Her story begins in Punjab, northwest of Delhi on the Pakistan border. It is one of the smallest but most prosperous states of India. Sandeep Kaur was born on 11 November 1989, in Chandigarh – India’s first planned city, sometimes called “the city beautiful”. She says her name means the “first ray of sunlight”. Aged seven, she moved with her mother and brother, Jatinder, to join her father in America. They arrived in San Jose, California, as the area’s Indian population was exploding. But for as long as she can remember, Kaur says she felt like an outsider.
The Bombshell Bandit
An unusual bank robber shocked, mystified and captivated the US. She was a woman, she was short, young and well-dressed, and she held up a string of banks in quick succession. The Bombshell Bandit told Jeff Maysh her story.
Sandeep Kaur pulled on a wig and adjusted her designer sunglasses in her rear-view mirror. June 6, 2014, was a typically sunny afternoon in California’s Santa Clarita Valley and a quiet one, except for the screams of passengers on a nearby roller coaster. Thirty-eight miles northwest of Los Angeles, the First Bank sits in a hamlet of Spanish-style shops just off Magic Mountain Parkway. The busy road leads to Six Flags, a theme park billed as the Thrill Capital of the World.
Kaur, 24, had been using her iPhone to research bank robberies. It was clearly a high-stakes pursuit. Some robbers escaped with fortunes, while others were captured or even killed by police. She opened the car door and stepped out into the mid-afternoon heat. At just five feet three inches tall, the slender Indian nurse did not boast the muscle of typical bank robbers. She had no weapon or getaway driver. Instead, she gripped a hurriedly written note that read: TICK TOCK. I HAVE A BOMB.
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The Rise and Fall of Sandeep Kaur
If Kaur didn’t look like a criminal, she certainly didn’t fit the profile of a bank-robbing desperado. Kaur and her family have devoted Sikhs, a religion that steers followers away from the selfish pursuit of wealth. A prodigious student, she graduated from nursing college several years early, while still a teenager. She had three jobs, tirelessly caring for elderly cancer sufferers, for patients at a Sacramento hospital, and ironically, for inmates at a jail. But as she walked towards the bank, she prepared to do the unthinkable and join their number as a violent criminal.
At 2.30 pm, Kaur arrived before the bank’s faux-Roman pillars. White lettering on its glass doors read: “Please remove hats and sunglasses before entering.” Her reflection looked like she might be going to a costume party as Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Inside, a greeter jumped out and said: “Hey, how can I help you?” This technique is called SafeCatch, and it’s taught by the FBI to put potential robbers off their stride. Kaur panicked and fled.
Back in her car, Kaur sipped a bottle of water she had stolen from a nearby grocery store. Across the square of terracotta-coloured businesses, she spotted the logo of the Bank of the West, a bear walking on all fours – like the bear on the Californian flag, supposed to have been modelled on a grizzly captured in 1889 at the behest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kaur pulled open the green doors, her heart racing as she felt the icy blast of conditioned air. A stuffed toy bear stared down from a shelf. She approached the cashier and told herself: “I just have to do this. It’s this or nothing.” She slid the note over the counter.