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Female Bank Robbers

When this investigator and crime novelist got curious about female bank robbers, he fell down a rabbit hole—and created a mysterious Instagram account devoted to the subject. What can we tell from these grainy surveillance photos?

Do women rob banks?

I was lying in bed six months ago when that question passed through my mind. I’d been thinking about a character in a novel I’m writing. The character, a bank robber, happens to be male, and I was considering what it would be like if he (she) was female. I picked up my phone and typed in the phrase: "Female bank robber." 

The images that popped up immediately grabbed my attention: They were part of a trove of surveillance photos, many of which appeared to tell a different story. The pictures evoked the normal things we associate with bank robbery, like fear, desperation and sadness. They also, unquestionably, showed images of strength and power.

I had many questions. What made these women do it? How did their lives get to this point? Some of the women looked like mothers and grandmothers. Some didn’t look bothered at all; a few seemed to be genuinely smiling. Some looked calm, some looked nervous. A few looked absolutely heartbroken. I started the Instagram account right then. For the sake of consistency, I made the pictures black and white. I chose not to do any research about the women—how many banks they robbed, how much money they got, if they were caught. The images were so striking, adding details seemed to diminish their inherent mystery. Also, the idea of posting personal details, like names and locations, felt ethically complicated—all a bit too much for what is essentially a hobby. 

In fact, because I didn't do research, I'm not even sure if any of these women actually robbed a bank. They should be considered innocent until proven guilty. I’ve thought a lot about crime and criminals in my life. When I'm not writing crime fiction, I work as a private investigator. I specialize in criminal defense and civil rights cases. Over the last 14 years, I’ve worked for attorneys representing women who have been charged with all types of criminal acts: child abuse, domestic abuse, drug dealing, assault, burglary, and murder. I’ve never worked for a female bank robber, though. Instead, I’ve had to make them up. My first book, The White Van, was about a woman named Emily who robbed a bank. In the book, she’s forced into committing the crime. I wonder sometimes how many of the real-world women were coerced into these acts. 

Heists still have a kind of romance about them. Seven years ago I went to visit my grandmother in Ashland, Oregon. She was the friendliest Jewish grandmother in the world. She was dying at the time. She asked me what I was up to. I told her I was working on a book about a lady who robbed banks. My nana looked over my shoulder wistfully. Her eyes got a far-off look like she was remembering some great regret. “I always wanted to rob a bank," she confessed.


#1.

This is my most recent post. On top, we see a woman leaving the bank, and below that we see her entering. We see her pulling open the door, and looking into the bank that she’s presumably about to rob. She’s stepping in from the bright sunny day, and she’s about to do something that, one way or another, is probably going to change the course of her life. The expression on her face is intense. She looks sad, slightly guilty, hesitant. There is a height strip on the side of the door—she’s five and half feet tall. I like the way her striped bag is hanging from her arm—empty on the way in, maybe full of money on the way out.


#2.

This was my first entry, published this spring. I love this shot. The camera appears to be at an odd angle; the office at the back looks tilted. The robber’s posture makes her appear tense. I feel nervous just looking at her. It’s visceral. I like the lines from the carpet on the floor. She looks like some kind of left wing German revolutionary from the 1980’s. I love the glasses, the black coat. I love how she’s holding the note in her hand.


#3.

I think this woman might be my second favorite from the group. (We’ll get to my favorite later.) I love the way she appears to be sneaking up on the teller: She looks almost bashful. I love how she wears her hat on her head. I like to believe that she was robbing the bank out of necessity. I think she has a good soul.


#4.

This picture is intense. The camera is right up in her face. It’s intimate. She looks like she’s reached the end of her rope. She’s looking at the teller like she does not want to be fucked with. I also like the highlights in her hair. She’s wearing makeup. She woke up that morning, put on eyeliner and went to rob a bank. I’m always intrigued by the women who don’t seem to make any effort to disguise themselves. They’re just like, Nope, don’t need it.


#5.

This is how you’re supposed to do it. You have to hide your face and wear gloves, the less skin the better. This woman also looks tough as hell. Her posture. The way she’s looking off to the side. I’m curious, is her left hand in her pants pocket? If it is, there’s something heartbreaking about that. Why does she have her hand in her pocket? Is that something she does when she’s nervous? Of course, the most striking thing is the gun. I feel like flashing a gun always brings it to another level.


#6.

This one—and not just because of her age—looks like she could be a grandmother. There is something warm about her face. She’s dressed like Jesus of Nazareth. The disguise, frankly, could be better; she needs to pull that wrap a little tighter. Also, is that an Uzi in her hand? If so, she is not playing. Full-fledged.


#7.

Okay, here's my favorite one from the group. This woman is more together than I am when I order a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I love her raised eyebrows. I love how she’s placed her LRG hat on her head. I respect the lacy shirt. I like how she’s got the purse out, ready to accept a cash deposit. I am concerned that she is not disguising herself enough, though.


#8.

This girl breaks my heart. She looks like she's about 14 years old. Someone (a man) probably forced her into it. I actually kind of hate this picture for how sad it makes me. But it’s real.


#9.

And the award for most creative use of a mask goes to: this woman. I love this one. I love her Wyoming shirt. There is something cinematic about her disguise. She looks like she just walked in from an Elmore Leonard novel. Nice work.


#10.

Rule number one when robbing a bank: Don’t look directly at the surveillance cameras. You should always know where they are and keep your face turned away from them. Especially if you’re not going to wear a mask. This woman’s expression suggests a sort of self-knowledge. She knows exactly what this moment represents. You can almost hear her saying, “Shit,” to herself. 


#11.

There is something innocent about this woman. Yes, she’s robbing a bank, but something about her expression makes it look like she’s apologizing to the teller. She’s got a friendly face. I like to think she’s robbing the bank to help a friend in serious trouble. The bank seems to be inside a grocery store; you can see a shopping cart up top. Maybe that’s why she’s apologizing? (Did she get the brown paper bag from the grocery store? Also, they’re selling books?) It’s confusing.


#12.

Mom!


#13.

This woman is a close contender for winning the award for toughest female bank robber. She is a bad ass. Look at her posture when she’s holding the gun. I imagine her saying something like, “Come on motherfucker fill it up.” She’s wearing extra tight jeans, a cute t-shirt, and high heels. She IS the female bank robber.


#14.

This woman has made two appearances on my feed. I have a pretty strong suspicion that she is wearing one of those super-realistic silicone masks. Her expression never really changes. If I was in the FBI and in charge of naming her, I’d call her the Stone-Faced Bandit. She is doing it right with the hood, the covered hands, the glasses. Professional.


#15.

There are so many things about this woman—starting with her eyes. Her poise. Her disguise, obviously, is good. I think it’s just an interesting photo with all the patterns: her bandana, her houndstooth hoody, the grid on the ceiling, the digital fraying around the lights. Also, I love the dude behind her, staring. He knows what’s going on. But the lady in shorts has no idea.


#16. 

This is some serious chiaroscuro. She’s so well lit, and the background is so dark. I love it for that. I think she is the second saddest one in the group. There is true pathos in that face. She really was just like, I don’t need a disguise, not even a jacket


#17.

I love this one simply as an image. She looks powerful. I love the reflection in her glasses. Love how she’s tilting her head back. I love the Christmas wreath above her head. I love the poster of the happy white family doing bank advertisement things in the background. Fuck Donald Trump, this lady is my president. Seriously.


#18. 

A woman in a burka holding a gun. She looks like she's got gloves on. She’s not getting caught. Strength. Poise. "Power Pose." It’s a strong image. It should be the cover of a punk rock album.


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