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The Bicycle Thief

Tom Justice was once a cyclist chasing Olympic gold. Then he began using his bike for a much different purpose: robbing banks.

This article is published in partnership with Epic Magazine.

The man in the baseball cap and sunglasses waited for the teller to notice him. The morning of May 26, 2000, was quiet inside the LaSalle Bank in suburban Highland Park. Standing patiently by the velvet ropes, the man looked at his wristwatch. The second hand ticked slowly.

“May I help you?” said the young woman behind the counter, smiling. The man reached to the back of his khakis, as if to fish out a wallet. Instead, he presented her with a 3-by-5-inch index card. The teller’s smile wilted. She stared at the words handwritten in black marker: “THIS IS A ROBBERY. PUT ALL OF YOUR MONEY IN THE BAG.”

The man, who would later be described to the police as a slender, clean-shaven white man in his 20s wearing a light blue oxford shirt, returned the note card to his pocket. “Nice and easy,” he said coolly, handing over a white plastic shopping bag from Sports Authority. While the teller anxiously transferred bundles of cash, the man held his hands at his heart, gently pressing his palms together as if he were about to whisper, Namaste.

A bank's surveillance camera photo

“Thank you,” he said before walking out the front door.

The street was empty: no cars, no pedestrians. Suddenly the man spotted a police officer riding a four-wheel ATV. Squeezing the shopping bag, he settled into a relaxed gait. As the ATV approached, the robber smiled and waved hello, as would anyone who had not just knocked over a bank. Returning a stiff nod, the officer kept rolling. And so did the man, descending into a parking garage.

Not 60 seconds later, he emerged, carrying an aluminum bicycle on one shoulder and a messenger bag over the other and wearing a red, white, and blue spandex bodysuit, a silver helmet, sunglasses with yellow lenses, and a pair of cycling shoes. He climbed onto the bike, clicked into the pedals, and began to ride leisurely. It had been less than three minutes since he exited the bank.

There were no sirens or alarms — only the sound of the 11:26 a.m. Metra rumbling into the station three blocks away. By the time the train was gone, so was the thief.

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Fifteen minutes later, he was coasting south along Sheridan Road. He pedaled into Gillson Park in Wilmette and cruised up to a trashcan. After fishing out two crisp $20 bills and shoving them into the pocket of his bodysuit, he removed the Sports Authority bag and held it upside down over the trashcan. Several bundles of cash — what authorities would later reveal to be $4,009 — tumbled into the garbage with a syncopated thud.

The man returned the empty sack to his messenger bag and pedaled away.

 
Tom Justice as a boy
Tom’s fascination with bikes started early. He had this one when he was 4. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Justice

“Anyone interested in racing, bring your bike, and try your luck,” a voice announced over the tinny loudspeaker at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook. Seated in the bleachers, 13-year-old Tom Justice was in awe of the cyclists careening around the outdoor track. Every time the pack whirled by, it cut the air, unleashing a concentrated whoosh.

Before that summer of 1983, Tom had never seen a bicycle race, let alone a velodrome. When his friend Kristin invited him to go, the skinny teen with straight black hair said yes only because he had a crush on her. But the moment they entered the stadium, he was transfixed.

The oval track measured 382 meters, with two long straightaways connected by curves banked at 18 degrees, allowing riders to maintain high speeds. While road races like the Tour de France play out over days on courses that meander for miles, track racing happens in a matter of minutes in tight confines. Cyclists aggressively jockey for position, bumping and elbowing as they fly around corners at 50 miles per hour. It’s like NASCAR, except with no brakes. Crashes and multi­rider spills are common.

A week later, Tom returned to the velodrome with his maroon Schwinn. As the stadium lights buzzed, a dozen suburban kids gathered on the track. Everyone was wearing T-shirts and gym shorts except for Tom, who stood out in the professional-grade helmet, jersey, padded cycling shorts, and fingerless gloves his father had just bought him.

Tom won the 12-to-14-year-old heat handily. Straddling his bike, his chest still heaving, he felt a surge of adrenaline. After trying basketball, baseball, and soccer and accepting he was unremarkable at any sport involving a ball, Tom had finally found something he excelled at. His father, Jay, a short, barrel-chested navy veteran with an abundance of athleticism, was thrilled. “Get out in front,” Jay began telling his son before races, “and don’t let anyone get around you.”

By Tom’s junior year at Libertyville High School, his identity hinged on cycling. He was regularly shaving his muscular legs to try to make himself more aerodynamic. He was training at the velodrome on Mondays and Wednesdays, racing every Thursday, and pedaling for hours around Libertyville’s winding back roads.

Tom Justice cycling as a teen
The Libertyville High School grad was an accomplished enough track cyclist to qualify for the Olympic trials. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Justice

Nobody in town was surprised when Tom was selected to attend the Olympic training camp in Colorado Springs in 1987. It was a heady time to be an elite cyclist in America. After decades of embarrassing losses and zero appearances on the podium, the U.S. Olympic cycling team had capitalized on the Soviet Union’s boycott of the 1984 Games, winning a record-breaking nine medals. In a tactical effort to prep for the Russians in 1988 and beyond, the U.S. coaches began grooming 40 American hopefuls early. Tom received massages, soaked in hot tubs, had his bike fine-tuned by mechanics, and was subjected to a battery of testing to measure everything from body fat to oxygen efficiency.

A gifted sprinter, Tom had a knack for finding and accelerating through tight spaces to break away from the pack. His build was perfect for track cycling — he was tall, with thick, powerful legs, like a speed skater. And in the 1,000-meter match sprint, his favorite, he showed an instinct for overtaking the leader during the final 45 seconds — the make-or-break moment.

That fall, Tom returned to Libertyville High, where he was elected senior class president. Girls pined after the guy with the shock of black hair flopping in his eyes. One of Tom’s classmates even gave him a diary of her lovesick musings about him. “Tom was an attractive guy, but that wasn’t what drew people to him necessarily,” recalls Erika Zavaleta, who raced with Tom at the Olympic training camp and later made the 1989 U.S. national team. Tom wasn’t a stereotypical macho jock. He was warm-hearted, silly, charming, and comfortable in his skin. “He came off as self-assured and really unthreatening at the same time,” says Erika.

As Tom’s senior year came to a close, his road map was clear: Train at Southern Illinois University, where he had been accepted; stay focused; and be patient. Top track cyclists usually don’t qualify for the Olympics until they are in their late 20s.

In the 1988 Libertyville High School yearbook, one page was dedicated to answering the question “What will your friends be doing in 10 years?” The caption beside Tom Justice’s name read: “On the cover of a Wheaties box, with his bike.”

 

Je suis Américain?” the drill sergeant was apoplectic. The Dutchman had been yelling ever since Tom arrived at the French Foreign Legion’s candidate selection center in the South of France. It was the fall of 1997. Dropping to the pavement, Tom pumped out pushups. Suddenly the sergeant’s heavy boot walloped him in the stomach. The recruits around him laughed.

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One of the few military outfits that accept noncitizens, the Foreign Legion tends to attract a menagerie of misfits. Men who can’t even speak French arrive willing to endure hot-tempered drill instructors and five years of service in exchange for a French passport. At 27, Tom was on the older side for the legion, but he was still fit. He could bang out chin-ups, no problem. But he couldn’t stand his superiors. One time, the stocky Dutchman forced Tom to spend three hours on his hands and knees, in shorts, picking up cigarette butts as the jagged asphalt burrowed into his kneecaps.

The legion tries to break recruits. The recruits, in turn, try to break each other. Tom was a frequent target of a wiry 19-year-old Moroccan. “Hey, big shot! Why don’t you become American Navy SEAL?” the guy shouted one time. “Maybe you cannot make it?” Tom retaliated by grabbing the Moroccan’s throat until they were separated. Both men were dismissed from the legion.

Tom’s commanding officer encouraged him to enlist again in a year. But Tom would never return to France. Since high school, his commitment to cycling — and everything else — had lapsed. During the six years he attended Southern Illinois, Tom embraced the slackerdom that came to define Generation X. He switched majors, ping-ponging between philosophy and sociology and theater. He rushed a fraternity but never joined. When the film Reality Bites was released, Tom went to see it six times. Like Ethan Hawke’s chain-smoking nihilist, Tom believed it was cool not to care.

He still talked about the Olympics, but he coasted on his innate talent. At college, he founded a cycling club, where he was surrounded with amateurs he could always best. Instead of training hard, Tom broke into empty tract houses to smoke cigarettes and chug beers with his buddies.

But deep inside, Tom still harbored wildly grandiose expectations. In college, he thought maybe he could become an artist. He dabbled in piano and sculpture, but nothing ever clicked for him the way cycling had. So after finally graduating in 1994, Tom moved to Los Angeles to train alongside the U.S. Olympic team. Racing around the famed 5,000-seat velodrome at California State University, Dominguez Hills, he did little to distinguish himself.

“Where’s his head?” cyclist Bill Clay said to Tom’s girlfriend, Laura, as they watched Tom loop around the track one day. A young sprinter who would compete in the 1996 Olympics, Bill could tell Tom lacked discipline. “Tom’s fast, but he doesn’t train right,” he observed. “He needs to apply himself.”

Tom soon washed out and returned to Chicago, where he and Laura shared an apartment in Ravenswood. He found a job as a social worker overseeing homeless schizophrenics. Helping people was a welcome distraction from his own issues. But after a while, it felt like a pointless slog — one with no finish line and no congratulations. As Tom’s Olympic dream slipped away, he started fantasizing about identities he could substitute for the thrilling instant gratification of cycling. He made a list, hidden by his bed:

helicopter pilot
lock picker
priest
EMT

He started with the third, applying to a Catholic seminary. Tom wasn’t even religious, but this seemed like a fresh start. He could be handed a rigid set of guidelines for a new life. Sitting down with an admissions officer at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Tom admitted he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to confession. The man leveled with him: “Son, you really need to do some soul-searching.”

Next Tom talked his way into an informational interview at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in the Loop. He explained how he’d never worked in law enforcement but had plenty of experience frisking teenagers from a previous job at a high school for truants. “Can I be honest with you?” interrupted an agent. “You don’t seem like the type of guy that’s going to kick down doors fighting the war on drugs.”

After watching Repo Man, Tom cold-called auto recovery companies for career advice. He toyed with becoming an underwater welder. He struck out with the French Foreign Legion. He wandered from interview to interview, growing increasingly unhappy with a life that to him seemed mundane. His relationship with Laura became strained. Whenever she mentioned marriage or kids, he grew uneasy. He couldn’t see himself settling down — not yet and maybe never.

Late one night in 1998, Tom revisited his handwritten list. Over the years, he kept adding ideas and potential identities to it. Under “helicopter pilot” and “lock picker,” he’d scrawled two letters: “B.R.”

Bank robber.

 

The heist was timed around Halloween 1998. For a disguise, Tom went to Elim Wig & Beauty Supply in Uptown. In the 1930s, John Dillinger hid out in that neighborhood. Rumor has it he altered his appearance with help from a plastic surgeon who had an office above the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. On the shortlist of notorious American bank robbers, several had spent time in Chicago. That rich history added to the allure for Tom.

At the wig shop, Tom considered his options: a hot pink Ziggy Stardust number, white-blond pigtails, or Afros in various shades of the rainbow. Ultimately, he settled on black braids with short bangs for $50. Only after he’d left did he realize it made him look like Rick James.

Three days later, on October 23, Tom entered his parents’ garage and flicked on the light, which glimmered across his dad’s white Porsche 928. The other parking spaces were empty. Tom’s parents wouldn’t be back for hours. His younger sister, Jennifer, was off at college. He grabbed his messenger bag and Fuji AX-500 and pedaled toward downtown Libertyville.

Tom coasted up to a tree-lined fence between two houses. Over his cycling spandex, he slid on a pair of khakis, a blue oxford button-down, a striped tie, and a navy blazer with a jack-o’-lantern decal pinned to it. He slipped on his wig, then a snug black baseball cap. For a finishing touch, he added dark, oversize sunglasses reminiscent of Jackie O.

As he walked to the American National Bank branch, teenage girls in a passing car catcalled. Tom pointed back like the Fonz retorting Aaay! He stopped at a pay phone and placed an anonymous call to the Libertyville Police Department headquarters, a mere two blocks from his target.

“Yeah, hi, I’m at Adler Park. There’s a man with a rifle walking around the woods.”

“Thank you, sir, we’ll check it out,” said the voice on the other end. One less patrol car near the bank.

A silver-haired 60-something held the door when Tom arrived. As Tom approached a teller, she perked up immediately. Halloween had apparently come early this year. Then the love child of Rick James and Jackie O handed her an index card but wouldn’t let go. Tom had no intention of leaving behind evidence. As an awkward tug of war ensued, the teller leaned in and read the message. Tense, she stared into Tom’s dark sunglasses. He slid his white plastic bag across the counter, and she loaded it up with cash.

Tom strode outside, bag in hand. His heartbeat surged. His legs tingled. He looked at his wristwatch. The whole exchange had lasted 45 seconds. Two minutes later, Tom was beside his bike, feverishly stripping down. He placed his disguise and the plastic bag onto a square piece of black satin and tied the corners to create a little bundle, which he shoved into his messenger bag.

After bunny-hopping gracefully into the street, Tom casually cycled back to his parents’ circular driveway. Next door lived Pat and Denise Carey, who had moved in the previous spring. The 47-year-old Pat was a meticulous mower, changing directions each week for a more uniform cut. He was also Libertyville’s chief of police.

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Tom parked his bike in the garage, kicked off his shoes, and tiptoed into the basement. He knew he’d never be able to tell anyone about this. Still, he wasn’t remorseful. Banks are insured, and he didn’t care about the money anyway. He’d choreographed, costumed, and delivered a flawless performance. His getaway vehicle was poetic. A sense of euphoria overwhelmed him. Years later, he’d compare the rush of robbing banks to the sensation of drinking four cups of coffee and taking an intensely hot shower while holding back the urge to pee. It had been a long time since Tom felt this alive — or this important.

Kneeling on the shag carpet, Tom removed the black satin bundle from his messenger bag. He looked at the money and began to weep.

 

When FBI agents arrive at a crime scene, they start with the details: how a suspect dressed and acted, what was said, how a note was written, whether a weapon was brandished. All these pieces fit together to create what former special agent William Rehder calls a “signature.”

A suspect wearing one glove was dubbed the Michael Jackson Bandit. The Attila the Bun Bandit kept her hair in a topknot. The Clearasil Bandit’s cheeks were dotted with acne. The Benihana Bandit gesticulated with a butcher knife. The Chevy Chase Bandit was — naturally — absurdly clumsy.

It would be many months before Tom Justice would even be considered for a nickname by the FBI. Armed robbers and violent offenders are the agency’s top priority. And Tom had perpetrated just one nonviolent “note job” for a haul of $5,580. He wasn’t going to draw heat, especially when the FBI was handling a record 171 bank robberies in the Chicago area in 1998. For now, Tom would stay under the radar. And he took precautions to keep it that way.

A few days after his robbery in Libertyville, Tom tossed his wig into the dumpster behind the Ravenswood apartment he now only sometimes shared with Laura. Ever since the Foreign Legion, Tom had established a noncommittal pattern of coming and going: One night, he’d crash with Laura; the next, his folks. For months, the $5,580 sat in a gym bag inside the closet of his old room at his parents’ house. Tom assumed the bills were traceable, so he kept only two $20s as souvenirs. He separated the remaining cash into brown lunch sacks. Late one night, he tossed them into the dumpsters behind a few fast-food restaurants.

On October 27, 1999, nearly one year to the day after his first robbery, Tom hit the Lake Forest branch of Northern Trust. He wore a similar disguise and used his bike to escape with $3,247. This time he put the $20 and $100 bills into paper bags and discarded them in alleys where he knew homeless people would find them. He took all the $2 bills and hid them in the bushes outside his apartment. The Eastern European superintendent had two kids who used to play in the courtyard. Tom watched from his second-floor living room window as they discovered the money and screamed and giggled. Robbing banks and giving away the money was intoxicating. Tom saw himself as both mischievous and righteous.

But as time passed, that feeling faded. Tom’s real life seemed mediocre and unfulfilling. He wrestled with depression. And so he returned to the one thing that would instantly lift his spirits.

On January 14, 2000, Tom pulled his third robbery: the LaSalle Bank in Evanston. The teller, a tall 50-year-old woman, was neither frightened nor cooperative. “Are you serious?” she said, cocking her head. She glared at Tom as he slid the bag across the counter. Reluctantly, she filled it with all the cash in her drawer: $2,599. “Thank you, thank you so much,” Tom said politely. She shook her head disapprovingly.

As the harsh winter winds blew off Lake Michigan, the streets became icy and impossible to navigate by bike. Cooped up that January, Tom brooded miserably, unable to shake the realization that at 29, his window of opportunity to become a world-class cyclist had nearly passed. If he wanted to pursue his Olympic dream, he had to do it now.

By the time he told Laura he was moving to Southern California to train for the Olympic trials, his plans were already in motion. He’d arranged to move into a house with an old college cycling buddy who lived near the San Diego Velodrome. Tom had won enough races to retain his classification as a Category 1 cyclist — the highest of five groupings — and so he would automatically qualify for the trials. All he’d have to do is show up and race.

Laura was skeptical about Tom’s sudden urge to dive back into racing. But maybe if he made this one last push for the Olympics, he could then get on with his life. So she loaned him her mom’s blue Honda Accord to drive to California. When Tom arrived, he looked into the mirror and told himself, “I’m not going to rob any more banks.”

 

The stylist spun the chair around. Tom’s black hair was bleached platinum blond, spiked, with the sides shaved. He was ready for his new life in a shared house in Encinitas, one of a constellation of beach towns near San Diego.

Tom on the roof of a Ukrainian Village apartment building
Tom on the roof of a Ukrainian Village apartment building. He lived there with a cop — even while robbing banks. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Justice

Since college, Tom’s cycling buddy had become a navy jet pilot. Now he lived in a two-story house with a bunch of military guys and a three-legged greyhound named Foxtrot. Tom slept on the top floor in a tiny 20-square-foot space his housemates called the Turret. He hung his track bike — a red, white, and blue GT — on the wall above his mattress. The Turret was cramped, but its windows looked out over the Pacific. At night, Tom fell asleep listening to the waves.

“How’s it going?” asked Laura, calling from Chicago.

“Well!” replied Tom. His skin was tan from his time on the outdoor velodrome. He’d bought his GT from Bill Clay, who’d given him a copy of the training manual used by the 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling team. Every morning at the YMCA, Tom worked through the Olympic strength-training regimen to build muscle mass. Within a month, he was squatting 500 pounds. At the velodrome, his already explosive dead start was getting deadlier. As the weeks passed in early 2000, Tom rounded into the best shape of his life.

But the monotony of training was setting in, and Tom’s promise to himself was soon forgotten. His secret identity — and the instant rush that only a robbery could provide — called to him.

The day after Valentine’s Day, Tom hit a bank in Encinitas. On February 29, one in Solana Beach. The next day, another in Encinitas. Two weeks after that, one in San Diego. On March 24, Tom robbed two banks: the Southwest Community Bank in Encinitas and the U.S. Bank in Carlsbad. “D-d-do you want the s-s-second drawer, too?” the 20-year-old blond U.S. Bank teller had nervously stuttered. She stuffed the bag with so much cash that it spilled out over the top. As Tom exited, a trail of bills flittered to the ground. It was his biggest score yet: $10,274.

He pocketed all the $5s and $1s and left the $20s inside public restrooms and port-a-potties at beaches. He didn’t need the money.

Then one morning, Tom awoke in the Turret and found he couldn’t move. An intense pain surged through his lower back. He’d thrown it out overtraining. It would take hours before he could even get to his feet — and weeks before he could pedal without waking up in agony the day after. Muscle spasms kept causing his body to contort. His right shoulder was two inches higher than his left. His plan to race in the Olympic trials was over.

Soon after he returned to Chicago, Laura dumped Tom for good. He had changed. He wasn’t merely devastated about missing the trials; he was colder, more distant, and secretive. “I don’t know what’s going on with you,” she said. “But I know it’s not right.”

Tom moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Ukrainian Village with George, a 230-pound Greek hulk who blocked most of the doorway when Tom turned up, answering his Craigslist ad for a roommate.

“We won’t see each other much,” George explained. “I work nights.”

“What are you — an exotic dancer?” Tom chuckled.

“No,” replied George, “I’m a cop.”

Tom couldn’t resist. Sharing an apartment with a beat cop while committing federal felonies was an insane proposition. But with no girlfriend, no job, and no Olympics, all he had left was his unrelenting desire to feel exceptional, to prove to himself that he was too clever to get caught.

Once his lower back recovered, Tom robbed the LaSalle Bank in Highland Park — the heist in which he dumped his $4,009 haul in a park trash can. The next week, he hit three banks in three days, and it didn’t always go smoothly.Outside a Bank One in Evanston, a dye pack exploded in his bag, ruining all the cash. Later that day, he hit an Edens Bank in Wilmette, where a heavyset 50-something teller took one look at Tom’s note and harshly scolded him in a Slavic language. She pointed sternly at Tom, who quickly fled without any money. The third robbery, at a Harris Bank in Wilmette, was a success, but when Tom rode up to his apartment, he saw two cop cars parked on the front lawn. His heart sunk — until he realized it was just his roommate, George. Tom went upstairs to his room, where he hid the $4,244 he’d stolen. George had no clue his roommate had just knocked over his 13th bank.

Two months later, Tom robbed the Bank of Northern Illinois in Libertyville. Chief Carey, who’d spent that winter helping blow snow from his neighbor Jay Justice’s driveway, didn’t have any leads — and neither did the FBI. The most interesting aspect of the robber’s MO — his getaway vehicle — was still unknown.

No one suspected Tom, and so he grew cocky. Once, at a nightclub, he met a 20-something brunette in a midnight-blue cocktail dress. Tom couldn’t believe it when he learned she was a U.S. marshal. On the dance floor, as loud club music pulsed, she smiled playfully.

“So what do you do?” she yelled.

“I rob banks.” He grinned and continued dancing.

She nodded and kept dancing, too.

 

A custom bicycle frame is a wondrous blend of form and function. A precise network of triangles, diamonds, and curves, the frame must reconcile and, in turn, harmonize with a rider’s body. To boost a cyclist’s comfort and efficiency, a bike builder will spend hours measuring a client’s body before carefully mapping out the geometry.

Once a blueprint is finalized, the builder embarks on a long, laborious process that begins with a pile of steel. After cutting specific tubes into meticulously measured lengths, the builder conjoins two sections using a TIG welder, which uses a high-frequency electrical current to generate 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That intense heat creates a bond that cannot be broken. Only a skilled craftsman can fashion a weld that looks seamless and tidy.

The welds on Steelman bicycles were known to be exceptional. And Brent Steelman, the solitary builder at his company in Redwood City, California, was known to be exceptionally selective. He preferred steel manufactured by Dedacciai, an Italian company revered by Tour de France riders. The stiffness of that steel imbues a properly built bike with a rigid yet responsive feel akin to a finely tuned Ferrari.

Working out of a cluttered garage in a suburban industrial park, Steelman built only 50 bicycles per year. He charged $2,500 just for the frame. Given the demand, he maintained a growing waitlist. If potential customers didn’t strike his fancy, Steelman would decline them. This, of course, increased the cachet of owning a Steelman. As nearby Silicon Valley inflated with disposable income, Steelman bikes reached cult status.

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In the summer of 2001, Tom joined a club cycling team run by Higher Gear, a bike shop in Wilmette, not far from the LaSalle Bank in Highland Park, one of the nine suburban Chicago banks he had robbed at this point. Higher Gear’s club riders all wore matching red, white, and blue spandex. One day, the bike shop’s manager mentioned to Tom that a local rider was selling a used Steelman, a 12-speed road bike built in 1996. Since Tom’s bike had been stolen, he was looking for a replacement. The Steelman would be a welcome upgrade.

As soon as Tom saw the bike, he was torn. The Steelman was painted Day-Glo orange. But the construction was gorgeous. The bike was a tad larger than Tom normally rode. But he knew that a used Steelman didn’t just magically appear every day. He bought it for $1,200.

Tom augmented the Steelman to cater to his own geometry. He swapped the seat post, situated the seat forward, and switched from 165 mm to 167.5 mm cranks. Despite the adjustments, the bike still seemed a touch big.

On group rides with the Higher Gear team, Tom was easy to spot atop his bright orange bicycle. Other riders consistently complimented the Steelman. It was, without question, the nicest bicycle Tom had ever owned. And not once did he ever ponder which was more amusing — a bike builder named Steelman or a bank robber named Justice.

A custom bike
Tom used this custom Steelman road bike for many of his getaways. It eventually led the police to him. Photo: Scott Crosby
 

“Dude, this is a bad idea,” said Spider-Man. It was Halloween 2001 and Tom was walking with his friend Chris in Humboldt Park. Everyone on the street noticed the odd couple: Chris was wearing a homemade Spider-Man costume with bright red tights and a mask; Tom was a tuxedoed groom riding piggyback on a fake bride. As he walked, the dummy groom legs bounced cartoonishly from his waist.

“Man, what the fuck?” shouted a stocky 30-year-old with a pick in his hair as Chris and Tom approached a street corner that had six people hanging around. “What are you supposed to be?”

“Uh, I’m Spider-Man, man,” Chris replied, sheepishly pulling off his mask.

Guffaws rang out as a stout man wearing a Chicago Bulls hat and gold chain stepped forward. Shaking his head incredulously, he grinned.

Tom pulled out three $20 bills. By this point, he had stopped giving away the cash from his robberies. Tom exchanged the three crumpled bills for three small white rocks, each the size of half a sugar cube.

He and Chris walked away, heading into a dark alleyway, where they took swigs of whiskey. Tom pulled out a four-inch brass tube he’d purchased at Home Depot, stuffed one of the white rocks into it, lit the end, and took a deep drag from the makeshift pipe. The smell was wretched. Tom exhaled. For half a minute, he couldn’t speak. His mind went blank. When he regained faint awareness, he smoked more crack.

Tom’s descent into drug use had been steep. The previous Halloween, he’d tried cocaine for the first time. Then at a nightclub a few months later, he took some ecstasy. As he danced to thumping electronica, he felt a fantastic warmth surge over his body, like a down comforter that had been pulled from the dryer.

Tom began taking ecstasy every weekend. During the week, he was pursuing a master’s in education at DePaul University. When Tom shared his grad school plans with his parents, they were optimistic. But they had no idea he was becoming dependent on drugs. On the weekends, Tom would swallow four pills of ecstasy, drink Red Bull and vodka for a few hours, then take another four pills. The sensation was magnificent. But as he increased dosages, Tom’s posthigh depression deepened. The only way he could shake the painful awareness that he was disappointing everyone who loved him was with more drugs.

“You look terrible,” his mom would say at Sunday dinner. “You need to get some sleep.”

Tom had no job, but he had pockets full of cash and cocaine. His friends assumed he was dealing. His sister certainly suspected as much. One afternoon, while Tom and Jennifer were at their parents’ house, he asked her to go upstairs with him. There, in her childhood bedroom, Jennifer sat down on the bed and watched Tom shut the door behind him. Slowly he approached, holding his messenger bag. He turned it upside down, and three bundles of cash tumbled onto the floral bedspread.

“What’s this?” Jennifer asked.

“I’ve been robbing banks,” Tom replied.

Jennifer stared at the money.

“You want in?” Tom asked.

“Hell no!” she snapped.

“Well, I’m about to do another one tomorrow,” he explained. “You could really help me.”

“I can’t,” she said flatly. “And it’s really shitty you asked me.”

The next day, Tom pedaled away from the Northview Bank & Trust in Mundelein with $12,115, bringing his total at this point to $93,903 from 20 banks. Years later, he would admit to feeling ashamed about trying to recruit his sister. But at the time, Tom’s addiction was fueling an increasingly destructive cycle of selfishness, entitlement, and loneliness.

To convince himself that he didn’t have a real drug problem, Tom started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, joining a circle of admitted addicts sipping stale coffee on folding chairs in the basement of a hospital. When it was Tom’s turn to share, he talked about merely experimenting with drugs. He was in denial.

“This is gonna be my last meeting,” Tom announced to the group after just six weeks. He said he was moving back to California. He was planning to apply to grad school there. He wanted to become a teacher. Everybody in the room wished him luck — except one 30-something with a weatherworn face. “Hey, man, just remember,” the guy sighed, “wherever you go, there you are.”

 

“Two-eleven in progress.” the voice crackled through the radio in Officer Greg Thompson’s squad car. Someone had just robbed the Union Bank near Main Street in Walnut Creek, California. It was March 7, 2002, and thick gray clouds were dropping intermittent rain on the quiet suburb east of Berkeley. The dispatcher described the suspect: a 20-something white male — presumed armed — who was last seen fleeing on foot.

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Thompson and his fellow officers were racing to set up a perimeter. The tactic rarely worked. Two intersecting freeways — Interstate 680 and Route 24 — cross roughly a mile from downtown Walnut Creek, providing a quick getaway to thieves. Nevertheless, the 42-year-old Thompson wasn’t one to break protocol.

Turning down an alley, he was passing a parking garage when a bicyclist shot out of the driveway. One second sooner, and the orange bike would’ve T-boned Thompson. Instead, the cyclist flew behind the cruiser. Thompson tapped his brakes and squinted into his side mirror. Dressed in red, white, and blue spandex, the cyclist looked like every other weekend warrior in Walnut Creek, except for one detail: the messenger bag draped over his shoulder.

Thompson sat for a moment. An 18-year police veteran, he didn’t believe in mental telepathy. But as a field training officer, he taught new recruits to thrive on instinct. This was one of those moments. “If I don’t stop that guy,” he told himself, “I’m gonna wonder for the rest of my life.”

But before he could flash his lights, the cyclist pulled over and hopped off his bike. When Thompson pulled up, the guy was fidgeting with his back wheel. It started to drizzle again.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” Thompson asked through the open window of his patrol car.

“Hey, yeah, sorry, it’s gonna take me a second,” Tom said, continuing to tinker.

Thompson parked a few feet ahead, turned on his flashing red and blue lights, and walked back to the cyclist.

“I live in San Ramon. I’m riding home,” said Tom, pretending to adjust his brakes before climbing onto the bike and clicking his left foot into the pedal.

“Do you mind if I take a look in your bag?” Thompson asked the cyclist.

“Yeah, no problem. I just have to unclip,” replied Tom. “These pedals are actually counterbalanced, so I need to click into both in order to get out at the same time.”

There’s no such thing as counterbalanced pedals. But Thompson didn’t know that. He watched as the cyclist lifted his right foot, clicked down into the pedal, and — whoosh! — bolted into the street in a dead start as hellacious as any Tom had ever mustered on a velodrome.

“I knew it!” cried Thompson. He desperately grabbed his radio, but another officer was talking on the channel. The cyclist shot down Main Street and out of sight.

A few blocks away, Officer Sean Dexter was sitting in a squad car when he spotted a cyclist on an orange bike charging through traffic towards a red light. Dexter pulled into the intersection, but the cyclist didn’t stop.

Tom swerved around the police car, crossed two lanes, and hopped the curb. Darting through a parking lot, he headed toward a tall fence bordering a dense thicket of 15-foot bamboo.

Dexter reached for his radio, but before he could even open his mouth, another cop hopped on the channel. “A guy on a bicycle just ran from me!” Thompson blurted.

Holy shit, Dexter thought, “I’ve got him right here!” he shouted into the radio.

Zigging through traffic, Dexter screeched into the parking lot. There was no sign of the cyclist.

Dexter got out of his car and paced toward the fence, drawing his sidearm. He slowly cracked the gate and peered into the jumbled mess of vegetation. A creek flowed 30 feet below, amid fallen tree branches, dry brush, and piles of wet leaves. Following procedure, Dexter closed the gate and waited for backup.

Sirens blared as officers secured the perimeter. While Dexter and Thompson walked the upper banks, police dogs combed the creek. After about 15 minutes, a detective spotted something in the leaves: an orange bicycle. Then a German shepherd from the K-9 unit led them to a pair of cycling shoes hidden under a concrete retaining wall beneath a bridge.

“He got out right here and went that way,” the dog handler explained.

Dexter snorted in disbelief. If the suspect had crawled out of the creek, the police cordon would almost certainly have caught him. But as the sky grew bleaker and the air chillier, the search was called off. They had one good clue, though: the orange bicycle, which the police could tell wasn’t some average Schwinn.

“This bike is special to somebody,” Dexter said. “We gotta find out who.”

 

The darkness was disconcerting. Tom was lying face-down in a cold, damp dirt tunnel. It was around 5 p.m. — six hours since he’d fled from the cops. With the sound of trickling water in the distance, Tom inched backward until his feet emerged just above the creek bed. He stood up, waist-deep in the frigid water, then looked and listened.

Nothing but the gentle noise of the creek.

Hours earlier, as the orange Steelman tumbled through the brush, Tom had slid down the embankment, crashing violently through the leaves. While Officer Dexter was awaiting backup, Tom trudged 50 feet upstream and took cover underneath a bridge, where he discovered a two-foot-wide hole at the water’s edge. It looked as though a beaver had burrowed deep into the creek bank. Tom crawled in headfirst, thorny plants scratching his face and arms, and squirmed 11 feet to the narrow tunnel’s end. Panting in the dark, he heard sirens, then faint voices and the jingling of a dog’s tags. Tom assumed that was the end. But soon he accepted what seemed a miracle: The cops had given up the search.

It was dark outside when Tom emerged. He made his way to a high school parking lot and hid behind a dumpster there to change into the disguise he’d used during the robbery. With his messenger bag over his shoulder and his wallet to his ear, he walked down Main Street talking animatedly, pretending to be on the phone. Two miles away, Tom found his yellow 1983 Mercedes-Benz and drove to his apartment in Oakland.

“Is everything OK?” asked Tom’s roommate, Marty.

“Yeah, just a rough couple of days,” Tom replied, shutting his bedroom door.

Two months earlier, Tom had moved into Marty’s two-bedroom apartment. Of all the respondents to Marty’s Craigslist ad, Tom was easily the most appealing. He’d shown up to their first meeting wearing a blazer and collared shirt. Charmingly upbeat, Tom said he was a cyclist who’d once trained for the Olympics. He didn’t have a job, but he offered to pay the first three months’ rent upfront, in cash.

Marty, a 6-foot-5 opera singer from Brooklyn, wasn’t looking for a new friend, but he found one in Tom. During the week, Marty would cook dinner on his George Foreman grill and they’d watch movies on his sectional couch. On the weekends, they’d party at clubs. Marty knew Tom was snorting cocaine recreationally, but he was unaware of his other vices.

At night, Tom would drive his Mercedes near Oakland’s empty shipyards. It was easy to find dealers. Tom would hand over $300 for 12 crack rocks. On the highway, he’d light his pipe and turn up the volume on melancholic electronica like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” He’d smoke crack for hours.

The drugs dulled his senses for days. He knew getting sloppy would get him caught. In early 2002, a pattern emerged: Smoke crack, stay sober for one week, rob a bank, celebrate with more crack. After the botched robbery in Walnut Creek, Tom brooded in silence. He was anxious about the cops but also deeply disappointed in himself. A bank robber who gives away the money can claim a certain nobility. Dillinger was branded a folk hero for rebelling against the system. But Tom had devolved into a petty thief stealing quick cash to cop drugs.

Days after his close call, he told his roommate he was leaving Oakland forever.

“Tell me what’s going on,” said Marty.

“I really can’t,” Tom said.

“Tom, you can tell me anything.

“It’s for your own good.”

Soon after, Tom and all his earthly possessions were hurtling east across Interstate 80. The landscape was a blur of snowcapped peaks punctuated by occasional gas stations. Looking out across the empty highway, Tom considered his future.

He wouldn’t discover the extent of the forces conspiring against him in Walnut Creek until many years later. But he knew one thing: Those cops were going to find the Steelman, which meant that sooner or later, they’d trace it back to him. It was only a matter of time.

 
Tom Justice robbery spree
Photos: Courtesy of Google Maps

Officer Dexter was chasing leads. Normally in a bank case, it’s the police detectives, not uniformed officers, who help the FBI gather evidence and interview witnesses. But in this case, after the suspect had gotten away from him, Dexter made it his mission to follow up on the best clue: the orange bicycle.

Contra Costa County, an 800-square-mile region that includes Walnut Creek, had 50 to 60 bank robberies every year. Most were perpetrated by small-timers with typical MOs. None had developed anywhere as ingenious a plan as the bicycle bandit. Which, of course, made trying to ID him all the more alluring. “I’m gonna find this dude,” Dexter told Officer Thompson over coffee.

Although he didn’t know anything about road or track bikes, Dexter had a hunch that the orange 12-speed was special. The crime lab examined it for fingerprints but didn’t identify any matches. Dexter walked it from the station to a nearby bike shop. A guy behind the counter said the frame was custom-made by a man named Steelman in Redwood City, an hour’s drive south. Dexter called the company and spoke to Brent Steelman’s wife, who handled the bookkeeping. After digging through her records, she told Dexter that the serial number he had might be for one of two bikes: a blue one sold in California or possibly a 1996 orange one sold at a shop called Higher Gear in Chicago.

Dexter called Higher Gear, but the guy who answered said they didn’t keep records that far back. There was no telling how many times that orange bike had changed hands. Dexter sent Steelman’s wife a photo of the bike, along with a security camera shot of the suspect. She agreed to post a notice on the Steelman website and include the Walnut Creek Police Department’s phone number.

A few days later, Dexter heard that a coach at the high school by the creek had seen something odd the night of the robbery. At 5:10 p.m., the coach was sitting in her car in the school parking lot talking on her cellphone when she saw a man rustling through the bushes by the bridge. He appeared to be wearing a wetsuit. As he walked across the dimly lit parking lot, she noticed water squishing out of his sneakers. It was peculiar, but not peculiar enough to report — until she heard the news a day after the robbery.

Meanwhile, the FBI was doing its own investigating. Bob Schenke was one of two agents in the bureau’s tiny satellite branch covering Contra Costa County. A matter-of-fact 40-something with a trim mustache and thinning hair, Schenke had been with the FBI since 1976. “Bank robbers are the stupidest people on the face of the earth,” he liked to say. Once, Schenke busted a suspect who’d written his demand note on the back of his own deposit slip. Sooner or later, even the more sophisticated criminals trip up.

Before the Union Bank theft in Walnut Creek, Schenke had already tied a string of unsolved bank robberies to one suspect — what the FBI calls a “repeater.” The crimes were committed in suburbs across Schenke’s jurisdiction, including Lafayette and Concord. Schenke had gathered security cam images from each and noticed that the suspect had a habit of standing before the tellers with his hands pressed together. Soon after, the FBI nicknamed the unarmed suspect the Choirboy. Schenke noticed another pattern: Each of the banks was near a train station. He had a theory that the unidentified man was using public transit to escape. He was just waiting for a new lead to break the case.

The orange Steelman was too good to be true. It had to be the Choirboy.

One month after the robbery, the manager of a bicycle shop in Chicago called the Walnut Creek police. He’d seen the notice on Steelman’s website. In 1996, he’d assembled the orange bike. He knew the original owner. He also knew the guy who’d bought the bike secondhand. It was a cyclist named Tom Justice.

 

The midmorning air in Tijuana was dry and dusty. It was April 2002, a month after the Walnut Creek robbery, and Tom was hoofing it along Constitución Avenue, a busy downtown street. The night before, he’d flown from Chicago to San Diego and strolled through the turnstiles into Mexico amid a throng of American spring breakers. Toting a backpack, Tom passed shops selling sombreros, ponchos, and decorative bottles of tequila. Drunk tourists posed for photos with donkeys painted like zebras. Tom kept sheepishly approaching bartenders with the same request: “Necessito un passport illegal.”

After his frenzied drive from California to Chicago, he’d decided to at least try covering his tracks. He phoned the original owner of the Steelman. “Uh, yeah, so your bike was stolen from me,” Tom said cryptically. “Thought you should know.” Then he called Higher Gear with the same story. His alibi was flimsy, and Tom knew it.

“Necessito un passport illegal,” Tom pleaded to a young man shining shoes on Constitución Avenue.

He nodded, and Tom followed him away from the tourist traps. When they finally arrived at a grimy motel, Tom was shown into a rundown room with a rickety bed and a TV. The shoe shiner requested $100. Tom handed him the cash, along with a picture he’d taken of himself in a photo booth in Chicago.

After the shoe shiner departed, Tom collapsed on the bed, anxiously chain-smoking cigarettes and flipping channels. Three hours later, the shoe shiner returned to say Tom’s passport would be ready soon. Three more hours passed. The shoe shiner came back with a warm plate of carne asada but no passport. As Tom ate, the shoe shiner asked if he was interested in earning $500. The arrangement was simple: Drive a car across the border with a little marijuana concealed in the gas tank.

Years later, Tom would learn this was likely a setup: As soon as he got in the vehicle, the cartel would’ve called the cops on him, and in exchange for having been provided someone to arrest, the cops would ignore the next several cartel trucks crossing the border.

In the moment, Tom declined the offer because he didn’t need $500, let alone more trouble. What he needed was a fake ID. But the shoe shiner said it would be $100 more for the passport. As incensed as Tom was, he didn’t see another option. He coughed up the cash, then lay back down on the bed. Strange noises were emanating from the bathroom window. It was a spooky cacophony of catcalls and whistles. Cartel lookouts were signaling that the streets were clear of cops and witnesses.

Turning over in bed the next morning, Tom accepted that he’d been conned. He was putting on his backpack when the shoe shiner returned — without a passport. “I’m outta here,” Tom barked. The shoe shiner caught up to Tom in front of the motel and whistled loudly. A catcall echoed from a rooftop above.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” insisted the shoe shiner, pulling a knife. The five-inch blade wasn’t far from Tom’s stomach.

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Panicked, Tom glanced down the street. A green taxi was bounding toward them. Tom flailed his hands wildly. Brakes screeched, and Tom bolted. “The border, por favor!” Tom said, leaping into the cab.

Tom crossed back into the U.S. in a pack of overweight retirees. Exhaling deeply, he knew he couldn’t be alone, not now. He needed to be somewhere safe with someone he could trust. One person came to mind: Marty.

A few hours later, Tom flew from San Diego to Oakland. At an airport pay phone, he called his old roommate. Marty was at a cocktail party in San Francisco and invited Tom to join him. When Tom walked in, the guests gawked. Tom’s collared shirt, blazer, and slacks were filthy. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

Marty gave Tom a bear hug and suggested they leave. In the car, Tom reluctantly told him everything. Marty didn’t believe him. It seemed more likely that his preppy friend was delusional. Maybe Tom had never trained for the Olympics. Maybe he’d embellished his racing. But as Marty listened, it all came together: The quixotic desire to feel extraordinary. The secret life. The drug addiction.
“What are you gonna do?” Marty asked.

Tom said he wanted to see his parents before the cops found him. Marty wondered how Tom could be so sure he would be arrested. At his apartment, Marty opened his laptop and scrolled through an online forum for cyclists. Tom looked over his shoulder. There it was: a picture of the orange Steelman along with a security cam image of a guy in a baseball cap standing at a bank teller’s window pressing his palms together.

“I need to buy a ticket home,” Tom said.

 

Pat Carey was leaving work at 5 p.m. when the phone rang. It was a special agent with the FBI’s field office in Chicago. There was a warrant out for a man whose parents lived in Libertyville — right next door to Carey.

“The Justices?” asked the police chief, stunned.

The agent explained that the FBI had been searching for Thomas L. Justice in and around Chicago for two weeks. His last known address in Illinois was the Ravenswood apartment he’d shared with his girlfriend two years earlier. The police had also tried staking out his old apartment in Berkeley, but he was long gone. The agent wondered whether Carey had seen Tom lately — and also, did he happen to know what type of car he drove?

Carey hadn’t seen him in at least six months, but he seemed to remember Jay Justice’s son drove an old Mercedes-Benz.

“That’s the car we’re looking for,” the agent said. Then, before hanging up, he gave the police chief a heads-up: FBI agents would be traveling to Libertyville the next day to question Mr. Justice.

Carey headed to his car. His drive home took less than 10 minutes. When he rolled up, he was astounded. There, parked in the Justices’ driveway, was the yellow Mercedes.

As Carey scrambled for his phone, Tom and Jay sat in their kitchen finishing up dinner. The television was on, tuned to CNN. Tom’s mom had cooked beef and green peppers. Now she was puttering around, packing up the leftovers for Tom.

“So how’s that job of yours?” Jay asked his son.

It’d been a week since Tom’s trip to Tijuana — not that his parents were aware he’d left town. As far as they knew, he was working as a bike messenger. It didn’t sound like much of a career path.

“What’s your plan for the future?” asked Jay, still watching TV.

“I’m gonna apply to some new grad school programs,” Tom replied.

Jay nodded. Sounds familiar.

Tom grabbed his food and headed out the door. “See you guys later,” he called, and climbed into his car.

When the first police car appeared behind him on Butterfield Road, Tom didn’t think much of it. Then there were three more. After leading the procession for a mile, Tom glanced in his rearview mirror again. Red lights were now flashing. He pulled over and reached for his wallet. As he leaned toward the glove box to grab his registration, a voice boomed through a bullhorn: “Freeze! Let me see your fucking hands!” Slowly, Tom glanced back. Five cops were aiming their guns at him.

“What is this about, Officers?” Tom asked, getting down on the ground. As the handcuffs tightened around his wrists, he felt a rush of emotion. He wanted to cry — not out of despair or fear but out of a much heavier sense of something he wasn’t expecting: relief. After four years, his self-destructive cross-country loop was finally coming to an end. Ever since he’d traveled to Colorado for the Olympic training camp, Tom kept thinking that his life should be momentous enough to carry him far away from Libertyville. In between his escapades to France and Mexico, he’d robbed 26 banks in 16 cities across three U.S. states. Now he was lying face-down on the pavement back home, his hands bound behind him.

In the interrogation room, an FBI agent placed a photograph on the table. It was the security cam shot of the Choirboy. The orange Steelman had led them right to Tom. Had he been riding an average bicycle, Tom might never have been caught.

The agent encouraged Tom to cooperate. Tom gave a full confession.

Soon he was fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched, handed an orange jumpsuit, and booked at the Loop’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where his parents came to see him before his hearing. In a cramped visiting room that smelled like sweat and microwave popcorn, Jay Justice asked his son the one question everyone is still asking 17 years later: “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Tom replied. “It’s just something I did.”

Tom’s parents hired him a lawyer, who rolled his eyes when Tom said he’d already confessed. He was facing a sentence of up to 120 years. But, as his lawyer pointed out to the prosecutor, Tom never carried a weapon, and he cooperated upon his arrest. Tom’s confession helped the FBI sew together all 26 heists, including several that weren’t even in the Choirboy file.

In the end, Tom pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years.

In federal prison, he would spend hours walking the yard in circles, thinking back on his life, trying to make sense of everything. His four-year spree hadn’t netted extraordinary money — $129,338. But Tom’s MO was so unusual that, years later, even Officer Dexter back in Walnut Creek still felt an affinity for the bicycle bandit. “I have a certain respect for a smart crook,” he says. “The whole changing clothes thing — his MO was so good.”

After being released in 2011, Tom returned to cycling at the velodrome in Northbrook, where he still loves careening around the corners. He considered applying to grad school but eventually found a job at a doughnut shop. Little do the cops know that the 48-year-old handing them their chocolate glazed is one of the most prodigious bank robbers in American history.

The notion that he wasn’t some run-of-the-mill thief offers Tom a certain measure of satisfaction. His former roommate Marty interprets Tom’s full confession not as an acquiescence to justice but as a statement of purpose: “ ‘I’m not just a bank robber — I’m a great bank robber.’ Even in that, he couldn’t be ordinary.”

The day of his arrest, Tom sat handcuffed in the back seat of the FBI car en route from Libertyville to Chicago.

“Man, what’d you do with all the money?” wondered one of the agents.

Staring out the window, Tom thought for a moment before replying.

“Nothing.”

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