How a cow helped the FBI capture the elusive thief Frank Sprenz, aka The Flying Robber, 60 years ago
Sprenz was a man who had been on the wrong side of the law from an early age and was in a federal prison in Ohio by the time he reached his late 20s. He broke out from the prison and from there began his cat-and-mouse game with the authorities
Around 60 years ago, on April 15, 1959, the FBI was able to officially arrest Ten Most Wanted Fugitive Frank Sprenz, who was also known as the "Flying Bank Robber", in the city of Laredo, southern Texas. The official end to Sprenz's flight from the authorities, however, came a few days before this across the border in Mexico. This was all thanks to the authorities in Mexico as well as a meandering cow.
Sprenz was a man who had been on the wrong side of the law from an early age. By the time he reached his late 20s, he was in a federal prison in Akron, Ohio. In April 1958, about a year before his dramatic FBI capture, the crafty man fashioned a key out a piece of metal from his bed and was able to unlock the door to his cell. Four other convicts went along with Sprenz and they were able to overpower the guards and flee.
The four convicts, however, were all either captured or killed with Sprenz being the only one who was able to get away from the incident. After he broke out of jail, the man went across state lines and this was able to give the FBI jurisdiction in the case.
Sprenz used multiple aliases and stole more than two dozen cars while he was on the run in various parts of the country. In this regard, the man proved to be quite elusive to the authorities who were hot on his tracks. Then, on September 10, 1958, the hunt for Sprenz intensified after he was added to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
In the meantime, while the FBI and local authorities were desperately trying to find him, Sprenz kept up his bank robbery spree. At one point in this adventure, Sprenz traveled to Washington state, where he used some of his stolen money to take flying lessons. It was at this point that a plan emerged for the cunning man to be able to stay one step ahead of the authorities: steal a car, rob a bank, drive to the airport, snatch a plane, fly to a distant city, and repeat the process. This plan proved to be effective for some time.
In February 1959, Sprenz stole a plane in Scranton, Pennsylvania and flew it to Colchester, Vermont. One month after this, he robbed a bank in Hamilton, Ohio, where he stole around $25,000. By this point in the story, the FBI and all the partner agencies were almost about to catch him.
The Cleveland office of the Bureau was the one with the investigative lead in the case and the other offices around the country were providing support. The FBI had already been working with international agencies at this point, including those in Canada where it was reported that Sprenz had stolen a plane.
Media outlets at the time also played a crucial role in raising the notoriety of the bank robber and started calling him the "Flying Bank Robber". This is when Sprenz decided that he had to leave the country. He used a small plane that he had bought with some of the stolen money and was eventually able to fly to Raymondville, Texas, close to the border of Mexico. Once there, he was suddenly overcome with the feeling that he was recognized and quickly flew to Mexico.
Sprenz had been right to assume that he had been spotted because he had. The local authorities immediately contacted the FBI and the Bureau's international office, or legal attaché, as it is referred to, in Mexico City went into high alert. The bank robber refueled and was about to take off for Cuba when fate got in the way. A cow suddenly stepped in front of Sprenz's plane which caused him to swerve and hit a tree. His plane was damaged beyond repair.
An FBI legal attaché agent assisted the local Mexican authorities in tracking down the robber and he was arrested and deported to the US. He was then found guilty of various crimes and was sentenced to 25 years behind bars. Sprenz was paroled in 1970 but returned to his life of crime and ended up dying in prison.
Immediately after he was arrested, Sprenz spoke to a media outlet and said: "Ever since I made the list, I've felt like I was walking down a glass sidewalk that might break at any minute. I'm glad it’s over."
Many agents across countries struggled to catch the slippery bank robber and all it took was a meandering cow to walk in front of his plane.