Just before Thomas Randele died, his wife of nearly 40 years asked his golfing buddies and his co-workers from the dealerships where he sold cars to come by their home.
They gathered to say goodbye to a guy they called one of the nicest people they’d ever known — a devoted family man who gushed about his daughter, a golfer who never bent the rules, a friend to so many that a line stretched outside the funeral home a week later.
By the time of their final visit last May at Randele’s house in suburban Boston, the cancer in his lungs had taken away his voice. So they all left without knowing that their friend they’d spent countless hours swapping stories with never told them his biggest secret of all.
For the past 50 years, he was a fugitive wanted in one of the largest bank robberies in Cleveland’s history, living in Boston under a new name he created six months after the heist in the summer of 1969. Not even his wife or daughter knew until he told them in what authorities described as a deathbed confession.
How he was able to leave behind one family and create a new life — while evading a father and son from the U.S. Marshals Service who never gave up their hunt — is just now being pieced together.
Ted Conrad quickly figured out that security was fairly loose at the Society National Bank in Cleveland after he started as a teller in January 1969.
He told his buddies it would be easy to rob the place, said Russell Metcalf, his best friend from high school.
A day after his 20th birthday that July, Conrad walked out with $215,000 from the vault, a haul worth $1.6 million today. By the time the missing money was noticed, Conrad was flying across the country.
In a letter sent to his girlfriend, he mistakenly thought he could return when the statute of limitations expired. But once he was indicted, that was no longer true.
Conrad apparently cut off contact with his family. Some eventually presumed he was dead, said Matt Boettger, whose mother was Conrad’s older sister.
His mom, he said, was relieved to find out her brother had lived a happy life. “She thought she would go to her grave and never know,” he said.
The bank heist in 1969 didn’t capture the attention of the nation, or even of Cleveland. Everyone else was focused on Apollo 11′s historic flight to the moon.
But for John Elliott, a deputy U.S. marshal, it was personal because he and Conrad came from the same side of town.
The problem was Conrad had a head start and was disciplined enough not to make missteps.
Elliott traveled across the U.S. looking for Conrad and even after retiring would check on the case, said his son, Pete Elliott, now the top U.S. marshal in Cleveland, who inherited the hunt for Conrad nearly 20 years ago.
His father died in March 2020 before investigators pieced together details from Randele’s obituary and signatures from his past. Then in November, Randele’s family confirmed that just before he died, he told them what he had done, Elliott said.
Why Conrad committed the robbery has been analyzed endlessly.
“It wasn’t about the money. He always wanted to impress people,” said Metcalf, his high school pal.
Investigators believe he was inspired by the 1968 movie “The Thomas Crown Affair,” about a bank executive who got away with $2.6 million and turned the heist into a game.
After the real-life robbery in Cleveland, Conrad wound up in the Boston area, where much of the movie was filmed.
Thomas Randele came into existence in January 1970 when Conrad applied for a Social Security number in Boston, Elliott said.
During the 1970s, Randele worked at a country club outside Boston and became its manager. He also met his future wife not long after arriving in Boston. They were married in 1982.
Around then, he began working in the car business, selling Land Rovers and Volvos until he retired after nearly 40 years.
What’s not clear yet is what happened to the money. The Marshals Service is looking into whether he lost it early through bad investments.
While Randele and his wife, Kathy, lived most of their years in a pleasant Boston suburb, they filed for bankruptcy protection in 2014. She told Cleveland.com in November that her husband was a great man. She has declined interview requests.
No one would have guessed that Randele, who was 71 when he died, was someone trying to hide from authorities.
Among the many people he became friends with over the years was an FBI agent in Boston, Elliott said.
“He was just a gentle soul, you know, very polite, very well spoken,” said Jerry Healy, who first met Randele at a Woburn, Massachusetts, dealership where they talked daily for years.
Matt Kaplan, who managed two dealerships where Randele worked and golfed with him for many years, called him a gentleman.
“The only way it makes sense is that at that age he was just a kid, and it was a challenge kind of thing,” Kaplan said.
“If he would have told us way back when, I don’t think we would have believed him because he wasn’t that kind of guy,” he said. “The man was different than the kid.”
In the early days after Randele’s identity was revealed, his friends couldn’t believe it. But now looking back, some things make sense. How he always had a beard. His reluctance to talk about where he grew up or his extended family.
“You know all the years I knew Tommy, I never heard him mention a sister or a mother or a brother or a father,” Healy said.
“You could never pry anything from him,” said Brad Anthony, another close friend.
Still, he said it’s almost impossible to believe. “It just seems so out of character for the Tom I knew,” he said.
Sign up for the WTAJ Newsletter for the latest local news, weather, and community events that matter to you.