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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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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols's life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

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