Sandeep Kaur’s life is the material that films are made of; a protagonist with a humble back story, lost sense of identity, stereotypical villains, greed and unforeseeable circumstances that lead to a life of crime. After initially making a lot of money by investing in stocks, Kaur developed a gambling problem which led to her robbing a string of banks and convenience stores in California, Nevada and Arizona in 2014. Her career as a bank robber lasted not too long as the cops finally caught up to her after months of searching which ended in a 3 state and 11 car police chase, broadcast on national television. She was incarcerated in California in 2014 at the age of 24.
Sandeep Kaur was born on 11 November 1989 in the city of Chandigarh in Punjab, India. When Kaur was 7, she and her brother along with their parents moved to the capital of Silicon Valley, San José, California to a neighbourhood that had a thriving Indian community at the time. While her parents moved to the United States with a thought to better their lives, they never completely adapted to the westernised culture.
Growing up in the Northern Californian city, Sandeep Kaur went through what all children of immigrants go through; a feeling of not belonging. Spending the formative years of her life in India made it harder for her to transition into her new life in the United States as a pre-teen and then teenager. Being “outsiders”, she and her brother were constantly targeted and subject to continuous bullying in school. The bullying continued over the years and intensified due to racial tensions after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “I was called a terrorist at school. They were like, ‘Did your Dad do this?’” Kaur told BBC in 2015.
As a way to escape their tormentors, Kaur and her brother started skipping school and were sent briefly to a boarding school in the Eastern Himalayas once the parents found out. Back in America, Kaur was not happy at home too. Her parents were strict and lived frugally. Sandeep wore boys clothes for years because they were cheaper than girls clothes. At home they were punished for not doing their chores or misbehaving. “We would have to stand there with a chair up in our hands for like an hour until our arms hurt. That is how we were raised, we knew not to go tell the school, we were beaten with a stick. This is how parenting is,” she said in her interview with BBC. The children were isolated from the world by their parents. Mobile phones, television and friends were not allowed in the house. They were made to stand with chairs up in their arms for hours at end and were beaten if they refused to go to school or do their homework.
At the age of 14, her mother fell ill and had to be hospitalised. While caring for her mother and interacting with the healthcare staff, Kaur decided she would become a nurse. By age 15, Kaur graduated early from High School and by 19 she became a licensed vocational nurse in a nearby hospital. Soon, Kaur was earning $6,000 a month by working multiple jobs at various bay-area hospitals, health care agencies and nursing a terminally ill businessman. Working all the time and living at home with no bills, Kaur’s monthly earnings were piling up. She was eager to escape her parents’ house which she described as a “prison”.
In 2008, when the American economy was on an all-time low, Kaur started investing heavily in the stock market. “I was really into it. I put all the money i had saved up and some from my parents… the stocks were really low, these are the biggest banks of America there are. It can’t get any lower than this, Bank of America was at two dollars fifty-three cents”, she said to BBC. “I invested in the insurance banks, AIG and Prudential.” Soon as the economy picked up, Kaur had made a killing. She had over $200,000 saved up in her bank. From all those years of living on her mom’s standards, Kaur finally tasted freedom. Like every 20-year-old American girl, Kaur started partying and meeting boys, spending the money she had earned on expensive clothing, lavish parties and luxury hotels.
When Kaur was 20, she left home and moved to Sacramento, another city in Northern California, 2-hours from where she grew up, to do a Bachelors of Science in Nursing. While she was a student, she briefly worked in the Sacramento County Jail.
Kaur soon discovered Las Vegas, the city of sin, when she and her cousin Amundeep Kaur, who is 2 years elder to Kaur planned to bring in Kaur’s 21st birthday in Vegas. They lied to their mothers and flew out of Sacramento airport to Las Vegas. Kaur and her sister soon discovered the glamorous and flashy designer stores Vegas is famous for. Dressed in Gucci mini dresses, which they were never allowed to wear at home, the sisters trotted down to the nearest casino and bar and started gambling. Kaur spoke about her first tryst with gambling in Vegas,” I gambled. I won a couple of thousand and it was pretty fun. I played blackjack and i kept winning. Everyone else at the table was getting mad.” With a streak of beginners luck, Kaur had won $4,000 in the first few hours of playing and became hooked. She just couldn’t stay away. After flying back and forth to Vegas a few times, each with a different set of friends, the hotel and casino Kaur frequented started treating her like royalty and giving her a free stay and additional perks. Kaur finally felt like she belonged.
She then came across Baccarat, a popular but simple card game played in casinos, where the players bet on which of the two hands added up closest to nine. It was more like a lottery. For years, Baccarat was played in luxurious high-roller circles and occasionally by James Bond in his movies. Kaur soon started playing with high-rollers and turned her Bellagio penthouse suite into a private club for other prodigal players with endless whiskey flowing and RnB music blasting on the stereos. In the casinos downstairs, she was playing behind closed doors in exclusive ballroom style playing rooms where only the über rich were allowed.
She garnered a reputation of a fearless but fortunate player. She played till she made $10,000 a night and then spend it all in the designer stores. “I had a weakness for designer sunglasses. I would first go and see how much the pricing is and then i would go make a bet for that same amount. If i win, ill go buy it, if not then I’m not meant to have it”, she says. The casinos started treating her like royalty. She played next to celebrities, professional gamblers as well as politicians. She was only 25.
Kaur then decided to get a credit line at the casino. “So that way i don’t have to bring the money there.” Since she was on a roll and making money almost out of thin air, she started raising her bets steadily. She became addicted to the fast paced lifestyle of the city known for its nightlife.
Soon things started to go wrong and her luck seemed to have run out. In November 2011, she confessed to her sister, Amundeep that she had lost $60,000. She claimed to have lost it on the stock market but her brother saw her lose it all on just 3 rounds on the table. Her sister knew she had a problem.
Kaur says she quit school and her part-time nursing job to concentrate full-time on gambling. “I stopped working. I can’t focus and be going to work for this little amount of money,” she admits. Kaur started wiring more and more money from her savings account to the casino account. “It started off at like $250,000,” she says. All of it dwindled away over the months. By March 2012, she had lost it all. All of her life savings were gone and she was in debt to the casino.
On one of her trips to the city, a man approached Kaur. Somebody who was watching her closely and impressed with her gambling who turned out to be a loan shark. The man, who was not a member of the casino staff, offered to give her some money to play. According to Kaur, he said, “I can get you some money”. Not a member of the staff, the man continued, “Ive seen you win before, you can win your money back”. Thinking that she could win with the money the man gave her, she saw her problems disappearing. The man asked Kaur to follow her and led her to other men waiting outside the casino. She asked for $20,000 and the loan shark gave it to her on a high interest. Two men handed her the cash in the parking garage and she promised to come back with her money in a few hours.
She soon walked back in to the casino and sat at the table for 16 hours straight trying to win back enough money to pay back the shark and then enough to continue playing. She had almost doubled the money when she lost it all on one hand. “I cant believe that i’ve done this”, she told herself.
Kaur panicked and fled Las Vegas and the loan sharks, planning to give up gambling completely. In May 2012, she moved in with her mother in Union City, California. Even with a new address and a new start, Kaur was always on the look out for her creditors. She maxed out all her credit cards to pay the deposit for a home which her mother was keen on Kaur buying from her savings, which at this point was gone. She told her mother she bought the house outright and worked 100 hour weeks as nurse to pay for her secret mortgage.
In December of 2012, there was a warrant out for her arrest for failing to make some payments to the casino. At the same time her mom discovered the truth after seeing her empty bank account. By this time, her parents had divorced and Kaur’s mother began to arrange her marriage. Unimpressed by the suitors the family was bringing home for Kaur to see, she eloped with a man of her own choice in September 2013. Unwilling to discuss her husband, the only thing Kaur said was, “I was a prisoner in my own home”.
She stayed away for a while from Vegas but soon started flying to the city again and gambling away her $1000-a-week allowance her new husband gave her. Her past started creeping up to her when she noticed someone following her in a black car on Memorial Day, May 2014 during a trip to her friends house in Freemont, California. “I thought my father had hired someone to follow me,” she says. When she went to pay for gas, she found two men sitting in her car. “Oh, you’re in the wrong car,” she told them. “We need to talk to you. You’re Sandeep,” one of them said to her.
It turned out to be two men working for the man who had loaned her the $20,000 in Vegas. “You owe us $25,000 but that’s not enough, we need more.” They demanded $35,000 and two days to get it. Her family had no clue about any of this. “They said, ‘Where are you gonna get the money from?’”, she recalls. “I’m gonna make some phone calls”, Kaur told them. “They said, ’Why don’t you make those calls right now.’”
Desperate, Kaur rang up everyone she could to lend her money. When she told the men no one would lend her the money, they threatened her to either pay or work for them. And Kaur knew working for them meant doing something illegal, “Drug stuff, i don’t know, prostitution?”, she thought to herself. “They said, ‘You can rob a bank. Go rob a house, do this do that, we need the money.’” They even tried to hand her a gun, which she refused to take.
Sandeep didn’t think the idea of robbing a bank was totally ridiculous. She knew she had no other choice but to get the money through deceit. The thought of telling the police did come to her mind but decided to go ahead with the robberies. “It’s do or die. If I did this, and anything did happen then at least the police would be involved”, she reassures herself. “Or you know, I could just kill myself.” As to why she didn’t just go to the police in the first place she says, “Ever since we were kids we had to lie”. The punishments she and her brother suffered at the hands of her parents, to her partying and wearing provocative clothing, even her parents’ divorce; anything shameful had to be hidden and not talked about.
Two weeks had passed, Kaur had been researching bank robberies using her iPhone. She knew she was taking a huge risk. Some robberies have ended in the robbers being either captured and punished or killed by police, while some robbers have escaped with fortunes. June 6, 2014 was the day of Kaur’s first robbery in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Wearing a wig and designer glasses, Kaur stepped out of her car and into the mid-afternoon heat and began walking towards a branch of the First Bank, equipped with no weapon but only a note that said TICK TOCK. I HAVE A BOMB. All of five feet and three inches, Kaur looked nothing like a typical bank robber. At 2.30pm, Kaur arrived at the banks glass doors that read: “Please remove hats and sunglasses before entering.” Wearing both, Kaur entered the brightly lit office space when a greeter jumped out and said: “Hey, how can i help you?”. This technique, called SafeCatch, is taught by the FBI to put potential robbers off their stride. This made Kaur panic and she fled the branch after mumbling something under her breath to the greeter.
As she went back and sat in her car Kaur noticed the logo of another bank, Bank of the West, a bear walking on all fours. She told herself: “I just have to do this. It’s this or nothing.” Kaur pulled open the doors and walked into the icy cool air conditioned bank. She approached the cashier and slipped over the note she was carrying. As the cashier panicked, he handed over more than $21,000. As she made her escape from the bank, Kaur got rid of her wig and drove around for 6 hours as many police cars drove past her. “I kept looking backwards, thinking,’They’re gonna be here now…Or now?…Now?’” When she realised she had gotten away, Kaur met up with her creditors outside a restaurant near the pier at Santa Monica.
She began to tell them what she had done to get the money when they said, “This is not enough.”
They gave her a week to come up with another $20,000. Desperate with the increasing interest rate, Kaur says she scraped together about $5,000 and drove to Las Vegas on 20 June, 2014.
Once in Vegas, she decided to try her luck one last time at a hand of baccarat. She parked her car at the Aria Casino, a sister hotel of the Bellagio and hoped to turn her $5,000 into a larger amount which would in turn solve all of her problems.
She had turned that $5,000 to $10,000 in sometime when her game was interrupted by a man in a suit who turned out to be a security guard. He said to her, “Can you come with us? You have a warrant our for you.” As she was escorted to the Clark County Detention Center, on Casino Center Blvd, Kaur thought, “This is it for me”. Luckily for her the warrant turned out to be for the faulty payments she had made towards the casino and not for the robbery which she had committed a few days earlier. On 26 June, her sister, Amundeep helped her with the bail money of $15,000 and set her free – with even more debt than before. And with a felony charge on her record, Kaur knew she would never be able to work as a nurse again.
With no choice but to rob again, Kaur started looking for her next target. “What are the chances of me getting away with another robbery?” she thought to herself. “Maybe I should just kill myself, end it all… no they’d go to my family. I have to do this. I was very close to suicide. I kept thinking… pills? But no, there’s a chance of surviving. But then… if I’m already thinking of ending my life, why not go rob the bank? The debt was increasing every day. It’s gonna keep going on for life. If i got another $20,000 from this, I’m done.”
The Wells-Fargo branch of Lake Havasu City, about 50 miles from the Nevada state line, in Arizona was Kaur’s next target. On July 8th 2014, Kaur walked into the bank at 5.30pm wearing a skin-tight black dress, floral scarf, casual sandals and her trademark designer sunglasses and wig.
She walked up to an employee and handed over a note that said she wanted $100,000. Investigators would later find the note also said that 5 men were making her rob the bank and that they were making her do this against her will. After the cashier handed over the cash, Kaur ran towards her car parked a few blocks away. “There’s people that even saw me running from there”, she recalls. “That day I just got lucky.”
After driving for a while as a rainstorm came crashing on her windscreen, on counting the money she realised the cash she had just stolen was only $2,000. Frustrated, she turned on her radio and saw a man in a car parked next to hers smiling at her. As she smiled back in acknowledgement she realised, “Im normal to the rest of the world. My mind just tells me it’s OK.”
While the Kaur cousins met for dinner on 10th July 2014, merely days after her latest heist, the Lake Havasu Police department, under Sgt Troy Stirling, was already investigating the robbery and comparing notes with other police departments. They were closing in on the Bombshell Bandit.
Amundeep was astonished at how much weight her sister had lost. Within a month Sandeep had gone from 150 pounds to nearly 115 pounds. “How’d you do it?”, asked Amundeep enviously. In the past both had struggled with their weights and often went on diets and exercised together, sharing meal plans and motivation. Amundeep had no idea about Kaur robbing banks and how she was nearly broke. Kaur couldn’t even afford to pay for dinner. Kaur assured her she was okay and soon began plotting another robbery, her third.
Kaur circled in on San Diego for her next heist, an area notorious for robberies. Kaur had heard about a guy called ‘the Geezer’, a name given by the FBI, who was accused of robbing at least sixteen banks so far. “I looked it up and there were already so many robberies there that had never been caught. [the Geezer] had never been caught or anything. The people in San Diego were kinda for it [since nobody was telling on him]”, she explains.
On Monday, 14th July 2014, wearing yet another colourful headscarf, Sandeep entered Comerica Bank, in San Diego’s Midway District. At around 3pm, she handed over a note to the teller of the bank, which officials would later learn demanded money and threatened a bomb. Kaur got away with $8,000 that day. “The next day i go see [the creditors] at the same place in Santa Monica”, she says. “I gave them the money but it was still not enough… They said ‘You’re running out of time. By 1 August if you don’t have the money, we are gonna take you. You’re gonna work for us.’ So then I said, ‘Ok I’ll go rob this last bank, and give them this money by the first of the month, get this over with.’ I started to feel they were going to keep increasing the money. The Hole kept getting bigger and bigger.”
On 31st July, at roughly 5pm, Sandeep drove to Utah and walked into the US Bank in St. George wearing a hoodie, her usual sunglasses and a surgical mask. The staff at the counter initially thought she was a germaphobe but soon realised what was really happening when Kaur handed over a note that said: “You have two minutes to give me 50K in cash or i will shoot you. This is not a joke.” Kaur had her hand in the pockets of the jacket she was wearing indicating that it was a gun. The manager handed over the cash to her and the moment she left to run towards her car, she called 911, identifying her car as a silver Nissan.
As Kaur made her escape from the parking lot on full speed, officer Mark Biehl of the St. George Police Department who was nearby got a call about the bank robbery. He sat in his patrol car and zipped towards the freeway as he heard the dispatcher say, “Suspect possibly armed.” Officer Biehl stood near the Exit 2 of the freeway just as the suspected silver car sped past, driver too short to identify. “ As soon as he started following me, I knew,” Kaur says. “It was like, ‘OK. its the end it.” She knew it was over but didn’t stop.
As she crossed over the state line into Arizona, two white local police cars joined the chase, flashing their lights and patiently trying to get the silver Nissan to stop. Sandeep Kaur would drive through three states and two time-zones that night and with each state she crossed, two more cop cars got on her tail. Driving at 130mph, Kaur began approaching Las Vegas, Nevada, followed by many cop cars and by this time TV and News Helicopters had also joined in on the chase and were broadcasting it on national television. At 4:26pm officer Brad Swanson who had joined in on the pursuit from the dusty city of Mesquite ordered a police officer waiting ahead to deploy spike strips. Kaur swerved, and her tires survived. She continued to drive at full speed when about 25 miles later, the roads got narrower and a waiting Highway Patrol Trooper deployed his spike strip which got the job done.
At 4:48pm Kaur’s silver Nissan came to a halt. Officers approached the car with their guns aimed at her. “Just shoot me’, she said.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer Troy Benson shouted instructions at Kaur through the PA system in Swanson’s patrol Vehicle. After refusing to come out from the car for two hours, the cops lied to her that she was being taken to the hospital and not jail. She had already messaged her sister about the whole ordeal. ‘I ROBBED A BANK. I MESSED UP’. Amundeep was on a treadmill when her phone went off with the text messages from Kaur.
Sandeep was arrested and transported to a cell in the Clark County Detention Center. She says she also tried to slit her wrists but her cell mate reported it to the authorities and she was moved to the psych cell where inmates who pose a threat to other inmates or themselves are put without any interaction with anyone. “I got put in psych, where they strip away all your clothes and you’re just sitting there naked.”
Special Agent Seth Footlik of the FBI interviewed who interviewed Sandeep Kaur on 14 August told BBC, “Kaur was neither remorseful, nor completely honest in her interview. She has proven to be dishonest and could not provide corroborating information for her claims. This office has not concluded any further investigation into Kaur’s claims of violent loan sharks.”
As her trial approached, word was rife in the Sikh community in California that Kaur faced up to 20 years in prison on each of the four charges against her along with $250,000 in fines. Her mother collapsed when she heard about her daughters arrest. Her extended family and friends of the family distanced themselves from Kaur when the news of her arrest and the details of the life she led for the last two years had come out.
Not one member of the family attended Sandeep’s trial or her sentencing on 7 April 2015. Letters from her brother Jatinder and cousin Amundeep are handed over to the court, begging for leniency.
Her lawyer, Jay Winward, a court appointed defence attorney, describes Kaur as educated and of “great worth to society” and says she felt “trapped” by her culture. Prosecuting Attorney Paul Kohler retorts, “Trapped? Speak to those who were really trapped… The families travelling on the freeway when Kaur sped at 130mph… the bank employees… These are crimes of violent, serial nature.” The court also hear about how she robbed the banks in almost comical ways; the ridiculous disguises and with one hand in her jacket pocket, pretending her finger was a gun. Kaur’s testimony about her treatment at the hands of the loan sharks was also heard.
District Judge Ted Stewart sentenced Sandeep to 66 months in jail keeping in mind she was highly educated and smart and fell into the problematic lifestyle that she led. In his closing argument he said, “She amassed a large gambling debt and in order to repay a loan shark, she robbed the banks. That conduct explains why she did what she did, but by no means justifies what she did. It can also not be used as an excuse in the court’s mind.” He concludes, “She was willing to gamble. Not only her own money and money she won at the casino, but she was willing to gamble other people’s safety.” He also ordered her to payback every dollar she ever stole. Kaur wiped her eyes and thanked the judge saying her arrest was a relief.
Kaur tells BBC about how she’s been trying to help other prisoners. She also says she has rekindled her interest in religion and that she realised something that time when she was in solitary confinement in the Las Vegas jail. “Thats she i stopped the thinking of killing myself”, she says. “OK i did this to myself… Now its like, what can i do to help others? That’s my motivation now.”
Sandeep Kaur was incarcerated in the state of California when she was 24 in 2015. She is still in prison and will be eligible for release post 2020. She vows to help others in similar situations once she’s out.
On 15 September 2017, a Bollywood film ‘Simran’ directed by Hansal Mehta, loosely based on Sandeep Kaur’s life opened to mixed reviews and a lukewarm response at the box office. However, Bollywood superstar, Kangana Ranaut who essayed the character of Kaur got rave reviews for her performance.