, like the aspirin. I needed the aspirin. And I began to take that sort of thing, rather than the makeup and the things like that.

Jeanne Finley

And did you ever try to stop?

Woman 2

Oh, I have tried. But you can't stop something that-- I guess it's kind of like drinking. You can't stop drinking because you enjoy it. Well, I couldn't stop shoplifting because I enjoy it.

Jeanne Finley

Why do you think the program is not effective? Was it not effective because the things that make you want to shoplift, the program couldn't change?

Woman 2

Yes, that's really why. I couldn't get my children to come and be with me more. I couldn't get other people to come. My arthritis keeps hurting, and nobody seems to be able to stop that from hurting. So I wanted something that would take my mind off my hurt. And I could shoplift and be very clever doing that. And it would take my mind off my pain.

Jeanne Finley

In the program in your senior center, did you make friends with any of the other people in the class?

Woman 2

You mean when I was in the--

Jeanne Finley

In the program.

Woman 2

--recovery program?

Jeanne Finley

Yeah.

Woman 2

No, I didn't. Who wants to get friendly with people who are thieves?

Jeanne Finley

But you're not a thief?

Woman 2

Well, I don't consider myself a thief. I guess, technically, I am.

Jeanne Finley

But you don't feel like a thief?

Woman 2

No, I don't feel like a thief. I feel as though I deserve what I get. I've worked hard all my life. And I deserve to have a little something extra. But I guess society doesn't look at it that way.

Ira Glass

That interview by Jeanne Finley, a documentary filmmaker in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, and Nancy Updike. Contributing editors for this show, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Seth Lind, and Thea Chaloner. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Musical help today from Marika Partridge. You know you can listen to our programs for absolutely free on our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. Or you know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who wants you to know just one thing. Really, just one little thing. One, and one thing only.

Julia Sweeney

You know why other people steal? To buy drugs, which is disgusting. You know what I use this for? My rent and car insurance.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Julia Sweeney

I didn't really think of it as a sin at the time. I thought of it as an opportunity.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.