Here at road.cc, we often come across stories from the US about people who have used a bike to try and ride off after committing a crime, and we tend to skip over them – but today, we’re making an exception with a truly extraordinary story of a track cyclist with dreams of Olympic glory turned prolific bank robber who performed an ingenious quick-change routine to effect his getaway, but was caught by an old-fashioned policeman’s hunch.
Tom Justice – his surname is just one of many aspects of the tale that grab your attention – was aged 13 when he discovered track racing in 1983, going to watch racing at a velodrome in Northbrook, Illinois with a girl he had a crush on, reports Chicago magazine in a lengthy feature that is well worth reading in full.
He was soon hooked on cycling and winning races, and just four years later was one of 40 aspiring riders invited to a training camp for the US Olympic team in Colorado Springs.
Elected senior class president in his final year of high school, his goal was to keep cycling during college before aiming for the Olympics in his late 20s, when he believed he would be at his peak as a track sprinter.
The wheels soon started to come off his long-term plans, however. Switching courses more than once, he took six years to graduate college.
During that time, he kept cycling, but despite founding a student cycling club while there, his motivation seemed to wane.
Post-graduation, he still harboured dreams of glory on the track, moving to Los Angeles to train alongside the US Olympic team, although it seems clear from what a contemporary said that his sparkle had gone as he failed to apply himself, at a point in his life when he also seemed to be drifting between various plans for his non-sporting future.
After toying with the idea of entering a seminary to train as a priest, in another of the bizarre twists that characterise this tale, he joined the French Foreign Legion. It wouldn’t be too long before he returned to the US, where in late 1998 he settled on becoming a bank robber.
It seems he was in it for the buzz rather than the money – most of which, it seems, he either put in bins or left lying around where homeless people were likely to find it – but his modus operandi was striking.
He’d enter a bank dressed in clothes that wouldn’t mark him out from the crowd – a blue blazer, an Oxford shirt, khakis – and show an index card to the teller informing them that a robbery was in progress and to put the till contents into the shopping bag he had with him.
He didn’t threaten bank staff with firearms, but it seems that more often than not they would comply and he would be quickly in and out of the bank within a minute or so – and then, straight to where his bike was hidden and, a minute later, riding out on his bike in Lycra, the money and the clothes he had committed the robbery in safely stashed in his messenger bag.
In other words, he’d become the last person that police hunting someone of the description the bank teller had given would be looking for.
He would have one last – and unsurprisingly, unsuccessful – tilt at the US Olympic trials in California, but by now it was the thrill from his criminal career that pushed him forward, and his bank-robbing spree escalated, whether in California or Illinois.
By 2001, he was actually spending the money he was getting through his robberies – on crack cocaine, and on a second-hand, hand-built Steelman frame, painted bright orange, that would ultimately prove his undoing.
The following year, he was back in California, and robbed a bank in Walnut Creek, near San Francisco in the north of the state.
Police were alerted and one officer – with almost two decades’ service – saw something that aroused his suspicions, a cyclist on a bright orange bike, dressed in Lycra, which was nothing unusual in itself other than the fact that in contrast to the others he would see round there, this one had a messenger bag.
The officer stopped Justice, who pulled over and explained he would need a few seconds to unclip – and then sped off, confirming suspicions.
Six hours later, having abandoned the bike and hidden in an animal’s burrow as police used dogs to try and find him, he knew they were off the scent.
But the officer who had originally spotted him knew it was an unusual bike and, after speaking to the wife of frame-maker Brent Steelman, matched it with one that had been sold six years earlier in a shop in Chicago called Higher Gear.
While that was the shop where Justice had bought it, the bike had changed hands several times before he purchased it, so the trail went dead.
But at the same time, the FBI was investigating and had linked a number of bank robberies to a suspect they nicknamed ‘The Choirboy,’ whom they thought was using public transport to flee.
Once they heard of the orange bike though, they quickly made the link to Justice via the Chicago bike shop.
At this point, he was in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border, trying to obtain a fake passport, and while there agreed to courier marijuana worth $500 into the US – but fled when a knife was pulled on him.
Back in California, he stayed with a friend just as the FBI had worked out who he was and who his parents were. He was arrested shortly after returning home to Chicago, and was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
His bank robberies – more than two dozen in all – netted him almost $130,000, although it seems clear that until he needed to finance his crack cocaine habit, the money wasn’t the issue.
Since his release in 2011, he’s now back cycling regularly at the velodrome in Northbrook where his Olympic dreams were kindled.
As we said at the outset, it’s an extraordinary story, and one that merits reading in full; you’ll find it here.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.