By Bohsika Gupta
A strange bank robber took the US by storm in summer 2014. She was an educated, stylish woman who’d show up and terrify bank tellers, asking for money. One of her messages on a note handed over to the bank staff read, “TICK TOCK. I HAVE A BOMB.”
Sandeep Kaur was 24 and in desperate need of money. She’d spent time researching bank robberies, calculating her odds. Bank thefts were a diverse bunch with some thieves managing to make a huge amount of money and others getting caught or even killed by cops. This was a risk Kaur was willing to take for some much-needed cash as her options dried up.
The child of Indian immigrant parents, Kaur grew up in a family with traditional values and strict rules. Her childhood made her feel rather trapped and bullied. There were rigid rules such as no phones, television or friends for her and her brother. “We would have to stand there with a chair up in our hands for like an hour until our arms hurt,” she told the BBC in an interview. “That was how [we] were raised, we knew not to go tell the school, we were beaten with a stick. This is how parenting is,” she added.
Her closest confidant was her cousin, Amundeep Kaur. She was her respite, a companion to sneak out to the cinema with who distracted from her everyday struggles.
Kaur was no underachiever. She finished high school early, at age 15 and became a Licensed Vocational Nurse by the age of 19. She started earning up to $6,000 a month, multi-tasking, taking of a terminally ill client, logging hours at a health care agency and juggling hectic shifts at several Bay area hospitals.
In 2008, Kaur was tempted to experiment with the stock market when the American economy crashed. She won and she won big, going back with $200,000. Parties and boys followed, giving Kaur a chance to experience things she’d never been allowed to look at before. She relocated to Sacramento at the age of 20 to study further and focus on her Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing.
The real turning point was November 2010. For her 21st birthday, Kaur and her cousin decided to celebrate in Las Vegas, lying to their parents about their whereabouts. They visited designer stores and bought new clothes, checking out several glittering casinos and clubs as Kaur revelled in her new found freedom. She gave a gambling a shot and won $4,000, becoming instantly intrigued by its potential. She was hooked enough to plan monthly trips to sin city, playing to win.
She made lots of money. But her lucky streak didn’t last for too long. Kaur started to lose badly; losing everything she had and ended up in debt by March 2012. A brush with a moneylender convinced her to keep trying her luck, sticking to her spot at the table and only getting up for bathroom breaks.
She was doing okay for a bit and even had $38,000 at some point. But the last few rounds messed things up for her, and Kaur was forced to run away from the city and her creditors. While she tried to start afresh and make a new beginning, her debts caught up with her and an arrest warrant was issued in her name by December that year.
Things exploded at her home and Kaur ran away, straight into the arms of a lover in September 2013. That marriage turned sour too, forcing her to fend for herself. She had a lot on her plate by then – a mortgage, gambling debts and too many lies.
She finally decided to rob a bank in Valencia in May 2014 after a scary encounter with loan sharks who threatened to hurt her family. They told her, “You can rob a bank. Go rob a house, do this do that, we need the money.”
There was no looking back after that. The nurse robbed banks in style, dressed in fitted tracksuits, oversized sunglasses and wigs, earning the nickname, “Bombshell Bandit.” Her strategy was simple. Approach bank tellers and scare them into giving her money by saying that she’d detonate a bomb instantly if they didn’t comply. Her spree lasted for five weeks and wasn’t restricted to one location. Kaur covered Arizona, California and Utah, before she was caught in July.
The chase was dramatic and included three states and two time zones, looking like something out of a Hollywood film. She pleaded guilty and admitted to robbing four banks. In April 2015, she was sentenced to serve 66 months in jail and ordered to pay hefty fines. A federal judge later said that her story wasn’t simple and described her as “one of the criminal minds that the court does not understand”.
Her story has now been turned into a Bollywood film, called “Simran” starring actress Kangana Ranaut. It released across theatres in India in September 2017.