Fast Eddie’s Last Stop.

In 1993, Eddie Maher stole $1.5 million from a British armored van. In 2012, he turned up in a town just south of Springfield. This is the story of how one of Britain’s most wanted bank robbers became one of the Ozarks’ most infamous inhabitants — and the small Missouri town that got caught in the middle of everything.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 28, 2012

Michael Maher’s 19-year run as a fugitive began to crumble on a dreary Monday in early February. That day his 23-year-old son, Lee, had been arrested in Nixa, Mo., for outstanding traffic warrants, and he needed his father to bail him out.

Michael walked into the police station, paid the bill for Lee’s bond, and told a police officer that he had one more thing on his mind: He wanted to make a complaint against Lee’s wife for stealing one of his guns.

That’s when an officer told Michael that he had something on his mind, too: He knew Michael’s secret. Lee overheard the officer tell Michael that he was wanted for a crime in England, but that he wouldn’t arrest him right then and there.

After Michael and Lee left the jail that day, the son asked his father about the conversation that he had just heard. Michael was very angry — irate, Lee later explained to federal officials — and he told Lee that he was going to kill the person who had ratted him out.

Michael couldn’t be sure who had tipped off police, but he was sure of one thing: His 19 years on the road were coming to an end. Sure, he could run — in fact, for a night, he and his wife took their youngest son, age 13, to a motel — but then he gave in to reality. The run was over.

On Jan. 22, 1993, in a town two hours northeast of London, he had stolen an armored vehicle loaded with $1.5 million, and vanished. British police had been searching for him. Rumors about his location had run rampant. The case had gone cold. The mystery fugitive had all but vanished.

He was a ghost.

 

Now, nearly two decades later, that ghost been found in — of all places — a tiny town in southwest Missouri. Only a handful of people had known his true identity. One of them had given him up. Michael did not know who.

But what was meant to be was meant to be. After a night on the run, Michael changed his mind about fleeing. He wasn’t going to resist arrest. So he and his family returned to their corner apartment in the Fremont Hills complex that cold day – where heavy surveillance was still being conducted. Meanwhile, Lee had started to cooperate with police and give answers.

Michael placed a call to Lee, and he told him that at one time he had feared arrest. But he wasn’t afraid anymore, he said, according to an affidavit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sworn out on Feb. 9. [1] He wouldn’t try to fight his way out of an ambush by the police. Lee relayed that information back to FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Atwood in a phone call that day. He told Atwood that his father was staying home.

This was the type of investigation that fell in Atwood’s wheelhouse. He was a 12-year veteran of the FBI, decorated as a sniper and firearms instructor. His duties with the FBI had a wide scope, and he was particularly adept at working bank robberies. The affidavits he filed illustrated a highly detailed investigator who not only could trace and identify weapons, but could also work with informants to catch skilled criminals.

He took down Jason Lee Bowers, a young robber who hit four Iowa banks in the span of 12 days in Oct. 2009. Bowers had a penchant for strolling in with a silver revolver, filling a duffel bag with C-Notes, then taking the car keys of a teller and abandoning the car in a cemetery. Atwood had greased a confidential informant to jumpstart the investigation. It wasn’t all that different from a case he worked last fall, when Atwood received a tip on the identity of a desperate 21-year-old Springfield, Mo., bandit, who in an attempt to pay his rent, wielded a pistol in the Great Southern Bank and made off with about $21,000. His name was Kwanell Allen. Atwood set up surveillance on Allen for several days outside his small white house in north Springfield, five blocks from the bank. Atwood also worked with Allen’s wife, and had discovered that she had “cased” the bank two hours before the hold-up.

This investigation in Ozark had moved rather quickly for Atwood. On Feb. 6, 2012, officers from the Ozark Police Department received a tip about a British fugitive going by the name Michael Maher. On Feb. 7, Ozark police contacted the FBI about the fugitive. Officers in Ozark matched Maher’s driver’s license photo to a 1993 photo of the missing British fugitive. Atwood confirmed what Ozark police believed: Maher was the likely fugitive.

On Feb. 8, officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI first made contact with Michael at his apartment. Atwood asked Michael what his name was. “Michael Maher,” he replied, and he produced a Missouri driver’s license to prove it. ICE took him into custody for further questioning anyway. Atwood stayed behind to speak with Michael’s wife, Deborah.

Special Agent Patrick Thomas conducted the interview. He read Michael his rights, and Michael agreed to talk without a lawyer present. He signed a written waiver of his rights. Then he began to speak.

The secrets were just beginning to surface.

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Downtown Ozark, revitalized thanks to funding from the DREAM Initiative.
(At top) Maher’s booking photo, courtesy Ozark Police Department. (Above) Downtown Ozark, revitalized thanks to funding from the DREAM Initiative.

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When Michael Maher brought his wife and two sons to Ozark in 2007, the nomadic family dropped into a society that was rapidly changing.

On the surface, Ozark was the perfect little place to disappear. Just the word, Ozark, evoked an image of a timeless place, quiet and peaceful. It was the back-pocket community of Springfield, 10 miles to the north, and it didn’t have the appeal of the lucrative Branson, 35 miles to the south. It was the natural choice for a man worn out, a man looking to go away after a score.

But what an outsider wasn’t likely to see was how much Ozark had boomed in the past two decades. The town is one of the fastest growing in Missouri, and is the epicenter of Christian County, which is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. In 1990, there were 4,200 people living in Ozark; today it has more 18,000 people bedding down at night. In nearly every decade since 1950, the population of the town has risen by at least 40 percent. Today, the interstate running through Ozark sounds like a river.

The influx of people has been a byproduct of the simultaneous increases in population that have occurred both in Springfield and Branson, communities with the size to accommodate growth. The masses weren’t just moving to Ozark for its charm anymore; corporate giants like Walmart, Lowe’s and Walgreens had sprouted up along the Highway 65 corridor outside of the community. Heavy machinery and dump trucks became regular fixtures in the community, as big-box stores and elaborate apartment complexes were erected along the exit ramps of the city.

For many years, Ozark had a zoning ordinance that was just a few sheets of paper thick, and a copper-tinted land-use plan developed in the 1980s that prepared for the annexation of 50 acres in 30 years. The city needed to annex land in order to grow, but growth came far more quickly than expected. By 2004, “we were annexing on average, 50 acres a week,” says Steve Childers. “It didn’t keep up with itself.”

It was Childers who was issuing about 350 single-family building permits per year between 2004 and 2007. As Ozark’s city planner, he could scarcely recognize the area where he’d grown up.

He recognizes where a man gets his pride of place, though. When he was younger, Childers was conflicted about growing up in the Ozarks. He always wondered what else was out there.

In 1993, when he was 21, he and a friend from Indiana took off on a spontaneous trip to Europe. It had the makings to of a typical college Euro trip, except that Childers wanted to do it differently. They stayed out of the cities for the most part, and lived in the countrysides of Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary for three months, sleeping in native homes in small villages. They rarely paid more than a few dollars per night for a room. They went hiking in the hills during the day, then returned at night and closed down the hole-in-the-wall pubs with people they had just met. They hung out with refugees in Slovenia, made friends with victims of the Croat–Bosniak War. Childers never felt closer to home.

“Europe humbled me,” Childers says. “We were proud of the areas we grew up in when we got over there.”

If anything, the trip was a lesson in openness. 1993 was an important year in Europe. It was just a year after the Maastricht Treaty had been passed, which eventually led to the creation of the euro and the European Union. The continent was becoming unfenced, and Childers had experienced it firsthand. Oddly, he looked at what was happening in Ozark in a similar way; there were new pillars propping up in his hometown. And there was certainly new coin. For generations, the retail culture in Ozark revolved around simple commerce on the traditional town square. The farmland orbiting the town provided the agricultural muscle. Country stores were important commercial and social structures.

The boom unfenced Christian County. All of a sudden, businesses like Walmart and Lowe’s were connecting Ozark to the global economy.

“The growth took it by surprise,” Childers says. “The world just moves faster. We went from a rural area to a quickly urbanizing area.”

City Hall transformed from “an informal organization to a formal organization,” is the way Childers puts it. He had worked in city and private sector planning in places like Chicago, Peoria, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich. — but none of those metropolitan areas presented a challenge quite as daunting as Ozark. He thickened the zoning book and rewrote the land-use plan. He doubled the gas budget for public works vehicles, and helped organize the $15 million construction of a new water treatment facility in town. And although the Ozark boom couldn’t escape the economic downturn in 2008 [2], the population continued to grow.

But City Hall weathered the economic storm. Ozark built a brand-new community center in 2009. Locals rave about the strength of the local school system, which recently secured land south of town for new schools to accommodate the growing number of students. A new elementary school and a new high school are expected to be built in the near future.

In 2009, Ozark applied for funds from the DREAM Initiative, a state government partnership to offer financial and technical support for communities looking to revitalize their downtowns. Ozark was rejected in 2008, but Gov. Jay Nixon accepted the city’s rewritten and refocused proposal in 2010. Stimulating growth in local business on Ozark’s town square is one of the city’s top priorities, officials at City Hall say, especially as downtown continues its attempt to mesh with the corporate economy.

“I kind of look at the square as the heart of the town,” says Cara Borneman, a city projects director leading the DREAM Initiative charge. “And if the heart is doing well…” Her voice trails off.

But there’s a second heart of this community, an emotional core the Ozark residents hang on to. This is a small town that prides itself on building a better life for its citizens, on being a place that hangs onto its historical roots while trying to create something stronger for new residents. Even as it grows, it remains a small town. This is the kind of place where issues that start in town mostly stay in town.

How exactly one of Britain’s most wanted fugitives ended up in Ozark, how the whole world ended up opening their daily newspapers and reading about a little place south of Springfield, residents may never know.

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Steve Childers, Ozark's city planner.Steve Childers, Ozark’s city administrator. An image of a Bald Knobber is over his right shoulder.

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For all intents and purposes, Michael Maher and his family were one of the newest first-generation Ozark families. They assimilated quietly. The Mahers set up a checking account at Regions Bank. They drove around town in a 1997 Mercury Mountaineer, just another anonymous SUV in the daily commute. They moved around for a year or two, living in rental homes that were less than a mile from exit ramps off Highway 65, which connects Springfield and Branson.

By then, the information age had fully arrived in Ozark. Not only were people beginning to buy computers and plasma screens at retail outfits, but cellular phone and communications companies had also started to establish a stronger presence in the community. One of those companies was Suddenlink, a St. Louis based-corporation that is currently the seventh-largest cable operator in the United States. Since setting up shop in Ozark in 2003, it has grown to 29 employees in the area, and claims to provide its customers with one of the fastest Internet connections in the country.

Suddenlink hired Michael Maher in 2010. After he had passed a background check, Michael was commissioned as a broadband technician. A Suddenlink broadband technician spends days going into homes to install and disconnect cable; Michael worked 40-hour weeks for a modest $12.43 an hour.

It’s unclear what happened to Michael’s money from the robbery. But nearly two decades after the arrest, his financial situation did not reflect a man with cash stored away. Nine months after he was hired by Suddenlink, he filed for bankruptcy. He had just $85 in his bank account. He had outstanding credit debts, and an IRS monthly bill from underpayment in 2008. The Mountaineer was getting old; the odometer had just ticked over 250,000 miles, and his assets included clothes, a few televisions, his younger son’s school instrument and a Mosin-Nagant rifle. He couldn’t escape the burden.

So he took a financial class in December of that year, and continued to install cable inside people’s homes in Ozark. The elder of his two sons, Lee, was also living in the area. In the year leading up to his father’s financial problems, Lee was getting serious with his girlfriend, Amanda Zignego. The two had met in the summer of 2008 in Wisconsin, where the Mahers had lived prior to moving to Ozark. Amanda was attracted to Lee’s bad-boy nature, and she wanted to be with him. She moved to Ozark in Jan. 2009 to settle down with Lee, where she became pregnant with the first of two children the couple would have together.

The relationship was tumultuous at times. Amanda remembers that after she got pregnant with her daughter, Lee became more and more controlling. “That’s when he started telling me what to do, and how to act, what car to drive,” she says.

The two were driving toward Springfield in one of those cars, a white Ford Ranger, one October afternoon in 2009, when Lee told Amanda something that she will never forget. “My dad was a hitman in England,” he said, proudly. Shocked, Amanda continued to listen to Lee, unable to fully grasp what she was hearing. She says he lied to her often, so when he continued to tell her that he and his family were illegal immigrants, living in Ozark with illegal documentation, she didn’t believe him.

Amanda forgot about it, and the couple continued to drive toward Springfield.

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Elise Crain, the Ozark resident whose family has owned the same home in town for five decades.
Elise Crain, the Ozark resident whose family has owned the same home in town since 1943.

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Amanda Zignego was just another transplant in the boom. She didn’t come to Ozark for its economic opportunities; she didn’t come to become a part of the new progressive young culture in town. But she was part of the great migration, whether she realized it or not. She was from a small town, Hartford, Wis., and she had a notion that what she’d find in Ozark would be more of the same: A place with warm neighbors, a place where secrets were few and far between.

Her perceptions of the place changed. The people in Ozark were nice. But her lasting image of the place, above everything else, was a mysterious woman who lived next door. Sometimes, when Amanda came and went, the woman was outside, just staring at her.

Amanda says the woman must’ve heard the screaming matches she had with Lee. There were a few nights when “We sounded like we were killing each other,” says Amanda. She always thought the woman would help intervene, or at least say something about it the next day. “She didn’t do anything,” she says. “She was just a neighbor who didn’t really care, I guess.”

If anything, the neighbor was simply exposed to the anonymous culture that inevitably came with the growth. Childers describes it as the good-old-boy network — generations of Ozark families who managed the decisions of the town for a very long time — being joined with people moving in from the outside who had begun to take up key roles in town. There were more new people in Ozark than ever before.

Elise Crain, an Ozark native, knows this all too well. She has spent more than five decades of her life in Ozark. She lives in the house she grew up in, on a property that encompasses a whole city block. Her father was a former mayor of Ozark, as well as a judge and prominent lawyer. She grew up immersed in campaigns and in activism, and after a pioneering career as a construction administrator in the region, she continues to be one of the hardest-working advocates for the city. She’s the chair of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission. She’s the treasurer of the Women in Need of the Ozarks. She’s a board member on many community service initiatives. Ask anyone in town, and they’ll tell you Elise Crain knows close to everything about Ozark. But even she’s not immune to the anonymous culture that’s taken root in town.

This past spring, she met a man at her front door. He was in a tough spot, he said, and asked Crain for money. She wrote him a $50 check and gave him a sack of cashews for his children. She didn’t mind writing the check, she says; Ozark is the kind of place where neighbors can trust neighbors. The following day, he came back again, needing more money. Crain went to her basement and got $200 from her stash, and told him that was all she had left. He told her that he would return the following evening to reimburse her for the gifts.

The following day, Crain was not home for most of the day. When she returned late that afternoon, she discovered that her house had been broken into. The robber had knocked out the dryer vent from a window in the basement, walked upstairs, and rummaged through all the bedroom drawers. Eventually the burglar made off with a huge wine bottle of coins from the office downstairs. “There must’ve been $300 in there,” says Crain. She suspects it was the same man who had come to her door two days before. She called the police, told them her story, and activated the alarm system.

It was the first time the home had been broken into since 1943, and for the first time in her own city, Crain started to feel concerned about her property whenever she was away.

“One of my really good buds said, ‘Well, Elise, I wish you would’ve called me before you called the police because I would’ve taken care of that guy,’” she says. “And he meant it!”

Perhaps that spirit evolved from the vigilantism from Ozark’s past. One of the most intriguing and romantic periods in the town’s history — and in Christian County, for that matter — occurred between 1883 and 1889, when a powerful gang called the Bald Knobbers took the area by storm. The group was composed mostly of former Union supporters who, following the Civil War, wanted to bring enforcement to the moral and legal codes of the Ozark frontier. Group members in Christian County wore black jester masks with cones attached at the ears. They mobilized with horses, and they used elaborate cave systems in the Ozark backcountry for refuge and organization. The Bald Knobbers were violent, often colliding with organized law enforcement and anti-vigilante forces. For years, the black hoods [3] and their opposition engaged in gangland-style warfare that rocked the region, leaving important historical and social consequences in its wake.

The end of the Christian County Bald Knobbers came in May 1889, in infamous fashion. A group of Bald Knobbers took action against one of their critics, William Edens, who was killed in an assault on his cabin. Several Bald Knobbers were arrested and indicted. One, Billy Walker, went into hiding, before a fellow Bald Knobber who’d been turned by government officials lured him out. Walker was arrested, and along with his father, Dave, and two other men, he was sentenced to death by hanging on the Ozark town square. [4]

The execution did not go as planned. The ropes were too long, and when the men were dropped, their feet dangled on the ground. Billy Walker’s rope snapped, and he fell to the earth. He lay unconscious initially, but eventually awoke and pleaded for his life. The authorities re-hanged him, and he didn’t die until 34 minutes after the first attempt.

There is a memorial in Ozark’s downtown to the Bald Knobbers, but the subject is not discussed often. Many locals still feel like the men were sentenced wrongly. Still, many in Ozark are proud of the tradition of the Bald Knobbers. There are still some families in Springfield with direct lineage to former members.

Elise Crain understood this part of the city’s history, but newcomers often miss out on the town’s past. All Amanda Zignego saw in Ozark was a small town slowly growing. All she recognized was the anonymous culture brought on by the boom.

Life in Ozark was rarely easy, she says. She says that Lee’s father never liked her, that he would never say much to her. He loved her newborn daughter, though, and would play with her and laugh with her whenever Amanda brought her over with Lee. It wasn’t enough. Eventually she decided to leave Lee, and return to Wisconsin in Dec. 2009. Their tumultuous relationship continued over the phone, and Amanda says one night, she threatened to call the police in Ozark and report Michael to the authorities based on what Lee had told her in the truck months earlier about his father’s violent past.

“He told me that him and his father would come up here and kill me if I told anyone,” she says.

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The Maher's apartment in the Fremont Hills complex.
The Maher’s apartment in the Fremont Hills complex.

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Amanda Zignego was just the next in a long line of female acquaintances for Lee, many of whom have carried Lee’s children. Lee moved on to a new relationship, this time with Hannah Evans. According to an interview conducted in February with the New York Times, Hannah broke off their engagement in early fall due to a lack of trust. Again, Hannah says Lee disclosed the secret history of his family.

Just weeks later, Lee had found yet another relationship. Within weeks, he was married to Jessica King, a Springfield native. According to the Times, Lee yet again told his love interest about his father and the robbery. Again, Lee’s love interest faced retribution. Jessica told the Times that in December 2011, Michael threatened to kill her if she revealed his past to law enforcement.

On Feb. 6, after only a few months of marriage to Lee, Jessica began to fear for her safety. On the same day Lee was arrested for outstanding traffic warrants in Nixa, Jessica went to Ozark police with her story. His son’s new wife, a woman Michael had just met, was to be his ultimate undoing.

Michael’s life of anonymity was about to end.

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After Michael had been hauled off by immigration officials to determine his status, FBI Agent Atwood began questioning Michael’s wife, Deborah.

She identified herself as Deborah Ann Brett. She told Atwood that there were several weapons under her husband’s bed, where Ozark police officers at the residence found a Hi-Point .45 caliber pistol and a black Jennings .38 caliber handgun. Brett also led Atwood and the police officers to a storage unit in Ozark, where in a camper trailer, Michael had been storing more weaponry: a Mauser rifle and a black Mossberg 702 Plinkster .22 caliber rifle. The Mosin-Nagant rifle that he had previously listed on his bankruptcy paperwork wasn’t an illegal acquisition, but the four other weapons had been trafficked across state lines.

Brett also revealed to Atwood her husband’s secret. His name wasn’t Michael Maher. The license was a fake; the birthday on the license, March 17, 1951, was a fake. Her husband’s real name was Edward Maher, also known as Eddie. Michael was Eddie’s brother. Eddie had assumed Michael’s identity to obtain state and work identification — and over the years, when he didn’t feel like going by Michael, he used the alias Stephen King.

Everything dated back to 1993. A young Steve Childers was hiking around the Slovenia countryside, and Eddie Maher was about to pull one of England’s most notorious heists. He was 37 at the time, with dark-hair and lean cheekbones. His security mugshot depicted a man with unpredictable eyes, and a cold look. He looked like a guy ready to take down a simple yet remarkably intelligent robbery.

Eddie was a British native who worked as a guard for the security company Securicor. On Jan. 22, 1993, Eddie and another Securicor guard were transporting an armored van full of money in the town of Suffolk, stopping at Lloyd’s Bank to make a delivery.

When the other guard went into the bank to drop off a deposit, Eddie hijacked the van. He drove to a planted getaway car, a Toyota Previa Space Cruiser, with more $1.5 million in hand. The van was found abandoned, and Eddie vanished.

His name wasn’t Michael Maher. The license was a fake; the birthday on the license, March 17, 1951, was a fake. Her husband’s real name was Edward Maher, also known as Eddie. Michael was Eddie’s brother.

That was all it took for Eddie to become immortalized as one of the United Kingdom’s most illustrious criminals. He soon became known as “Fast Eddie,” and it was widely reported by British media that following the score, he had joined his wife and young son, Lee, in the U.S., somewhere on the East Coast. But nothing was proven. The rumors only continued to build. Most gave up on the case. Fast Eddie, it was assumed, would never be found.

The fog that Fast Eddie had created for authorities over the years quickly subsided in February of this year, when he had no choice but to reveal his identity to federal immigration officials. He told them that he had been using his brother’s name since 1998; that his real birthday was June 2, 1955; and that he’d done everything in the name of a crime in England.

Authorities charged him with being an illegal alien in possession of firearms.

The mugshot taken later suggested a man worn out by life on the run. He was balding and wrinkling, and the menacing capabilities depicted in the photo from 19 years ago had faded. The money was gone. He was facing federal gun and immigration charges, and those were just the beginning of his legal problems. He would find out later that his son was cooperating with the FBI, and that it was Lee’s wife who had tipped off the Ozark police.

He had come to Ozark during the great boom, and then he disappeared all over again. 

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Fast Eddie is in the process of being extradited back to England. Jessica King is reportedly in a safe house in Springfield, and is “all interviewed out,” according to her lawyer, who is working to collect the stale reward money for his client coming forward in the case.

Lee is in custody in Ozaukee County, Wis., for failure to pay child support. [5] Amanda Zignego says she spoke to him recently regarding the paternity suit, and doesn’t fear his release. At 22, she’s trying to move on, working on her psychology degree with the University of Phoenix while raising her two children.

In the days after the capture of Fast Eddie, London’s Daily Mail had projected its own perceptions on his last stop, stating that the arrest had taken place in the “semi-rural backwater of Ozark, Missouri.” Outsiders often point to local restaurants like Lambert’s Cafe, where servers throw bread rolls at customers, as a sign of Ozark’s small-town outlook.

Many in Ozark are enraged by the Daily Mail’s comment, but most are too busy to care. The robust population is too busy shopping in the big boxes off Highway 65, connecting to the global economy. Steve Childers is too busy in City Hall, trying to balance the local budget; an office away, Cara Borneman is too busy revitalizing the downtown area. Elise Crain is too busy helping young women in the community. In the epilogue of this story, Fast Eddie is returning to England to answer for his past, while Ozark is opening the fences with more opportunities, with more life.

The people of Ozark will likely never know why an international fugitive ultimately decided to pick their town to live in back in 2007, but Elise Crain likes to think that it was because of everything that is right about her home.

“I guess if you wanted to, you could go to the grocery store, go to the post office, keep the bills paid, and nobody would ever know if you were here,” she says. “But the world did. The world knew that there was an Ozark, Missouri.”