DALLAS, TEXAS — Outlaws and desperadoes have been giving lawmen headaches as long as there’re been banks to stick-up. There was “Butch and Sundance,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Pretty Boy” Floyd to name just a few.
But it was Cowboy Bob who bedeviled a onetime Texas FBI agent.
Steve Powell, retired FBI agent: I don’t know how many times I sat and studied the surveillance photographs.
Bank robbers aren’t keen on having their pictures taken and Cowboy Bob wasn’t showing the bank security cameras much more than a 10 gallon hat, oversized shades, a mustache, and a Santa-length beard.
In the early ‘90s he started knocking off one suburban Dallas bank after another. FBI man Steve Powell and his bank robbery unit saddled-up after the cool-as-can be bandit they dubbed Cowboy Bob.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: This robber’s saying to you in effect, “Catch me if you can.”
Powell: You’re exactly correct.
Cowboy Bob’s M.O. rarely changed. Stroll in, slip the teller a note signaling this was a hold-up—no alarms, no tricks. Then without a word spoken, he’d calmly walk out with the stolen cash.
One time, Cowboy Bob even showed a little flair that might have tickled Butch Cassidy himself.
Powell: After receiving the money, the bandit tipped the hat, turned and walked out.
Every time, Cowboy Bob made a clean escape in a burnt orange Pontiac Grand Prix. The license plate— always stolen— changed on every hold-up.
From May of ‘91 to May of ‘92 the 10-gallon bandit, described as a white male, about 5’10”, mid-40’s robbed four banks in the greater Dallas area. He seemed to be grabbing money at will.
Murphy: It looks like Cowboy Bob has run circles around you.
Powell: That’s correct. It was frustrating. This bank robber was "getting getting away with it."
He got away with it until September 25, 1992 when he got greedy and held up two banks in a row in Mesquite, Texas, and made an uncharacteristic slip at the second. Cowboy Bob made his getaway in the orange Grand Prix but instead of the customary stolen plate attached, the car had its real one. An authentic plate led to an owner and address.
Powell: I couldn’t leave the first bank quick enough to try to get to that residence to see if I could find that vehicle.
Tracing the plates and owner led to an apartment complex in a Dallas suburb. When the FBI-man pulled-in, sure enough, there was the parked Grand Prix and it wasn’t long before a middle-aged woman got in the car and drove off. Agent Powell figured this had to be Cowboy Bob’s wife, or his girlfriend. The agent stopped the car and the driver identified herself as 48-year-old Peggy Jo Tallas.
Agents, meanwhile, stormed the woman’s apartment and found her elderly mother home but no Cowboy Bob. There was something else though— a mannequin head with a beard stuck on it. The beard looked a lot like ones they’d seen in grainy bank surveillance pictures.
Powell: I got back into the vehicle and sat down with Peggy and I said, “Peggy you have a problem, child,” and I said, “Now, come on, who’s been with you? Where is he?”
And again, just stone-faced, no emotion, she said, “I’m the only one that’s been in this vehicle. There is nobody else.”
Agents up in the apartment, meanwhile, kept looking and soon found a stash of over $15,000 stolen from the two Mesquite banks earlier that morning.
Powell: I told her,“We’ve got all the money.” She stuck with her story. It was at about that time that I noticed something had been applied to her hair that was now falling on her shoulder and I looked at that and then, at that moment is when it clicked with me… that’s the moment that I asked her to step out of the vehicle that she was under arrest for bank robbery.”
Murphy: "Cowboy Bob" was the wrong handle?
Powell: It’s not “Cowboy Bob,” it’s “Cowboy Babette.”
The FBI posse had its man, only she turned out to be a woman. She pleaded guilty to one count of bank robbery and was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison.
Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly executive editor: She gets out in the mid-90’s. She returns to living with her mother.
“Texas Monthly” executive editor Skip Hollandsworth was intrigued by what would make a woman in her late 40s turn to bank robbing. His article on Peggy Jo Tallas—a.k.a. “Cowboy Bob”—is in magazine's November issue. Hollandsworth thinks Tallas did it for the money, certainly, but just maybe he wonders if it wasn’t the hair-raising thrill of it all.
Hollandsworth: She would tell her friends “Deep down, I’m wild at heart.” And that was this signature phrase of hers. And she loved events where people bucked the system.
Peggy Jo was a small town high-school dropout from a family that didn’t have much money. She never seemed to burn with ambition to make any money back in the ‘70s. She worked a minimum-wage job as a hotel clerk by day and chased boys on the Dallas bar scene by night.
Hollandsworth: She didn’t care about money, everyone said. She just wanted enough to get by. And even back then, in those years, she would say, “I’m saving up a little because someday I want to go to Mexico, live on the beach and wear nothing but a bathing suit night and day.”
But her freewheeling fantasies of the ‘70s gave way to leaden realities in the ‘80s and beyond. There was a fizzled romance with a married man. Obligations to care for a failing live-in mother who needed increasingly expensive medicines. For Peggy Jo Tallas, B.B. King had it right, "The thrill was gone."
And come the early 90’s, the “Texas Monthly” writer speculates that the deep down wild-at-heart Texas spinster just may have reached back to live all too vividly inside her favorite movie from the ‘60s.
Hollandsworth: One of the things she loved most was a movie called “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who loved robbing banks and robbing trains even though they knew this great super posse was on their way after them.
Murphy: Robbing banks with a song in their heart... twinkle in their eye?
Hollandsworth: There was a Robin Hood aspect to them because they always were throwing money at poor people that needed help, and they never hurt innocent bystanders in their robberies and Peggy Jo was drawn to that. She watched that movie a lot.
Was that where “Cowboy Bob” came from? In her mind, was Peggy Jo out there riding with the Hole in the Wall Gang?
In any case, after a term in prison, her desperado days were behind her by the late ‘90s, living still with her elderly mother, now working in a small marina complex on a lake south of Dallas. The people there were crazy about the kindly lady famous for her collection of straw hats.
Carla Dunlap, friend: She’s full of love, full of laughter, full of life.
Who knew that the restless spirit of Cowboy Bob would even think about one last ride?
Peggy Jo Tallas became known as the “lady in the hat” at the Lakeside marina near Dallas where she worked.
She was in her late 50s by then, running the little store. John and Carla Dunlap, who keep a boat on the lake, developed a real warm spot for her.
John Dunlap, friend: She was a very gentle kind hearted individual loved her to death she was just a great person. She didn’t color coat things. She spoke it just like it is. What you see is what you got.
Peggy Jo turned the ducks and the geese into her personal pets. There was Barney and Bernice and One-eye. Peggy had them eating minnows from a bucket and visiting her in the store. And the kids who came by the marina?
Carla Dunlap, friend: They loved her. She’d always give them candy. If they caught even the smallest little fish she would take pictures of them and put them in the picture photo album in the marina. She was just another mother figure for them.
No one knew, of course, that she’d been the bank robbing desperado called “Cowboy Bob.” Or that she had hit six banks, or had done time. She was just the nice lady who rented out fishing poles and was known to have slipped some people in need a little cash.
Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly executive editor: Her fellow employees liked her. Not once did the money come up short in the cash register when she was working it. She was always helping the unfortunate, poor customers.
Most evenings, Peggy Jo could be found out on the dock watching the sunset. The frail mother she cared for so devotedly seemed to be the only person in her life.
When her mother passed away around Christmas 2002, Carla thought Peggy Jo changed.
Carla Dunlap: Her mother was her everything and that everything was no longer around. She aged instantly. You could tell she was going into a depression. She couldn’t handle life without her.
Almost on impulse, Peggy Jo bought an RV, a motor home, stuffed all the memories of her life inside a single accordion folder with room left over. Inside were some family photos, and letters to her in prison. She quit her job at the marina and said goodbye to her friends.
John Dunlap: She told me she was going to go to the beaches to the ocean, I think near Corpus someplace. And “I’m going to go there and see if I can find me a boyfriend.”
I said “Good luck to you.” I think she felt there was nothing tying her down. Why not?
The last they heard of their beloved hat lady was a message left on the answering machine.
Carla Dunlap: “John and Carla, this is Miss Peggy. No matter what happens just remember I’ll always love you all.”
Two weeks later, May 2005, in the east Texas city of Tyler, the RV pulled into a Target store parking lot. Cowboy Bob was back in spirit, if not dress, and sauntering across the road toward the Guaranty Bank.
The woman entering the bank made the teller instantly suspicious with the get-up she was wearing.
John Ragland, Tyler police detective: The teller remembered seeing a female coming in with a straw hat, potentially a wig, dressed in all black, including gloves.
The costume-y looking woman announcing a robbery said to the teller. With that, the teller handed over the stack of cash but with it a big surprise concealed inside, an exploding dye pack.
Cowboy Bob in the past had been wary of robbery-foiling smoke and ink bombs but this time he— Peggy Jo— unwittingly took the bait.
Hollandsworth: She realized she was getting a load of money, that the teller gave her $11,000 dollars. This was the money that could get her to the beach for good.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: This was the big score.
Hollandsworth: She could head off to Mexico and she would be gone. And I think in her excitement, she didn’t do what she normally did, which was check for a dye pack.
A plume of red smoke from the dye-pack trailed her as she walked calmly through the bank parking lot. Electrical pole utility workers up on a cherry picker there began yelling at her.
Ragland: One of them made the comment that “You just robbed a bank.”
Murphy: And she answered back?
Ragland: She did. She looked up at him and denied it.
There were so many witnesses to the hold-up, the 911 dispatcher could barely keep up with the calls from citizens.
Murphy: She’s had to walk across 6 to 7 lanes of traffic.
Ragland: Right, and during a busy time of the day.
A former bank teller and her husband were driving past and saw the tell-tale red smoke pouring out.
Chris Smith, witness: Every once in a while people would yell at her out of the construction zone or out of the cars and she would just wave at them, like “Everything’s fine.”
People whipped their car around and started following her, giving police a license plate and directions from their cell phone.
Security cameras at the department store capture the RV driving off.
A member of the SWAT team was working off-duty at a bank just blocks away and now he, too, was on the chase, following discreetly behind Peggy Jo.
And soon behind him was Tyler police sergeant Gary Rice with lights flashing.
Sgt. Gary Rice, Tyler Police: I think that she is the get-away driver, and that somebody else is in the back.
In a matter of minutes, a posse of people and cops were in an improbable slow-speed chase down the main drag of Tyler, Texas, pursuing a female bank robber, making a getaway, in of all things, a lumbering motor home. And for all the cops knew she may have had accomplices in there with her.
Three miles from the bank, Peggy Jo hung a right hand turn into a quiet residential neighborhood. Sgt. Rice was there to cut off her exit.
Sgt. Rice: The RV comes to a stop just past the drive way when she sees me coming around the corner we meet eye to eye.
Murphy: That’s the end of the line for her.
Sgt. Rice: Right. She had the hat on. She had the dark sunglasses on. She had the black on. Both hands on the steering wheel when she pulls up here and she sees me she stops. She puts the transmission in park. She looks at me right here kind of shrugs her shoulders, gets up out of the seat and goes to the back.
Police officers with weapons drawn in front of her and behind. The SWAT team officer began hollering instructions to come out of the motor home.
The stand-off lasted for several minutes. By now more police were on the scene and a neighborhood man recorded it all on his video camera. Peggy Jo came to the door of the RV.
Ragland: She was telling them that they would have to shoot her. The officers were asking her not to do that, they don’t want to do that.
“Please come out and drop the weapon.” Her question to the officers was “You mean to tell me, if I come out here and point this gun at you,” you won’t shoot me?”
HOME VIDEO TAPE: “Ma’am, please don’t do that. ‘Ma’am don’t do that.”
Peggy Jo displays and raises what every officer there makes for a handgun.
Ragland: She raised the gun at the officers and there were four shots from four officers. And she fell from the vehicle at that point.
The police had shot a woman old enough to be their grandmother.
60-year-old, Peggy Jo Tallas, a.k.a. “Cowboy Bob”, lay dead face down.
After firing tear gas shells into the RV, it became apparent she had no accomplices in there with her.
When officers looked inside the motor home they found a loaded .357, but it wasn’t the one that Peggy Jo had waved at officers. That turned out to be a toy— a replica gun.
Hollandsworth: She could have picked up a lethal handgun and done the classic Butch Cassidy ending. But instead, she picks up the toy gun.
Law enforcement veterans have a name for last acts like this. They call it “Suicide by Cop.”
Was it that, or an over-the-hill outlaw just getting tired and rusty?
Whatever it was, it turned out to be the last ride for Peggy Jo turned out to be a botched bank robbery that Cowboy Bob in his heyday would have scoffed at.
Hollandsworth: She had to have known that she was going to go to prison for a long period of time. She had to have know that she would maybe get an hour or two a day looking in at the daylight… her beloved sunshine. So she makes a decision.
Back at the marina, disbelief gave way to some understanding of where the friend— someone it turned out they only partly knew— was coming from.
Carla Dunlap: What I love is all the publicity. She went out in splendor. The Peggy everyone knew, the loving heart that everybody knew, her story’s being told.
And up in Lubbock, Texas, a retired FBI agent who thought he’d never hear the name again got the news and sighed: “Say it isn’t so...”
But it was so. Peggy Jo was dead and gone. Her odd little personal cowboy movie over, in a hail of bullets in the final reel.
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