On August 7, 2006, four men brandishing weapons rob the Bank of America branch in South Tacoma of $54,011. An alert bystander sees the bandits exit from an automobile wearing balaclavas and carrying handguns and assault rifles, then return three minutes later with duffel bags, jump back into the vehicle, and speed away. Believing it to be a bank heist, the witness copies down the license plate and gives it to the Tacoma police. The following morning, FBI agents will find the getaway car parked inside a fenced compound at Fort Lewis, and will quickly identify the soldiers involved in the bank robbery. The agents will serve a search warrant on the suspects' quarters and recover weapons, clothing, and $21,000 in cash. Five soldiers and two Canadian citizens will be charged with involvement in the crime. All will eventually plead guilty and be sent to federal prison. The robbery is one of the most audacious and dangerous bank heists ever committed in Washington state.
A Take-Charge Robbery
At 5:15 p.m. on Monday, August 7, 2006, four men, wearing soft body armor under loose clothing and balaclavas, stormed into the Bank of America branch at 5813 S Tacoma Way, brandishing semiautomatic pistols and fully automatic Russian AK-47 assault rifles, forcing people in the lobby to the floor. While two robbers with automatic rifles covered the bank’s entrances, the other two, with handguns, moved swiftly to confront the tellers. The gang’s leader wielded a 9-mm Glock 19 with a red laser sight, which he pointed threateningly at the employees. His assistant intimidated tellers and customers with a large 9-mm Springfield XD pistol. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) terms this extremely violent method a “takeover” or “take-charge” robbery.
While one of the door guards called out the elapsed time, the leader vaulted over the teller counter and barged behind the bandit barrier into the cages, shouting threats and commands. He ordered the tellers to give him only stacks of banded $20, $50 and $100 bills and not to include any bait money, with prerecorded serial numbers, or dye packs. His assistant collected the money from the teller stations and took $20,000 from a money cart inside the vault. At the two-minute mark, the timekeeper shouted “Let’s go!” The gang exited the bank with $54,011 stuffed into duffel bags, ran down a side street into an alley, jumped into a waiting automobile, and sped away. According to the bank surveillance camera, the robbery, executed with military precision, took place in just two minutes and 21 seconds.
The Getaway Car
An alert bystander, who had been watching the drama unfold, copied down the Colorado license plate on the getaway car and reported it to police officers responding to the silent alarm. By happenstance, the bank robbers had removed the rear license plate from the car, but neglected to remove the one from the front bumper.
The license plate came back to a silver 2001 four-door Audi A4, registered to 19-year-old Alex M. Blum and his father in Greenwood Village, Colorado. The FBI learned that Blum was a Private First Class (E-3) assigned to Company C, Second Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis. On Tuesday morning, August 8, FBI agents found the vehicle sitting inside a fenced parking lot at the Ranger compound and immediately had it impounded as evidence.
Evidence Everywhere You Look
While waiting for the issuance of search warrants for the Audi and Blum’s private quarters, FBI agents learned from the commander of Company C, Captain Clinton Fuller, that the entire company had been granted a two-week furlough on the day of the robbery. Fortunately, Blum’s roommate had not left the Ranger compound and was able to shed some light on the robbers. He told investigators that Blum and Private First Class Chad W. Palmer, age 20, had been discussing doing “a job” and had been meeting privately with another Ranger, 20-year-old Specialist Fourth Class Luke Elliott Sommer. In addition, the roommate also saw AK-47 assault rifles, handguns, and grenades in their rooms, all in violation of strict army regulations regarding the possession and storage of weapons and explosive devices. On Monday evening, he and other witnesses saw the men in the barracks with bundles of cash.
On Tuesday afternoon, FBI agents executed federal search warrants on the quarters occupied by Sommer, Palmer, and Blum in Building 3475. They found distinctive Bank of America money bands, clothing used in the heist, military-issue body armor, guns, and ammunition. In Sommer’s room, investigators found two fully automatic AK-47 assault rifles, along with eight loaded 30-round “banana-clip” magazines, hidden in the ceiling above his bed, two pistols, and $10,000 cash stashed under his desk. Blum had $2,300 cash hidden in his room.
Arresting the Robbers
On Wednesday, August 9, FBI agents arrested Alex Blum at his parents home in Greenwood Village, Colorado. He had departed Fort Lewis early Tuesday morning, just a few hours before the FBI arrived, and taken a 9:00 a.m. Frontier Airlines flight from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Denver. During questioning, Blum confessed to driving the getaway car, for which he was paid $10,000, and provided the identities of the other men involved in the robbery. He said Sommer recruited two friends from Canada, both civilians, to participate in the heist.
On Thursday, August 10, FBI agents arrested Chad Palmer, at his parents' home in Chesapeake, Virginia, in possession of $9,000 from the bank robbery. He confessed to being one of the guards wielding an AK-47 assault rifle and provided detailed information about the operation.
Captain Fuller told FBI agents that Luke Sommer, who supposedly had dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, planned to travel to British Columbia and stay with his mother, Christel Davidson, in Peachland, a town of 5,000 on Lake Okanagan near Kelowna. On Friday, August 11, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), “E” Division, Serious Crime Section arrested Luke Sommer in a supermarket at the Peachland Centre Mall. He was incarcerated at the North Fraser Pretrial Center in Port Coquitlam to await extradition procedures. While there, Sommer gave RCMP investigators a lengthy videotaped statement, admitting that he was the ringleader, planned the heist, and supplied the weapons. But he claimed that his purpose was to expose atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. On September 17, 2006, a British Columbia judge released Sommer on bond, but placed him under home confinement at his mother’s residence in Peachland, with an electronic ankle bracelet.
On Sunday, August 13, Tigra J. A. Robertson, age 20, a Canadian citizen from Kelowna, B.C., voluntarily crossed the border at Blaine, Washington, and surrendered to the FBI. After hearing about Sommer’s arrest, Robertsons’s parents contacted the RCMP declaring Tigra was sorry for what he had done and wanted to turn himself in. On Monday, August 14, Robertson was charged in U.S. District Court in Tacoma with armed bank robbery. He was released on a $25,000 surety bond, with the promise to return to the United States for further court proceedings. Robertson, the other bandit with a handgun, identified the fourth man inside the bank as 18-year-old Nathan R. Dunmall from Chilliwack, who was the other guard wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.
The FBI obtained an arrest warrant for Dunmall and on Friday, August 18, he was arrested in Chillawack by the RCMP. He was released on bond but placed under house arrest pending the outcome of extradition procedures.
In August 2006, a federal grand jury in Seattle indicted the three Fort Lewis Rangers, Sommer, Palmer, and Blum, and the two Canadian civilians, Robertson and Dunmall. The indictment charged all five with conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, armed bank robbery, and brandishing firearms during and in relation to a crime of violence. In addition, Sommer was charged with four counts of possession of an unregistered machine gun, three counts of possession of a hand grenade, and one count of possession of a homemade bomb.
More Arrests: The Plot Thickens
Later, two more Fort Lewis Rangers were charged in connection with the bank robbery: Corporal Richard Allen Olinger, age 21, and Specialist Fourth Class Scott A. Byrne, age 32. On Tuesday, August 22, 2006, FBI agents searched Olinger’s private storage unit in Parkland (Pierce County) and found a black duffel bag containing two military-issue flash-bang grenades, one smoke grenade, and a homemade bomb. They also found two rifles belonging to Sommer inside Olinger’s pickup truck. He admitted to investigators that he stored Sommer’s weapons and the explosive devices, but claimed he was neither privy to nor involved in the bank robbery. Olinger was charged in U.S. District Court in Tacoma on Friday, September 22, 2006, and pleaded guilty to possessing unregistered destructive devices. He was released to the custody of 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis pending sentencing.
During an interview on September 28, Scott Byrne told FBI agents that he helped Sommer plan the heist, but declined to take part in the operation. He said Sommer intended to use money from bank robberies to start a outlaw motorcycle gang in Kelowna and challenge the Hell’s Angels for control of drug trafficking and other lucrative criminal enterprises in British Columbia. Sommer had originally planned to rob Chip’s Casino in Lakewood, but only Byrne was old enough to enter the gambling establishment. Gambling casinos are considered “hard targets” and Byrne recommended Sommer and his gang rob banks instead.
On Wednesday, November 29, 2006, Byrne was charged in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, with one count of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery. He pleaded not guilty before District Court Judge Franklin D. Burgess (1935-2010) and was released on bond. Byrne changed his mind, however, and on Friday, March 9, 2007, he pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge. On this same day, Alex Blum pleaded guilty before Judge Burgess to armed bank robbery, conspiracy, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. And on Monday, March 12, Tigra Robertson pleaded guilty before Judge Burgess to the same charges. All the defendants agreed to testify against Sommer at trial.
Luke Sommer's Case
Meanwhile, in Peachland, Luke Elliott Sommer was giving lengthy telephone interviews to newspapers and magazines, and television and radio stations. His story was that the bank robbery and his subsequent capture was a political statement, orchestrated to expose war crimes being committed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sommer claimed to have witnessed robbery, rape, and murders by troops while serving tours of duty in these countries in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, Sommer had neglected to advise his fellow conspirators of his grandiose plan.
When Sommer failed to return to his unit at Fort Lewis at the end of August, the Army declared him Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and dropped him from the battalion’s payroll. His allegations of war crimes were referred to the U.S. Department of Justice by the Canadian authorities. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID), in conjunction with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, conducted a thorough investigation and on October 25, 2006, issued a seven-page report concluding the allegations were unfounded and unsubstantiated. CID agents interviewed numerous Rangers, including Sommer’s platoon sergeant, who all stated that his claims of atrocities were absurd and patently untrue.
On Tuesday night, June 27, 2007, Sommer celebrated his 21st birthday with family and friends. Then early Wednesday morning he absconded from his mother’s house in Peachland, B.C. Alerted by the electronic monitoring device, the RCMP immediately issued a warrant for Sommer’s arrest and notified U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the FBI to be on the lookout for the fugitive. He was scheduled for an extradition hearing on July 10, but lost confidence in his altruistic crusade against war crimes. Although armed bank robbery is not specifically listed in the Canadian Extradition Act, violent crimes are generally not considered political reasons for which the Canadian government would block extradition.
Sommer’s mother, Christel Davidson, claimed his disappearance took her entirely by surprise. She maintained her son was not a naturally violent person and should not be considered a risk to the public. “I have a good idea that unless he gets caught, it could be a heck of a long time before I see him,” Davidson said (The Seattle Times).
Sommer’s bid for freedom, however, was short-lived. On Thursday, July 19, 2007, the RCMP, acting on an anonymous tip, arrested Sommer at a pay-telephone booth in Richmond, approximately 20 miles south of Vancouver, B.C. Investigators had the fugitive’s picture and physical description from his arrest in August 2006, and were astonished to find he altered his appearance by gaining some 90 pounds. For violating his home-confinement agreement, Sommer was remanded to custody pending the outcome of future extradition proceedings in British Columbia Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Sommer’s defense attorney, Steven J. Krupa, entered into plea negotiations with Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Dion and Jill Otake to help facilitate extradition proceedings. Finally, in early May 2008, Sommer agreed to be extradited from Canada. Under the terms of his plea bargain, Sommer agreed to plead guilty to four felony counts and a sentence of 24 years in federal prison. If the defendant opted for a trial, he would face up to life in prison, if convicted on all seven felony counts.
On Friday morning, May 23, 2008, the RCMP turned Sommer over to the FBI at the Peace Arch border station in Blaine, Washington. That afternoon, he was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Seattle and pleaded not guilty to the charges in the indictment. Sommer was ordered held without bond and booked into the Seatac Federal Detention Center to await further court proceedings in Tacoma.
On Tuesday, May 27, Sommer appeared before Judge Franklin D. Burgess in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, armed bank robbery, brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and possession of an unregistered destructive device (a grenade). He was remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service pending sentencing.
On Friday, December 12, 2008, Judge Burgess sentenced Sommer to an agreed-upon 24 years in federal prison, plus five years of supervised release. According to the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing memorandum to the court: “It was one of the most dangerous bank robberies ever committed in Washington. Sommer and his gang were prepared for combat. If the police had shown up during the robbery, there would have been a blood-bath on the streets of Tacoma.” During the hearing, defense attorney Krupa told Judge Burgess that Sommer was mentally ill and had been recently diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Prosecutor Dion replied: “While we don’t know if he has a mental problem, we do know he has a moral defect. Luke Sommer still doesn’t understand how bad what he did really was” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
Sentencing and More Sentencing
On Tuesday, December 16, 2008, Chad Palmer appeared before Judge Burgess and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison plus five years of supervised release. He had pleaded guilty on December 7, 2006, to two felony counts: armed bank robbery and brandishing a machine gun during and in relation to a crime of violence. Palmer was the first defendant to accept a plea bargain, which included an agreement to be a prosecution witness.
The third bank robber to be sentenced was Tigra J. A. Robertson, a Canadian citizen from Kelowna, B.C. On Friday, February 20, 2009, Judge Burgess sentenced him to 12 ½ years in federal prison plus five years of supervised release. According to prosecuting attorneys Dion and Otake, Sommer had designated Robertson a “captain” in his imagined criminal motorcycle gang.
On Friday, February 27, 2009, Judge Burgess sentenced Richard A. Olinger, a minor player who stored explosive devices for Sommer in his private storage unit, to five years probation.
Alex M. Blum, the Ranger who drove the getaway car, appeared before Judge Burgess on Friday, March 13, 2009, and was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison plus five years of supervised release.
The following Friday, March 20, Nathan R. Dunmall, a Canadian citizen from Chilliwack, B.C who wielded a fully automatic AK-47 inside the bank, appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison plus five years of supervised release.
Finally, on Wednesday, April 15, 2009, Judge Bryan sentenced Scott A. Byrne, who helped plan the bank heist but did not participate in the robbery, to eight months in federal prison plus three years of supervised release.
And so ended an extremely dismal chapter in the history of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis.
And More Crime...
But there is more. On Wednesday, July 1, 2009, a complaint against Luke Sommer was unsealed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, charging him with assaulting Nathan Dunmall with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder. On January 23, at the Seatac Federal Detention Center, Sommer, believing that Dunmall had informed the FBI about his plan to murder a federal prosecutor, attacked him with an improvised knife made from a part of a stair-step exercise machine. Dunmall suffered a minor stab wound and multiple cuts and bruises, but didn’t require hospitalization.
The complaint further charged Sommer with solicitation of a crime of violence. In furtherance of his plan, on two occasions in March 2009, Sommer offered an undercover FBI task force officer $20,000 to kill Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dion, who prosecuted the bank robbery case. He told the undercover officer he didn’t care how the prosecutor was killed, but he wanted news reports to reflect Dion’s death was murder, not just an accident.
On Monday, January 4, 2010, Sommer appeared before Judge James L. Robart in U.S. District Court in Seattle and pleaded guilty to both felonies, agreeing to a 20 year sentence (Federal sentencing guidelines provide for a maximum of 30 years). On Monday, March 8, Judge Robart accepted Sommers guilty plea and sentenced him to an additional 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.