The Santa Rosa police department released this photo of a robbery suspect
The Santa Rosa police department released this photo of a robbery suspect taken from a surveillance camera on Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, at the Washington Mutual Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Photo: Santa Rosa PD)

You may not recognize his name, but you might recall his nickname: Alan Hurwitz earned fame, or perhaps infamy, as the “Zombie Bandit.”

Alan Hurwitz passed away from the effects of COVID-19 this past June 6, at the age of 79. You may not recognize his name, but you might recall his nickname: Hurwitz earned fame, or perhaps infamy, as the “Zombie Bandit.”

Historically, Detroit’s Jewish community has not produced many criminal celebrities. One hundred years ago, there was the nationally renowned Purple Gang. This was definitely not a group of good Jewish boys. In 1992, it was the Zombie Bandit.

Alan Hurwitz
Alan Hurwitz

Hurwitz, a.k.a. the Zombie Bandit, was a paradox, to say the least. He had an accomplished career as an educator and social activist, but ended his working life as a famous bank robber.

Hurwitz was born in Detroit on Jan. 18, 1941, the son of Theodor and Minnie (Cohen) Hurwitz. He recalled, in published interviews, “I was blessed with the best parents. I was raised in the liberal Jewish tradition of justice, learning and equality …”

Hurwitz graduated from Mumford High School and, after a failed semester at Wayne State, joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He subsequently returned to Wayne State, earned his teaching degree and began a very successful career in education as a middle school English and social studies teacher.

Hurwitz was known for a deep dedication to social justice and equality. He worked to end segregation and racism, serving on a commission to desegregate the Detroit public school system and a state task force on violence in schools, and as education director for New Detroit. Hurwitz also spent time in the Peace Corps, including a stint as deputy director of the mission in Kenya.

By 1989, however, Hurwitz was disillusioned. He quit his position at New Detroit and returned to the Peace Corps hoping to rejuvenate his life. He was stationed in Trinidad and Tobago, but there, he began serious drug abuse.

Alan Hurwitz's wedding announcement
Alan Hurwitz’s wedding announcement in the July 8, 1960, issue of the JN.

By 1992, Hurwitz had reached the bottom and was living in his car. He could no longer continue to teach, so he decided to rob a bank in Southfield. Over the next nine weeks, he robbed 18 banks in the Midwest. The FBI called him the “Zombie Bandit” because of his expressionless face when he demanded cash from bank tellers. Hurwitz’s story finally aired on the television show America’s Most Wanted. He was soon captured and spent the next 12 years in prison, where, by all accounts, he helped educate his fellow prisoners.

Released in 2003, Hurwitz led a quiet life for a few years, but returned to robbing banks in Oregon in 2008. Once again, he was captured and incarcerated. Two weeks before he died, Hurwitz was given a compassionate release from prison.

The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History does not have much info on Hurwitz. I did find his wedding announcement in the July 8, 1960, issue of the JN.

Now, with this Looking Back, the story of Alan Hurwitz will be in the Archive. It is a classic tragedy of a good man, dedicated to education and social good, succumbing to drugs and crime. It is sad that Hurwitz will be most remembered for his role as the Zombie Bandit rather than his positive contributions to Detroit and Michigan.  

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

1 COMMENT

  1. My name is Karen Hoene Hurwitz. I just read the Obituary posted about my father, Alan Hurwitz. With all of his children still alive and well, it is surprising to me that the author did not reach out to any of us, as did the New York Times and the Jewish Telegraphic News. You left out a lot of information and got other things just flat out wrong. Finally, my mom and dad divorced 38 years ago so to include my mom’s wedding announcement and photograph is just bizarre and quite honestly shoddy journalism. Had the author done his homework and reached out to any of us he could have written a much more accurate and thorough account of my dad’s complicated and extraordinary life. I am disappointed!!

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