Cowboy Bob: The Mysterious Middle-Aged Bank Robber Who Fooled the FBI

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About 5-foot-10, with a slight paunch, beard, and graying hair, the robber was silent but polite when he strolled into Dallas-area banks. The FBI called him Cowboy Bob on account of the 10-gallon hat he'd wear inexplicably backwards during his stick-ups, and for nearly a year in the early '90s, he led veteran FBI agents on a wild goose chase. When they finally caught up with him, they found something that turned their investigation on its head.

A TALENTED THIEF

The first five times Cowboy Bob hit, between May 1991 and September 1992, his execution was near-flawless. Unlike most bank robbers, he stayed calm. According to witnesses, he never brought weapons, avoided the cameras for the most part, and checked the bills for dye packs (radio-controlled devices intended to stain both cash and thief bright red). He’d pass a note announcing the robbery and instructing the teller to hand over the cash, then walk out slowly and drive away calmly in his 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix fixed with stolen license plates.

He drove the FBI crazy. The beard and hat and silence made him hard to identify, and the stolen license plates made him almost impossible to track. He didn’t make scenes, didn’t peel out in his getaway car, didn’t attract much eyewitness attention. “He was making me start to pull my hair out,” former agent Steve Powell told Texas Monthly in 2005. “How could this thin, little dried-up cowboy be whipping us this bad, time after time?”

The sixth time, however, he screwed up. Maybe he’d gotten greedy, or maybe he’d gotten cocky, but when the Grand Prix pulled away from First Interstate Bank in Mesquite, Texas, it was sporting its actual license plates. Powell and his team traced the number, taken down by a witness, to a Ford factory worker nearby. His name was Pete Tallas and he’d given the Grand Prix to his sister Peggy Jo.

Powell and his team raced to the apartment where Peggy Jo and her mother lived, expecting to find a cowboy-hat-wearing boyfriend and a kiddie pool of cash. But there were only the women, and neither one of them had much to say about any robbery.

Even when agents found a mannequin head with a fake beard in the closet, and a sack full of money in the bedroom, even when they pressed Peggy Jo on the location of this boyfriend, all she had to say, according to Powell, was: “There isn’t any man. I promise you that.”

That’s when he noticed the glue still clinging to her upper lip and the flecks of gray dye in her hair.

WILD AT HEART

Peggy Jo Tallas grew up in Dallas in the 1950s and '60s. She loved rock 'n' roll, hitting local clubs with her friends, and the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She had a wilder side—in her twenties, after a night out, she stole a car that had its keys left in the ignition and took it for a joy ride. Caught and convicted of a felony, she got five years' probation. Mostly, she dreamed of living on the beach in Mexico.

But as the '70s passed and the '80s began, things took a different turn. Her mother became ill, requiring most of her attention and money. Disappointed in love, and in a rocky relationship with her brother and sister, Peggy Jo didn't have a lot of positive things to focus on. She held a series of jobs, and lived in a series of small apartments with her mother. She watched the bills pile up. The once "wild at heart" young woman was now swallowing anxiety medication.

She never explained why she became Cowboy Bob. When the media pressed, when book and movie opportunities were thrown at her, she stayed silent. Those who knew her best thought that while the first robbery was a way to help cover her mother’s medical bills, later she just started to have fun with it.

Her lawyer painted a pitiful picture:

"At the time of these robberies, Ms. Tallas' mother was bedridden, suffering from a severe and chronic degenerative bone disease. Ms. Tallas' intense emotional attachment to her mother coupled with her own chronic mental impairment prevented Ms. Tallas from appreciating the wrongfulness of her actions."

Regardless, she and her family stayed mum. Peggy Jo pleaded guilty to bank robbery and served nearly three years in prison.

When she got out in the mid-'90s, things quieted down. The years crept by. She took a job at a marina, where locals loved her for the attention she paid their kids, for the extra bait fish she’d dole out, and for the occasions when they came up short on cash and she dipped into her own pocket to make up the difference. No one knew her backstory; she was just the likable older woman in the straw hat. Her mother passed away.

In 2004, something changed. To friends and acquaintances, that air of restlessness was back. Peggy Jo, now 60, left the marina, purchased an old RV off a neighbor, and took off for a year, touching base only sporadically. When she did, she spoke of going off-grid altogether, finally getting down to Mexico.

Of course, to do that, she’d need money.

ONE LAST JOB

A toy gun with ornate design and red handle
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If cockiness and carelessness foiled her in the 1990s, it’s harder to say exactly what went wrong on May 5, 2005. Why, for example, was Peggy Jo wearing sunglasses and a floppy woman’s hat instead of a male disguise when she walked into the Guaranty Bank in Tyler, Texas? Why did she actually speak to the teller instead of passing a note? And most curiously, why did she not check the money for a dye pack as she had at every robbery before?

We’ll never know. When the pack detonated, spraying the money red and releasing a plume of smoke, Peggy Jo made for her RV, walking across several lanes of traffic, right in front of construction workers and civilians, who phoned the police.

A short chase ensued, ending in a residential area, where after some time—presumably spent in contemplation of her limited options—Peggy Jo emerged from her getaway recreational vehicle. She had something dark in her hands, and in one of the few utterances she ever made during or about her crimes, she dared the cops to shoot. At first, they demurred. She was their grandmothers’ age, after all.

But she was set on her course of action. According to witnesses, her final words—uttered as she raised what was in her hand—were “You mean to tell me if I come out of here with a gun and point it at y’all, you’re not going to shoot me?”

She fell with four bullets in her, a children’s toy gun in her hand. Later, the cops would find a very real .357 Magnum in the RV.

Peggy Jo Tallas, a.k.a. "Cowboy Bob," was a true anomaly. She was a woman, first of all—they make up only a sliver of the bank-robbing population. She worked without a partner, and she wasn’t robbing for drug money or to pay off gambling debts. She was good at what she did from the get-go. By all accounts, she was unusual—someone to be studied, or, at the very least, a worthy challenge for law enforcement.

There was a reason, after all, that FBI agent Steve Powell’s first reaction to her demise was, “Say it ain’t so.”

Additional Source: “A mystery in boots and beard,” The Dallas Morning News, July 3, 2005

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“Slick” Julia Lyons: The Con Artist Who Posed as a Nurse During the 1918 Flu Pandemic—Then Robbed Her Patients

An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1918, a 23-year-old woman “of marvelous gowns and haughty mien” was arrested at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel after a crime spree that included posing as a Department of Justice representative, cashing stolen checks, and performing “various miracles at getting ready money,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

The authorities underestimated their slippery prisoner, who escaped from the South Clark Street police station before answering for her alleged offenses. By no means, however, had her brush with the law scared her straight. Soon after her police station disappearing act, Julia Lyons—also known as Marie Walker, Ruth Hicks, Mrs. H. J. Behrens, and a range of other aliases—concocted an even more devious scheme.

The Rose-Lipped, Pearly-Toothed Price Gouger

As The Washington Post reports, Chicago was in the throes of the 1918 influenza pandemic that fall, and hospitals were enlisting nurses to tend to patients at home. Lyons, correctly assuming that healthcare officials wouldn’t be vetting volunteers very thoroughly, registered as a nurse under several pseudonyms and spent the next two months caring for a string of ailing men and women across the city.

Lyons’s modus operandi was simple: After getting a prescription filled, she’d charge her patient much more than the actual cost. Once, she claimed $63 for a dose of oxygen that had actually cost $5 (which, once adjusted for inflation, is the same as charging $1077 for an $85 item today). Sometimes, “Flu Julia,” as the Chicago Tribune nicknamed her, even summoned a so-called doctor—later identified by the police as a “dope seller and narcotic supplier”—to forge the prescriptions for her. Then she’d flee the property, absconding with cash, jewelry, clothing, and any other valuables she could find lying around the house.

As for the physical well-being of her flu-ridden victims, Lyons could not have cared less. When 9-year-old Eddie Rogan fetched her to help his older brother George, who was “out of his head with illness,” Lyons retorted, “Oh, let him rave. He’s used to raving.” Unsurprisingly, George died.

Though pitiless at times, Lyons flashed her “rose-lipped smile and pearly teeth” and fabricated charming stories to gain the confidence of her clueless patients. To win over “old Father Shelhauer,” for example, she asked, “Don’t you remember me? Why, when I was a little girl I used to hitch on your wagons!” Shelhauer believed her, and threw a snooping detective off the scent by vouching for Lyons, whom he said he had known since she was a little girl.

Clever as she was, Lyons couldn’t evade capture forever. In November 1918, detectives eventually linked her to Eva Jacobs, another “girl of the shady world,” and wiretapped the home of “Suicide Bess” Davis, where Jacobs was staying. Through their eavesdropping, they discovered Lyons’s plans to marry a restaurant owner named Charlie. They trailed Charlie, who unwittingly led them straight to his new—and felonious—bride.

“The wedding’s all bust up! You got me!,” Lyons shouted as the detectives surrounded her. They carted the couple back to the station, where they asked a bewildered Charlie how long he had known Lyons. “Ten days!” he said. “That is, I thought I knew her.”

When it came time for Lyons to appear in court, Deputy Sheriff John Hickey volunteered to transport her.

“Be careful, she’s pretty slick,” Chief Bailiff John C. Ryan told him. “Don’t let her get away.” Detectives Frank Smith and Robert Jacobs, who had headed the investigation and arrested Lyons in the first place, echoed the sentiment, citing Lyons’s previous escape from South Clark Street.

“She’ll go if she gets a chance. Better put the irons on,” Jacobs advised. Hickey shook off their warnings with a casual “Oh, she won’t get away from me.”

He was wrong.

“Slick Julia” Escapes Again

Hickey did successfully deposit Lyons at the courthouse, where about 50 victims testified against her. An hour and a half after Hickey left with Lyons to bring her back to jail, however, the police received a phone call from an “excited” Hickey with some shocking news: Lyons had leapt from the moving vehicle and climbed into a getaway car—which sped away so quickly that Hickey had no hopes of chasing it down.

Hickey’s story seemed fishy. For one, he mentioned that they had stopped at a bank so Lyons could withdraw some cash, leading officials to believe that Hickey may have accepted a bribe to set her free. They also happened to be suspiciously far from their intended destination.

“If they were way out there,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune, “They must have been cabareting together.”

Furthermore, a friend of Lyons named Pearl Auldridge actually confessed to the police that the entire plot had been prearranged with Hickey. He was suspended, and investigators were forced to resume their hunt for “Slick Julia.”

A Schemer 'Til the End

In March 1919, after poring through nurses’ registries for a possible lead, detectives finally located Lyons, under the name Mrs. James, at a house on Fullerton Boulevard, where she was caring for a Mrs. White.

“Mrs. M.S. James, née Flu Julia, née Slicker Julia, who walked away one November day from former Deputy Sheriff John Hickey, walked back into custody, involuntarily, last night,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on March 21, 1919.

In addition to her 19 previous counts of larceny, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” and “conducting a confidence game,” Lyons racked up a new charge: bigamy. Her marriage to Charlie the restaurateur still existed on paper, and Lyons had taken a new husband, a soldier named E.M. James, whom she had known for four days.

With no unscrupulous officer around to help Lyons escape yet again, she was left to the mercy of the court system. True to her sobriquet, “Slick Julia” stayed scheming until the very end of her trial, first claiming that she had been forced into committing crimes against her will by a “band of thieves,” and then pleading insanity. Nobody was convinced; the jury found Lyons guilty of larceny and the judge sentenced her to serve one to 10 years in a penitentiary.

Just like that, “Flu Julia” traded in her nurse's uniform for a prison uniform—though whether she donned her healthcare costume again after her release remains a mystery.