Most bank robberies in the US are accomplished with a simple demand note. That was the way my great-uncle Bobby went about it when he robbed a Boston bank in 1952. He was wearing a mask but somebody saw the getaway car, and he was soon arrested because he’d parked it right outside his house. The $1200 in cash he’d stolen was stashed in the washing machine. He was 25 years old and had four children. He told the cops he’d robbed the bank ‘to buy food for my family’. Nobody left alive remembers how long he spent in prison, but it’s said that he once stole an armoured car just to take it for a joyride. He was wild when he was young. By the time I knew him he was a genial elderly truck driver who liked to retell his mother’s stories of growing up in a village in Albania, a country he’d never visited. He was a black sheep, but in the eyes of our not very saintly family he’d long since been redeemed.
On a summer afternoon in 2006 a gang robbed a branch of Bank of America in Tacoma, Washington. Four men, in hoodies and ski masks, entered carrying military-grade assault rifles and pistols. One of them, with a canvas bag on his shoulder and a 9mm Glock 19 pistol with a red laser sight in his hand, leaped onto the counter and climbed over the bullet-proof plexiglass ‘bandit barrier’ that separated the tellers from their customers, reaching almost up to the ceiling. The man landed on his feet, and told the tellers cowering on the ground to get up. ‘If this bag isn’t full in one minute, you’re all gonna get wasted,’ he said. In short order they’d filled it with $54,000 from the tills. There was a flurry of bills in the frenzy. One teller was hit in the face with a banded stack of fives. On his way out of the teller pit, the man rubbed the shoulder of one of the tellers to comfort her and said to another as she unlocked the door letting him out to the lobby: ‘Thanks for your co-operation.’ One of his accomplices, tasked with raiding the vault, had got two managers to open it for him and found $200,000 inside. ‘I need a bag,’ he said, and walked out. One of the managers started to point out that there was a sack on top of the safe but the other shushed her. The cash was left behind.
After two minutes, the four robbers were on the street. They turned into an alley, took off their masks and concealed their weapons. The getaway car wasn’t where it was supposed to be but they spotted it around the corner and piled in. The driver, aged 19 and wearing shorts and sandals, was the owner of the silver Audi A4 sedan, and like two of the gunmen he was an army Ranger stationed at a base on the other side of Tacoma. (The other two were Canadians, one military, one civilian.) It was the first day of Pfc Alex Blum’s last stint of leave before his first deployment to Iraq, and though he drove the gang back to the base without incident, narrowly avoiding police cars speeding in the opposite direction towards the bank, he missed his evening flight home to Denver. He caught one the next day and went to stay at his girlfriend’s house. The day after that, his father, Norm, came to pick him up and a few minutes later their car was surrounded by an FBI Swat team. Alex was placed under arrest, with a gun to his head. ‘Dad, I might have fucked up,’ he said. He’d neglected to cover the licence plates on the Audi and a witness had reported the number to the authorities, who probably would have tracked down the vehicle from surveillance footage sooner or later. It was still parked at the base – the same mistake my great-uncle Bobby made.
Alex Blum and his fellow Rangers received other-than-honourable discharges from the army, and he was held without bail for more than a year in a facility that never allowed him to see the sun. His arrest set off a crisis in a family that was already in turmoil. His parents had recently separated. After once seeing him in handcuffs, his mother refused to visit him in jail. Norm did the opposite, draining his bank account to fly from Colorado to Washington every weekend to see his son and talk to his lawyers. Norm had done well in real estate, but his son’s new criminal status damaged his reputation. He contracted a virus that led to a heart attack and open-heart surgery. How his clean-cut son – a high school hockey star who’d only ever wanted to grow up to be an army Ranger, even if that meant dying young in a foreign war – had ended up driving the getaway car was a mystery to him. Alex seemed to believe that he’d been obeying a senior soldier and would be returning to duty when his superiors at the base had sorted things out. Then father gave son a copy of Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by the neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor and Alex’s story changed. He wrote a lengthy memoir from his cell explaining that basic training and then the far more gruelling Ranger school he’d been through in the months before the robbery had broken down his personality and turned him into the sort of person who could commit a crime if a senior Ranger told him to. Norm emailed the document to the extended Blum family as proof that Alex was still the good kid they’d always known him to be.
One of the recipients of the email was Ben Blum, Alex’s first cousin, a 25-year-old computer science graduate student in Seattle. As a child he’d been a maths prodigy and now his life had taken a swerve of its own:
I was drinking all night before giving molecular biology talks, doing cocaine in strange apartments, funding a friend’s rap album with money from my National Science Foundation grant – more or less deliberately screwing up, seized by a half-articulate hunch that my lifelong impulse towards abstraction and schematisation was perpendicular or worse to the real meaning of life, a long march towards, as the poet Philip Larkin puts it, ‘the solving emptiness/that lies just under all we do’.
Ben decided to drop science and take his existential questions to the creative writing programme at NYU. He appointed himself to tell his cousin’s story. The result of these efforts, a decade on, is Ranger Games, a frequently riveting book, though one that often leaves you wondering whether its author, who’s as fond of quoting Adrienne Rich (‘Truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity’) as he is of dropping some Larkin, has read much Dostoevsky.
The vexing question for Ben Blum is whether Alex Blum is a good person. But since being a good person is an axiomatic quality for a member of the high-achieving, earnest, patriotic and prosperous Blum family, the question becomes how and why a Blum could be tricked into taking part in an armed bank robbery. Before he joined the army, Ben says, Alex displayed his goodness on the ice rink, where he made up for a lack of talent (noticed early on by Norm, a youth coach) by proving himself as a grind, a tough guy racking up assists while his teammates scored the goals. In high school, he stuck up for outcasts, asking a deaf girl from gym class to the prom and knocking on the door of a boy who’d been bullied at a party to apologise. At another party he saved the life of a friend who, blitzed on a mix of alcohol and meds, had passed out on the bedroom floor. Alex sucked the vomit out of his throat, breathed life into him and kept checking up on him weeks after the rest of their friends had ditched him. Alex loved Black Hawk Down – the Ridley Scott film about the Battle of Mogadishu – and showed it to his girlfriend to explain why he wanted to be a Ranger. The other reason was that his and Ben’s grandfather, Sergeant Al Blum Sr, a New York Jew, had landed in Normandy just after D-Day (like the soldiers in his other favourite movie, Saving Private Ryan) and killed a blond teenager from the Hitler Youth while leading an anti-aircraft unit into the heart of the liberated continent.
Ben Blum’s account of the way basic training and – especially – the subsequent Ranger Indoctrination Program (since renamed) broke down his cousin’s good-natured personality and turned him into an obedient potential killer is more than a little terrifying. Alex and his fellow trainees are subjected to sleep deprivation, days of wet, near freezing conditions and constant ritual humiliation at the hands of drill sergeants who put the privates in catch-22 situations that result in ‘smokings’, sessions of punitive calisthenics: in the tamest example, they are ordered to eat ice cream and then punished for doing so. After one winter session in the swampy woods of Georgia, Alex returns to barracks and watches a fellow cadet pull off his socks along with the skin from the soles of his feet. Another time, Alex fractures a leg. The last phases of his training are relatively leisurely, spent learning how to jump out of aircraft and earning an expert infantryman badge. In Tacoma, his last stop before Iraq, ‘cherries’ like him mix for the first time with ‘tabs’, Rangers who’ve seen combat and spend their off hours playing video games, watching action movies and idly speculating about how easy it would be to take down the local casino or the bank.
For one of the tabs, Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer, such speculation wasn’t entirely idle. He was the one who would climb over the bandit barrier during the robbery, threaten to ‘waste’ the tellers and come out with the cash. The Canadians who came along for the heist were friends of Sommer’s from British Columbia, where he’d grown up after his American father had an unsuccessful run for Congress in California. Tabs were discouraged from associating with cherries, but Sommer was different. He played both chum and authority figure and liked to talk about assembling a gang of Rangers who would liberate his hometown in Canada from the stranglehold of the Hells Angels. He lured his Canadian friends to Washington for the weekend with instant messages presenting the bank heist as a fun adventure and a joke, ‘lol’. In the barracks, he homed in on those privates who seemed to be outsiders: he identified one, Pfc Chad Palmer, because of a tattoo in Malaysian on his leg – he was the child of missionaries and had grown up abroad. Palmer would guard one of the exits at the bank. Sommer recognised Alex Blum as an out-of-place middle-class kid who was eager to please his superiors and generous with the keys to his Audi. Both the car and its driver were necessary parts of the plan because Sommer wasn’t a licensed driver: he’d crashed a truck he’d been forced to drive on duty in Afghanistan. ‘No way was I driving,’ he told Ben Blum in a prison interview. ‘This would have gone from a tragic version of The Town to a comedy.’ The Town is a heist movie directed by Ben Affleck about Boston thieves who rob a bank in Harvard Square before sensibly – unlike the Rangers or my great-uncle Bobby – torching their getaway car.
Assiduously fair-minded, Ben Blum wonders at length whether Sommer is a psychopath or the victim of his own elaborate fantasies. To me he seemed downright satanic at every turn. He also put me in mind of Robert De Niro in Heat, delivering a professional bank robber’s answer to a cop who asks him if he ever intends to go back to prison: ‘You see me doing thrill-seeker liquor store hold-ups with a born-to-lose tattoo on my chest?’ Sommer was nearly that stupid – his little brother, who later held up a liquor store (their mother called it ‘copycat’ behaviour), was that stupid – but he had enough charisma to put his accomplices under his spell. After the robbery, Sommer fled to Canada, where he was arrested in a supermarket and then let out on bail. He holed up in his mother’s house for months resisting extradition, casting himself as a dissident and telling the press he’d committed the bank robbery in order to draw attention to war crimes he’d seen committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Newspapers in Canada and Seattle printed his claims but the gambit didn’t work: Alex Blum and the other accomplices turned state’s evidence and struck plea bargains. After his conviction Sommer ended up in the same prison as one of the Canadians who’d testified against him; Sommer showed up one day outside his former friend’s cell and tried to murder him with a shiv. A jailhouse informant told the authorities that Sommer was conspiring with a drug lord to obtain weapons, break out of prison and assassinate the prosecutors who’d locked them up. These crimes would result in two more convictions.
By the time Ben Blum met Sommer – a single interview lasting seven hours – he was professing, at least to his very Christian mother, to have found Jesus; he was tutoring other inmates to help them get their high school equivalency degrees; and he was covered head to toe in prison tattoos, including an outline of a tear by his eye indicating that he had attempted homicide. (He told Blum that it marked him as a murderer, but Blum factchecked him.) He was also claiming to have developed a deep interest in number theory: an attempt to charm his interviewer that foundered a year later when he wrote to Blum claiming to have proven Legendre’s conjecture (that there is always a prime number between two successive squares) and his calculations contained a schoolboy error. Sommer boasted of a history as a hacker and hinted to Blum that he’d got a local journalist in British Columbia arrested by remotely planting child pornography on his computer. He told Blum many lies, obvious and otherwise, but on one point he turned out to be correct. Alex Blum knew what he was doing when he drove the Audi to the bank. It wasn’t a case of brainwashing or mistaking the caper for an official mission.
Alex had cleaved to that story with his father and extended family, even after admitting responsibility at his sentencing hearing, where he received credit for time served and went free on parole. Maintaining the pretence that he’d been brainwashed, that he’d mistaken the heist for a quasi-official mission, was a way of coping with returning to his family and society after his disgrace. He would point to a book called Inside Delta Force that included the story of ‘how in the final stage of training, new operators had to make it to a meeting with a contact in Washington DC, without being apprehended by local FBI agents, who had been given their identifying information and told they were dangerous criminals.’ Whether or not he had believed that the heist was a training operation along similar lines, it was a consoling story to tell.
But belief in his own fundamental – if not actual – innocence would cause Alex more trouble. At his sentencing hearing a letter of support had been read out from the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment and now, decades on, a celebrity presenter on television. The judge scoffed at Zimbardo’s letter, but afterwards Zimbardo asked Alex to appear with him on Dr Phil, the popular syndicated therapy programme that traffics in scoldings and interventions. This proved to be a mistake. Zimbardo’s suggestion that Alex had, like his subjects at Stanford, turned against his gentle nature because of situational pressures got muddled with Dr Phil’s refrain about ‘inner demons’. Alex humiliated himself by standing up to recite the Ranger’s Creed (an almost camp pledge that ends: ‘Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor. RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!’) and botching it. Worse than the humiliation was the publicity: being on television got him fired from his job as a youth hockey coach when parents protested at the presence of a felon in the rink. He was no longer even allowed to drive the machine that smoothed the ice, and went to work as a bouncer and as a packer in a warehouse. (Ben Blum has recently published a report casting doubt on Zimbardo’s Stanford work, based on interviews with subjects who claim their behaviour was a ploy to make the experiment stop.)
And then, some years later, after Alex had bought a house and developed a drinking problem, his cousin Ben presented him with a spreadsheet he had made: hundreds of pages of details about his case demonstrating inconsistencies that pointed definitively to Alex’s guilt. This put an end to his denials, to fantasies like the one out of Inside Delta Force. Alex emailed a confession to the whole family:
I did help plan some of it and I knew what we were doing on the way there and after it happened. I had no reason to do it. I didn’t need the money or the thrill. I had a sick feeling in my stomach the whole time and hoped it would turn out to be a joke even though I knew better. Did the training I went through have a role in my participation? I think it did a little bit but nowhere near the amount I have misled you into believing. I knew what we were talking about was stupid and illegal, in my mind I would think: ‘This is crazy.’ But I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to seem like I was a pussy in front of Sommer. I didn’t want to show him I was afraid.
Readers who take a dimmer view of human nature than Ben Blum does won’t be surprised. But Blum tells such a good story you can’t begrudge him his redemptive therapeutic ending. It’s his family. You sense that his underlying mission is to save his cousin from the fate of their grandfather – who, it’s revealed, wasn’t much of a saint or hero in the war – and of their uncle Kurt, both of whom committed suicide. In 2012, Blum reports, ‘more active-duty American military personnel died of suicide than in combat.’ A decade after the heist, Alex Blum, who never saw combat, was saving up to leave his warehouse job and buy a food truck. He was still driving the silver Audi.