(Rich Maloof) Herson Torres was wary but intrigued. Here he was at 21 years old, stacking boxes at Target for $11 an hour, when a friend from high school sent a text asking if he was interested in a $25,000 opportunity working for the government.
The job? Robbing banks for the CIA, according to the friend.
What followed in the hours, days and weeks after that initial text is the stuff of spy novels — the kind that end with unanswered questions.
Torres met the friend, Carolina Villegas, three hours later in a Virginia parking lot and was put on the phone with a mysterious man who identified himself only as Theo. The man said he worked for the government and was recruiting people for an undercover project testing retail bank security. If Torres walked away from a robbery with money, Theo said, he’d be paid $25,000. If unsuccessful, he’d still be paid $2,500 for the attempt.
Torres laughed, skeptical, and wondered if he was being punked. But Theo assured him the government operation was real. Federal authorities would clear him within 24 hours if caught. He told Torres he’d been vetted by his agency, and cited a misdemeanor theft at J.C. Penney that Torres had been charged with when he was 15.
Torres was in. And the operation started immediately. He was driven by Villegas to the first of three banks he would attempt to rob that day. He took directions from the cool-headed Theo over the phone as the police gave chase, and listened as Theo called authorities to get the helicopter off his back.
Torres and Villegas hid out in a parking lot that night until Theo gave the all clear. Torres has said he remained suspicious of Theo and Villegas, but was also thrilled. He was told to bring friends and try again the next day.
The friends and relatives Torres reached out to were skeptical as he had been — until Villegas produced a document from Theo on Defense Intelligence Agency letterhead describing Operation Downstrike, which would be executed with the help of civilian volunteers who would be immune from civil and criminal action.
Torres and his companions attempted three more bank robberies in the following days, all under Theo’s direction. Theo arranged for Torres to be away from his job at Target, and promised a “fix” of the fingerprints Torres left behind at one bank and of images security cameras had captured.
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