TAMPA — He had dreamed about returning to comedy in odd moments, between meetings with the lawyer, the lonely trip to the correctional institute, picking up trash on state roads while a guard stood by with a rifle. This nightmare would make him stronger because that's how it works; pain is the irritant in the oyster that produces the pearl, and art is the muscle that can create good of our worst experiences, even our worst actions.
And it was actually going well that night, on that stage at the Tampa Improv. They were laughing.
Once, Jeff Lluis had played for paying crowds. He wasn't a name, but he had worked at small venues. Now in the first open mic since his release, he found he could still connect with regular citizens.
His jokes had matured in prison. The punch lines went beyond sex or drugs to the insecurities of life inside, of having to think on your feet. The crowd sipped and nibbled and laughed, until they didn't because the man on stage wasn't talking anymore.
A few seconds went by, then more. An eternity in comic time. Lluis had forgotten his next joke. Finally, he blurted out four words.
"It's hard being me."
The room was totally silent.
• • •
"I just lost my job recently. ... Things got kind of complicated around the office after detectives picked me up and took me in."
Lluis robbed the same bank twice in one week. Before that, he had tried to rob another.
By that point, he was already working as a stand-up comedian and had posted his comedy on YouTube. The arrest of the bank-robbing comedian proved instant click bait, showing up as far away as the British tabloids.
The Los Angeles Times wrote, "No joke: Police say comic's day job was robbing banks." The UK Daily Mail wrote, "Have you heard the one about the comedian who robbed a bank?"
Luis is 33 now and performing more than ever. He works in Tampa, and is starting to get gigs in other states, hoping to earn enough money to live on. He supplements his income by cleaning pools.
He knows Google won't forget his crimes, and that will color his career. But stand-up, he said, is the only thing that's ever held his attention longer than six months.
It's an interesting profession for a person like Lluis. Stand-up originated with the ancient Greeks, a way to tell truth without censorship. Modern comedy sits somewhere between truth and lies, but there is an understanding that the details don't matter. There's only one rule: Keep the energy up. Comedy is about chasing euphoria, something that's not easy to catch.
• • •
May 8, 2007. A man of medium height and slim build entered a BankAtlantic on N Dale Mabry Highway. He wore jean shorts, a green T-shirt, sunglasses and a baseball cap. The man scribbled a note on the back of a deposit slip demanding money and handed it to a teller.
The teller told the robber the money was in the back. Before the teller could return, the man left, ran to an adjacent parking lot and drove away.
• • •
Jeff Lluis was taking classes at Hillsborough Community College. He was interested in English, maybe teaching. He was a respectful student, teachers said, who earned As and Bs.
They didn't know about his cocaine habit. He even hid it from girlfriends, ducking into bathrooms to use. Two weeks before the semester ended, Lluis stopped coming to class. He did not turn in a term paper or show up for the final exam.
"It's always appalling when you see unfulfilled potential," said Barry Silber, Lluis's former psychology professor. "But in this case the student was motivated. ...It's disheartening."
The reason he stopped coming to class is that he had been arrested for cocaine possession on July 3, 2008. Hillsborough County Sheriff's detectives ran Lluis' fingerprints and found a match.
A thumb print on the bank robber's note from an attempted robbery 14 months earlier.
• • •
Anybody can get up on an open mic for a few minutes. It doesn't matter if you're good looking, young or old, a felon, a drug addict. If you think you've got a story to tell, you've got three minutes.
While awaiting trial in 2008, Lluis tried his hand a local comedy club. He remembers being nervous, a stage light casting heat on his face. But people listened, and he liked that.
Lluis spent six months in jail, then a year in rehab. He was placed on probation until 2014 for the attempted robbery, a possession charge and two counts of trying to cash bogus money orders. He never returned to college. He tried to stay away from drugs and Tampa, but it wasn't long before he was back on them and living with his parents.
He kept trying the mic.
"I know he loved it, but he was way too green or inexperienced to be where he was really a working comic," said Brian Thompson, who manages Side Splitters Comedy Club in Tampa. "Definitely at that point he was still an amateur."
Lluis might be the first to agree.
"If you ask me now, I was terrible," he said. "I was a beginner. But I was making headway, so I knew I was good."
He got his first paying gig in 2010. He made jokes about herpes and a schizophrenic hypochondriac. He began filling notebooks. He wrote of Ybor City and nuns, family and relationships, drug tests, eating disorders, death. Bad taste or good, funny or not, he delivered the lines with the rapid repartee of a teacher, trying to hold the attention of the class.
• • •
I was so tore up on Xanax, I walked into the same bank twice. I forgot that I had just robbed that bank. I walk in and the dude's like, "Really, bro? You were just here." And I'm like, "For real?"
• • •
"Have you ever gone into a bank, and you've looked at the dials on the vault and you're standing in line and you wonder how everything works?" Lluis said. "Have you ever had that moment? Everybody's had that moment. Now imagine that you have a substance that takes away all inhibitions. I had two of those."
Cocaine creates cravings, Xanax removes barriers. It's a one-two punch. It's also a nifty analysis, the kind that can characterize multiple robberies as a normal response to stress.
"I become an immoral person," he said. "Not a danger, but someone who's going to cheat on his girlfriend. Someone who would walk right in to a bank and ask for money. Someone who might steal a bag of candy when he's got $200 in his pocket."
Lluis is vague, even coy, about other crimes he may have committed. Sometimes he says he can't remember. Other times he says he can't disclose. Yet he laces allusions to robberies with an anecdote, he emphasizes, that took place multiple times.
The story goes like this: Lluis is returning from one of these mysterious expeditions. On his way home, he hands out hunks of cash to the homeless. Large amounts of cash, until half the take is gone.
"It's hard for people to swallow? I don't care," he said. "It's the truth. I'd give half of it out. I was splitting it every time."
Every time? What kinds of activities? The answer narrowed slightly over multiple interviews.
"Obviously, I can't say locations and times," he said several months ago. Later, Lluis said he didn't remember who or what institutions he might have robbed.
Pressed further, he said some of them might have been banks, banks other than the ones we know about.
He talks in his act about handing out the money.
"Trust me," he says. "I was getting very high with the other half."
• • •
Nov. 6, 2011. Girlfriend Tiffany Griffin, then 20, texted Lluis.
She wanted to know where money he owed her had gone. The conversation resumed in the morning, and they argued mildly. They texted and talked throughout the day.
Griffin, 11:40 p.m.: were you ok? You were talking like a crazy person or something on the phone
Lluis, 11:44 p.m.: Hard to speak to you about what i think is happening on the phone. Tell you soon
Lluis did have a plan to get the money he owed, one he had rehearsed many times in his head. He told himself banks are federally insured, that he would not be stealing directly from them. He didn't want to threaten anyone.
And then he said something about a bomb.
• • •
Nov. 8, 2011. At 10:26 a.m., a man of medium height and slim build entered the SunTrust Bank at 5370 Ehrlich Road in Tampa. He wore a hooded sweatshirt, a baseball cap and sunglasses.
He came up to the window and demanded money, teller Carlos Alvarez wrote to investigators. Because the robber's voice was barely audible, Alvarez asked him to repeat what he had said.
He repeated the demand, Alvarez said, but this time with a threat to blow up the place. He said to hurry or he was "going to hurt everyone."
Michelle Riddell, a teller who normally did not work in that branch, was working behind Alvarez and saw the exchange.
"He wasn't mean or nasty to everybody," said Riddell, 45. "He was just oddly calm."
He insisted on large bills. Alvarez handed over bills totalling $704, trying to find the alarm button.
"How you doing?" the robber said to an incoming customer. Then he ran to a parking lot across the street, jumped into a car and drove behind a strip shopping center and out of sight.
Later, Lluis texted his girlfriend.
Lluis 6:26 p.m.: im gonna call you and explain..Don't worry I got your money
Then, he texted a different female friend. He's a super big flirt, he said. He wasn't loyal. Anyway, he wasn't in his right mind. No one in his right mind would rob a bank, then turn around and rob the same bank two days later.
• • •
You might recognize me. Not for comedy. I made international news about six years ago. You remember that stand-up comedian that got caught robbing banks? Anybody remember that? Well, he's a dumba---, I'll tell you why.
• • •
Nov. 10, 2011. At 9:35 a.m., a man of medium height and slim build entered the SunTrust Bank. He wore a baseball cap and sunglasses.
He approached teller Anna Causey, who recognized him.
"Yep, it's me again," he told Causey, according to her report to detectives. "Give me all your money. Hurry, hurry, hurry."
Lluis left the bank with $1,181, a SunTrust regional security coordinator told investigators.
He wouldn't get far. Lluis was already a person of interest in the Nov. 8 robbery. Investigators knew of similarities between that crime and the 2007 attempted holdup. They had even stopped him in traffic on Nov. 9, but decided they didn't have sufficient grounds to hold him.
After the second robbery, they went to his house, a four-minute drive from the bank.
• • •
The news quickly went viral. Stories highlighted Lluis' YouTube jokes about being on probation.
His parents hired lawyer Lisa McLean, a former statewide prosecutor. They quickly agreed on a strategy. Whereas most defendants plead not guilty and take more time to evaluate their case, Lluis pleaded guilty a few weeks after his arrest.
"That is almost unheard of," McLean said. "It's a big deal, and it went a long way."
Also in his favor were the lack of a weapon, no comparable prior arrests, a positive mental health evaluation and family support. The judge also had a letter from Terry Crews, Lluis' high school English teacher.
"I hope I helped him get a lesser sentence," Crews, 60, told the Times earlier this year. "I don't think he's the kind of person who should be in jail. He should have the opportunity to redeem himself, which he has done."
Crews, who died in September of cancer, credited Lluis with being a "big supporter and caregiver" who checked in with him frequently, sought critiques for his comedy and took him kayaking along the Withlacoochee. When Crews lost his hair, Lluis shaved his own and gave it to him in a Ziploc bag to show support.
The judge sentenced Lluis to three years in state prison — a good deal for two known bank robberies with another botched attempt on his record.
"I can't tell you why this case didn't go federal," McLean said. "His guidelines would have been substantially different."
He ended up in the Marion County Correctional Institution, where he worked on a road crew. In prison he used humor to deflect and to make friends.
Lluis focused on a recurring theme of karma, only with a twist. He felt a sense of universal payback in the aftermath of the SunTrust robberies, he said, not because he committed them. But because, he said, he stopped giving the money to the homeless.
"I used all of it. Instant, karma, man. Instant karma."
• • •
Lluis was the youngest of six. The family, descendents of cigar makers, lived in West Tampa, then moved to Carrollwood. His father, Dr. Robert Lluis, practiced emergency room medicine for at least 30 years.
A brother, also named Robert Lluis, remembers his kid brother as an entertainer who did skateboard stunts, rode unicycles and juggled.
"He was always making the family laugh at gatherings," said the younger Robert Lluis, 42. "He definitely enjoyed the spotlight."
Jeff Lluis had the highest IQ in the family and took gifted courses. This, he said, was never enough.
"If I brought home a 98 it was, 'Why didn't you get 100?'" Lluis said. "It was not, 'Good job.' It was, 'Let's work on this.' To this day, it's something I live with, man. Daddy issues."
Lluis saw his father cry once, he said. He had bailed him out of jail after his cocaine arrest. He wondered whether pulling 24-hour shifts in the emergency room had distanced him from his son.
His brother described the family as "quietly supportive," not openly demonstrative. But he could relate to Jeff's desire to please his father, who had wanted his youngest son to become a lawyer.
"My father was a pretty accomplished guy, and that could be pretty intimidating," said the younger Robert Lluis, an information security consultant.
Still, Lluis seemed to grasp at his potential. He comforted his sister through a brain injury, helping her learn to speak again. At Chamberlain High, he took advanced placement courses and was on the step team. He liked literary outsiders Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. Crews remembered Lluis as "a really intuitive, smart, inquisitive and really interesting person who loved to read."
But even then, Lluis was keeping a secret — a taste for cocaine that started at age 14 when a friend offered him some.
"No one begged me to do it," Lluis said. "I wish hadn't ever. I was dealing with a lot at the time. "
The high of the drug, at once sweeping and crystal clear, clicked with him instantly, but so did the focus and confidence. Psychiatrists also use stimulants to treat attention deficit disorder, a condition Lluis thinks he has.
"I think really fast and I have struggles concentrating on one task," he said. "However, I'm really good at multitasking."
Jeff's father did not return multiple calls from the Times. He visited his son regularly in prison.
"He spent quite a bit of time and effort going to see him," said the younger Robert Lluis. "By far the lion's share."
• • •
After prison, and after his bomb at the Tampa Improv when the room fell silent and the energy drained, Lluis was scared off from stand-up for six months.
When he did go back, he wrote his set list down, scrawling jokes on water bottles. Jobs came in drips and drabs. Emilio Diaz, an aspiring comic and promoter, wanted to open a new comedy venue in Ybor. He didn't know Lluis well, but liked what he had seen and wanted to book him for 2016 debut of the Covadonga Comedy Show.
Diaz asked about those robberies he read about on the Internet.
"He's assured me that he is completely rehabilitated and, absolutely, he definitely uses his experience in prison during his stand up act," Diaz told the Times in an email. "... My philosophy is that I don't usually judge someone on their past, however, if they allow their past to interfere with their present, things will be different."
Lluis has the support of Tampa's comic underclass, blue-collar hopefuls who work for $50 to a few hundred dollars while holding down other jobs. Such was the crowd earlier this year at the Pegasus Lounge, where Lluis emceed a benefit. On a shadowy stage, Lluis told a few dozen onlookers he was allergic to Xanax.
"It makes me break out in felonies and misdemeanors."
He told the crowd he's been clean and sober for five years. When a few started to applaud, he cut in.
"Just kidding," he said. "I'm not."
• • •
In his visions, Lluis sees himself living in Los Angeles. He's touring the country, but comes back to Ybor. He continues the tradition of the lectores, who read the newspaper aloud to other cigar workers, an ambassador explaining a complicated world.
To hit big, comedians usually need national television exposure. Lluis has headlined some shows, including a gig in Anniston, Ala. His girlfriend, comic and improv artist Natasha Samreny, opened for him. A locally-produced film he's in, Billy's Got a Bad Brain, premiered recently at Tampa Improv.
Robert Lluis is a regular at his brother's gigs. Barry Silber, who studies the use of humor in counseling, also tries to catch Lluis' work.
"He needs to fine-tune his act a little more," Silber said. "But he's learning more and more and his comedy is improving. He was relaxed last time, his segues were good."
Still, Silber ticked off demerits for the same old jokes about herpes and the like.
"It was kind of low-brow," he said. "He's got a ways to go, to be honest."
They wonder why he doesn't find a mentor, take an online course, something.
"Raw talent alone is not enough," his brother said. "It's like an actor, there's a great formalization. I'd like to see the schooling side of it as part of his growth path."
Life hasn't buttoned up neatly for some of those former SunTrust employees. Carlos Alvarez, the teller an investigator described as "shaken up" after the first robbery, has left banking. The robbery was routine and not violent, he told the Times.
"Having said that," Alvarez said, "it was something hopefully no one should have to go through. We were robbed."
Causey, the teller in the second robbery, no longer works for SunTrust. She did not return calls. Michelle Riddell has also moved out of retail banking to the operations side, away from customers.
"I was done after the robberies," she said. "I didn't feel safe."
Nor did Tiffany Griffin wish to say much about her ex-boyfriend, who she continued seeing through part of his prison stay.
"He was very smart and very artistic," said Griffin, now 26. "But back then I was much younger and very naïve. He knew how to talk to people and he was very eloquent. He knew how to get his way. It was not a happy time to recollect. No one else should ever be fooled by him again."
• • •
Hurricanes in Tampa are like drug dealers in Tampa. Like, they always say they're on the way. But in reality they haven't left the house yet. I'm still waiting for Hurricane Matthew. It's been, like, years. I'm calling him, I'm like, 'Hey Matt, where you at?' 'Hey Jeff, I'm at the corner at the light.'
• • •
At Johnny Brusco's, he started with the hurricane joke. He moved to a complicated riff only people who smoke pot and also love the movie Mr. Holland's Opus would get.
He had worked up a rhythm. He was wrapping up a prison joke about pretending not to speak English, about flashing nonexistent gang signs to evade a threat, when a light flashed from the back of the room. It was time to wrap. He was promised 30 minutes, given 15.
Lluis threw down the last line of the joke and announced his name with a wave.
Outside he lit a cigarette. The show might have started late. Or Natasha's five minutes shaved time off his act. Either way, he said, "You get paid the same."
He liked the set. He was glad that he retrieved the energy, scooped up the mood and turned it in his favor.
His breathing slowed. His voice lost a jittery, distracted edge. A darting eye contact drew itself into focus. He was Sisyphus, another well-born son chained to his past, rolling a boulder up a hill. Turning a dark tide back, feeding a room. Keeping the energy afloat, momentarily, a beach ball bounced along by a crowd.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.