Bloody Ending to a Double Life

updated 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

TO THEIR NEIGHBORS IN THE CHICAGO suburb of Hanover Park, Jill and Jeff Erickson seemed slightly peculiar sorts who preferred their motorcycles and their golden retriever, Kaos, to the company of others. The hardworking owner of a used-book store, Jeff, 33, would speak when spoken to, but his wife, Jill, a 27-year-old lab technician, who was finishing a degree in chemistry at Loyola University in Chicago, seldom looked anyone in the eye. The couple had few visitors at their town house on Waterford Drive; both nocturnal, they would roar off on their powerful Honda bikes at 3 A.M. to ride the streets for hours.

But even in a city with a rich gangland history, the Ericksons were adding an extraordinary new chapter to the criminal saga. Last Dec. 16 Jeff was arrested in connection with at least eight bank robberies. Cornered after a frantic 110-m.p.h. effort to escape, Jill died in a shoot-out with police. At their town house, police found 38 guns—rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, 25 boxes of ammunition, smoke grenades, gas masks, burglar tools, a police scanner and $1,742 in cash. The garage had been fitted with a massive safe, and a bulletproof vest was waiting at their mail drop. Instead of the mildly eccentric couple-next-door, it seemed, the bookseller and his wife were a suburban version of Bonnie and Clyde.

The MO of the man police called the Bearded Robber (he wore a false dark beard) never varied: He would burst into a Chicago-area bank wearing nondescript clothing and carrying a handgun and a police scanner. No gentleman bandit, he threatened to blow tellers' brains out if they failed to cooperate. Outside the bank would be a stolen Japanese-made car with the ignition pulled out—a getaway vehicle that he would abandon a few blocks from the hank. Police say that his forays netted him close to $200,000 in 22 months.

On Dec. 10 an FBI task force found a stolen Mazda with its ignition ripped out at a mall in Schaumburg, Ill., about 30 miles northwest of Chicago. Since there had been no robbery nearby, the police were betting the car would be used in the next heist and promptly staked it out. The watch ended just before noon six days later, when Jill and Jeff Erickson drove into the lot in a silver van. Jeff' jumped out and slipped behind the wheel of the stolen car, while his wife parked at the far side of the lot. In an instant, agents surrounded the Mazda and ordered Jeff to raise his hands. Startled, he twice made a move for a gun that was on the seat next to him. Finally he surrendered.

Jill did not go so easily. When agents approached the van, she tore out of the parking lot. Speeding through Schaumhurg, she led the feds on an 11-mile chase. Around 12:15 P.M. she ducked into Bear Flag Drive, the only route into a small subdivision. Cornered, she fired off a fusillade at the police cars surrounding the van. Officers returned fire, and there was an eerie silence. Jill was found slumped in her seat, blood streaming from her head. At around 6 P.M., she was pronounced dead at Humana Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

As family members tell it, Erickson was an unlikely candidate for the role of bank robber. A sociable child, he was raised in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove. His father, Jack, was in middle management at the phone company; his mother, June, raised two boys in a home filled with pets. "Our childhood was better than most," says Jeff's brother, Jim, 35, who owns a small gun shop in nearby Addison. A member of the swim team at Niles West High School, Jeff joined the Marines when he graduated in 1977.

Jill was the youngest of two girls adopted by Fran and Carl Cohen, a child-education specialist and a pharmacist in Niles, Ill. She met Jeff at a bar near her home on her 17th birthday. Taken with her long blond hair, he nicknamed the 5'11" senior Gorgeous. "Jill and I were crazy about each other," he says from his jail cell in Chicago. After they dated for six months, she dropped out of school to move in with him—partly, he says, to escape the pain of her parents' impending divorce.

Married in a bare-bones civil ceremony on July 29, 1983, the two never settled down. They moved nearly once a year—landlords, they said, kept ordering them to get rid of their menagerie, which included dogs and birds. Jill took jobs in a series of labs, and Jeff worked as a truck driver and chauffeur. In 1986 he landed a job as a police officer in Hoffman Estates. Thirteen months later he was dismissed for reasons that remain unclear. Police Chief Donald Cundiff says only that he "lacked common sense"; Jeff himself allows that he was soft on law breakers, while hi-mother claims he didn't like making arrests. "He'd say after he made one that he felt he'd ruined someone's day," she says.

According to the FBI, the erstwhile cop turned robber in January 1990. Carrying his police scanner, he allegedly walked into the First Nationwide Bank in Wilmette, Ill., and announced a stickup. Over the next 22 months, at least seven nearby banks were robbed in the same manner, with what authorities described as "military precision."

By last spring the couple's fortunes were clearly on the rise. In May, Jeff—a voracious reader who often checked out 15 library books at a time—opened a large used-book store in a shopping strip in Roselle. "I had heard bookstores were lucrative," he says, "and I like working with people." Customers were impressed; his books were in superb condition, and "he was very knowledgeable about the classics," said customer Greg Heier.

In February 1991 Jeff and Jill put $22,600 in cash down on an $86,000 town house in Hanover Park. "He told me he was in business for himself and that money was no problem," remembered real estate agent Jeanne Rezmer.

Although they remained close to their families, the two were also becoming more insular. Last winter, Jeff says, Jill entered a local hospital where she was treated for a drinking problem and diagnosed as a manic depressive. As Jim Erickson tells it, doctors said she suffered from "the beginnings of schizophrenia" and placed her on drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac. Still, says Jeff, she never seemed out of control. "The only time I ever saw her get mad was when she was drinking," he said. "We would have yelling fights, and I think maybe once she slapped me, but she was the calmest thing when she was sober."

Jill would have little chance to establish her equilibrium: By December, the authorities were closing in. Jeff (who faces up to 20 years in prison for each possible conviction) remembers Jill's final moments as a surreal drama heard on the police radio. Handcuffed in a squad car, he could hear the FBI agents pursuing her. "They were yelling, 'Shots fired, shots fired.' I was stunned," said Erickson. (He has been indicted in connection with eight robberies and denies the charges against him.)

After he was taken to jail that afternoon, says Jeff, he heard that Jill had died. He immediately called his brother and told him to rescue Kaos before the FBI "shot him or took him to the pound." Now, he says, he spends his days in relative peace. "Jill and I were both loners," he explains. "I guess we were inseparable. What's keeping me OK in here is that I don't have to worry about her now."

Still, Jeff admits that there are moments when he misses his wife beyond measure. "They showed Thelma & Louise here the other night. I had to go to my cell before they went over the cliff," he says. "The situation was too close to what happened with Jill, and I didn't want to cry in front of the group."

MICHELLE GREEN
NINA BURLEIGH in Chicago

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