In Virginia’s Fairfax County, Robbing Banks for the CIA

From Bloomberg Businessweek by Tom Schoenberg, April 18, 2013

In a white-walled interrogation room in a small Virginia police station last June, two detectives were trying to get Herson Torres to crack. Surveillance video tied him to two attempted bank robberies in the area during the past week. The skinny 21-year-old didn’t have a criminal record and seemed nervous, but he wasn’t talking. The detectives showed him pictures of his brother and father. They told Torres he could be sent to prison for as many as 25 years.

H. Torres

H. Torres

“If I tell you, you’re not going to believe me,” Torres said. He was crying as he told them an incredible story about being recruited by the Defense Intelligence Agency to participate in a secret operation testing the security of Washington-area banks. He said he’d been assigned to rob a half-dozen banks over four days. And he told them about Theo, the man who hired him and gave all the orders—even though Torres had never met him.

Angry, his interrogators accused him of making up a ridiculous story. Still, Torres persuaded them to look at the text and e-mail messages on his cell phone; he also gave them the password to his Facebook account and urged them to retrieve a copy of the Defense Intelligence Agency immunity letter from his glove compartment. The police locked up Torres on a charge of attempted robbery and examined the evidence. By the end of the night, they weren’t sure what was going on, but they suspected Torres might be telling the truth.

Torres’s unlikely entry into the covert world of retail bank security testing had begun seven days earlier, he said. He had returned home from unloading trucks at Target when his phone lit up with a text message from an old friend. “Hey, I got this job for you where you’re going to get paid 25K,” Carolina Villegas wrote. “Doing what?” Torres asked. “Robbing banks,” she texted.

Torres started laughing. “Is this a joke?” he wondered. Soon Villegas was on the phone explaining that it was a government job. And it was legal.

The thought of making $25,000 was seductive to Torres, who was earning $11 an hour at Target. Since graduating from high school in 2008, Torres, who goes by the nickname Geo, hadn’t changed much. He spent most of his time hanging out with friends, collecting Batman comic books, and working part-time jobs. Twenty-five thousand dollars would be enough to start community college and move out of his parents’ house.

In Virginia's Fairfax County, Robbing Banks for the CIA

Photograph by Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

Three hours after talking to Villegas, Torres was climbing into her gray Jeep Cherokee in a Dick’s Sporting Goods parking lot in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va. He hadn’t seen her since high school, though the two had been chatting on Facebook recently. Villegas was a supply specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve and also worked as a cashier at a Carter’s baby clothing store, according to Torres, police, and the military. (Villegas declined to comment for this story.) When Torres arrived, Villegas was talking on her phone while writing down text messages. She was wearing a black glove on her right hand. Her Army fatigues and combat boots were in the back seat.

Villegas introduced Torres to the man on the phone, Theo. He didn’t offer a last name. Theo said he worked for the government and was recruiting Torres to test the defenses of Washington-area banks. The plan was simple: Theo would tell him which bank to target, and Torres would give a manager a note demanding money. Armed security officers, threats to call the police, or a wait that exceeded five minutes would be cause to flee. If he left with money, he’d be paid $25,000. Successful or not, he was guaranteed $2,500 for taking part. Torres would deliver any money recovered to a location near Richmond. If arrested, Torres should stay silent. Federal authorities would get him out in 24 hours.

“Is this real?” Torres asked. Theo was reassuring: The entire operation was government-approved. Torres was even vetted before being approached, Theo said, mentioning a misdemeanor theft charge against Torres for stealing from a J.C. Penney store when he was 15.

Torres said he was in. To his surprise, the operation started immediately. He put on the hooded sweatshirt Villegas had asked him to bring, and she drove him to a strip mall three miles away. The hoodie would hide his face and cover the ambigram-style “Breathe Music” tattoo on his forearm.

Torres was sweating as he entered the SunTrust branch in Alexandria, Va. As Theo instructed, Torres wore a single black glove to avoid leaving fingerprints. Keeping his head down, he handed the manager the note: “I need your help. I need money. My family is being held hostage and a bomb will go off at 4:30 if you don’t help. Don’t call the police or the FBI.”

When the manager said the only way he could help was by alerting the police, Torres hurried out. Villegas was in her car with Theo’s next assignment: a Capital One branch five miles away.

After concluding Torres was serious, the manager there asked him to wait a few minutes. Torres watched as the manager herded the other employees behind the teller window. Realizing things weren’t going according to plan, he sprinted through the parking lot to where Villegas was waiting.

“I think he called the feds. We’ve got to bounce,” Torres said. Theo was listening—Villegas had him on speakerphone. He ordered them to proceed to the next bank. As they drove away, police cars sped by in the opposite direction. A helicopter buzzed in the distance.

“Go hide out. I’ll get the helicopter off your back,” Theo said calmly. While keeping Torres and Villegas on the line, he called the Fairfax County police to lead them astray, saying he’d seen the robbery suspect get into a gray Ford Focus. Theo then ordered Villegas and Torres to hide in parking garages for the rest of the day; several hours later he told them they were cleared to go home.

Hearing Theo lie to the Fairfax County police gave Torres pause. “Is this really happening? Is this what’s going down?” he wondered. But he had to admit that the day was fun: “Something about it—I went in, I came out, I was running. It felt good.”

That night, Villegas called Torres with instructions from Theo: More banks tomorrow. Bring friends. Torres was scheduled to work, but Villegas said it wasn’t a problem: Theo would take care of it. After a call to Target and a faxed doctor’s note, Torres was free to focus on his new job.

When Torres tried to recruit some friends and his brother for the mission, no one believed him—until Villegas gave him the letter from Theo. The document, on Defense Intelligence Agency stationery, explained that the agency was conducting “Operation Downstrike” with the help of “civilian volunteers” who “will be immune from civil and criminal action.” The letter helped persuade Torres’s brother-in-law to join Villegas and Torres on Wednesday to attempt more robberies. Torres stashed a copy of the letter in his glove compartment.

As the three drove from bank to bank along the Capital Beltway, Theo was on the phone giving a critique of the previous day. He said Torres had left fingerprints on the Capital One door and the branch had captured his picture. “Don’t worry,” Theo said. “I’m going to fix that.” Theo said he was looking into getting the men government-impounded cars to use for the bank jobs. He also said he might be able to find Torres a permanent government job.

Neither of the two robbery attempts on Wednesday succeeded. Theo called Torres that night and said Villegas wouldn’t be available the rest of the week, though the operation needed to continue with additional operatives.

The following day, Torres and his brother-in-law entered a BB&T bank in Alexandria. It was packed, so the pair quickly left without making an attempt.

On Friday, Torres made what would be his last—and worst—attempt. He, a cousin, a friend, and his brother-in-law tried to rob the same BB&T branch. It was again busy.

While Torres waited in his Honda Civic, the other three entered the bank unarmed. Mayie Libby, a BB&T account manager, knew right away the men were robbers—and inexperienced ones. They wore baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts despite the 85F weather. They demanded money but hadn’t brought a bag. As Libby went behind the counter for money—and a bag—two of the men fled, diving into the waiting Civic. Torres was on the phone with Theo as police cars screamed into the parking lot. “Theo, I don’t know where these cops are coming from. I need a getaway,” Torres said. Theo told him he was looking up safe houses, but Torres didn’t wait. He sped home, leaving his cousin inside the bank to be questioned by police.

Friday night a detective called Torres. He hung up and called Theo, who told him to hide out. Torres fled to a friend’s house. A few hours later, Theo sent him a text message: “You’re in the clear.” Tuesday evening police entered Torres’s home and, mistaking the remote control in his hand for a gun, drew their weapons and brought him in.

Six hours after Torres was arrested, Detective John Vickery of the Fairfax County police got a call on his cell phone from an unfamiliar number with an Oregon area code. It was Theo. “Where is he? What have you done with him?” he demanded. “You can’t make people disappear—only we can.”

Theo told Vickery he was a federal agent working with the Central Intelligence Agency. He requested a meeting with Vickery and his supervisors, whose names he knew, promising to explain the operation. He used law enforcement terminology and familiar acronyms and appeared to understand security clearances. But his demands for the meeting, such as not wanting to go through the police department’s metal detector, didn’t make sense to Vickery, a 20-year veteran of the force. “When we do deal with the CIA, we usually go to them,” he said. “We didn’t know whether we were dealing with a federal agent or a nut.”

Theo started calling Washington-area lawyers asking them to defend Torres. He told criminal defense attorneys David Dischley and Michael Robinson that he worked for the CIA’s national resources division, which recruits citizens and foreigners to assist the U.S. abroad. He explained that Torres had been arrested during a government training operation gone bad. Torres, he said, was being tested for an eventual mission in El Salvador to infiltrate the criminal gang MS-13. Theo offered Dischley and Robinson $45,000 in cash to take the case.

The lawyers asked Theo why his agency couldn’t use its own authority to get Torres out of jail. Theo said the CIA wasn’t allowed to conduct operations in the U.S. “Everything I asked, he had an answer for,” Robinson said. Dischley, an ex-Marine who said he has an intelligence background, said the whole thing sounded absurd, “but the logic behind it made a little bit of sense.” And the CIA lingo “just rattled off his tongue.” Still, the lawyers asked for proof. Theo e-mailed the same DIA document that he’d sent Torres. They took the case.

The lawyers had trouble pinning down Theo for the money. He failed to show up at Robinson’s office and a planned meeting at a Red Robin hamburger restaurant. At Fairfax County police headquarters, Theo was a no-show for the meeting Vickery assembled with his boss and Torres’s defense team. He would instead meet investigators at the courthouse during Torres’s arraignment hearing on June 15, he said; he’d be wearing an American flag pin on his black suit.

José Torres, Geo’s 25-year-old brother, was also looking for Theo at the courthouse that day. Since his brother’s arrest, José had been speaking frequently with Theo, who assured José he had everything under control. During some of those calls, José remained on the line, listening while Theo called the police, judges, and even members of Congress seeking information on the case or to rant about Torres’s arrest. As José looked around for Theo that morning, he instead ran into Dischley and Vickery—both of whom had become more suspicious of Theo in recent days. The three had a lot to talk about. “I want to know what the f-‍-‍- is going on because this is weird,” José demanded. After comparing notes, Vickery helped arrange Torres’s release on bail while he continued his investigation.

Later that day, Vickery took Villegas out for pizza. She tried to stay silent at first but finally opened up: She had met Theo that spring through the website, which offers “direct dating between sugar babys, sugar daddies gay or anyone else who likes dating online for free.” Within days the two were talking on the phone and texting regularly, and Theo had convinced her he was a military intelligence officer running Operation Downstrike. If she succeeded in recruiting others to join the mission, he said, she could get a government job. If she refused, he threatened to put her fiancé on the no-fly list and “cause issues” for her mother and grandmother, according to court documents. Villegas had believed him, although she had never met him in person, but now she was beginning to waver. She gave Theo’s cell phone number to Vickery.

Theo had used an Internet program to conceal his number—the number Torres, police, and lawyers had was not his real one—but Villegas had figured a way around it. Investigators quickly traced the number to a 26-year-old named Joshua Brady living in Matoaca, Va., a quiet town of 2,400 more than 100 miles south of Washington.

Brady was sleeping on Aug. 17 when federal agents entered the dingy ranch-style home he shared with his mother, grandmother, and 10-year-old brother. Investigators seized computers and found several books about the CIA. Prosecutors charged Brady with impersonating a government official and three counts of attempted bank robbery. Each crime carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

With crooked teeth and an acned face, Brady doesn’t look like a confidence man. Yet his voice—mild, almost monotonous, with a hint of Virginia drawl—conveys professionalism, experience, and sincerity. In an October 2012 jailhouse interview, Brady appeared calm, insisting he was an intelligence agent. He claimed he was being penalized for trying to blow the whistle on the CIA for letting Torres take the fall. “This was not the kind of operation I wanted to work on,” he said from behind a glass partition in the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va.

Brady said he ran an information technology consultancy from home, “keeping you free from hackers.” As a boy, he said he suffered from a digestive tract disorder and was bullied in high school, which he left at 16, earning his diploma online. Brady was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He claims he joined the CIA before turning 20, providing “technical services” and training civilians. “I can’t go into great detail on initial contact or my background,” he said.

The purpose of Operation Downstrike, he said, was to train Torres for clandestine work. “When they pull the alarm, then you have a short time to get out of there,” he said. “You need to be able to escape, and that’s going to be stressful. If you crack under stress, then you’re useless to the agency.”

The rules of the operation dictated no weapons, according to Brady. Stolen money was to be turned over to the government. Brady refused to identify anyone else involved in the operation, saying disclosure was barred by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Documents on his encrypted hard drive—seized by the government—could prove all of this, he insisted. Other operations would follow, he said. “This is real.”

According to federal prosecutors, Brady was awaiting trial for using a forged federal judge’s signature at the time of his arrest. In the past, Brady had posed as a computer security consultant, a hacker, and a University of Virginia law student, federal prosecutors said in court papers. Court filings in Virginia sketch a repeat offender whose father was in and out of prison. Since 2005, Brady had been accused of posing as an entrepreneur seeking multimillion-dollar deals for computer hardware, stealing $1,100 from a woman to whom he promised an Xbox 360, and writing bad checks. In the past seven years he was charged in three criminal cases: He was found guilty in one, pled no contest in another, and pled guilty in the third. He was released in 2012 after a year in prison for violating the terms of his sentence in the Xbox case.

Dan Christman, who works at a general store about a mile from Brady’s home, said he used to spend a lot of time with Brady playing EverQuest, an online game involving wizards, warriors, and dragons. About eight years ago Brady was caught by game administrators stealing virtual money, Christman said. “Josh is a really smart guy,” Christman said. “He has a lot of energy in that department but nowhere to funnel it.”

After Brady’s arrest, some of his Operation Downstrike tricks were revealed. The letter that Brady sent Villegas and the defense lawyers bore a close resemblance to one posted on a fired CIA agent’s blog. Vickery’s cell phone number is available on the Internet.

Neither Villegas nor any of the other robbery participants were ever charged. In October state prosecutors dropped the case against Torres without explanation. Vickery said it was because police were convinced Torres was tricked. The CIA and federal prosecutors in Virginia declined to comment. Torres agreed to be called as a witness against Brady, though he may not get to testify. On Jan. 29, Brady reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. Under the agreement, he pled guilty to one count of using a forged federal judge’s signature. The government agreed in exchange to drop the bank robbery and impersonation charges. His lawyers argued he suffered from mental illnesses that made him unable to form the intent to commit the crimes he was charged with. Brady has PTSD, paranoid schizophrenia, and schizotypal personality disorder, according to the doctor hired by his lawyers. After conducting an additional mental exam, the government’s doctor diagnosed Brady with a delusional disorder that could have posed problems during the bank robbery trial.

Brady could have faced up to five years in prison for forgery, but the government is recommending he be sentenced instead to three years of supervision in his mother’s home. He’s agreed to seek mental health treatment, and he’s back in Matoaca. He may even get his seized computers and the encrypted Operation Downstrike documents back.


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