When Olympic-hopeful Tom Justice failed to qualify for the games in the 1990s, he decided to use his cycling skills for other things: robbing banks. Justice thought if he couldn’t win medals, he would find other ways to earn respect from people, and he managed to be respected even by detectives.
Between 1998 and 2002, Justice pulled off 26 robberies in various states and evaded the police. He earned the nickname “The Choirboy Bandit” from the FBI, hiding his identity by wearing a baseball hat and bowing his head near surveillance cameras. Unfortunately, Justice botched his final robbery, baffling authorities with his lack of a getaway vehicle.
He Was in Awe
Tom Justice was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1971. From an early age, Justice showed promise as an athlete. While attending a cycling race at age 13, Justice was in awe as the cyclists zoomed around the track. Every time they whirled by, the bikes cut the air, causing a concentrated whoosh.
Justice had never seen a bicycle race before. However, his friend Kristin invited him to go, and he said yes because he had a crush on her. It was a good thing he went because he was transfixed from the moment he entered the stadium. A week later, Justice returned to the stadium for his first race.
A Step Above the Rest
As he rolled his maroon Schwinn bike into the stadium, the other kids had on T-shirts and gym shorts. Meanwhile, Justice was dressed in professional cycling gear his father had bought him. He took home his first win that day in the 12-to-14-year-old heat. When he crossed the finish line, Justice felt a rush of adrenaline.
He had tried other sports, including basketball, baseball, and soccer, but didn’t excel in any of them until he found cycling. His father, Jay, a Navy veteran with an abundance of athleticism, was thrilled to see Justice outshine the other cyclist in his age division. He cheered his son on from the stands.
It Was Part of His Identity
Cycling became part of Justice’s identity by his junior year of high school. He shaved his legs to be more aerodynamic and trained on the track every Monday and Wednesday. Thursdays were race days, and he spent hours pedaling around the winding roads of his town. Everyone knew about his incredible skills.
No one was surprised when Justice was selected to attend the Olympic training camp in Colorado during high school. It was an important time to be a cyclist because the US team hadn’t made a podium appearance in decades. They wanted to train 40 American hopefuls, and Justice was one of them.
He Worked Hard
Justice worked hard during his training. He started getting massages, soaking in hot tubs, and had his bike fine-tuned by mechanics. Justice was also subjected to tests to measure his body fat percentage and oxygen efficiency. His training regimen was serious, but it helped him excel in every aspect of the sport.
He was a gifted sprinter and found ways to weave between other cyclists to break away from the pack. Justice was built to be a cycler with his long, powerful legs. In the 1,000-meter race, he found a way to overtake the leader in the last 45 seconds.
He Made the Girls Swoon
When Justice returned to school for his senior year, he was elected class president. The girls fell for him, with one of his classmates giving him a diary of her lovesick thoughts about him. Justice was an attractive guy, but people were attracted to him for other reasons.
Justice didn’t act like the typical jock; he was sweet, silly, and charming. Erika Zavaleta, who trained with Justice at the Olympic training camp, said, “He came off as self-assured and really unthreatening at the same time.” He was different than the other guys.
He Had a Clear Path
When Justice graduated high school, he continued his training at Southern Illinois University. He knew he had to stay focused and patient because top cyclists didn’t qualify for the Olympics until their late 20s. He had more time to train for his debut.
In 1988, his high school yearbook had one page dedicated to answering the question, “What will your friends be doing in ten years?” Next to Justice’s picture, it said, “On the cover of a Wheaties box with his bike.” Everyone believed in Justice’s Olympic dreams.
He Became Lazy
After high school, Justice’s commitment to cycling lapsed. He still talked about the Olympics, but he embraced a lazy lifestyle and coasted on his talents. During his six years at Southern Illinois, Justice switched majors, bouncing between psychology, sociology, and theater. He also rushed a fraternity but didn’t join.
He thought it was cool not to care. Justice joined a cycling club, but it was full of amateurs that he could easily beat. He didn’t have to train hard and spent his time breaking into old buildings to smoke and drink with his friends.
He Didn’t Qualify
Deep down, Justice still had big expectations for himself. He thought about becoming an artist, testing out his piano and sculpting skills. However, nothing clicked like cycling. So, when he graduated in 1994, Justice went to train with the US Olympic team in LA.
Unfortunately, Justice did not live up to expectations. Dominguez Hills, a 1996 Olympic competitor, thought Justice was fast but didn’t apply himself. It caused his Olympic dreams to slip away as he didn’t qualify for the Olympic cycling team. Justice pursued other career options.
He Was Bored
When Justice returned to Chicago, he found a job as a social worker for homeless schizophrenics. Helping others was a distraction from his own issues, but he soon grew bored because there was no finish line. He started making a list of dream jobs that seemed rewarding.
The list included: helicopter pilot, EMT, lock picker, and priest. He started with the possibility of becoming a priest by applying to a Catholic seminary. Justice wasn’t religious, but it felt like a fresh start. He wanted the rigid guidelines to start a new life.
He Failed at Many Jobs
When Justice went for an interview with the admissions officer at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, he admitted that he couldn’t remember the last time he went to confession. The officer said, “Son, you really need to do some soul-searching.”
After being turned away from the seminary, Justice went for an informal interview at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office. He said he had never worked in law enforcement but had experience frisking teenagers from a previous job at a high school. He was rejected again.
He Tried Another Career
Justice continued to search for his dream job. After watching Repo Man, he called auto-recovery businesses asking for career advice. He also thought about becoming an underwater welder. Justice had no direction for his future and went from interview to interview with no success.
His lack of aspiration put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, Laura. Whenever she talked about marriage or kids, he became uneasy. Justice wasn’t ready to settle down and didn’t know if he would ever be ready. Justice then revisited his career list.
A New Profession
While lying in bed one evening, Justice pulled out his handwritten list. He had added new ideas over the years, and under helicopter pilot and lock picker, he had added “B.R.” Justice thought becoming a bank robber would be a good profession.
It certainly wasn’t a conventional aspiration, but Justice thought he would be good at it. He decided to plan his first heist around Halloween 1998. Justice went to Elin Wig & Beauty Supply near his apartment to get a disguise so he wouldn’t be caught on the first try.
The First Heist
On October 23, 1994, Justice went to his parents’ home and walked into the garage. His parents wouldn’t be home for hours, and his younger sister was away at college. Justice grabbed his messenger bag and his bike and pedaled towards downtown Libertyville.
He slipped on a pair of khakis over his cycling shorts before walking into a branch of the American National Bank. He placed an anonymous call from a payphone to the local police about a “man walking around the woods with a rifle.” Justice wanted to distract them while he robbed the bank.
He Left No Evidence
When he walked into the bank, Justice handed the teller a note stating, “I have a gun in my pocket; just put the money in the bag.” They did as he asked, and he slipped out of the bank with his head down to hide his face from surveillance cameras.
When he got back to his bike, Justice changed out of his disguise and biked back to his parents’ house. He managed to get $5,580 on his first try and cried when he dumped the money on the floor of his childhood bedroom.
He Flew Under the Radar
When authorities arrived at the crime scene, they noted the details of the crime. Investigators asked the teller how the suspect acted, what he said, and how the note was written. He didn’t show any weapons, but the teller didn’t want to argue with his threats.
It would be a while before the FBI came up with a nickname for him. Since Justice had committed a single, non-violent crime, the FBI had more pressing matters to focus on. Justice also took precautions to fly under the radar by getting rid of the disguise.
It Wasn’t About the Money
Justice knew the bills were probably traceable, so he only kept two $20s as souvenirs. He didn’t care about the money but enjoyed the rush of the robbery. Late one night, Justice threw the money into the dumpster behind a fast-food chain. He didn’t want it to be traced back to him.
He started going back and forth between his parents’ home and the apartment he shared with Laura. Justice lived a noncommittal life, coming and going as he pleased. However, he wanted to feel the rush again, so he planned his next heist.
He Had a Set Plan
Nearly a year after his first robbery, Justice robbed Northern Trust’s Lake Forest branch. He wore a similar disguise and rode his bike to get away with $3,247. When he got home, Justice sorted the money into paper bags, discarding the $20 and $100s in alleys where homeless people would find them.
However, he kept the $2 bills and hid them in the bushes near his apartment. Justice watched as some children found them while they were playing outside. Robbing banks and giving the money away was addicting. He felt mischievous and righteous.
He Was Depressed
In between the robberies, Justice’s life felt boring and unfulfilling. He felt depressed and knew another heist would lift his spirits. On January 14, 2000, Justice committed his third robbery at the LaSalle Bank in Evanston. Unfortunately, the harsh winter kept him cooped up.
Justice knew his chance to become a world-class cyclist was almost over. If he wanted to pursue his Olympic dreams one last time, he had to do it then. Justice planned to move to southern California and train for the Olympic trials. He was still classified as a Category 1 cyclist.
Justice took off and drove to San Diego, where he lived with his college cycling buddy. He thought this one last push for the Olympics would help him move on with his life. Justice told himself he wouldn’t rob any more banks and tried to have a fresh start.
Justice decided to bleach his hair blonde and shave it to create a new look. He followed the vigorous training routine of the 1996 Olympic cyclists, going to the YMCA every morning for strength training and hitting the track in the afternoons.
He Wanted Some Excitement
Justice improved his already quick start and got into the best shape of his life. But the training routine soon became monotonous. He wanted a thrill and broke the promise he made. The rush of a robbery called to him, so he planned another heist.
On February 15, 2000, Justice hit a bank in Encinitas, California. A few weeks later, he robbed another one in Solana Beach. Justice then hit another three banks over the next weeks. He burst with joy when he got away with $10,274. He discarded the money in a public bathroom.
His Dreams Crumbled
One morning, Justice woke up with intense pain. He could barely move as pain shot down his lower back. He had hurt himself while training, and it took hours for him to get out of bed. Justice couldn’t get back on his bike for a few weeks without waking up in agony.
Justice’s right shoulder was two inches higher than his left, and he realized his plans to go to the Olympic trials were over. He had to return to Chicago, and Laura broke up with him because Justice had changed.
His Interesting Roommate
After his relationship with Laura ended, Justice answered a Craigslist ad for an apartment. When he turned up at the door, a large man named George welcomed him inside. He said they wouldn’t see each other much because he worked nights as a cop.
Justice couldn’t resist living with a police officer while committing crimes. It was an insane proposal, but Justice had no other options. He wanted to prove to himself that he was too clever to get caught and living with George was the opportunity to do just that.
Trouble During the Heists
When he recovered from his back injury, Justice robbed the LaSalle Bank in Highland Park. He got away with $4,009, which he dumped in a park garbage can. He then hit three banks the following week, but they didn’t go as smoothly as the others.
Outside a bank in Evanston, a dye pack exploded in his bag, ruining the cash. The teller scolded him in a foreign language at another bank, forcing him to leave without cash. The third robbery was a success, but two cops were parked on his front lawn when he got home.
The Police Were Puzzled
Two months after completing his 13th heist, Justice robbed the Bank of Northern Illinois in Libertyville. The police officers investigating the crimes didn’t have any leads. They also couldn’t figure out how the robber got away without a getaway vehicle.
No one suspected him, and Justice let it go to his head. While he was at a nightclub, he met a woman who happened to be a US Marshall. While they were on the dance floor, she asked what he did, and he replied, “I rob banks.” She thought it was a joke.
He Changed Bicycles
In 2001, Justice joined a local cycling club run by a local bike shop. Justice’s bike had been stolen, but the shop’s manager mentioned that someone was selling a used Steelman. These bikes were rare, as only 50 were built per year.
Although it was painted Day-Glo orange, it was a welcome upgrade. Justice had to adjust the bike because it was larger than his normal bike. While on group rides, he was easy to spot due to the bright bike. It was the nicest bike he had ever owned.
He Turned to Drugs
By late 2001, Justice stopped giving away the money from his heists. On Halloween 2001, he and his friend found a few men standing on a dark corner and bought crack from them. It was the first time he had ever tried it, but it sent Justice on a spiral into drug use.
He also started taking ecstasy every weekend while pursuing a master’s degree at DePaul University. Justice’s parents were happy to hear about his educational plans, but they didn’t know he had become dependent on drugs.
His Friends Were Worried
Justice’s post-high depressions were awful. The only way he could push the thoughts about how he was a disappointment was to use more drugs. His parents and friends were worried because he had no job but pockets full of cash and cocaine.
His friends thought he was dealing, and his sister had the same thoughts. However, that wasn’t the case, and Justice was ready to confess what he had been doing to someone he trusted. He decided to confide in his sister, Jennifer. He thought she wouldn’t judge him.
He Told the Truth
Justice was overwhelmed by his secret, so he asked his sister to go upstairs with him one afternoon. When he closed the door to her room, he said he needed to tell her something and pulled out his messenger bad. He then dumped piles of cash on her bed.
Jennifer was confused and asked why he had all the cash. Justice confessed that he had been robbing banks. He asked if she wanted in because he needed her help for his robbery the next day. However, she was mad and couldn’t believe he would ask her.
He Was in Denial
Justice robbed another bank the day after he confessed to Jennifer. His addiction fueled his destructive cycle, but he wanted to prove he didn’t have a problem. He started to attend Narcotics Anonymous and shared that he only used recreationally.
Justice was in denial as he only went to meetings for six weeks. He told the group he would be moving back to California to apply for grad school there. Everyone wished him luck, but one man reminded him that his problems would follow him.
He Tried to Get Away
On March 7, 2002, Justice robbed the Union Bank branch in Walnut Creek, California. However, the police were called during the robbery. As Justice left the bank, the police started to set up a perimeter. Officer Greg Thompson patrolled the area as a cyclist shot out of a nearby parking garage.
Thompson thought the cyclist looked like everyone else, but something in his gut told him to stop the man. As he turned on his lights, Justice pulled over to mess with his bike. Thompson started to ask Justice if he could look in his bag when Justice took off on his bike.
He Left a Clue
As Justice sped away from the police, he got trapped in a parking lot with a fence. As police got closer, he ditched his bike and crawled through an opening in the fence. The officers found his bike, but Justice got away.
The police searched for hours, but he remained hidden under a bridge along a creek. Justice emerged from his hiding spot after six hours and found his car a few miles away. He drove to his apartment in Oakland. He stayed for a few days before deciding to get out of town.
His Bike Helped the Police
Officer Sean Dexter, who hadn’t been able to catch Justice in time, was determined to find the robber. After forensics couldn’t find fingerprints, he took the orange bike to a shop. The bike shop led him to Steelman, and they used the serial number to figure out where the bike had been sold.
The bike traced back to the bike shop in Chicago, where Justice purchased it. Additionally, a woman reported seeing a man come out of the creek around five p.m. the night of the robbery. The local police and the FBI were on the hunt to find the culprit.
They Nicknamed Him
As the FBI reviewed security footage from several banks, they noticed the robber always stood with his hands pressed together as if he were praying. They nicknamed him the Choirboy. However, that wasn’t the only pattern. All the banks were next to train stations.
Initially, the FBI thought the robber was using public transportation to get away. But when the local police in California found the bike, they realized the suspect was using it to get away from the banks, and no one had noticed him.
They Connected Him to the Bike
A month after the Walnut Creek robbery, the bicycle shop manager in Chicago called the Walnut Creek police. He had seen the notice about the orange Steelman and recognized it. He knew who bought it secondhand and told the police it was a cyclist named Tom Justice.
Meanwhile, Justice had traveled from California to Chicago in his car and then flew to Mexico. He tried to get a fake passport, but it didn’t work out. He managed to make it back to the US border and tracked down his roommate from Oakland.
He Told Him Everything
When Justice found his former roommate Marty, he broke down and confessed everything. Marty didn’t believe Justice, thinking his friend was just high on drugs. However, Justice kept telling Marty more things, and he started to believe the story.
Marty asked Justice what he was going to do, and Justice said he wanted to see his parents before the police caught him. When they got back to Marty’s apartment, Justice said he wanted to buy a ticket home. However, there was a warrant out for his arrest.
He Got Caught
Justice’s neighbor at his childhood home was a cop. He heard there was a warrant for Justice’s arrest and told the police what car Justice drove. When his neighbor returned home that evening, he was shocked to see the yellow Mercedes in the driveway.
His neighbor called to report that Justice was home, but he had already started to pull out of his parents’ driveway. As Justice drove away, police cars started to line up behind him. He kept driving until their lights started flashing behind him. Justice pulled over, and he knew it was the end.
He Was Relieved
When the cops put him in handcuffs, Justice wanted to cry. He wasn’t upset that he got caught. He was relieved that his four-year, self-destructive cross-country loop was finally over. Ever since he went to the Olympic training camp in Colorado, he thought his life should be wild.
Over his four-year crime spree, Justice robbed 26 banks in 16 cities across the US. However, he was now home, lying down on the pavement with his hands behind him. Justice knew he would go to prison, but he was happy that his downward spiral had ended.
In the interrogation room, the FBI agent showed Justice a picture of the security cam shot of the one they called the Choirboy and a picture of the orange bike. He probably wouldn’t have been caught if he had been riding an ordinary bicycle.
The FBI agent encouraged him to cooperate, and Justice made a full confession. Soon after, he was fingerprinted, handed an orange jumpsuit, and locked up at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. His parents came to see Justice before his hearing, and he couldn’t explain why he did it.
Justice Faced the Justice System
Because Justice cooperated with the FBI, was never armed, and helped them solve the 26 robberies, he was only sentenced to 11 years in prison. Justice initially faced up to 120 years behind bars. Although he committed crimes, the police respected his clever getaway choice.
After being released from prison in 2011, Justice went back to cycling near his hometown. He then found a job at a donut shop, and the cops who frequent it don’t realize that he is one of the most remarkable bank robbers in American history.