PEGGY JO TALLAS WAS, BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the classic good-hearted Texas woman. For much of her adult life, she lived with her ailing mother in a small apartment in the Dallas suburbs. Every morning, after waking up and making her bed, always taking the time to smooth out all the wrinkles in the sheets with her hands, she’d walk into her mother’s bedroom. She’d wrap a robe around her mother’s shoulders, lead her to the kitchen, fix her cereal, and lay out her pills. For a few minutes, the two of them would sit at the table, making small talk. Peggy Jo, who didn’t like to eat until later in the day, would often smoke a cigarette and drink Pepsi out of a coffee cup. Then, after her mother was finished eating, Peggy Jo would gently guide her back to her bedroom, prop a pillow behind her head, set a glass of tap water and her romance novel on the side table, and walk back into her own room to get dressed.
Usually, she liked wearing khaki pants, a simple blouse, and loafers. But on a lovely morning in May 1991, Peggy Jo, who was then 46 years old, decided to wear something different. She walked over to her dresser, the top of which held a few small glass sculptures of dolphins with iridescent eyes that she had been collecting off and on for more than a decade. She opened one of the lower drawers and pulled out a pair of men’s pants and a dark men’s shirt. From her closet, she grabbed a men’s brown leather jacket that she kept on a hanger. She then reached for a Styrofoam mannequin’s head that was on a shelf in the closet. A fake beard was pinned to it and on top was a white cowboy hat.
She took off her nightshirt and put on the clothes along with some boots that were too big for her feet. She stuffed a towel under her shirt to make herself look heavier. She stepped into the bathroom, rubbed some adhesive across her face, pasted on the fake beard, and colored her hair with gray paint she had bought at a costume shop. She placed the cowboy hat on her head, put on a large pair of silver-rimmed sunglasses, and pulled on a pair of gloves. She then took a few minutes to write a note on a sheet of lined paper and put it in her pocket.
“Be back in a minute,” Peggy Jo told her mother, tiptoeing past her room. She walked outside, got behind the wheel of her 1975 two-door Pontiac Grand Prix, drove to the American Federal Bank just off West Airport Freeway in Irving, pulled into the parking lot, stepped into the bank’s lobby, and headed toward the counter, where a young female teller was smiling cheerfully.
“Hello, sir,” the teller said. “How may I help you?”
Peggy Jo pulled out the note she had written. “This is a bank robbery,” it read. “Give me your money. No marked bills or dye packs.”
The stunned teller handed over a stack of cash from her drawer. Peggy Jo nodded, stuck the money into a satchel, and walked out of the bank. She then drove straight back to her apartment, where her mother was still in bed, getting hungry, hoping Peggy Jo would return soon to fix her lunch.
IN THE CRIMINOLOGY TEXTBOOKS, they are invariably described as products of a deprived socioeconomic background. Most of them are young male drug addicts who don’t have the slightest idea what they are doing. When they burst into banks, their fingers twitch and their heads swivel back and forth as they look for security guards. They shout out threats and wave guns in the air. When they get their money, they run madly for the exits, bowling over anyone in their path, and they squeal away in their cars, leaving tire tracks on the road.
And then there was Peggy Jo Tallas. “I promise you, my Aunt Peggy was the last person on earth you would ever imagine robbing a bank,” said her niece, Michelle. “Whenever I was in a car with her, she never drove above the speed limit. If anything, she drove below it. And she always came to a complete stop at stop signs.”
But Peggy Jo didn’t just rob a bank. Beginning with that May 1991 trip to American Federal, she robbed lots of banks. According to the FBI, she was one of the most unusual bank robbers of her generation, a modern-day Bonnie without a Clyde who always worked alone, never using a partner to operate as her lookout or drive her getaway car. She was also a master of disguise, her cross-dressing outfits so carefully designed that law enforcement officials, studying bank surveillance tapes, had no idea they were chasing a woman. What’s more, she was so determined not to hurt anyone that she never carried a weapon into any bank she robbed. “I have to admit, I admired her style,” said Steve Powell, a former FBI agent who spent most of his thirty-year career chasing bank robbers and who supervised bank robbery investigations for the Dallas office of the FBI in the early nineties. “She knew how to get in and out of a bank in sixty seconds. She was very skilled and very efficient, as good as any man I’ve ever come across.”
Although female bank robbers are not unheard of—it is estimated that women commit less than 5 percent of the some 7,600 bank robberies that take place each year in the United States—almost all of them are young women who, like most of the men, rob banks for drug money. And only a few of those women rob more than a bank or two before they quit or get caught. Accordingly, when Powell and his team of FBI agents happened to corner Peggy Jo near her apartment in 1992, they assumed they would never be dealing with her again. She