Soldiers of Fortune

An elite Army Ranger, back from Iraq, led his cohorts in a precision hold-up, cops say. If money wasn't the motive, what was?

To customers and employees in the Bank of America branch that Monday, the invaders rushing through the door had the appearance of commandos on a raid. Ski-masked men in heavy clothing, armed with automatic rifles and sporting soft body armor under their jackets, stormed the one-story South Tacoma BOA branch near closing time, shouting orders and forcing everyone to the floor.

The four-man robbery team brandished handguns, pointed AK-47s, and seemed ready for a firefight, bringing along extra banana-style ammunition clips. "That's a tremendous amount of weaponry and ammunition for a bank robbery," says assistant U.S. attorney Michael Dion in Tacoma.

Though apparently young and of average builds, the four seemed imposing and confident. At 5:15 p.m. Aug. 7, Purple Heart Day in America, they entered through the swinging glass doors on two sides of the neighborhood bank that is sandwiched among the storefronts and car lots of busy South Tacoma Way and almost immediately began counting off the seconds, one robber shouting out the time every half-minute.

According to Monte Shaide, an FBI agent who investigated the case and reviewed the bank's video surveillance tapes, two bandits with automatic weapons watched customers while another, with a handgun, vaulted the counter and ordered a clerk to put only $50 and $100 bills into his bags.

The fourth man, also carrying a handgun, scooped money from other teller stations and $20,000 from a rolling money cart. The robbers steered clear of any dye packs and passed over bait bills with prerecorded serial numbers.

At the two-minute point, the robber counting off time shouted, "Let's go!" The four rushed out the door, ran to a waiting vehicle, and raced off with $54,011.

The elapsed time on the video indicates the robbers were in and out in two minutes, 21 seconds. Shaide marveled at what he called "military-style precision and planning."

Indeed. The next morning, the FBI agent found himself walking around Fort Lewis, the 87,000-acre Army base that is home to 25,000 soldiers and civilians about 20 minutes south of Tacoma.

The fort is a sprawling complex of military battalions and brigades operating under I Corps command and includes infantry, Stryker, engineering, medical, police, and Ranger units. It is a major jump-off point for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cost the lives of almost 100 Fort Lewis personnel.

Less than 24 hours after the seemingly flawless heist, Shaide and other investigators felt they had already broken the case. Because of the guns, ammo, and assault-style takeover used by the robbers, investigators had a good hunch the team had a military background. "The speed and efficiency of the robbers show that they are highly disciplined and coordinated," Shaide said.

And for all their apparent preparation, the robbers made a sure-to-be-legendary error: they came in their own car. A witness saw masked men jump out of a vehicle carrying AK-47s, then two minutes later run back, jump in, and speed away. The witness figured this just might be a heist. He jotted down the license number of a rather eye-catching silver 2001 four-door Audi with Colorado plates.

Tracked first to its registered owner in the Denver area, the Audi was traced overnight to Fort Lewis. By the second day after the robbery, the first of five suspects would be arrested, and authorities would eventually recover at least $21,000 of the loot. Of the four alleged gunmen and a driver, three turned out to be elite Fort Lewis Army Rangers.

One of them, 20-year-old Luke Sommer, a muscular, square-faced, 6-footer with a mostly shaved head, was accused of putting together the takedown team, arming them with military-style weapons, and leading the raid on the BOA.

A specialist 4 (ranked just above private first class) and a Ranger for three years as of this month, Sommer was a group leader to the other two younger, less-seasoned fellow Rangers, according to officials with knowledge of the case, and, unlike them, has been on secret Ranger missions overseas.

A Canadian with U.S. citizenship, he has pleaded not guilty and is under house arrest in British Columbia. The two other Rangers—from Colorado and Virginia—and the two civilians (also from Canada, one with a military background) have also pleaded not guilty. But prosecutors and attorneys indicate several of the accused have admitted their roles, pointed the finger at each other, and are cooperating.

Prosecutors this week filed updated charges claiming another Ranger, who didn't directly participate in the robbery, told them Sommer planned to use robbery proceeds "to start a crime family" in British Columbia. According to the soldier, Scott A. Byrne, now charged with aiding the robbers, "Sommer planned to challenge the Hell's Angels for control of the drug running and extortion rackets in that area." The FBI alleges Sommer had originally planned to rob a casino but the casino didn't allow people under 21 through the doors. Sommer then decided to use the group's rigorous assault-training techniques, courtesy of Uncle Sam, to go to war with a bank.

But now one of the alleged robbers, who agreed to speak with Seattle Weekly on the condition that he not be identified, says all that cash wasn't the attraction. "Are you kidding?" he says.

Lower-ranking Rangers earn a base pay from $1,400 to $1,800 a month, according to the Army. Others earn considerably more with allowances, benefits, and special payments for airborne, combat, and other duties. "I've made $70,000 a year," the accused holdup man claims in a lengthy telephone chat.

Not that the case needs another strange twist, but the real reason for the BOA raid, the accused man insists, was to expose war crimes and other military secrets.

The team "purposely" got caught, he says, so they could draw media attention and be assured of coverage when they eventually air their allegations in court. To avoid going to prison, he intends to present issues of national security that would be embarrassing to the Army and Bush administration, he claims. His tortured logic: To expose abuses, he first had to get public attention, hence the bank job.

"One of the people implicated in the robbery is a witness to rape and the murder of 16 people at a battlefield interrogation facility, which makes Abu Ghraib [prison] look like kindergarten," said the accused man, who spoke at times in the third person and referred to "hypotheticals" when discussing the heist so as not to directly admit any role.

"Another [accused robber] has electronic access to the locations of 65 CIA prisons around the world. Sixty-five! There's a lot of shit out there that has to get said."

He wouldn't discuss why robbing a bank seemed the best way to expose such allegations, and didn't respond when asked if he had tried any other way to get the information out. He insisted he wasn't making it up as a last-ditch defense.

And despite the heavy artillery, the accused man says, the robbers planned the heist so no one would be physically harmed.

"Hypothetically, what if, during the robbery, [a robber] announced that under no circumstances would customers or tellers be hurt? . . . They had banana clips, but you can tell in [bank surveillance] pictures, by the position of the [AK-47] bolts, there was no ammo in the weapons."

(All that could be true. However, FBI spokesperson Robbie Burroughs points out that posttraumatic stress is well documented among employees and customers caught in a bank robbery. "Shots don't have to be fired for people to suffer trauma," she says. "People have needed counseling even when a gun is never shown.")

Two of the Rangers, the accused says, are Army medics. "I understand they were both carrying bleeder kits just in case anyone inside the bank got hurt. One employee was really scared, so a robber put a hand on her shoulder and told her to go stand aside, everything will be OK."

A federal source indicates the heist might have involved the threat of explosives but wouldn't elaborate. "It will probably come out in court fairly soon," the source says.

As for that license plate, it was intentionally not covered, the accused robber says. Why would they be so meticulous about the robbery, yet so sloppy in their getaway, he asks rhetorically. "Because that's how we planned it," he says, "so we could get caught and all this shit would come out." It all will soon, he promised, in court proceedings.

Assistant U.S. attorney Dion, who is prosecuting the Ranger cases, said he couldn't discuss likely motives. An attorney for another of the accused soldiers agrees money might not have been the motive but wouldn't say what was.

A federal law-enforcement official speculates the BOA takedown "was done for the money and the thrill" of it. He theorizes the robbers didn't count on anyone espying their getaway car—the Audi waited on a side street at the end of an alley about 50 yards from the bank. If they really wanted the plate to be seen, wouldn't they have pulled up out front?

Fort Lewis officials had no comment. Carol Darby, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., says it would be "inappropriate to discuss or release any information that could impact investigations," but notes that "Rangers are trained to be highly skilled light-infantry soldiers and defend this nation against our enemies."

A daylight holdup typifies "the kind of bold, fearless, risk-taking, thrill-seeking personality suitable to the Rangers," says Dr. Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association. "It's probably ideal for the Rangers." But he thinks the Rangers' "military training and military code would generally work against what they apparently did."

Whether or not the uncovered license plate was intentional, it was clearly the team's undoing—an otherwise inexplicable slipup for soldiers trained in the dark arts of subterfuge and evading foes.

It was the reason Shaide, the FBI agent, and Todd Karr, a detective sergeant with the Pierce County Violent Crimes Task Force, huddled with Army criminal investigators at Fort Lewis the day after the heist, asking about the Audi's owner, a solider named Alex Blum.

Army officials confirmed that Pfc. Blum, 19, a slight, 145-pound enlistee, was one of 660 soldiers in the Fort's 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment—Pat Tillman's illustrious former unit.

With two other battalions in Georgia, the 75th Rangers are a light-infantry special-operations force prepared for immediate deployment anywhere in the world. In Ranger School, they're taught to survive jungle, desert, arctic, and mountain conditions and undergo grueling airborne, indoctrination, and survival training.

Following 9/11, Pat Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million pro football contract to join the Rangers at $1,800 a month because, he said, they were warriors, and he wanted to fight. Tragically, he was killed by his own troops in Afghanistan, a fact initially covered up by the Army, leading to at least three investigations, the latest ongoing.

Like their more clandestine counterparts, the green-bereted Special Forces, the tan-bereted Rangers specialize in secret assault and rescue missions, such as the one depicted by the book and movie Blackhawk Down. They were among the first units into Afghanistan and Iraq, upholding the Ranger credo to "move farther, faster and fight harder than any other soldier. . . . Surrender is not a Ranger word."

Army Cmdr. Clinton Fuller said he had given two weeks' leave to Alex Blum and the 191 other soldiers of the 75th Rangers' C Company, about five hours before the bank robbery that Monday. Most Rangers left the base, or planned to leave the next day. Flight records show Blum flew out on a Frontier flight to Denver at 9 a.m. Tuesday from Sea-Tac, just a few hours before Shaide showed up at the post.

Two other agents inspecting the Rangers' high-security compound found Blum's Audi in plain sight, parked in the compound parking lot. The car was impounded as evidence while the FBI obtained a search warrant for the vehicle and Blum's quarters.

Questioned by the probers, Blum's Ranger roommate quickly began connecting the dots.

According to court records, the roommate told investigators that Blum and another C Company Ranger, Pfc. Chad Palmer, 20, from Virginia, had been talking about doing "a job" in Canada or somewhere.

He wasn't sure what "a job" meant, he said, but Blum and Palmer recently had been meeting nightly with a third C Company Ranger, Spc. 4 Luke Sommer, from Canada. The threesome acted furtively and wouldn't let others into the room where they met. The night of the robbery, Blum and Palmer were seen in the compound with what another roommate called an unusually large amount of cash. All this apparently escaped the attention of their superiors.

The roommate also spotted an assault rifle, handguns, and flash-bang grenades in Blum's and Sommer's rooms—in violation of Army rules. All weapons are to be stored in the fort armory. (Officials say at least one AK-47 related to the case had no import stamp and may have been smuggled from overseas.)

Once the search warrant was approved, covering the rooms of all three Rangers, investigators turned up purple-striped money bands from the bank cash, along with guns, soft body armor, and other evidence, prosecutors say. About $2,300 in cash was found in Blum's room, and $10,000 in cash was discovered under Sommer's desk. Eight AK-47 banana-clip ammo magazines also turned up in Sommer's quarters, and two fully automatic AK-47s were hidden in the ceiling over his bed, officials say.

Bank records subsequently showed Sommer had been in the South Tacoma BOA branch to make a cash machine withdrawal four days before the heist. His debit card was also used four hours after the holdup at the Olive Garden restaurant, a few miles east of the bank. Was it a victory celebration?

On Wednesday, Aug. 9, two days after the FBI caught his scent, Alex Blum was in custody in Colorado, arrested near Greenwood Village in suburban Denver, where his parents live. After he was read his rights, prosecutors say, the teenager told FBI agents he was driving the heist car—but that he was forced to do so at gunpoint. According to court records, he ultimately admitted he was paid $10,000 as the wheelman, but never entered the bank.

Blum's Seattle attorney, Amanda Lee, says she can't discuss the case or Blum's possible motives. A person close to Blum's family says, "He's just a great, young kid who wanted nothing more in his whole life than to be an Army Ranger and serve his country." The person, who asked not to be identified because the case is pending, calls Blum "a Ranger in training."

"He was vulnerable—there's a complete desensitizing of these Ranger kids, and kids is the right word. They're taught that they can and will die in a gun battle, that they should be ready to kill first, and that you take orders from anyone ranked above you. If someone wants to abuse that authority, it puts a young person in a very difficult position."

Alleged accomplice Chad Palmer was arrested the day after Blum, picked up while on leave at his family home in Chesapeake, Va. Agents say they found $9,000 in identifiable robbery money at the home. In a court hearing in Norfolk, prosecutors said Palmer had admitted to his role—carrying an AK-47 and watching over customers.

Palmer's father, Dwayne Palmer, speaking to reporters about his son after the Norfolk hearing, said, "We instilled in him pretty high standards of moral and ethical conduct, and so if he's dealing truthfully with the officials, that's reassuring, that's a good start on redemption." In court, Palmer's family, accompanied by their pastor, apologized to bank employees and customers. "It has brought immense grief and sadness to our family," Dwayne Palmer said.

Another Canadian, Tigra J.A. Robertson, 20, of Kelowna, B.C., was taken into custody Aug. 13 at the Sumas border crossing. He voluntarily gave himself up to FBI agents after his uncle turned him in to Canadian authorities.

"The uncle reported that Robertson was sorry for what he had done and wanted to surrender to U.S. authorities," says FBI agent Shaide. He is accused of being the other robber with a handgun who filled a money bag.

On his MySpace Web page, Robertson says he was in the Canadian military reserve and was a volunteer firefighter. He says he doesn't smoke or drink and claims he makes—or wants to make—$250,000 a year.

The fourth person in the bank, authorities allege, was another teen, also Canadian. Nathan Dunmall, 18, of Chilliwack, east of Vancouver, was picked up Aug. 18. Like Sommer, he is fighting extradition from Canada. He is accused of being the other robber watching the doors and customers with an AK-47.

Of the three Rangers, alleged team leader Luke Sommer was arrested last, picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Aug. 11 at a grocery store in Peachland, B.C., near Kelowna, where the single father lives with his parents and a 2-and-a-half-year-old son.

He is charged with robbery and several counts of possession of illegal weapons, including grenades and a homemade bomb found in a storage locker. U.S. officials, who had deemed him "armed and extremely dangerous," say Sommer told Canadian authorities he was the robbery ringleader and has named his accomplices.

Sommer, who has said he joined the U.S. Army in 2003 because of the impression the 9/11 attacks had on him at age 15, said in an online chat on a Rangers page in May that he was one of the few Canadians in his unit, but "I'm not alone, one other guy from my squad is from B.C., one guy in snipers is from Calgary. . . . We are growing."

Records show Sommer was involved in Ranger combat operations in Afghanistan in 2005 and Iraq in 2004 but, as with all Ranger missions, details are secret. Well-trained in the use of heavy firepower, Sommer, in charging papers, is accused of providing the extra banana-clip magazines to fellow Ranger Palmer and teenager Dunmall "in the event that the conspirators became involved in a firefight with law enforcement."

The alleged robber interviewed by the Weekly insisted the weapons display was all show and that the two suspects with AK-47s kept the automatic rifles slung over their shoulders at least part of the time—which the FBI confirms.

He also maintains the license plate gaffe isn't the only indication the robbers intended to get caught so they could tell their story. There was all that evidence obviously lying around the alleged robbers' rooms back at Fort Lewis. And the car was parked outside.

"Please, I mean, two minutes, 21 seconds, a precision robbery, and then, boom, caught the next day? That was no accident." In essence, he suggests they weren't stupid enough to unintentionally leave a trail.

His story may be a tough sell, and he admits he has motive to peddle it: The feds are planning to seek extra-long sentences, in some cases from 30 years to life, he says, suggesting the threat of stiff terms is intended to muzzle the soldiers.

"You have three guys with security clearances and two foreign nationals. What's the best way to keep them quiet?" he asks. "Throw them in jail. That's what they do in Iraq."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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