The first fugitive caught by the internet

Les Rogge was wanted for 30+ bank heists. He could outrun the FBI, but not the World Wide Web.

fugitive on a computer screen

Sebastian Strzalkowski still remembers the day his uncle Bill came to install a modem that would connect him to the World Wide Web. 

Bill Young, or Uncle Bill as he was known to Sebastian, stood over the phone jack, fiddling with a splitter. His parents had agreed to buy him an internet connection, and their family friend Bill had come over to set it up. 

They lived in the small city of Antigua, in central Guatemala, part of a tight-knit community of expats who grew close and were used to eccentric people coming and going. When Sebastian’s parents hired Anna Young, Bill’s wife, to help with bookkeeping for the family business, they learned the Youngs were no different.

Leslie Rogge, AKA Bill Young, sailing his boat Mr. Tambourine Man in 1983. (Facebook)

Bill Young, 50ish and tattooed, was a local Mr. Fix-It who could rig up a boat in no time and rarely went anywhere without a beer. His gruff demeanor hid a kind heart: When the family needed a ride to a neighboring town to pick up Zorra, Sebastian’s new German shepherd puppy, it was Bill who drove them over.

Little did they know, Uncle Bill’s name wasn’t Bill Young at all. He was one of America’s most wanted fugitives. And it was Sebastian’s very internet connection that would bring him to justice after more than a decade on the run.

The money angle

Bill Young was actually Leslie Ibsen Rogge.

Born in 1940 in Seattle, Rogge had always been handy. By 14 years old, he was hot-wiring cars parked at the local hotel and taking them for a spin. When a 10-week joyride with a girlfriend, funded with credit cards stolen from his dad, landed him in juvenile court, the judge ordered him to join the military.

Rogge picked the Navy for the boats, but didn’t last long.

After a dishonorable discharge for stealing a car and going AWOL, Rogge spent some time in jail for cashing bad checks.

In 1975, he set his sights on a new line of work: bank robbery.

“I did treat it like a job,” he later wrote in Wanted: Gentleman Bank Robber, co-authored by his nephew Dane Batty. “One I had to do right since there were extreme consequences if I messed up.”

Rogge as a new Navy recruit. (Facebook)

His method was simple.

  • Steal a getaway car.
  • Call to make an appointment to meet with the manager.
  • Show up in a nice suit.

Then he’d ask to speak to the manager somewhere quiet, place a police scanner on the desk, and let them know they were being robbed and that he’d know if someone called it in. After grabbing the money bags from staff, he’d peel out using the stolen car, fogging up the interior with WD-40 to prevent any fingerprints being left behind after he ditched the vehicle.

He raked in piles of cash across the country:

  • $98k from the local bank in El Dorado, Arkansas
  • $149k in cash and $409k in blank traveler’s checks from High Point, North Carolina
  • $84k from a drive-thru bank in Missoula, Montana
  • $87k, plus $48k of traveler’s checks, in Clear Lake, Texas

The FBI suspected him of running a gang of professional robbers. But aside from a friend and an accomplice who was later shot dead by police in an unrelated robbery, Rogge worked alone.

“I was always looking for a money angle,” he wrote in Wanted. The FBI estimated his take to be ~$2m, all in.

Mr. Tambourine Man

On a stopover in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Rogge called up the sister of a friend he’d made in prison. He took her out on the town, to “a real shit-kicker country bar with live music.”

They stayed up all night talking, and Rogge decided to stick around for a while. Judy Kay Wilson would become his third wife and join him in his life on the run.

At first, Judy didn’t know her new boyfriend pulled heists for a living. He’d stockpile IDs, fakes he’d create with Wite-Out and a typewriter or others he’d find on the street. She didn’t even know his real name. She thought he was a retired Navy man with a trust fund.

So when he suggested they buy a boat and sail it down the Mississippi River, she said yes.

She began to suspect something was amiss when they reached New Orleans and he hid a briefcase with $187k in cash under the hotel-room bed.

The couple made it to Tampa in a Cadillac they’d actually paid for, and bought a boat they called Mr. Tambourine Man. Mr. T would see them through a shakedown run down Florida’s west coast all the way to the Bahamas Bank in Nassau.

The FBI created trading cards for their most-wanted criminals. (Trade Card Database)

The FBI was hot on Rogge’s heels. They’d interrogated his first wife and his sister. His photo was turning up in newspapers for the string of robberies he’d pulled so far. He needed to get out of the States for a while.

They made it all the way to Jamaica, docking in island towns along the way. They swam in coves so clear they could see schools of fish skimming the seafloor. They caught lobster and grouper for dinner, and went days without seeing another person.

Back in Nassau, they did encounter another person: a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. Rogge knew he had trouble on his hands when an official-looking man asked to board his boat. He was the DEA agent for the Bahamas, he said, and he had orders to search Mr. T.

“I got a tip this boat is full of cocaine,” he told him, as Batty and Rogge recounted in Wanted.

Posters of Rogge began to appear in grocery stores and gas stations. (FBI)

There was no coke, but he did find an undeclared hand grenade — enough to get Rogge deported and back on American soil, where the FBI arrested him as soon as he landed.

Rogge stood trial in Miami in June 1984, for a final robbery he’d done near Key West before skipping town.

He spent four months in jail before he befriended and bribed a corrections officer named Bob with $50k to help him escape.

Behind him, he left a note that read “Gone fishing.”

Ready to run

By the late ’80s, an accurate description of Rogge was out: 5’10” with blue eyes. A panther tattoo on his left forearm, an eagle on his right, hair with a white streak down the center of his head like a skunk. They were closing in. 

By then, Rogge and Judy had bounced from Texas to Virginia to North Carolina and back. For a while, he even got a job for the DEA towing boats seized for drugs in South Carolina. The FBI was looking everywhere, and Rogge was entertaining customs officers aboard his boat.

Rogge repairing one of his many boats. (Facebook)

On January 4, 1990, Rogge made the top 10 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Suddenly, his picture was everywhere, from posters on gas-station pinboards to the National Enquirer. Every Saturday night, when “America’s Most Wanted” came on, Les and Judy had to get ready to run.

He was wily enough to evade the FBI, but Rogge was no match for the internet.

404 error

One night in the spring of 1996, Sebastian’s dad asked him if he could look something up on the web.

Life in Guatemala could feel like it was life lived at the edge of the world, he says. The 10 hours a week he was allowed to spend online, gaming and in chat rooms, was a thrill.

Back then, you just didn’t get nosy about why people moved to Guatemala, Sebastian’s mom, Terry Biskovich, told The Hustle. So the family didn’t know much other than that Bill’s repair business was booming.

“People will tell you what they want to tell you,” she says. “We knew there was something going on with those guys. We got the idea that maybe there was a tax issue.”

But one of their friends had recently returned from the States, and rumors were flying about Bill Young’s shady past.

“It was in the wind that Bill was maybe a bank robber,” she says.

Sebastian’s dad thought maybe the FBI had a website where they could check it out.

Sebastian Strzalkowski surveys his handiwork on the FBI’s website, where Leslie Rogge’s photo is stamped CAPTURED. (Supplied by Sebastian Strzalkowski)

Teenage Sebastian booted up the computer and typed in the URL. At first, he couldn’t see anything. And then, he kept scrolling.

“That’s when the photos came up,” says Terry “We went, ‘No, no, no, oh my god, oh that’s Bill.’”

The trio peered at the screen. Uncle Bill’s telltale white streak of hair was a dead giveaway. “That was the first thing I noticed,” Sebastian says. “It was absolutely him,” Terry added.

The next day, they learned Bill and Anna were gone. “It seemed like they’d gotten tipped off,” Sebastian says.

After Sebastian’s positive ID, his parents went to an Easter party. They’d decided to tell their friends, hoping someone would call in the tip.

“We found Bill, Sebastian found Bill on the Internet,” Terry remembers saying. “You could feel the voices rising in the room. It was quite a tidal wave of shock.”

Before long, the FBI was knocking on their door.

Rogge surrendered to the US Embassy in Guatemala City after 11 years on the run. (Photo by Daniele Volpe for The Washington Post via Getty Images) 

The FBI weren’t the only ones who heard about the teenage sleuth. Rogge did too. He caught wind that the teenager had IDed him, and was apparently telling friends at school about it. Rogge was running out of places to hide.

Finally, in May 1996, Rogge learned the FBI planned to bring in not just him, but Judy, for aiding and abetting a fugitive all those years.

He couldn’t bear the thought of Judy in prison. That month, he surrendered, and became the first fugitive caught by the internet. Rogge is serving out his 65-year sentence in Oregon, and is slated for release in 2034. He’ll be 94. He’s never contacted Sebastian or his family again.

The internet changed Sebastian’s life, too — he’s now a game developer in California.

But it also changed crime-fighting, ushering in an entirely new way for armchair sleuths to play detective, and crowdsourcing evidence in cases like the Golden State Killer and a Florida man murdered for his lottery winnings.

“It was fun to be part of something new technology was bringing to society, but there was some sadness to it too,” Sebastian says now.

“We thought we knew who they were. And I still don’t know who they are.”

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Topics: Crime

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