Image: Justin Wood

MONDAY, AUGUST 7, 2006, 5:15 p.m. The end of a punishing hot afternoon on South Tacoma Way, a four-lane boulevard flanked by car dealerships and payday-loan shops. Inside Bank of America, a squat 1960s building with faux granite siding and floor-to-ceiling windows squeezed between the Budget Signs and Car Trek II used auto lot, teller Jessicah Stotts was about to hand four 20s to a customer when she heard a scream and looked up to see a masked figure leaping over the bandit barrier, the eight-foot glass wall separating the tellers from customers, and into the teller pit.

Stotts and the other tellers scrambled to the other end of the pit and tumbled into a heap. Across the lobby two more men, their faces also hidden behind balaclava masks, stood guard at the entrances, machine guns drawn, while a fourth, pistol in hand, made for the vault. “Get up,” the gunman in the pit ordered. The women froze. Stotts, near the top of the pile, a pair of teller’s legs across her waist, shot a glance at his eyes. The bluest she’d ever seen. Did she know him? Hadn’t he been in before?

He lifted a pistol and projected a tiny red bead onto each teller; the laser sight on his Glock forecasting the exact point a 9-millimeter bullet would enter their bodies. “I said, Get up.”

The most sophisticated bank robbery in recent Washington State history—one the FBI would later describe as executed with “military-style precision and planning”—was a heist weeks in the making. The blue-eyed leader had cased the place for days. And he and his coconspirators, most members of an elite military squad based at Fort Lewis, had rehearsed each of the 99 seconds they spent in the bank. They carried enough weaponry, according to prosecutors, to create “a bloodbath in the streets of Tacoma.” But if you take the ringleader’s word for it, the seeds of the crime were sewn in the blood-soaked sands of Iraq and Afghanistan.


FBI special agent Monte Shaide arrived at 5813 South Tacoma Way a little after 5:30. The parking lot was already crowded with Tacoma’s white Crown Victoria police cars. In his eight years with the FBI’s Pierce County Violent Crimes Task Force, Shaide had investigated nearly 400 bank robberies. Most were easy to solve. The majority of the roughly 50 bank jobs each year are quests for a quick fix—twitchy junkies in over their heads, passing scribbled demand notes to tellers, slinking out of the bank and to their dealer, then settling into a hotel room to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The police simply canvass area hotels and nab the perp.

Right away, Shaide knew this one was different. Four young men, maybe aged 19 to 21, two with rifles, two with pistols. “A takeover robbery,” Shaide thought. Then Shaide, who’d also spent eight years as a SWAT team operator, reviewed the security video. “These guys were definitely using a close-quarter battle tactic— CQB,” he explained later. “Two did a great job in their sector, which is their AOR—area of responsibility—as the other two went in,” one to the vault, the other to the teller pit. Who could’ve pulled off such a perfectly orchestrated crime? He marveled at one move in particular: The robber flying onto the counter, grabbing the top of the eight-foot bandit barrier with one hand, and vaulting himself over to the other side. “The most athletic move I’ve ever seen in a bank. Period.”

 

From the MySpace pages of Chad Palmer.

Luke Elliott Sommer, born in Kelowna, BC, and raised in nearby Peachland, goes by his middle name. The oldest of seven children, Elliott has been described by his mother, Christel Davidsen, herself a lieutenant in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves, as “a challenge.” Letters she and other family members would eventually submit to a federal judge describe him as compassionate and intelligent but unfocused. He once designed a videogame that attracted interest from a top game company. Then, without warning, he dropped the whole enterprise. He had a tendency to overachieve, but because he told fantastical tales about his exploits his mother found it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

He also had a talent for getting others to do his bidding. Once when the family was vacationing at a Fairmont Hotel, 16-year-old Elliott talked about how he was training to be a Navy Seal, and to qualify he needed to swim two and a half lengths of the pool underwater with only one breath. He tried and was only able to complete two lengths. He told his 11-year-old sister Karis that if she wanted to outswim him, she’d have to swim two and a half. “Swim until you can’t swim anymore,” he instructed. She swam the two and a half lengths and passed out, sinking to the bottom of the pool like a duffle bag of kittens. She was on the verge of drowning before her challenger noticed. Elliott pulled his sister up to the surface and revived her.

They carried enough weaponry to create “a bloodbath in the streets of Tacoma.”

When a friend’s car ran over one of the family’s puppies—the runt, Elliott’s favorite—the teenager took command. The dog lay on the ground, still alive, whimpering in an expanding pool of blood. Elliott rushed over, and, according to a letter Karis wrote years later, “quickly put it out of its misery and then sat down and cried like a baby. He buried it in our backyard.”

On June 26, 2003, his 17th birthday, Sommer, who holds dual citizenship because his father was born in the U.S., made the four-hour trip from Peachland to Bellingham, Washington, and enlisted in the U.S. Army. But he didn’t want to be just any soldier. He wanted to be a Ranger. An elite group of Special Forces soldiers trained to jump out of planes, kill enemies before they know what hits them, and fend off starvation in the harshest environments on earth, Rangers carry out some of the most dangerous missions in the military, including, most famously, the Battle of Mogadishu, the 1993 firefight against Somali warlords depicted in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, one of Sommer’s favorite books.

After basic training, Airborne School, and Ranger Indoctrination Program, Sommer landed in Iraq in June 2004. Six days into his tour, he says, his disenchantment with the military began. “We get this notification that [Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi is on this place,” he would recall two and half years later, sitting in a dark basement, under house arrest.

“I didn’t know the SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] and I’d probably end up getting shot in the face. So I stayed behind…and was like vacuuming and shit—and these guys are out chasing Zarqawi. So Sergeant First Class Martin’s like, ‘Hey Sommer, roll down to building nine and do detainee guard with two of the guys from the [battle-field interrogation] team.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, roger.’ So I rip down there and ended up watching over five, six women…while two guys were interrogating this dude. So the next thing you know they come dragging this motherfucker out of the building, they pop him in the face like hard as fuck; dude’s bleeding everywhere. And then they started speaking to this woman I was guarding in like rapid-fire Arabic.” As Sommer tells it, the soldiers then dragged the woman to the back of an 18-wheel truck trailer and raped her.

 

Luke Elliott Sommer’s arsenal.

It wasn’t the last war crime he says he witnessed. He claims that a year later, while on guard duty at the Tactical Operations Center at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, he overheard commanders communicating via radio with Navy Seal operators in the Hindu Kush mountains on a mission gone wrong.

“Guy comes in the door on an operation and a 16-, 17-year-old kid’s defending his house, whips out an AK and blasts him,” Sommer explained. “Guy dies. [The Seals] bind everybody up with these zip ties, these little plastic restraints. Then, one of the Seals takes out his handgun and just starts fucking icing people. Because this guy is obviously a close friend of his.” Sommer claims he later saw video of Rangers dragging victims from the location bound in the zip ties, which he took as confirmation that defenseless people had been murdered.

Sommer would hand his fellow Rangers a gun and tell them to hold the muzzle to their temple and pull the trigger.

In September 2005, when Sommer returned to Fort Lewis from Afghanistan, he called his mother. His tone worried her. She told a Canadian officer that she was concerned about her son’s emotional and mental state. The officer phoned Sommer’s sergeant. Sommer called home the next day, angry. His sergeant had given him a dressing down after his “mommy” called.

But Sommer pressed on. He enrolled in Ranger School, designed to augment a Ranger’s training and pave the way for a leadership role. The grueling 61-day program pushes candidates to the brink. Marching 20 to 30 miles a day through Georgia woods, carrying 200 pounds of gear, Sommer lost 43 pounds. He ate one meal a day, if at all, but his mind was being fed the secrets of modern warfare, namely devising an operations order—a plan of attack, which, in the era of urban conflicts such as the war in Iraq, means overtaking buildings. “Take 40 grown men that are already alpha males,” Sommer explained, “take away their sleep and their food, and then put one person in charge of all of them…by the end, dude, you would not want to fuck with that platoon, because that platoon at the end of Ranger School could kill anyone and do anything.”


Fort Lewis, the sprawling military post south of Tacoma—one of the largest in the U.S.—is home base to more than 30,000 soldiers, many on heavy rotation in and out of deployments in the Middle East. The base has been the focus of dozens of criminal cases since conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began. The past two years alone have seen more than 20 soldier-related felonies splashed in the headlines. The two soldiers who robbed University of Washington students at gunpoint. The Iraq war vet who waged a meth-fueled burglary spree. The vet convicted of cracking the skull of his two-month-old daughter. The staff sergeant charged with kidnapping, raping, and torturing a Tacoma prostitute. Most of these perpetrators have seen combat, and at least one—the burglar—has cited post-traumatic stress disorder as a factor leading to his crime.

While the horrors of war may take a toll on soldiers, the training they get may have greater consequences for the public. Says the FBI’s Monte Shaide: “A lot of these young kids are getting trained in close-quarter battle…to dominate a house, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or any type of facility that they’re entering, where in Vietnam it was all jungle warfare, so the tactics are different.” That is especially true, says Shaide, of soldiers with Special Forces training.

 

Surveillance footage from the robbery.

Because he now wore a tab on his uniform signifying completion of Ranger School, Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer enjoyed new respect at Fort Lewis, especially among younger Rangers who’d yet to ship out to Iraq. One Ranger showed particular devotion. Nineteen-year-old Alex Blum, son of a wealthy Denver real estate broker, enraptured by his grandfather’s stories of World War II, had had his heart set on military service since he was five years old. He was determined to be a Ranger, even after his father tried to dissuade him with a yearlong, all-expense-paid trip to Europe. At Fort Lewis he was the rich kid, darting around in a silver 2001 Audi A4.

 

Sommer’s mind was being fed the secrets of modern warfare—devising plans of attack, which, in the era of urban conflicts, means overtaking buildings.

One day Sommer accompanied Alex Blum and his father, Norm, for a walk along a traffic-filled avenue near base. Suddenly, Sommer directed Blum to do push-ups in the street. Without hesitation Blum strode into the middle of the boulevard, dropped to the ground, and began his push-ups. Sommer followed him into the street and put out his palm like a traffic cop, stopping a line of cars waiting for Blum to finish his calisthenics.

Sommer pushed his authority further with a game he called Suicide Check. He would hand Blum and other Rangers a gun and tell them to hold the muzzle to their temple and pull the trigger. Blum did so without reservation, certain that Sommer would never ask him to pull the trigger if the gun was loaded.

Sommer bagged a $20,000 reenlistment bonus in May 2006. A lot of soldiers throw that windfall at a new car. Sommer bought an arsenal: a shotgun, four rifles, five handguns, and five grenades.

Bored while waiting to be deployed, Sommer and his buddies in Ranger barracks building 3475, including Blum and Chad Palmer, a 21-year-old Ranger from Chesapeake, Virginia, spun fantasies late into the night about applying their training to American civilian settings. Bank heists, casino jobs—the stuff of Jason Statham flicks. Sommer kept pushing these ideas further and further, until the next thing anyone knew, he and a few other Rangers were pulling reconnaissance on the nearby Chips Casino, determining its security weaknesses.

Sommer began sharing the fantasy with friends back in Canada, 20-year-old Tigra Robertson, a member of the Canadian military reserves, and 18-year-old Nathan Dunmall, a civilian. Sommer spelled out the plan to Robertson via text message. In a July 30, 2006, exchange:

Sommer: were going to hit this casino, and we have a solid plan
Sommer: we have a driver two rangers and you two
Sommer: so I hope your ready to fucking rock and roll
Robertson: fuck yeah
Sommer: chance it might go north hollywood so I really hope your in the mood

 

Sommer’s mug shot.

"Go North Hollywood,” was a reference to the 1997 shootout in North Hollywood, California, in which two heavily armed bank robbers, sheathed in body armor, blasted away at the LAPD for nearly 45 minutes, injuring 10 officers and seven civilians. A SWAT team eventually killed the two bandits.

Sommer and Robertson also texted plans for using the proceeds from the casino heist to start a crime family to take on the Hell’s Angels, who they believed ran the drug trade in Kelowna.

Then Sommer, in a capricious moment that only his mother could likely explain, talked himself out of the casino plot and into another: Bank of America, the same financial institution in the North Hollywood shootout. There was a branch two miles north of the base.

Alex Blum drove Sommer to the bank on Thursday, August 3, 2006, for what the two Rangers referred to as “close tactical recon.” Sommer scoped his target, where he had a checking account. At the teller counter he withdrew $50 and surreptitiously used his ATM card to measure the thickness of the bandit barrier’s bulletproof glass. To buy more recon time, he faked concern about his account activity and asked the teller for a printout of his account history. While the five-foot, five-inch teller with curly brown hair, brown eyes, and dramatic brows like lines in a Picasso headed for the printer on the other side of the lobby, he surveyed the room. And then he spotted it, the chink in the bank’s armor: a two-foot space between the top of the bandit barrier and the ceiling.

Back at the barracks he mapped out distances to and from the bank using Google Earth and spent hours studying news articles about robberies, learning from the mistakes of less-careful schemers. By Sunday, August 6, Robertson and Dunmall had arrived by bus from Canada. Sommer led them, along with Ranger Chad Palmer, to Noble Hill, the 400-foot mountain that rises behind the Ranger barracks and is used as a training ground for soldiers.

He laid out sandbags and stuck sticks into the dirt to mark the bank’s floor plan and the building’s exact distance from the alley where Blum, who’d agreed to be the driver, would park his car. Then the four men ran the distance in full gear—armor, weapons. A dress rehearsal.

“The fastest person and the slowest person—we averaged their speed,” Sommer would later recall. “So then we calculated how much time it would take for us to secure the bank”—before anyone had a chance to set off the alarm. “We calculated that to be 4.3 seconds.” The crew decided to set a time limit on the robbery: one minute, 30 seconds—enough to pull off the heist before the cops showed.

They rehearsed every step again and again. Who would stand where and for how long. Sommer’s squad was ready for tomorrow’s mission. But one last thing: Nathan Dunmall, the only member of the crew without military training, had never held an AK-47, a fully automatic rifle capable of spraying 600 rounds a minute. Sommer walked Dunmall through the weapon’s features, and, without actually pulling the trigger, showed him how to fire it.

 

 

From the MySpace pages of Tigra Robertson.

Nineteen-year-old Jessicah Stotts woke up long before her alarm clock blared on Monday morning. Lying in bed in her parents’ Puyallup home, she mulled her choices: sleep in or get to work early. She loved working at Bank of America. Since taking the job in April—her first “big girl job”—she’d grown to love her coworkers, her bosses, and even her customers, many of whom she knew on a first-name basis. Four months into the job she was already handling merchant accounts and big cash deposits from nearby businesses, and was poised to become a senior teller.

Why not go in early, she thought lying in bed, and get my drawer in order before the bank opens? In no time she was up and out the door—didn’t even take the extra time to flat-iron her curly brown hair, as she usually did. She rolled down Route 512 for the 15-mile drive to the bank. Then, Starbucks in hand, she took her spot at teller window number five and counted out the cash for her shift.

Sommer, Palmer, Robertson, and Dunmall loaded the trunk of Blum’s Audi with the weapons, armor, gloves, and masks. The five men crammed into the car. Once they cleared the base Robertson, sitting in the back, turned around and dragged the equipment out of the trunk via the pull-forward seat. They crawled into their body armor and pulled on sweatshirts to cover it. Gloves on, Robertson distributed the weapons: The two AK-47s for Palmer and Dunmall, a Glock 9-millimeter with a laser scope for Sommer, and a Springfield 9-millimeter for himself. Dunmall slung a bag filled with several hundred rounds of AK-47 ammunition over his shoulder.

Blum weaved the silver car through rush-hour traffic, up South Puget Sound Avenue, and into the alley. The men spilled out of the car, pulling on masks as they ripped toward the bank at a full sprint. A black truck turned down the alleyway. Sommer thought quick: Distract the driver. He jumped onto the truck hood, looked the driver right in the eyes, and rolled off. The truck, Sommer recalls, jerked into reverse, “tires screeching.”

Bolting toward the bank, Sommer spotted another potential witness. “This really, really sweet old lady and her husband are sitting in the ATM drive-through, going through the fucking ATM drive-through, right, and I waved to them while I’m running in the door and the lady gives me this weird look and waves back. Okay, so that was like ridiculous. So I run inside.”

Nathan Dunmall and Chad Palmer had already taken their positions at the east and west entrances, AK-47s drawn. Sommer hurdled over the bandit barrier and into the pit, where the five tellers tumbled into a heap, refusing to budge until he trained the Glock’s laser on them. Stotts watched the red dot bob up and down her chest. The pile broke apart, atomized into bodies that rose from the floor to do Specialist Sommer’s bidding.

He lifted the empty ammo bag. “If this bag isn’t full by the time I’m done counting down, I’m going to waste all of you.” 30, 29, 28… But he had rules: “I don’t want any dye packs, I don’t want any serialized bills. Just give me all the loose cash you have in your drawers. Don’t touch the alarm. I’m watching all of you.” 27, 26, 25…

“These girls just are like, How the hell does he know all this?” Sommer said later. He locked eyes with Stotts and recognized her as the teller who had assisted him four days earlier. “And she’s like, Holy fucking shit. She recognized me by my eyes, because I have really, really light blue eyes, and my voice.” Bills flew everywhere, much of it floating to the floor like confetti in a ticker tape parade as the tellers ransacked their drawers and practically threw cash at Sommer to beat his clock. 21, 20, 19…

Outside the teller pit, as eight or so customers crouched on the ground, Palmer, at the west door, ticked off the seconds on his stopwatch (“One minute left”). Robertson ordered the floor manager to open the vault. She needed the help of another nearby employee; each had separate parts of the code to open the lock. Robertson herded the women back to the vault. Inside sat nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Robertson realized he didn’t have a bag to put the money in—a hole in Sommer’s plan—and stepped away to find one, leaving the women inside the vault.

Back in the pit, Sommer prodded the tellers. 14, 13, 12… One told him it was her first day and that she was terrified. Sommer put his hand on her shoulder and, as he recalls it, said, “Look, these girls have gone through this training before, they’re professionals, they know what they’re doing, just go outside, but the guy at the door’s going to watch you so don’t go anywhere, but just take a breather.” And once she had emptied her drawer he let her leave the teller pit. 8, 7, 6…

Sommer commanded the remaining tellers to empty the bus, the cash-on-wheels cart where they keep their reserve money. Stotts stuck her key in her bus drawer just as Palmer called the time’s-up: “Let’s go.” Bagless and frustrated that he hadn’t scored anything from the vault, Robertson yelled, “We need the rest of the money; we got to get the money!” “Forget the money,” Sommer ordered, “let’s take what we’ve got.”

He stepped out onto the floor, patted the top of his head, signaling a head count to make sure everyone was ready, and they all charged out the door. Then Sommer stopped, turned around, and addressed everyone in the bank: “Sorry for the inconvenience. I hope you all have a nice day.”

The Audi was gone. After the men left his car, Blum had spotted a woman—possibly the same woman Sommer waved at—sitting in her car, face twisted in horror at the sight of four gunmen charging the bank. He waited a minute, but couldn’t get the look on her face out of his head, and drove away. As he rolled down the street he spotted the robbers, disoriented, looking for their getaway car. Blum turned around and they climbed in.

The mood in the car was charged with adrenaline. Sommer dug into the money bag and showed off the loot, much of it $2,000 stacks wrapped in purple and white money bands. $54,011 in all.

Blum dropped Palmer, Robertson, and Dunmall off at a movie theater, where they laid low in a darkened theater eating popcorn and watching a horror flick. Then Blum and Sommer wheeled back to base and heaved the gear into Sommer’s room. That night Palmer caught a flight home to Virginia; Blum flew home to Denver the next morning. Sommer, Robertson, and Dunmall bused it back to Canada.

Back at the bank, a witness came forward. He had seen the bandits jump in and out of the Audi, and written down the license number: Colorado plate number 420NNA, registered to Norm and Alex Blum of Greenwood Village, a Denver suburb. Reviewing the close-quarter battle tactics on the security video, Monte Shaide suspected a military connection. He drove to Fort Lewis the next day and asked the provost martial if a Norm or Alex Blum was a soldier there. The inquiry brought him to barracks building 3475. Most of the Rangers had cleared out for a two-week leave, but Shaide pressed a few stragglers, who admitted to seeing Blum, Palmer, and Sommer with large amounts of cash the night before.

One by one, the robbers got picked up by authorities. The FBI nabbed Alex Blum in Denver. Chad Palmer, in full dress uniform, and his family were leaving their house in Chesapeake for family pictures when a SWAT team swarmed. Nathan Dunmall was arrested in BC. Robertson surrendered at the Peace Arch at the Canadian-American border in Blaine. As for Sommer in Peachland: “My fucking dad turned me in.”

 

In the late summer of 2006, the North Fraser Pre-trial Centre in Port Coquitlam, BC, was home to some of Canada’s most notorious criminals: Robert Pickton, the pig farmer who confessed to murdering 49 prostitutes and feeding their remains to swine; Marxist intellectual Rakesh Saxena, wanted by the Thai government for embezzling up to $2.2 billion; and Luke Elliott Sommer, whose Tacoma bank caper had caught the attention of media all over the U.S. and Canada. Sommer found a kindred spirit in Saxena, a man who used his mind like a weapon.

Released after a few weeks and placed under house arrest at his mother’s home, Sommer fought extradition to the U.S. For that battle he deployed his full arsenal of charisma, spinning his tale on the phone to any journalist bold enough to track him down. He came just short of admitting to the robbery and outlined the reasons he did it—if he did it. Hunkered down in his mother’s basement, he spoke of the atrocities he claimed to have witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pulled the bank heist, he said, to grab media attention and expose the U.S. military’s wrongdoing overseas. Seattle Weekly, The Seattle Times, The Vancouver Sun—all gave Sommer a forum for his agenda. He spoke to Seattle Metropolitan on two occasions in February 2007, once after a long night of drinking vodka with friends. Listeners of NPR’s All Things Considered heard Sommer talk about how guns—;including those used in the heist#&8212;are being smuggled into the United States by its own soldiers.

Meanwhile the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division conducted an investigation into Sommer’s war crime allegations. The rape of the Iraqi woman in the back of the 18-wheel truck trailer? Bogus, said CID—there were no trailers or female detainees at that time at the site in question. The Navy Seal assassination of defenseless Afghans? Impossible, investigators charged, because no such mission ever occurred.

Then, one morning in June, Sommer vanished, leaving a note in the basement addressed to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detailing a penny stock scam he’d been conducting with his old prison mate Rakesh Saxena. And he wrote: “If you’re wondering whether I am a danger to the public or not, rest assured, I have no intention of doing anything that will put people at risk, and if you find me, I will go quietly.”

The RCMP got a tip that Sommer had made a call from a phone booth near an Ikea in a Vancouver suburb. On July 19, 2007, a stakeout crew spotted a man who could pass for Sommer approaching the booth, only this person was fatter. In the nine months Sommer lived at his mother’s house his Ranger muscles had softened and he’d gained 90 pounds. True to his word, he gave himself up without incident.

He spent nearly a year at North Fraser Pre-trial Centre before pleading guilty to the robbery and agreeing to end his fight against extradition. In May 2008 he was transported to SeaTac Federal Detention Center. The rest of his crew pleaded guilty, too. All fingered Sommer as the mastermind behind the crime, which shaved years off their own prison sentences: Nathan Dunmall received 10 years; Tigra Robertson, 12 and a half years, Chad Palmer, 11; and Alex Blum, for his role as the driver, spent 16 months at the SeaTac detention center.

By the time Sommer reached his sentencing hearing in December 2008, he’d shed his claims of witnessing war crimes. Instead, to win leniency from the judge, his lawyers focused on a new development. Sommer had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. His father, Luke Sommer Sr., came forward with a story about an incident that had haunted him for almost a decade. When Elliott was 13 or 14, his mother emerged from Elliott’s bedroom, a haunted look in her eyes. Their son was in there, she told Luke senior, and he was hearing voices.

In a letter to the judge, Christel Davidsen wrote of her son, “I really don’t believe he ever intended to hurt anyone. I believe that he was following one of his grand ideas, and for the first time it didn’t get stopped in his mind.”

The explanation held little sway over the Honorable Franklin D. Burgess, who sentenced the former Ranger to 24 years in prison. He will likely be there much longer. Luke Elliott Sommer had at least one more meticulous plan in him.

On a Friday afternoon in January 2009, SeaTac Federal Detention Center inmate Nathan Dunmall, stood exhausted in his cell. The Canadian, now 20 years old, had just completed a series of bar dips to bulk up his chest and triceps. He turned to his cell door and glimpsed the last thing on earth he wanted to see: Elliott Sommer’s hulking frame.

Sommer, confined to another unit in the prison—a measure designed to keep the two men apart—had tricked his way into Dunmall’s unit by visiting the medical center and waiting for the perfect escort back, a guard who didn’t know in which unit the inmate belonged. Dunmall knew why his visitor had come.

Sommer stalled for a half-second, staring as if he didn’t recognize his former friend. Then he lunged. Dunmall felt a stab in his shoulder and realized that Sommer had a knife. He shoved his attacker against the wall. Sommer laughed. “You’ve gotten bigger since the last time I saw you.” Sommer charged again and wrapped his arms around his victim’s neck like a boa constrictor.

Gripped in a headlock, Dunmall gasped for air but was able to clutch Sommer’s arms and break free. The months of working out had paid off, but Dunmall knew that if the fight continued, the former Army Ranger would kill him, so he wrestled Sommer out of the cell and into the hall to get a guard’s attention. Hearing the commotion corrections officers rushed in and stopped the attack.

Sommer, restrained and cuffed, began bragging. He had fashioned the knife out of parts from a stair climber in the gym and had hidden the weapon in his shoe, “because nobody ever looks there.” He’d been plotting the attack for two months. Before he was dragged away he told Dunmall he was a dead man. “You can’t hide anywhere.”

Jessicah Stotts’s heart wasn’t in banking anymore. Her body stiffened with anxiety almost every time someone entered the building. The bank offered to pay for counseling, but didn’t give the tellers time off for the sessions. Her performance reviews started to suffer, and she never came to work early anymore. Then she decided to not come to work at all. She quit in July 2007, almost a year after the robbery. When she did eventually seek counseling, she was diagnosed with PTSD.

The memory of one moment from August 7, 2006, brings her peace, especially when reminded of special agent Monte Shaide’s postrobbery analysis. If the police had had a faster response time, arriving when the robbers were still inside, the cops, customers, and tellers wouldn’t have stood a chance, not with the Rangers’ weaponry, body armor, and training. The bank and the streets of Tacoma, Shaide says, would have flowed with blood.

So Stotts sometimes goes here: She’s on the floor, piled up with the other women. Sommer hasn’t uttered a word yet. Her head’s just beneath a teller station. Another teller whispers, “Jessicah,” and nods to a small button under the counter, the trigger for the silent alarm. Pushing it will signal the police. Unable to reach the button herself, the other teller is counting on Stotts, who can press it without the robber noticing. One fingertip on that little circle and angels in white cars will descend on this nightmare and lift the women out of the madman’s clutches. Something inside her tells her no. One push, then rescue. No. The other teller shoots her an angry look. Stotts just stares at the button, a three-second gaze that feels like a lifetime. She looks away and waits for Luke Elliott Sommer to speak.

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