Operation Downfall

In June of 2012, a 22-year-old man was arrested in the Washington, D.C. area, for trying to rob a bank. If you read the news report of the failed heist, well, it doesn’t sound like anything special:

Fairfax County Police have arrested 22-year-old Herson Geovanne Torres for an attempted bank robbery that occurred in Falls Church earlier this month.

Authorities say Torres entered the Capital One Bank located at 6367 Seven Corners Center around 3 p.m. on June 5 and passed a note to the teller demanding money. However, before the teller could comply, Torres fled the scene on foot.

Torres, who lives in the 7200 block of Beverly Park Drive, was arrested on June 13 following a police investigation.

Torres is currently free on bail according to court records. He is due back in court to face those charges on July 31.

The suspect is also due in court on June 28 on unrelated charges of driving on a suspended or revoked license.

That’s it — that’s the entire article. (And yes, it’s six sentences somehow spread across five paragraphs.)

In most cases, a guy like Torres would certainly be facing prison time — you can’t just walk into a bank and demand money, unless you have an account there. (And even then, you’re better off not trying to withdraw more than what you have, although that probably won’t evoke a call to the police.) Torres, though, didn’t go to prison. In fact, he never even went to trial. Prosecutors dropped the case before then. Torres claimed to be acting on behalf of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the U.S. military’s intelligence arm.

That claim was ludicrous. Before taking up a role as a not-so-great bank robber, Torres was an hourly worker who unloaded trucks at Target who was living at his parents’ house. He had no military experience and his formal education ended with high school. He was hardly the type of person the DIA would recruit for a covert operation — even if robbing banks was a reasonable example of such a mission.

But, in his defense, Torres had a story to tell. He had a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contact that he only knew of as “Theo,” who he had never met — a mutual friend connected the pair, but only via phone (which the friend always dialed). Theo gave Torres explicit instructions, as reported by BusinessWeek:

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.

Theo furnished Torres with an official-looking letter (on DIA letterhead — the two agencies work closely, apparently) explaining the role. The letter described the mission as “Operation Downfall” and promised immunity from prosecution. Using this letter, Torres recruited friends and family into the fold, and hit multiple banks over the course of a few weeks — all while keeping the letter in his glove compartment, just in case. Ultimately, the authorities caught up with him, arresting him as they typically do when they catch bank robbers. Torres immediately produced the letter, sparking a little bit of concern from the arresting officials.

Theo, for his part, tried to deliver on his promise. Upon Torres’ arrest, Theo tried to convince the authorities to set him free and he hired attorneys on Torres’ behalf, arguing that “Operation Downfall” was training covert operatives for foreign missions, with quick bank heists the key part of that training. But it was all for naught. While Theo certainly made Torres’ story more credible, in the end, it wasn’t enough to convince police and the district attorney that Torres was actually acting on behalf of the government.

But then, that mutual friend stepped in — she, unlike Torres, had Theo’s phone number. Working with authorities, they determined Theo’s true identity. In a conversation with the author of the BusinessWeek article, radio show This American Life explained:

Josh Ronson: Eventually, the encryption on Theo’s phone number was broken and police traced the phone to a man called Josh Brady, who lived in a ranch house 100 miles south of Washington, D.C. The police drove down there, and in an instant, three things became clear.

The first was that Theo and Josh were the same person. The second was that Josh was not working for the CIA. He was 26 and living with his mother and grandmother. And the third was that Josh was totally convinced that he was working for them. Here’s Tom.

Tom Schoenberg: I interviewed Josh in a jail in Virginia. And when I met with him, he told me pretty quickly that he was working with the CIA. And I would say he was firmly convinced at that time that they took a computer from his house that contained all the information to prove that this was legitimate.

Brady’s apparent (but false) authenticity was enough to convince the authorities that Torres was acting in a good faith, and as a result, they ended their prosecution of Torres. Brady’s fate? In a follow-up article for BusinessWeek, Schoenberg reported that authorities believed Brady to be delusional and, therefore, decided not to prosecute him for claiming falsely to be a CIA agent. Brady was, however, prosecuted for forging a judge’s signature in an unrelated matter. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to time served (seven months awaiting trial) and three years of court-supervised probation. He agreed to undergo mental health counseling and to stay off the Internet for a year.

Bonus Fact: In 2008, a New Jersey bank alarm went off, prompting the SWAT team to arrive on scene due to the likely danger involved. For around three hours, the SWAT team tried to talk down a five foot tall suspect hiding behind drawn blinds. The standoff ended peacefully — once the SWAT team realized that the suspect was a cardboard cutout.

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