Getty ImagesPatrick Fraser
Tom Justice biked to his bank heists. He’d leave his custom-built, orange Steelman road bike unlocked outside, then saunter in and hand the teller a note that said something along the lines of, “I’ve got a gun, give me the money.” Then the former Category 1, Olympic-hopeful track racer would walk out with a plastic bag full of cash, transfer it to his messenger bag, strip down to the cycling kit he wore underneath his street clothes, and ride off unnoticed, according to the stranger-than-fiction story about Justice that was published by Chicago Magazine and Epic Magazine on Monday.
Between 1998 and 2002, Justice pilfered from 26 banks in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, earning himself a nickname from the FBI, “The Choir Boy Robber.” (He obscured his face from surveillance cameras by wearing a hat and bowing his head, and often held his hands together in front of him at the counter.) Until the final botched robbery that led to his arrest, law enforcement was stymied by the Choir Boy’s seeming lack of a getaway vehicle.
As writer Steven Leckart reports, Justice started racing at the age of 13, on the local velodrome outside his hometown of Libertyville, Illinois. He won his first race, and by high school was shaving his legs and training most of days of the week. A talented sprinter who specialized in the 1,000-meter match sprint, he was selected for the Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs as a junior just four years later, and hoped to make the U.S. team after college. But Justice coasted through collegiate racing without putting in the training needed to be a world-class contender.
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After fizzling out on a number of disparate career paths that included a go at social work, the Catholic priesthood, and underwater welding, Justice started robbing banks. As Leckart tells it, it wasn’t about the money—it was about doing something he could be exceptional at. At first, Justice gave away most of what he stole, leaving bags of money in alleys for homeless people to find, or in port-a-potties. But he later kept the cash to cover his growing drug habit.
The bike that was such an effective getaway tool was eventually Justice’s undoing. He rode a custom-built orange Steelman race bike that he’d bought secondhand. Steelman is a small builder based in Redwood City, California that, according to the Chicago story, only made 50 or so frames a year.
In March 2002, a police officer named Greg Thompson responded to the scene of a bank robbery in Walnut Creek, California. As he approached the bank, he spotted a spandex-clad man dashing off on an orange bike with a messenger bag. Following his intuition, Thompson flagged the man down, and asked to see inside his bag.
Justice sprinted away. Thompson radioed for help. And like a scene from a movie, Chicago reports that the former Olympic-track cyclist managed to evade both Thompson and another officer in a separate vehicle—he “swerved around the police car, crossed two lanes, and hopped the curb” before disappearing. Later, the police found his orange Steelman and cycling shoes abandoned in an embankment.
The distinctive Steelman eventually led Thompson to Justice. And at 31 years old, Justice was arrested in May 2002. He confessed, pleaded guilty, and spent nine years in federal prison. According to Chicago, he now works in a donut shop and, at age 48, still races on the same velodrome where he first fell in love with cycling.
Read the full feature on chicagomag.com.