Where Are They Now? A Notorious Israeli Bank Robber, Two Decades On

Rony Leibovitz was once Israel’s favorite outlaw. Now even banks invite the legendary 'Biker Bandit' to recount how he managed to rob 21 of them before getting caught.

Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht
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Leora Eren Frucht
Leora Eren Frucht

Part 1: The disappearing motorcycle act

Rony Leibovitz came from an uber-rich family. He had homes in Manhattan and in swanky Herzliya Pituach and more money than he knew what to do with. Also a pretty happy marriage, a son he adored, and a whole lot of friends.

In other words, Rony Leibovitz had it all when he went on a rampage, robbing 21 banks all over Israel in 1989 and 1990. Dubbed the “Biker Bandit” – or “Ofnobank” in Hebrew – because he was said to escape the scene of the crime on his motorcycle – he quickly became the country’s most adulated outlaw, outwitting the banks and police without ever harming a soul. (He would threaten the teller with his pistol but never shot anyone, only once firing in the air.)

“Why did I do it? That’s the million-dollar question. It’s what everyone wants to know,” says Leibovitz, who has spent much of the last 15 years - since he got out of prison - asking himself the same question and sharing his answer – and other parts of his ordeal - with eager audiences who pay to hear him speak.

At 59, his beard has gone grayish-white, but otherwise, the tall, hefty guy with pale blue eyes hasn’t changed all that much. In his black t-shirt, jeans, jean jacket and pointy leather boots, he still looks like he just hopped off his motorcycle.

After his arrest in October 1990, police reported that Leibovitz had run up debts and cited that as his motive. But there was more to it: Not everyone with an overdraft becomes a serial bank robber.

“I didn’t do it for the money,” insists Leibovitz, who denies he was in debt. “I was in distress. Some people do drugs, others jump off a roof. This was my way of screaming out, of shocking the world, if you know what I mean.”

It had to do with his family, he explains, a wealthy clan of industrialists whom he likens to “J.R. Ewing and family – one always pitted against the other,” he says, referring to the oil magnate from the popular 1980s TV series “Dallas.”

At one point Leibovitz, the oldest of three sons, had a falling out with family members that eventually ended up in court. But his “acting out” even if directed at his feuding family – or at the entire world – missed the mark, even as a call for attention.

“I was a putz,” he admits. “I mean here I was doing all this to yell, but no one could hear me, because no one knew it was me – I had to keep my whole life as a bank robber to myself.”

Not even his wife, Iris, knew. “One night while lying in bed, I felt I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer and I turned to her and said: ‘What would you say if I told you I was the Biker Bandit?’ After a minute of silence, she made a gesture of utter derision as though that was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole Biker Bandit story was that there was no bike.

“It was the media that fabricated the story,” says a bemused Leibovitz, recalling how they conjectured that he fled on his motorcycle and immediately drove it into the back of a parked truck, which was his real getaway vehicle (an account that still appears in the Wikipedia entry about him.)

The truth was much simpler, yet in a way far more daring: Leibovitz had – and still has -- a motorcycle (a Honda Varadero 1000 cc), but never used it for heists. He would show up at the bank in his crash helmet just to hide his face. After the robbery, he’d walk out, hide his helmet and windbreaker in a nearby alleyway and then head straight back into the bank.

“What’s the last place the police would expect to find me?” says Leibovitz, who would mingle with the mob of curious onlookers gathering outside the bank after each robbery until the police would shoe him away. Later, once the police had removed the roadblocks in the vicinity, he’d pick up his helmet and casually head home, the money tucked safely in his shirt.

In the course of 21 robberies, executed the same way, he stole about $400,000 and became a folk hero, portrayed as part Robin Hood, part sex symbol, before he was finally caught in October 1990 near his parents’ home in Ramat Gan, ironically outside a bank that he says he wasn't even planning to rob.

Part 2: Rony loses it all

Within a few months of his arrest, Leibovitz had lost his wife, friends, money, property and freedom. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and soon found himself sharing a 5-by 5-meter cell with 15 other prisoners. At one point he had five murderers as roommates.

In an effort to save his own skin, Leibovitz concocted a plan for a prison school, which was soon enthusiastically adopted. The prisoners would get perks – like extra visiting hours – for attending classes, the prison officials got nice PR, and as the main instructor, Leibovitz secured for himself a position of power.

“None of the underworld members doing time would touch me because I was their ticket to privileges.”

Ironically, Leibovitz taught “citizenship” as well as history, his passion, finding just the right angle to make the lessons appealing to his students and their particular interests. “To introduce them to Asian history, for instance, I would talk about how the opium trade in China began.”

Leibovitz appealed his sentence, which was reduced to 14 years, and eventually received a presidential pardon (one of a few hundred pardons granted that year). In all, he served eight years in jail or, as he recalls it, “2,950 days and 2,950 nights, many of them filled with nightmares.”

On the day he was released he went straight to the beach with his son and a woman he met on a prison furlough, advertising exec Yasmin Merhav, who is now his wife.

“Our eyes locked in a café in Tel Aviv and to make a long story short, I’ve never been happier,” says Leibovitz who lives with Merhav in Ramat Gan, and adopted her daughter, who’s now 26. A few times a year he visits his own son, an academic, who lives in the United States.

Part 3: Starting over

“Prison helped reduce me to the right proportions,” Leibovitz reflects, seated in his wife’s Ramat Gan office. “Before that I was full of myself, living in Lalaland. It’s just a shame I had to go through all that in order to get to where I am now.”

Now, Leibovitz is an almost-ordinary guy, making a living in part by talking about his extraordinary past. Ironically banks love to hire him as a lecturer. “I think one reason my talk is popular is that I don’t look like a criminal. I’m your neighbor, I could have been your friend,” he muses.

A former logistics officer in the IDF, Leibovitz runs a logistics business, which he says is the main source of his income. And he tries to do some good “to make up for the past,” lecturing for free to youth and schools on why crime and drugs don’t pay. He has channeled his own initial shock at prison life into an online survival guide for first-time prisoners (www.haofnobank.co.il), also offering them and their families free consultations on everything from how to avoid being raped to visitor protocol.

Most of all, Leibovitz simply enjoys life in a way he never did before. “Only someone who has lost his freedom can appreciate having it again.”

If prison was such a trauma, why does he spend so much of his free time talking about it – not on the therapist’s couch (“that’s just not for me”) but in auditoriums?

“It's a catharsis for me,” he says a bit unconvincingly. What's clear is that this ex-con knows how to spin a good yarn, and seems to revel in the attention he gets. “I’ve been approached by several filmmakers who want to turn my story into a movie but no one has got the script quite right,” boasts Leibovitz, who may be less cocksure than he was when he set out to rob banks, but still possesses a generous sense of self.

As for why he did it, Leibovitz gives journalists and audiences all sorts of explanations, but when pressed he admits, sounding for the first time a little less sure of himself, that “to this day I continue to ask myself the same question.”

Rony Leibovitz, former bank robber, was dubbed the 'Biker Bandit'.Credit: Courtesy
Roni Leibovitz, the 'Biker bandit'.Credit: Moti Kimche
Rony Leibovitz, former bank robber, was dubbed the 'Biker Bandit'.Credit: Courtesy

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