How to rob a bank – and get away with it?
In these tough times where every penny is pinched, it’s a question that just might have flitted across your mind.
No real intent, of course. Only a criminal would break the law, right? But still... what if? You might have wondered.
For a young woman called Sally, it’s no idle speculation. She’s a 20-something interior designer by profession. A DIY bank robber by circumstance.
Last autumn, she grabbed a fake handgun and headed down her local bank branch and threatened to burn the place down unless they gave her thousands of dollars.
Tense moments ensued; streamed on the internet. The video shows terrified customers and worried bank staff, before Sally emerged with $14,000 (£11,300); her own cash.
And that makes her both a villain and a hero in the eyes of her compatriots.
"I didn’t break the law," she claims. "I became the law!"
For On Assignment, we met her in her home city of Beirut and talked in the dark of her apartment.
Electricity is in scarce supply in Lebanon; just one of the symptoms of the profound economic collapse that drove Sally to take what you might call desperado measures.
"I raised my gun. And I shouted everybody go back," she recalls.
"I remember the drawer was there and the manager told us there was no money, but we opened the drawer and there it was."
Sally, you see, did have savings in the bank. She needed access urgently. Her sister had received a cancer diagnosis and the treatment was costly.
But the bank wouldn’t – or couldn’t – give her access to her own savings.
Sally explains all this during the course of a long conversation in which the one emotion she doesn’t share is regret.
"My sister is my soul. If she hurts, I will die," she says.
So; one young woman facing death for the want of an unaffordable medical bill. A second prepared to risk her own life in the commission of a serious crime.
This is the distressing consequence of a financial crisis that has seen the Lebanese currency lose some 96% of its value.
Years of incompetent and corrupt administration have left the nation bankrupt. Governments borrowed billions of dollars from overseas to pay their way at home.
"They would go out to the Lebanese diaspora around the world, convince them to send money back home, promising them very high interest rates," says economist Mike Azar, a close observer of his country’s financial down fall.
Then came the global economic down-turn, and covid. All that plus a war in neighbouring Syrian and then a huge explosion at Beirut’s port. The credit line ran dry. The country coffers are empty of dollars.
The result is hyper inflation – a can of coke can cost half a day’s salary – and banks that ration dollars held by their customers. In the queue at one cash-point we meet a professional woman who tells us she’s allowed to withdraw just $150 a month.
They might not condone Sally’s robbery. But nor do they condemn her.
Mike again: "I think it would be hard for people to really be able to conceive of how bad the situation is here for most people and how bad it's been for the last three years. Just how rapid the collapse has been.
"We've gone through everything from people losing most of the value of their savings and deposits, their purchasing power, gasoline shortages, medicine shortages.
"I think the only way people are surviving now is by relying on humanitarian aid or emigrating."
As for Sally; she started something. There have been more than a dozen copycat raids by similarly disgruntled customers who just want their money.
She faced prosecution; but there was no prison sentence. A fine of one million Lebanese pounds (equivalent to £600). Perhaps the court sympathised. Many believe the authorities did not want to make her a martyr to their failed policies.
Would she do it again, I ask.
"Of course, of course," Sally replies. "I still have $6,000 inside (the bank). And if they don't give it to me. I will repeat it again."
Watch John's On Assignment report on ITV tonight (Tuesday 31 January) at 22.45, on ITV, and on ITVX
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