‘I robbed six banks out of desperation. Then I got greedy’: the Kangaroo Bandit on crime, family and regret

Cain Vincent Dyer became one of the most prolific bank robbers in the US before handing himself in. He tells his remarkable story, from being in debt to a drug cartel to his attempts to wipe his slate clean

From the driver’s seat of his car, pulled up outside a shopping plaza in Calabasas, California, Cain Vincent Dyer sat, casing a branch of Washington Mutual bank. He monitored various things: the number of people who came and left; what customers and staff were doing. It was guesswork, really, making up his mind when to hit it. Dyer had never robbed a bank before.

It was mid-morning, in August 1999. A few hours earlier, still dark outside, Dyer had grabbed his “war bag”, complete with gun, gloves, matches, a lighter and a metal bar, and driven north through Los Angeles from his home in Mission Viejo. He’d taken Interstate 405 and joined Route 101. During an impromptu bathroom stop, he’d settled on this target at random. He’d already tried to rob the place once, an hour or so earlier. That first attempt was abandoned before it even started. “I’d walked towards the door, but noticed a pregnant lady entering at the same time,” Dyer says now, 23 years later. “I couldn’t risk scaring her into an early labour. When I turned back around, I noticed my reflection. Yes, I was wearing a baseball cap and glasses, but I was still very identifiable. I realised how close I’d been to making a massive error.”

Dyer set about making some quick fixes. He picked up mascara to draw on a fake beard, and grabbed a pile of wet-wipes from a KFC so he could remove the fake facial hair afterwards. Gloves might attract attention in the California heat; now armed with a tube of superglue, he could cover his prints discreetly. “I also grabbed a backpack,” Dyer says. “The bag I was planning to take in had handles, so I couldn’t hold it and the gun concurrently.” He decided he’d wear this new bag on his chest rather than his back. “That way I could put money in it with one hand while holding the gun with the other.” And, he says, he switched his loaded firearm for a costume store fake. “I realised I didn’t want to be responsible for actually shooting someone, even in a messy accident,” he says. “If it went wrong, going to jail for attempted bank robbery was better than charges of violence.”

Back in his car, and now better prepared, Dyer psyched himself up. When the moment felt right, toy gun in hand, he stepped out of the car and made for the entrance. He walked out of the bank with $33,000 in cash stuffed into his rucksack, then made his getaway.

Over the following two years, Dyer claims, he looted more than 100 banks across the United States. The FBI officer who investigated Dyer’s case suggests the true figure is significantly lower, but either way, Dyer is by all accounts one of the most prolific bank robbers to have wreaked havoc in the US. While still at large, Dyer even earned himself a nickname: after CCTV emerged of him shoving bills into the bag strapped on to his chest, the hunt was on for the Kangaroo Bandit.

* * *

Speaking over Zoom from his LA home, Dyer seems at ease talking about his disreputable past; but then, it’s become a professional asset. Dyer, 52, says he’s in meetings with major studios discussing a TV show about his life; he also supports others in the criminal justice system. Ostensibly, we are meeting to discuss Inside the Heist – a Discovery series exploring some of the world’s biggest crimes, such as 2015’s Hatton Garden robbery – on which Dyer is employed as an expert voice. “Each was a work of genius,” he claims. But the focus quickly returns to his own chequered history.

Raised in Oakland, California, Dyer had a difficult start in life. “My early childhood was a mixed bag,” he says. “We were very poor, but I was happy knowing nothing different.” His family were members of an ultra-conservative church community, where physical and sexual abuse were common. His father was in and out of prison for petty crimes and struggled with heroin addiction. His mother worked three jobs to keep the family afloat. “We had just about enough to survive,” he says, “but what I didn’t have was options.”

Aged 17, Dyer joined the US Marine Corps, where he found camaraderie and structure. By 25, however, he’d been discharged after an injury. Married and with three young kids to support, Dyer ended up in southern California, where he found work with security firms doing diplomatic and corporate protection.

“It was around then,” he says, “in 1997 or 1998, that a relative from Oakland who was getting into trouble came to stay with me. He seemed to be settling in pretty well, but unfortunately he got himself mixed up in something he shouldn’t have.” There’s a purposeful vagueness to Dyer’s story here. Having served his time, Dyer argues he has nothing to hide, but not everyone in his life is in the same position. Still, the fundamentals are fairly straightforward.

“He’d got this gig,” says Dyer, “picking up trucks from the Mexican border, and dropping them off elsewhere.” Yes, this relative knew it wasn’t quite above board. “But he thought it was something low-level,” Dyer reckons, “like marijuana or stolen computers.” It transpired the cargo was cocaine. And one such delivery went horribly wrong. “The vehicle he was transporting went missing,” says Dyer. “It was stolen while under his control. He had no idea of the depth of shit he was getting into.”

It was a Tuesday evening when three men first appeared at Dyer’s door. “They made it clear,” he says, “that this relative of mine owed them his share of the missing product – $180,000. Else they were going to kill him.” It didn’t take Dyer long to work out who he was dealing with. “After our first meeting, I did a bit of research. If it was three punks, I could have sorted it myself. But this was a Mexican drug cartel. I couldn’t fight or shoot my way out of it; they threatened my wife and kids. It needed to be taken seriously.”

An image released by the FBI when searching for the Dyer AKA The Kangaroo Bandit.
An image released by the FBI when searching for the Dyer AKA The Kangaroo Bandit. Photograph: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

By this point, this relative had made himself scarce. Aware the cartel now had his address, Dyer agreed to take on the debt himself. “I’d only worked in the military, doing some security and in a restaurant,” he says, “so wasn’t earning much. I don’t think I’d ever had $2,000 to my name, let alone six figures. I had no idea how I’d do it, but I agreed to pay them $15,000 a week every Thursday until the full debt was repaid. I had no other choice.”

Week one, Dyer called every favour in. Friends and family loaned what they could; he pooled together every penny of his savings. “Oh my God,” Dyer says, traces of panic still audible, “I quickly realised I’d made a promise that would probably be impossible to keep. Desperation hit pretty early.” That first Thursday, Dyer coughed up what he could. He was short, but they offered him a week’s grace period. As the second Thursday loomed, Dyer had next to nothing to offer. He called to explain – but this time his pleas were given short shrift. “It was suggested I rob someone,” says Dyer, “but I could never take from another person. Then they said I could work for them, shifting drugs, but that was how this whole mess started. So he says: why not rob a bank?” With that, the conversation was over.

Late that night, Dyer lay in bed unable to sleep. “So I got up, jumped in my car and went out for a drive. All of a sudden, as I cruised down the street, banks were everywhere I looked. Above each one it seemed to me there was a huge sign, screaming ‘solution’ in my direction.” He stopped outside a branch of Bank of America, got out of the car and peered in through the windows. “Is this even possible?” Dyer thought to himself. “I had a wife and three beautiful young children to protect.” Robbing a bank, he concluded, was the only option. “Well,” Dyer adds, “not that branch of course. I’d been standing outside it for ages.”

He went home. The next morning, he stumbled across that branch of Washington Mutual.

* * *

Within a month of his first heist, Dyer says, he had paid every cent of the $180,000 he owed his creditors. “I did six banks back to back,” he tells me, “and never again did those dudes bother me.” Dyer has no regrets about those first robberies. “It was worth it to save the life of someone I loved; a member of my family.” In retrospect, however, he sees bank number seven quite differently.

“Those first six were done out of desperation,” he suggests. “But after that? Well, I was greedy. If I did just one more bank I could set our family up – I’d been getting big amounts until then.”

In September 1999, Dyer robbed his seventh bank. Checking his bag as he left, he counted just $4,000. Just one more then, he told himself.

“Before the next heist,” Dyer says, “I learned all I could about bank vaults. I wanted to go out on one big job that could set my family up.” The swotting-up paid off. “That next time I got into a vault. And when I looked down into my bag,” Dyer says, still with a sense of pride, “I saw what looked like a six-figure sum – the wads of cash still in cellophane packaging.”

With no sign yet that law enforcement was on his back, retirement should have beckoned for the Kangaroo Bandit. But he carried on. “I was totally addicted by this stage. I was hitting banks back to back. Over two years, I reckon it was over 100 banks,” he says, “although I can’t be sure, exactly. I went on a bank robbing tour of the USA: California then to Nevada, the Bay Area, Oregon and Washington State. I went all over.” Through that period, he also grappled with a serious drug addiction. When I ask the total of what he stole, he takes a minute to think. “Honestly? I’ve no idea. Millions.” That figure has never been corroborated.

Federal agents, meanwhile, were struggling to identify him. And Dyer believes that while his Oakland childhood and military training helped, being mixed-race was his greatest asset in avoiding capture. “My face was plastered across episodes of America’s Most Wanted,” he says. That’s America’s sexed-up equivalent of Crimewatch. “But at that time we didn’t have many people in the public eye who looked like me. So any five people in a given bank would each identify me differently.”

As Agent Joseph White of the FBI told a Seattle Times reporter at the time: “We’ve had him described as a dark-skinned white male, as a light-skinned African American, as Puerto Rican, as Brazilian, and I think we had Middle Eastern.” Soon the Kangaroo Bandit had earned another moniker – Multiethnic Man.

* * *

On 12 April 2001, now separated from his wife, Dyer surrendered to federal agents. “I’d been debating it for a while,” he says. “I was watching my children growing up, thinking about how my father had lied to me and wasn’t there. I worried I was destined to do the same to my own children.” He joined the spiritual community Agape. For years, Dyer says, he rationalised what he did. “I’d tried to build this story in my mind that I deserved what I took; that the banks steal from everyone anyway, and ultimately my crimes were victimless.” Nobody, after all, had suffered physical harm during his criminal activities. But thinking about the trauma inflicted on bank workers and customers alike, Dyer says, left him feeling differently.

Plus, Dyer admits, the feds were already on to him, after an associate offered up his name to the FBI as part of their own plea bargain.

Flying home from Miami the previous month, he’d bumped into Johnnie Cochran, superstar lawyer to the likes of OJ Simpson, Sean (P Diddy) Combs and Michael Jackson. They started talking, and the next day Cochran offered to put him in touch with one of his attorneys. “I took a few weeks, and then handed myself in.”

Now the CEO of a security, intelligence and investigative firm, Patrick Conley spent 20 years as a federal agent. He was the FBI officer responsible for hunting Dyer, and he recalls the Kangaroo Bandit’s final weeks on the run somewhat differently from his old adversary. “The day Dyer called me,” Conley later tells me, “I was already working on a search warrant for his house. An article had been published in the LA Times the day before, naming Dyer as a suspect.”

Unsurprisingly – given the warning the article gave – when the FBI then searched Dyer’s home, no incriminating evidence was discovered. “We interviewed him at his home that evening,” Conley adds, “during which time he expressed a desire to confess and move on. We could have arrested him there and then, but knowing a confession would be stronger for the case, we decided to work with Dyer when he asked for a day to say goodbye to his family. The next day he took off.”

After a few weeks on the run, Conley says, Dyer presented himself to make his confession. By that time the FBI already had an arrest warrant. Conley also disputes Dyer’s claim to have robbed 100 banks. “At the most,” he says, “we believe 32 can be attributed to him.” Dyer says he made a deal that ensured his alleged robberies outside of California wouldn’t be prosecuted. “And,” he adds, “it wasn’t my job to do the work of the FBI.”

On 30 May 2002, Dyer was sentenced to nine years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release. Now 31 years old, he was also ordered to pay $476,093 in restitution. “I know that doesn’t justify what I did,” Dyer told the judge tearfully at the time, “but I was put in a horrible situation.” Dyer told the judge he now understood his crimes were not victimless. The judge commended Dyer for his remorse. “Unlike a lot of people who appear before me for sentencing,” he said, “I think he is sincere.”

After seven and a half years, Dyer was released. While incarcerated, he says, and after release, he has dedicated his life to supporting others caught up in the US justice system. “This system,” he says, “wants to see us locked inside, but while the government fails to act, it’s our responsibility to not let it happen.” He found a job with Agape, and supported others through a programme called the Emerging Leaders Academy. “I try to show people in all I do that you can find purpose the way I did,” he says. “At that non-profit we started off mentoring ex-felons and substance abusers. My experiences – in Oakland, the military, the world of crime and the justice system – help me empathise and understand. Even with a past like mine, I like to show you can also find a better path forward.” Still, it wasn’t always easy: immediately after his release, court documents suggest Dyer continued to struggle with sobriety.

Dyer’s kids are grown up now. They’ve heard all his stories. “Of course,” he says “it was hard for them. It’s a lot for your dad not to be there, let alone having to tell your friends he’s an imprisoned bank robber.” Serving his sentence and supporting others, Dyer hopes, has allowed him to wipe his slate clean with society. But it’s through being a grandfather, he believes, that he’s making good with his own family. “My oldest grandkid is 10 now,” Dyer says, grinning proudly. “And I’m having the opportunity with her, and the others, to be present in a way I wasn’t with my kids. My ones knew my story growing up – they had no choice. And when I do tell my grandkids everything that I did, I’ll be sure they also learn the consequences.”

Whichever version of the Kangaroo Bandit’s rise and fall they hear, it’s quite the bedtime story to have Grandpa tell you.

Inside the Heist is streaming now exclusively on discovery+


Michael Segalov

The GuardianTramp

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