Israel's Motorcycle Bandit - Rony The Robber

In the late ’80s, Ronnie "Ofnobank" Leibowitz robbed 21 banks in the suburbs of Tel Aviv for more than $400,000

Rory the Robber illustration
The Biker Bandit.Illustration by Ryan Inzana

In the late '80s, rony Leibovitz robbed 21 banks in the suburbs of Tel Aviv for more than $400,000.

He successfully evaded capture for nearly two years, relying on a simple disguise and a clever strategy. Local media crowned him “Ofnobank,” a combination of two Hebrew words for “motorcycle” and “bank,” and his exploits made him a national celebrity, even after he was identified and caught. He served 20 years in prison for his crimes, but his unique fame has not faded. He’s since been a spokesman for motorsports brands and had his image featured on an Israeli postage stamp. This is the story of Ofnobank, in his words.

With my past, I have to be more kosher than the Pope. If I start to explain the whole story, it would take us two hours. I was in distress, at risk. It was tremendous pressure that led me to try to find an outlet, and I’m sorry to say it resulted in robbing 21 banks. I’d go into a branch, wearing a helmet with the visor down so that no one would recognize my face. They called me the Ofnobank, the Biker Bandit.

I've always loved motorcycles. The first time I saw one, I was 6 years old. Our neighbor had a Matchless. Sometimes I would skip breakfast before school and wait 20 minutes for him to start it up. It impressed me in a big way. Then I went to see The Great Escape with Steve McQueen. There's a part where McQueen runs away from a Nazi camp in World War II, steals a motorcycle, and tries to cross the border with it. He jumps the motorcycle over one fence, but ultimately fails to jump it over the next fence—and then he's caught. At that time, my mind was only on motorcycles. Why did I stick with the motorcycle? For me, it became the essence of freedom.

I would go into the bank, do what I did, go outside, and flee by motorcycle, right? Wrong. What actually happened—and I don’t want to ruin the legend because perhaps you won’t want to write this story—was that I never came to a bank on a motorcycle. Even today, out of fear, I don’t ride my motorcycle to the bank.

Biker bandit in the alley
“And where is the one place they’d never look for me? In the same bank that I had just robbed.”Illustration by Ryan Inzana

The second you commit a bank robbery, the police are already on their way. I didn’t want to be caught, so I walked outside—where there was never a motorcycle—slowly, as not to draw attention to myself. I took off my helmet and stuffed my windbreaker inside it, then placed them in an off-street alley where no one would find them. What then? Could I go home? Hardly. The police closed off the entire area. And where is the one place they’d never look for me? In the same bank that I had just robbed.

It was the hundreds of onlookers who started the rumors. That’s when the stories began. “He’d put his motorcycle on a getaway truck.” Have you ever seen a truck? How would I load a 190-kilogram motorcycle onto a truck? I’d just slip into the crowd. What did I do with the money I had robbed? There was nowhere to really hide it, so I’d go back inside with everyone else and reload a portion of the stolen money into a number of accounts that I had there. It really confused the bank. The money left, and then shortly after, it’s back?

I am sure that you have no idea what prison is like. It’s better that way. They tell you when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to stand, when to eat. You aren’t a human being anymore. You change. Most importantly, you learn to appreciate better what freedom is. Only someone who has been imprisoned knows what freedom is. Until they take your freedom away from you, you don’t know what it’s like. I, on the other hand, know freedom, and I value it very much.

People recognize me, and not just in Israel. In New York. In Vanuatu! There isn’t anywhere on the world farther away. Sydney, Australia. New Zealand. Egypt—f—king Egypt! They know my face. I’m not proud of this. I didn’t receive the Nobel Prize in literature. I committed a serious act, and it will be with me all my life. Motorcycles are stopped much more often in Israel to check registration and other documents. You know how it is. Once or twice a week, I get stopped. It’s always the same reaction. Once the officer stops me, I already know what’s about to happen. Until I take off my helmet, there are no problems. Then the officer recognizes me immediately and is dying—dying—to find something wrong.

Rory the Robber behind bars
“When I’m on the motorcycle, I’m alive. I’m on vacation. I can get up at 3 a.m. and go to the beach, or go to the desert. It’s the essence of freedom.”Illustration by Ryan Inzana

He finds that all of my documents are in order, returns them to me, and then yells into the walkie-talkie, “You’d never believe who I just stopped!” Then it doesn’t matter how old or how senior the officer is, it’s the same story: “Do you know how long we chased you? Do you know what problems you caused us?” In my head, I’m like, you’re 23. You weren’t even alive then. I wouldn’t dare say that out loud, out of respect. Then—as always—they ask to take a selfie. It’s fair to say that until my last day on Earth, they’ll recognize me. Nothing I can do about it. I use my fame to talk to at-risk kids, and they listen to me. I tell them the story of my life. I’ve done this almost twice a week for about 20 years now. Maybe I’ve had an influence on one of them. That’s my reward.

Before I went to prison, I had tons of friends. I had a big house, a villa, in a good neighborhood north of Tel Aviv. There were cars and a swimming pool, and it was amazing. Now I’m living at a level a little lower than that, but I’m free. And I have friends. My friends from back then just evaporated. They disappeared. My good friends now are here to stay as lifelong friends. I divorced, and now I have a new wife. I’m a totally new person. But the motorcycle remained throughout, because it equals freedom—for me, anyway.

When I ride, the motorcycle is not a means to get from one point to another. It’s not a car. When I’m on the motorcycle, I’m alive. I’m on vacation. I can get up at 3 a.m. and go to the beach, or go to the desert. It’s the essence of freedom.