The first time Jim Hayes robbed a bank, at age 55, he gave himself a pep talk.
The former security guard—a clean-cut guy with silver hair and a doughy physique—stood frozen next to the entrance of Montecito Bank & Trust at a strip mall in Carpinteria, a mellow beach town about 12 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. Hayes had stuffed a pillow in his shirt and pulled a Zoo York cap low over his face. It was 5:15 p.m. on April 27, 2017 and he’d spent weeks researching how to pull off the heist. Now, he told himself, “You just need the cojones.”
“It felt like I had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other,” Hayes told me a year after the crime. “The angel was saying, ‘Don't do it. You could go to prison for 20 years.’ And the devil was saying, ‘It's Friday. You're broke. Are you really gonna go the whole weekend without drugs, you loser?’”
So Hayes walked inside and handed a female teller a note demanding cash. “Sorry,” he said before bolting. “Family emergency.”
All told, he was out the door and into his Volkswagen Jetta with $3,300 in less than three minutes.
Over the next five months, the heroin addict struck 10 more banks in the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara areas. Dubbed the “PT Cruiser Bandit” by local media for the champagne-colored getaway car he bought with stolen cash, he swiped nearly $40,000 before FBI agents stormed his driveway with guns blazing.
Truth be told, there was a time when 40 grand would have been chump change for Hayes. Nearly 20 years before his robbery spree, he won a $19 million lottery. He spent big—Lamborghinis, Porsches and Harleys, million-dollar oceanfront condos, extravagant gambling trips to Vegas.
On the day he was busted, Hayes was a penniless junkie living in a garage.
“Having money enabled me to live my wildest dreams,” he said. “But there’s a flip side. It’s the lottery curse.”
James Allen Hayes grew up 20 minutes from the beach in the middle-class city of Camarillo, California. As a kid, he had a knack for violin and became the youngest member of the county orchestra, he said. At age 13, his mentally-ill mom physically abused him and child protective services sent him to live with his grandma, Melba, according to court documents. He never knew his dad.
The next year, he quit violin. “I got interested in girls and they wouldn’t talk to me if I was holding a violin case! LOL!” Hayes wrote in a typically upbeat letter from Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro, where he’s serving a nearly three-year robbery sentence. “So I got into cars!”
As an 18-year-old, he spent time surfing and tooling around the beach in a convertible Baja Bug. “He was cute; he had wild hair and freckles. He looked like a let’s-go-have-fun type of guy,” recalls his former longtime girlfriend Candace Walker, 53. “He had a funny sense of humor and was usually in a good mood.”
When she got pregnant at age 17, the couple put the baby boy up for adoption. “He didn’t want to be a father, so I ended up finding a family who took our son,” she said. They stayed together for 15 years until Hayes left her for a younger woman in 1997, she said. “I got the boot and got kicked out of the house.”
The next year, at age 35, Hayes hit the jackpot. He was working the graveyard shift guarding commercial and residential buildings for Dial Security, when he bought a Quick Pick lottery ticket at a USA Gas Station on January 7, 1998.
His grandma, whom he’d been living with and caring for, checked the ticket during her morning routine and woke him up with the news. The odds of winning were 1 in 18,009,460. He was ecstatic.
"I know I'll change but only for the better,” he told the Los Angeles Times the next day. “Mainly what I want to do is help out my family and friends in need.”
He added, “I’m not going to blow the money.”
But the good news came at a bad time. Hayes’ family and relationship problems had been weighing on him. “Right before he won, he was dealing with depression and some pretty severe problems,” said Stephen Demik, a criminal defense attorney who represented Hayes on the robbery case. “But when you win $19 million, your first stop isn’t going to be a psychologist— it’s going to be a new car lot.”
After taxes, Hayes took home $13.7 million, which he scheduled to received in 20 annual payments of $684,000. He immediately began burning through the cash.
“I raced Lamborghinis with [pro driver ] Mario Andretti! I owned six different Lambos. I’m a car guy—Bentlys [sic], Porsches, Corvettes, etc,” Hayes wrote. “I owned beachfront houses, had actress girlfriends, you name it, I’ve probably done it.”
At one point, he launched a business plan to rent exotic sports cars to high rollers in Las Vegas. “He was spending like crazy,” recalls Walker. “He’d get an advance on the next year’s [lottery] payment and borrow against it. But he was using more than he had.”
She added, “All that money changed him. He got a hotsty-totsy attitude.”
At car shows, Hayes met celebrities like L.A. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and model/actress Lauren Hutton. He also bought a flashy 1932 Ford Roadster from the son of Mel Blanc, the voice actor who played Bugs Bunny, according to David Parker, his former personal photographer who documented Hayes’s extravagant lifestyle.
“Because of his cars, he met celebrities like Mario Andretti, who picked one of his Lamborghinis—I would say the color was nail-polish pink—to drive at the Running of the Bulls,” Parker said, referencing a luxury sports car event that drew wealthy and famous participants. “He had a lot of toys and was in that crowd.”
When Hayes divorced his first wife, Stephanie, in the late '90s, she was awarded half of his annual lottery payments, according to court documents. But he still splurged on $10,000 Rolex watches, Persian rugs, five-star hotels, and Harley Davidson motorcycles, according to his second wife, Stephanie Wysinger-Hayes. (Hayes married two Stephanies.)
“He developed a taste for the best. When I got together with him, he had 17 cars. He’d let my kids drive his Ferrari,” said Wysinger-Hayes. “He was living a flashy life and I was enjoying his gifts.” He soon had her pretty blonde image painted on one of his motorcycles.
Hayes plunked down roughly $1 million on an oceanfront pad in Oxnard, California, and snapped up three other homes nearby and in Utah, according to Wysinger-Hayes. He took her out to elaborate meals and paid for lavish vacations. “We’d go to Vegas and gamble. He always felt he was either very unlucky or very lucky,” she said, adding he would throw down thousands at the roulette table. “Jim does everything big.”
After they were married on Valentine’s Day 2002, she suggested he take a financial class. As a banker, she was good with money and thought he’d benefit from a lesson on wealth management. “He got caught up in the excitement—new money can do that to you,” she said.
Worse, it seemed like he was using the cash to fill an emotional void. “He didn’t really get to have a childhood, so winning the lottery made him act like a kid in candy store,” she said.
He also gave away too much dough to pals, who sometimes showed up “out of the woodwork” asking for loans or handouts, according to Wysinger-Hayes. “I think he had a form of ‘survivors’ guilt.’ He thought, ‘I won and I didn’t deserve it, so I need to share the wealth,’” she said. “He is extremely generous and wears his heart on his sleeve.”
All that money messed with his head, Hayes admits. “The flip side of being wealthy is crazy. You think, ‘Do my friends like me, or just my cars, money, and the [financial] help I give them?’ When do you say, ‘I can’t pay your debts anymore?’ Then they hate you!”
His good luck soon began to run out. He suffered three herniated discs in his back due to a former work-related injury and had surgery in 2004. When it didn’t help, he turned to prescription pills. “Doctors prescribed me Vicodin, Norco, then Oxycontin. I was addicted without even knowing it,” Hayes said. “I started to need a stronger and stronger dose.”
In the years that followed, he didn’t have a steady job or healthcare, so he paid for the pills out of pocket, according to Wysinger-Hayes. Hayes’ annual lottery checks totaled about $300,000 after income tax and alimony payments, she said. Debts from living large and making bad business moves began to pile up and, in 2007, he filed for bankruptcy, records show.
The California Lottery soon began withholding some of his annual lottery payments to offset the money he owed. He also ran into trouble with the IRS and, by 2015, “We couldn’t touch the lottery money,” Wysinger-Hayes said.
Cash-strapped and pill-hooked, Hayes moved into a modest 40-unit apartment complex, The Leewood residential hotel in Ventura, where he worked as a manager in exchange for free rent, according to the building owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In January 2017, a fire ripped through the complex and Hayes lost nearly everything he owned. A “mentally incompetent” tenant was later sentenced to jail time for arson, according to the Ventura County Star. “I personally evacuated all of the tenants. It was over 60 people, two dogs, three cats, and one very scared goldfish,” Hayes said.
The building owner, who had bought the complex a month before the fire, said Hayes had access to security cameras and likely did help evacuate tenants—but said he was possibly exaggerating the number of people he rescued.
After the blaze, residents were displaced. But Hayes said he got screwed by the building owner, who listed him as an independent contractor and a “resident manager,” leaving him with no unemployment benefits, health care or tenants' rights. “All of the tenants were given two months’ rent to relocate but… I got nothing,” he said.
The owner contended Hayes never had health care through the gig and claimed that, “if anything, he was treated better than other tenants as far as relocation.”
Hayes applied for 38 jobs—but got nowhere with a bad back and a dated resume, according to court papers. He said interviews went like this: “Can you pick up 50 pounds? All day? Have you ever run a cash register? No? What have you been doing the last 19 years? You won what?!?”
Desperate and broke, he and Wysinger-Hayes moved into a “crazy friend’s garage,” he said. “I was pissed.”
The fire may have been a terrible twist of fate, but it’s not unusual for people who hit the jackpot to later go broke. “A lot of lottery winners commit suicide or end up destitute within a decade,” said Demik, who formerly worked at a law firm that catered almost exclusively to this niche demographic. “They jump social status so quickly, they’re not prepared for it.”
“Common sense tells you that if you win millions, your life is made—but it doesn’t always end up like that.”
With no ability to pay for Oxycontin out of pocket, withdrawal hit Hayes like a nasty case of the flu. “You’re shaking in a bed, cold, teeth chattering,” he said. “You put extra blankets over yourself, but now you’re hot, sweating profusely. Every cell in your body is screaming in pain! Your mind tells you, ‘You need your pills and you’ll feel normal.’ It’s like when your brain tells you, ‘Breath, you need more oxygen.’”
Eventually, he went looking for a remedy. “I turned to street drugs,” he said. “The first time I tried heroin, I dissolved it into water and sniffed it. It took away my back pain and pill sickness for 48 hours. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the answer!’” Heroin was cheaper than Oxy but he still needed money to score.
Hayes was listening to '80s metal music with his 10-pound Maine Coon cat, Dr. Pepper, when the idea struck to rob a bank. “I mentally snapped,” he said. “I was broke, dope-sick, pissed off at the world, living in a garage with my beloved cat looking up at me hungry.”
The crime was easy enough to justify. “I would never steal from a working guy. I would never steal an old lady’s purse,” he said. “But I truly thought robbing a bank was a victimless crime, that it’s not the teller’s money, it’s the bank’s—and I hate banks.”
As he weighed the pros and cons, the song “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest blasted.
So much for the golden future I can't even start
I've had every promise broken, there's anger in my heart
You don't know what it's like, you don't have a clue
If you did, you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too
Breaking the law, breaking the law
By the end of the song he’d made up his mind.
Hayes was stunned by how easy the first robbery was. “I’d never been so scared in my entire life—until I walked out of the bank with those 100-dollar bills,” he said. “The poor teller was right out of central casting. She looked like a librarian; she was terrified,” he said. “She just handed [the money] over.”
Later, while watching TV news, he learned investigators weren’t exactly on to him, he said. “They said cops were looking for a 350-pound Hispanic male. I said, ‘Oh man! I got away with this.’” (A local station described the suspect as white or Hispanic and heavier than Hayes.)
As his crime spree unfolded, Hayes read everything from true crime thrillers to internet threads for tips on how to pull off a low-risk heist. He generally struck at around 5 p.m. as cops changed shifts. He disguised his body type and sprayed his fingers with liquid bandages to avoid leaving prints. And he never brought a gun, which would increase his prison time if he got caught. But most importantly, he had to be gone in three minutes or less.
“After I did the first one, it was so easy. It was like, wow,” Hayes said. “It got easier and easier every time. I was completely hooked. I was getting off on it. It was like a game.”
During his second robbery, on May 24, 2017, he handed a teller a note that read, “$5,000, no signals, no dye, no packs, no GPS, no sensors—no eye contact” at a Union Bank, according to an 11-count federal indictment.
Using the money from the robberies, he bought the champagne-colored PT Cruiser and began spending $1,000 a week on heroin, court documents show. In June, he hit a Wells Fargo and a nearby Chase Bank in the landlocked suburban town of Newhall. His biggest payday came in July 25, 2017, when he swiped $7,200 from a Logix Federal Credit Union in Valencia.
More robberies followed with the same M.O., in which Hayes passed a note, claimed to have a gun and sometimes apologized to the teller before fleeing, FBI Special Agent Ingerd Sotelo, the lead investigator on the case, told me. “You could see the robberies were escalating in frequency. We were hoping they wouldn’t escalate in violence,” she said. “Our motivation was that he was prolific and we didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Sotelo developed a theory that the serial crook lived somewhere along Highway 126, which connected the banks. But leads were going nowhere. “Random tips came in that led to nothing,” she said. “There were things we tried to do with his telephone, but he turned it off or didn’t bring it.”
Behind the scenes, Hayes says he was working to lead the FBI off track by scattering strangers’ DNA at the banks he robbed. “One of my favorite things I did was to go to my friend’s barbershop, gather up hair and spread it,” Hayes said, claiming the samples led the feds to other persons of interest. “It was like a game. But you don’t want to make it personal with the FBI.”
Sotelo contends that “no hairs or fibers were collected… There was never any other person we considered.”
The FBI soon sent out a press release asking the public for help catching a thief they called “The Seasoned Bandit” for his apparent age and silver-gray hair. The mystery crook—who had robbed at least nine banks—was “in his 50s or 60s” and wore “casual clothing, a hat and sunglasses,” according to the press release dated Sept. 8, 2017.
Through it all, Hayes kept the crime spree a secret from Wysinger-Hayes, who insists she had no clue about it. “He didn’t tell me because I could have gone to jail as an accomplice,” she said. “He was protecting me.”
In September, Hayes struck the same Wells-Fargo he’d hit in June but fled empty-handed because an employee recognized him. “I knew he was going hit again because he was out of money,” Sotelo recalled. Agents set up a camera on Highway 126 that captured his car and license plate, which Hayes hadn’t yet registered, as he fled from a robbery on Sept. 26, 2017, she said. With the help of an anonymous tipster, who called with his name, the FBI turned its attention to Hayes.
Within a week, the feds were onto him.
Hayes was walking out of his friend’s garage on Oct. 2, when he heard someone shout “Don’t move!” He looked up and spotted more than a dozen FBI agents, dressed in bright green bulletproof vests, with their weapons drawn.
“They took me down at gunpoint, 15 agents with AR-15s and Glock pistols. There were so many laser sights on my body, I looked like I had the measles,” he said. Agents cuffed him, stripped off his shirt and searched him for firearms. A total of 10 guns were registered in his name, according to Sotelo.
Agents slapped cuffs on Wysinger-Hayes, too. “They treated us like Bonnie and Clyde,” she said. “I was in handcuffs flat on my stomach, spread-eagle. I told them they had the wrong people.”
The feds split up the couple and took them to separate interrogation rooms. “You know exactly why you’re here,” one of them barked, according to Wysinger-Hayes. They grilled her over her former job as a banker and urged her to admit she was in on the heists. “I told them, 'My husband’s not a bank robber—you’re high on crack!’” she said. “I thought it was a case of mistaken identity.”
When the agents showed her a security camera image of Hayes at the bank, mid-robbery, she still didn’t believe it. “They said to me, ‘What do you think of this picture?’ And I said, ‘That’s not him—my husband would never be caught dead in a fedora!’”
“But then they showed me a picture of him in a baseball cap, and I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s him,” she added. “It was one of the freakiest moments of my life.” She was not charged with a crime.
In the other room, Hayes asked for a cigarette and confessed immediately. “He was very forthcoming. He was a lot more cooperative than [Wysinger-Hayes],” Sotelo said. He was sent to a federal detention center in Los Angeles, where he detoxed from heroin, cold turkey. “Nine out of 10 bank robbers have a drug problem. So he was not unique in that way,” Sotelo said.
Once Hayes got clean, his personality changed. “When I first met him, he was combative and recalcitrant,” Demik recalls. “But after a week and a half—after he had detoxed—his personality changed 180 degrees. It was like Jekyll and Hyde. He was a completely different person under the influence of heroin.”
In March, Hayes pleaded guilty to four counts of robbery. Demik argued he should get a lenient sentencing due to his clean criminal record, rough upbringing, and the fact that the crime was non-violent. “He didn’t even have a gun… This is hardly John Dillinger,” Demik wrote in court papers. “Mr. Hayes was a pitiful drug addict, living in a garage and dealing with one of the worst addictions ever.”
Winning the lottery was partly to blame, Demik wrote in court papers. “[Hayes] won $19 million, however, much of that money was either absorbed by taxes, bad investments or shared 50 percent with his ex-wife. After winning the lottery he began to suffer from the ‘lottery curse,’ losing his bearing in life. He ended up poor and destitute.”
Hayes’ brother Ben vouched for him, too. “He is the type of person who will go out of his way to help someone in need. I cannot fully express how out of character the crimes my brother has committed are,” he wrote in a letter to the judge.
Ben later told me he didn’t want to talk about Hayes’ crime spree. “I’m sick of thinking about it,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”
On sentencing day, Hayes told the judge he felt awful about what he’d done. “I think it was sincere—that he was speaking from the heart,” Demik said. “He’s a good person and I think the judge saw that.”
Hayes was sentenced to 33 months in prison along with three years of supervised release and $39,424 in restitution. “He could have gotten a lot more time,” Sotelo said.
To hear Hayes tell it, incarceration has done more good for him than winning the lottery ever did.
“Prison is the most horrible thing ever but I’m thankful it happened. It saved my life. I should have overdosed 100 times—and now I’m eight months sober,” he said. He's been exercising, making art, and getting in touch with his spiritual side behind bars, he said.
The robberies now seem like an insane dream. “I did shit I can’t believe. Would I have killed somebody? No. But I really thought it wasn’t going to hurt anyone. That’s how messed up I was from this drug,” he said.
He added, “I’ve had epiphanies since then. I’ve been thinking, what if my wife had been a teller? She’d be traumatized. And trauma has a ripple effect; it goes on and on.”
Wysinger-Hayes recently moved to Utah, where she has relatives. She plans to go back to school and study sociology or psychology. Looking back, she thinks that state lotteries should better prepare folks who hit the jackpot. “They should have a mandatory class on what to do when you win,” she said. “Because money doesn’t equal happiness—it can really screw up your life.”
Hayes’ release date is Feb. 23, 2020. When he gets out, he wants to publish a memoir with the working title Lottery to Robbery, and to make amends with friends and family. Most of all, he'd like things to be dull for a change.
“Everything about how you live can be either low, medium, or over the top,” he said. “If I could change one thing about myself, I’d be more in the middle.”