Tom Justice may well have been the most successful bank robber ever to use a bicycle as his getaway vehicle. According to a story in Chicago magazine, between 1998 and 2002 the native of Libertyville, Illinois, knocked off 26 banks in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin and earning himself the FBI nickname “The Choirboy.” All in all, though he robbed more banks than the notorious John Dillinger, Justice stole only $129,338, an average of $4,975 per bank job.
He biked to the banks, leaving the two-wheeler – which, for many of his heists, was an orange custom-built Steelman road bike he’d bought secondhand – unlocked not far from the bank. For the robbery, he wore a baseball cap and sunglasses to hide his face from bank cameras and handed tellers a note that said, “I have a gun, give me the money.” Then he’d leave with the loot, walk to his bike, change into a spandex bodysuit, a silver helmet and a pair of cycling shoes and casually cycle away from the scene of the crime, the money stuffed into a messenger bag.
The absence of a traditional getaway car flummoxed the police for years. But for Justice, the bicycle was the perfect vehicle, because he was a Category 1 track racer who had been training for the Olympics but lost motivation after a while. Interestingly, for much of his criminal career, Justice did not do it for the money, keeping only a small part of the swag. The rest he either threw away, gave away or just left somewhere for others to find. Justice robbed banks because of the adrenaline rush of the experience and because he loved to ride fast. After all, his speciality was the 1,000-meter sprint.
Ironically, the orange Steelman eventually led to his capture. After one of his robberies, a policeman approached him and asked to look into his messenger bag. Justice raced away but he had to ditch the bike (and cycling shoes) under a bridge to avoid being caught. Steelman is a small manufacturer in Redwood, California, that produces only about 50 frames a year. So, the police began tracing the orange bicycle. One month after that robbery, the manager of a bike shop in Chicago called the local police to say that he had assembled the orange getaway bike and that he knew the original owner as well as the man he’d sold it to.
Tom Justice was arrested in May 2002, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison but wound up serving only 9. After his release in 2011, he returned to cycling at the velodrome where he first fell in love with cycling. Today, he continues to cycle and works at a doughnut shop.
Not long after Justice’s arrest, his father visited him in jail and asked him why he did it. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just something I did.”
But he was being modest. A friend and former roommate of Justice’s said he believes that he confessed to the crimes because he was proud of his success as if to say, “I’m not just any bank robber; I’m a great bank robber.” There’s probably some truth to that, because having failed to realize his dream to become an Olympic track racer, Tom Justice nevertheless managed to get the gold.