It was a beautiful day in May 1991 when an unknown, nondescript cowboy walked into the American Federal Bank in Irving, Texas. Tellers would later describe him as a white man in his mid-forties who stood 178 centimeters (5’10”). A bit on the heavy side, he had a noticeable paunch. He wore all black, save for the backwards white cowboy hat. Under that, his face was covered by a bushy, gray beard and massive sunglasses.
The man didn’t speak a word and left with a hefty stack of stolen cash. Cowboy Bob, as the robber came to be known, would frustrate the FBI throughout the early 1990s and shock everyone when his identity finally came to light.
10 The Robberies
During that first robbery, Cowboy Bob wasted neither time nor words. He slipped the cheerful young woman at the counter a note that read, “This is a bank robbery. Give me your money. No marked bills or dye packs.” The teller handed over a stack of cash, and Cowboy Bob left without much fanfare. When FBI agent Steve Powell finished interviewing employees and watching the security tape, he had no doubt that Cowboy Bob was a professional bank robber. The thief had never so much as fidgeted. He hadn’t waved a weapon around while shouting threats and didn’t go careening through traffic stops in his getaway car.
The finesse of Cowboy Bob was undeniable. He always drove off in the same burned-orange Pontiac Grand Prix, but with a newly stolen license plate every single time. This left FBI agents tracking down the wrong cars several times. He calmly watched the tellers pull the stacks of cash out and tested each as he took it to be sure it wasn’t secretly a dye pack. The one time that a teller added a dye pack to his haul, Cowboy Bob simply handed it back before leaving with the real cash. His signature cowboy hat, not at all unusual menswear in Texas, kept security cameras from catching a frame of his face. The note that he handed to tellers kept them from being able to describe his voice. Agent Powell spent the time from May 1991 to September 1992 utterly flummoxed by the expert bank robber.
9 The Slipup
The lone bank robber of the Lone Star State carried out five successful bank robberies during that span but made a fatal error on the sixth heist. On September 25, 1992, Cowboy Bob held up two banks in the same day in Mesquite, Texas. During the second getaway, agents noted the license plate number and traced it. At this point, they must have fully expected to find another innocent car owner scratching their head at where their license plate had gotten off to. But, luckily for investigators, the number that they traced that day led to the actual owner of the Pontiac Grand Prix, Peggy Jo Tallas.
Powell and his team watched Tallas’s apartment. They found the Pontiac parked outside. Soon enough, a woman came out, climbed into the car, and drove away. Powell knew this was a lucky break, and he followed the woman he assumed to be Cowboy Bob’s girlfriend while his team stormed the apartment. The team found Tallas’s elderly mother, a cowboy hat, a fake beard, and a stash of $15,000 under a bed. Powell pulled Tallas over and told her that he needed her to tell him about the man who had been in her home earlier. Tallas replied with a cold, “There isn’t any man. I promise you that.”
It was only at that point that Powell noticed a few things about the woman he was questioning. There were traces of gray dye in her hair. Bits of adhesive clung to her upper lip. He put this together with what his team had found and what Tallas was now telling him.
Peggy Jo Tallas was their Cowboy Bob.
8 Behind The Beard
While Tallas wasn’t the consummate professional that Powell had originally expected, her disguise was extremely clever. She made herself look bigger with a towel folded under her shirt and cowboy boots a size too large. Her hat hid her face from cameras, and her fake beard and sunglasses hid her from eyewitnesses. The note that she handed to tellers meant that she never had to speak, which could have let on that she was a woman underneath. The fact that the authorities were searching for a man meant that Peggy Jo Tallas may have never been identified if she hadn’t slipped up with the license plate.
Now that she was caught, authorities learned more about her intriguing methods. Determined never to hurt anyone during her adventures, Tallas never carried a weapon into a bank. She operated alone, and she knew how to find dye packs by testing the flexibility of the stacks. At the time, dye packs were far more rigid than the money itself. Her story captivated the media, but she refused to give interviews. Tallas gave no defense of her actions, not even in court. She pleaded guilty and took her 33-month sentence in stride. No one close to Tallas would give interviews about her until many years later.
Peggy Jo Tallas’s motives remain mysterious, but her everyday life, outside of the occasional bank-robbing escapade, is well-documented. Tallas was a free-spirited teen in the late 1950s. She dropped out of school in the tenth grade because she felt there was too much to do in the world to be cooped up there. She once skipped off to San Francisco to see what life was like there. Her fondest dream was to spend the rest of her days on some beach in Mexico. In her twenties, she moved to North Dallas and worked as a receptionist. She spent her free time at nightclubs, poetry readings, concerts, and the movies. She went back again and again to watch her favorite movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The story follows two Robin Hood types who never hurt innocent bystanders and only rob those who abuse their power.
Despite her wild drive for adventure, Tallas’s friends and relatives say she was the last person they would have expected to rob a bank. Her niece, Michelle, remembers her as a woman with a heart of gold. She recounts being babysat by her aunt, who would make up new games to play, make popcorn, and then tell them ghost stories late at night. A neighbor recalled having a nice chat with Tallas about the best way to grow plants once. A close friend from Tallas’s twenties, Cherry Young, wrote off the occasional odd comment since she knew Tallas was wild at heart. Once, they saw an armored bank truck, and Tallas jokingly said she could rob it and not worry about anything for a while. Young tossed back that she’d need a gun to do that, but Tallas shot back, “Oh, heck, I’m smarter than that.”
6 Breaking Point
In the 1980s, Tallas became the sole caretaker of her ailing mother. Bedridden, her mother suffered from a degenerative bone disease. At the same time, her relationship with her siblings suffered, and she had given up on a love life altogether. She worked job after job and moved from apartment to apartment with her mother. It didn’t help the situation when Tallas started to have her own medical issues. She sustained a back injury while working and later had an emergency mastectomy that kept her bedridden for weeks.
Tallas refused to consider putting her mother in a nursing home, insisting that she felt her mother deserved to spend the rest of her life in her own home. This worsened her own struggles, since she was the only one who could work and also take care of her mother. Even when she was able to work, her paycheck combined with her mother’s Social Security check still didn’t quite cover their bills. As their debts increased, the once-carefree Tallas started to take anxiety medication to calm herself. Still, she never developed a drug problem like the majority of people who turn to robbing banks to cover their costs. Her attorney felt he could use this in her defense but didn’t get to since Tallas refused to fight the charges.
5 Back Home
Tallas got out of prison in the mid-1990s. She went back to a quiet life, refusing to give interviews to media outlets and focusing on caring for her mother. She took a job at a marina, where her reputation seemed to be completely unknown. Locals who frequented the marina loved her. Tallas always handed out a little extra when she got people their bait fish. She also got along especially well with customers’ children and kept their attention while their parents shopped. She was popular with single men who shopped there but always turned them down when they invited her out for a cocktail. With an apologetic shrug, she would explain that she had to go home and care for her mother.
Suzy Leslie, the manager at the time of Tallas’s employment, had nothing but good things to say about her. She reported that Tallas was one of their best employees, and never once did her till come up short. For Tallas, the people who came into the shop weren’t just customers. She would regularly visit with a poor woman who fished there to feed her family. It wasn’t unusual for Tallas to reach into her own pocket to help those who came up short. She made the effort to write out questions for a deaf man who shopped there and gave money to a man who had recently been released from prison. Leslie remembers asking Tallas why she did this, and her response was simply, “Well, we all got a past, you know.”
4 Final Frontier
For a few years, Tallas was perfectly happy to work at the marina and go right home to tend to her mother after. But in 2002, she would hit another turning point. Her mother, who she had diligently cared for most of her adult life, passed away in her sleep. Tallas told friends that she was happy that her mother was no longer in pain but could not talk about her without tearing up. By 2004, friends and family had noticed a restlessness beginning to creep up in Tallas once more.
In that same year, she bought a Frontier RV off a man at the marina for $5,900 and the promise of $500 more at a later date. She told Leslie that it was time for her to hit the road. It was finally time to chase her dream of retiring on a beach in Mexico. Before she left, she told Leslie to come join her before life ran out on them both. Tallas idled for a little while at a local park, possibly trying to work out where she would get the money to cross the border and settle there. In the summer of 2004, she realized that there was only one way she could get enough money to make her dream a reality.
3 One Last Job
No one can be entirely certain of how many more bank robberies the now 60-year-old Peggy Jo Tallas would commit from that 2004 summer to May 2005, but her RV was spotted in the area of a robbery at Guaranty Bank in Tyler, Texas. The man tellers described had a glued-on mustache and a belly that looked padded. He also had a feminine, soft voice when he spoke. If this was indeed Tallas, she was getting careless. She would get even more careless on May 5, 2005.
She left Cowboy Bob behind, committing the robbery as herself for the first and last time. She hit the same Guaranty Bank that she may have robbed the previous year, this time wearing her usual clothes, a wide-brimmed sunhat, and massive sunglasses that covered nearly half her face. The note she handed to the teller asked for all the money and ordered her not to set off any alarms. Oddly, it didn’t order her not to add marked bills or dye packs. Tallas also let the teller load the money herself. This uncharacteristic sloppiness came back to bite her. As she left the bank, a radio-triggered dye pack exploded inside of her bag of cash. Dye packs are designed to stain the money and the robber’s clothes, skin, and car with a bright red aerosol dye. Furthermore, the pack heats up to around 204 degrees Celsius (400 °F) so that thieves can’t simply pick it up and throw it away.
Tallas stuck out like a sore thumb running from the bank with her bag billowing red smoke behind her. Two concerned citizens spotted her and followed in their car. As a side note, they had their two children in the back seat and had no idea how dangerous this robber might be. They must have been very concerned citizens. Police quickly caught up to Tallas’s RV and ordered her out. She closed the purple shades on the camper’s windows and sat for some time thinking on what to do. Finally, Tallas walked into the back bedroom. There, she kept two guns. One was a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow-point bullets, and the other was a very convincing toy gun. She grabbed one and went to the door.
2 ‘Say It Ain’t So’
Peggy Jo Tallas called out to the police surrounding her RV, telling them that they would just have to kill her. One officer cautioned her that she didn’t have to do this, and they didn’t want her to do this. She retorted, “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?”
Although officers begged her not to, that’s exactly what Tallas did. She stepped foot outside of the RV with her gun raised and immediately took four bullets. She fell straight forward. Journalist Skip Hollandsworth, the authority on Tallas’s story, described her death with such skill that it cannot be outdone. He wrote:
Once she hit the ground, however, she somehow found the strength to pull off her sunglasses. For a moment, she lifted her head. That May morning, the light was like honey. A soft breeze blew across the yard. From somewhere came the sound of pigeons cooing. Peggy Jo looked up at the dense new foliage of a sweet gum tree that rose above her. Then she closed her eyes and died.
The police set off tear gas in the RV to drive out accomplices, but, of course, there were none. When they swept the RV and checked Tallas over, they found both guns. Her .357 Magnum was still tucked safely under a pillow inside, and the gun that lay at her side was the toy. Even in her final moments, she didn’t want to chance hurting anyone. A background check revealed Tallas’s history as the bank-robbing Cowboy Bob. FBI agent Millslagle called the now-retired agent Steve Powell to give him the bad news about his old nemesis. Powell responded wistfully, “Say it ain’t so.”
1 The Legend
Since Tallas never spoke to anyone about her bank-robbing days before her abrupt death, no one can really say what drove her to keep robbing banks. Her surviving family remains perplexed. Her brother lamented after her death that he would have gladly given her money. Her niece commented that Tallas was the last person you would ever suspect of robbing a bank. All that she would say for herself was that the first theft was meant to pay her mother’s medical bills. Close friends like Cherry Young think that she was beginning to feel stuck in her life and needed to do something wild to break free. Friends and psychologists alike agree that she probably continued because she loved the thrill of getting away with a crime. She never seemed desperate for money and never physically hurt anyone. Still, Tallas’s favorite film might have played into her standoff with police. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid go out in a blaze of glory and bullets. Tallas had watched the movie countless times and may have wanted that ending for herself.
The mystique of her unknown motives paired with the intriguing story of a kind, soft-spoken middle-aged woman dressing up as a cowboy to successfully rob several banks have inspired many retellings. Journalist Skip Hollandsworth wrote the original tale of Peggy Jo Tallas in 2005 for Texas Monthly. In 2010, The Moaners released their album Nocturnal, which featured a song called “Cowboy Bob (The Ballad of Peggy Jo Tallas).” Denver-based Buntport Theater Company and Square Product Theatre joined forces in 2014 to put on four weekends of Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing, an ambitious play that portrays the legendary bank robber with four separate actors. The Big Sick ‘s Michael Showalter has signed with Fox Searchlight to direct a Western/thriller about the enigmatic Peggy Jo Tallas called The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob, after Hollandsworth’s 2005 article of the same name. Plans for the film were announced in 2017, and the indie project is currently in development.
Renee is an Atlanta-based graphic designer who enjoys researching offbeat subjects and writing about them.