Talking to Luke Sommer is a bit like enduring a commando raid. The former Army Ranger talks fast, flits between subjects and occasionally...

Share story

PEACHLAND, B.C. — Talking to Luke Sommer is a bit like enduring a commando raid.

The former Army Ranger talks fast, flits between subjects and occasionally blurs reality.

Securing the truth during such an onslaught is a tough task.

This much is certain: Sommer is living in the basement of his mother’s home in this snow-covered corner of British Columbia while under house arrest. According to a U.S. grand jury, Sommer, while stationed at Fort Lewis, persuaded five friends — including three fellow Rangers — to rob a Tacoma bank in August.

U.S. prosecutors say they have piles of evidence against Sommer, enough to compel the Canadian government to return him to the United States to face criminal charges: One of his alleged co-conspirators has pleaded guilty, and Sommer admitted his role in the robbery to Canadian police immediately after his arrest.

Charged in robbery


Charged in connection with the Aug. 7 robbery at the Bank of America branch on South Tacoma Way:

Luke Sommer, 20, an Army Ranger who has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. Charged with armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence, possession of a machine gun, three counts of possession of a hand grenade and one count of possession of an explosive bomb. Currently under house arrest in his mother’s home in Peachland, B.C., fighting extradition to the United States.

Chad Palmer, 21, an Army Ranger from Chesapeake, Va. Pleaded guilty in December to armed bank robbery and brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence. In custody at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.

Alex Blum, 19, an Army Ranger from Greenwood Village, Colo. Charged with armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery and brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence. In custody at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. Due to stand trial April 9.

Tigra Robertson, 20, a Canadian citizen from Peachland, B.C., and member of the Canadian military reserves. Charged with armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery and brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence. Released on bond and living in Kelowna, B.C. Due to stand trial April 9.

Nathan Dunmall, 18, a Canadian citizen from Chilliwack, B.C., charged with armed bank robbery, conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery and brandishing a machine gun during a crime of violence. Released on bond and living in Chilliwack. He is fighting extradition to the United States.

Scott Byrne, 32, a U.S. citizen and Army Ranger, charged with armed bank robbery and conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery. Released on bond. Due to stand trial April 9.

Richard Olinger, 21, a U.S. citizen and Army Ranger. Pleaded guilty to storing hand grenades and a homemade bomb for Sommer in a storage unit in Parkland, Pierce County. There is no indication the weapons he stored were to be used in the robbery.

So the question isn’t whether he did it, but why.

Why would a battle-tested Ranger, who at age 20 had risen to rock-star status within his unit, a man with no criminal record and a seemingly unlimited future in the military, risk throwing it all away for a few thousand dollars in an ill-conceived bank heist?

Prosecutors have an answer: Sommer planned to use the proceeds from the robbery to start a crime family in nearby Kelowna, B.C. His goal, they say, was to wrest control of the drug-running and extortion rackets from the Hell’s Angels.

Sommer said that’s nonsense. He said the robbery was designed so he could get caught and use the resulting notoriety to expose war crimes by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aware of the news coverage Rangers-turned-robbers would generate, Sommer claims obvious evidence was purposely left behind to ensure they would be arrested.

The Army said it has investigated his claims and found no evidence of the alleged war crimes. Attorneys representing some of Sommer’s co-conspirators also say the war-crimes allegation holds no water.

To many, his defense of exposing war crimes sounds like a fallback plan designed to win his freedom and skirt U.S. justice.

Sommer readily admits — even brags — that his claim of witnessing war crimes could keep him beyond the U.S. government’s reach. If he can convince a Canadian court that his motive for the robbery — exposing war crimes — was political, he could conceivably win asylum and never face prosecution.

Gary Botting, an extradition expert and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Law School, said the Canadian Extradition Act lists certain types of crimes for which extradition cannot be blocked for political reasons, including murder, sexual assault and kidnapping. Armed bank robbery is not on the list, Botting said, so Sommer should at least get a chance to voice his political rationale.

“It makes a certain amount of screwball sense,” Botting said.

Trail of clues

Shortly before 5:15 p.m. Aug. 7, a silver Audi A4 pulled up behind the Bank of America branch on South Tacoma Way. Four masked men sheathed in body armor got out and stormed the building.

One of the robbers leaped a glass barrier and collected cash. Another put a gun to a teller’s head and ordered her to open the vault. Two armed with AK-47s kept watch.

Two minutes and 21 seconds later, they left with $54,011.

The FBI would later say the robbery was carried out with “military-style precision and planning.”

But the robbers left behind a sloppy trail of clues. They removed the rear license plate from their getaway car, but not the one in front. A witness jotted down the number and investigators traced the car to Alex Blum, an Army Ranger based at Fort Lewis.

Searches at the Army base near Tacoma turned up body armor and money from the bank in the barracks rooms of Blum and Chad Palmer, a fellow Ranger. In Sommer’s room, investigators found body armor, $10,000 in cash, two AK-47s and two semiautomatic handguns.

Blum, 19, was soon arrested in Colorado while visiting family. Palmer, now 21, was arrested in Virginia. Sommer, 20, was arrested in a grocery in Westbank, B.C.

Tigra Robertson, 20, turned himself in at the U.S. border Aug. 13. Nathan Dunmall, 18, of Chilliwack, B.C., was arrested Aug. 18.

Palmer pleaded guilty last month.

Blum, Robertson and Scott Byrne, another Ranger charged with helping Sommer plan the robbery, are due to stand trial April 9.

Sommer and Dunmall, who is also still in Canada, are scheduled for an extradition hearing in May.

In several media interviews, Sommer has carefully declined to admit he took part in the bank robbery.

Yet the day after he was arrested by Canadian authorities, Sommer made a lengthy, videotaped statement to Constable Bruce Singer, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Sommer told Singer he was the ringleader, he planned the robbery and he supplied the weapons. He also said his purpose was to expose war crimes.

“People don’t get the opportunity to say what needs to be said if they’re not given the spotlight,” Sommer said, according to a transcript of the interview. “I had to find something that there’s a high chance of getting caught and yet enough chance of me getting to Canada, where I can fight extradition, make my statement known.”

Sommer then told Singer he had seen videotaped evidence that 13 handcuffed Afghan men had been executed by Navy SEALs in 2005 and that an Iraqi woman was raped in front of her husband — and Sommer — by a Delta Force soldier in 2004.

Sommer also claimed that, as he was preparing for his second deployment to Iraq, a staff sergeant had told him that he and the two soldiers Sommer commanded should bring “throwaway” handguns to plant on unarmed Iraqis who might get killed by Rangers.

Sommer later said in an interview that conversation was “an absolute clincher” in his decision to go ahead with the bank robbery before his deployment. With his unit a month away from returning to Iraq, he said he wanted no part of the war.

“I’m a tough son of a bitch, but I could not have gone back,” Sommer said. “I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to take one of the guys I was responsible for and put them through the same [stuff] I went through.”

Carol Darby, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said soldiers are not allowed to bring their own guns overseas, and commanders check for such weapons during predeployment inspections.

Sommer said he feels little kinship with Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, the Fort Lewis officer who is being court-martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq. The judge in the case declared a mistrial Wednesday. Watada, whose case has become a rallying point for anti-war activists, said he was convinced the war was illegal.

Sommer said no one would have paid attention if he, as an enlisted man, had similarly refused to go back to Iraq.

In Baghdad by 18

Like many boys, Sommer was obsessed with the military, in part because his father and grandfather had served in the U.S. military. His decision to join the Army was sealed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Christel Fichtner Davidsen, 44, thought the military’s rigid structure would be good for her son, who was born in Kelowna, B.C., and who had been home-schooled.

Sommer, who holds dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, was so eager to get started, that the day before he turned 17, he drove to Bellingham and spent the night at the home of his recruiter so he could enlist the moment he was eligible.

He excelled at basic training. He volunteered for and successfully completed Airborne School and then the grueling four-week Ranger Indoctrination Program at Fort Benning, Ga.

In June 2004, he was assigned to the Madslashers — 1st platoon, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment based at Fort Lewis. Sommer’s unit was deployed in Iraq, so he was sent to join it. He arrived in Baghdad six days after he turned 18.

Success — and sorrow

By the time Sommer turned 20, he had taken part in top-secret raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things were going well for him in the months preceding the robbery.

On April 6, after twice failing, he graduated from Ranger School — a rigorous course of advanced training for seasoned Rangers — and received his coveted Ranger Tab. “He was proud as punch getting through that,” Davidsen said. “Ranger School was the highlight of his life.”

The Ranger Tab, along with Sommer’s combat experience, greatly enhanced his stature. “You get a Ranger Tab, you can destroy souls,” Sommer said. “You are God to those without.”

It also had tangible benefits: Sommer was on a track to earn his sergeant stripes and given command of two privates, including Blum.

Shortly after graduating from Ranger School, Sommer extended his enlistment from 2007 to 2009 and collected a $20,000 bonus.

But things were not as rosy as they seemed.

Sommer claims his platoon sergeant “hated me because he knew I was Canadian, and I’m very liberal.” On the day he “re-upped” for two more years, Sommer said, the sergeant ordered him to shake out parachutes, an odious task normally reserved for the greenest Rangers.

In May, Sommer said, he went to the sergeant to discuss war crimes he’d witnessed and was angrily rebuffed. “He was like, ‘Dude, so what? [Stuff] like this happens in a war,’ ” Sommer recalled.

The Pentagon said it first learned of Sommer’s war-crimes allegations from Canadian police after his arrest. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division reviewed Sommer’s claims from Sept. 12 to Oct. 25 and determined they were “completely unfounded and unsubstantiated by evidence disclosed during the criminal inquiry,” said Darby, the Army spokeswoman.

The Pentagon declined to release details of the inquiry.

In July, Sommer’s grandmother, Denise Fichtner, with whom he was extremely close, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She deteriorated quickly and was put on life support Aug. 1, a week before the robbery.

Sommer said the prospect of Fichtner’s death emboldened him.

“One of the things I thought about the most was how it would affect the people around me” if he went to jail, Sommer said. “She was no longer someone I had to factor into the equation, because she wouldn’t live to go through that pressure, of seeing me go through this.”

After the bank robbery, Sommer took an overnight bus to Kelowna. He spent Aug. 8 at his grandmother’s bedside.

She passed away that night.

Eager student

Living in a messy corner of his mother’s basement, Sommer does not fit the image of an Army Ranger. He spends endless hours online, watches lots of movies and irritates his mom by smoking and drinking too much.

He talks with media outlets ranging from National Public Radio to Rolling Stone magazine and Canada’s National Post, telling anyone who will listen about his war-crimes claims.

Still, Sommer’s eyes light up when he talks about his Ranger exploits. He enjoyed his work, his friendships and his elite status.

“I can escape from handcuffs,” Sommer said. “I know how to hot-wire a vehicle. I know how to use heavy loaders to clear airfields. I know how to use household chemicals to build explosives.”

Another specialty he learned: planning and executing raids on small buildings.

Prosecutors said Sommer used that training while making a withdrawal inside the Tacoma bank days before the robbery.

Another skill Sommer put to use in the robbery is what he calls “developing assets.”

“Developing an asset,” he said, “is when you find yourself in a situation in which you have no known allies. You use whatever information, whatever tools, [whatever] subterfuge is necessary to increase your ally list to get a mission accomplished.”

Blum, Palmer, Robertson, Dunmall and Byrne were developed as assets to rob the bank, he said.

Sommer claims he told his friends a bogus story about wanting to rob the bank to fund a Canadian crime family. If they knew his plan was to get caught so he could expose war crimes, he said, they would not have taken part.

Sommer said Blum and Palmer took part in the robbery for the adrenaline rush and because they were loyal friends. Attorneys for Blum and Palmer disagree.

“Sommer is grossly exaggerating his personal relationship with Alex Blum,” said Kim Gordon, Blum’s attorney.

Sommer was Blum’s commanding officer. Blum regarded him not as a friend but as an authority figure, Gordon said.

“Sommer’s motives are pretty transparent at this point and don’t have much bearing on Chad’s situation or, for that matter, reality,” said Colin Fieman, Palmer’s lawyer. When pleading guilty, Palmer said Sommer’s motive was to start a crime family.

In a recent indictment, the U.S. government said Robertson, Blum and Byrne also believed Sommer’s goal was funding a crime family.

No sign of remorse

Waiting until his extradition hearing, Sommer expresses no remorse about the jail time and troubled futures his friends face.

He appears indifferent at the possibility of his own lengthy prison term and says a life behind bars would be a worthwhile sacrifice to expose injustices in the U.S. war on terrorism.

“Prison is not always something that you physically reside in,” Sommer said, paraphrasing a character from “Inside Man,” a movie about a complicated bank robbery. “You know? I’d rather be in prison or dead than deal with the prison of my own mind.”

But until Sommer produces evidence to support his claims, he remains an accused bank robber with an elaborate explanation for his actions.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com