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

The Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.

Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.

But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.

At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.

By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.

The False Maid

Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.

She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.

Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.

All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.

In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.

But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."

In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.

It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.

But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.

But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."

The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.

The Secret Sign

The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.

At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.

Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”

At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.

We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.

Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.

Afterlives

Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.

As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.

About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

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iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

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