Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crime Doesn't Pay

Well, most of the time anyway. White collar crime enjoys a historically high rate of return, with little in the way of a downside. But in terms of traditional robbery, thieves always slip up eventually and get caught. They're thieves after all, and even if they manage to stay clean after a heist, all of their associates are criminals, and somebody ends up talking. But on this day in 1950, 11 men from Boston tried to pull off - and get away with - the perfect crime. They stole $2.7 million dollars - the largest heist in U.S. history at the time - injuring no one, and leaving almost no clues as to their identity. Their target was the Brinks Armored Car depot, and their heist will forever be known as The Great Brinks Robbery.

Now these fellows did not just decide on a whim to rob an armored car facility. No, this was a carefully planned operation, involving 18 months of preparation. Its mastermind, Anthony "Fats" Pino, devised the plan almost two years before the actual date was set. Now I know that "mastermind" and a nickname of "Fats" seem contradictory, but this guy really thought this thing through. He and his crew of ten other career criminals set out to case the Brinks operation. They determined at what point in the month it had the most cash on hand; removed lock cylinders from doors to have duplicate keys made (returning them without being detected); stole the plans to the security system (ditto); and even had replica Brinks uniforms and caps made to enable them to come and go as Brinks employees. Had they put this type of effort and planning into establishing a legitimate business of some sort, they'd all have become millionaires anyway. But what fun is there in that?

On the evening of January 17th, the men entered the depot with their copied keys, wearing their phony uniforms and Halloween masks to conceal their faces. They went immediately to the counting room and tied up the employees working within. They stuffed a dozen or so canvas bags with all manner of cash, coins, money orders, etc., and were back outside in their getaway vehicles in under 30 minutes. The loot weighed over a half a ton, and the only evidence they left behind was the rope used to tie up the employees, and a cap that must have fallen off of the head of one of the robbers. Not a scratch on anyone nor a fingerprint anywhere. Can you say CSI Bahston?

Seriously, state and local police, as well as the FBI, descended on the place, and could find nothing. They likewise rounded up all of the usual suspects and no one was talking. It would seem that the only people who knew anything about the heist were the criminals themselves. And "Fats" had a plan that would keep them all quiet, or so he thought. The statute of limitations on such a crime in 1950 was six years. Fats made a promise that not one cent of the money would be spent before the six years were up, and only then would the loot be divided. This was a tremendous incentive for the gang members to stay clean, and if they couldn't do that, to at least stay quiet. It was deviously simple, and it almost worked.

The problem came in the form of one Joseph "Specs" O'Keefe. I love these nicknames, I wish I had one. Anyway, he was picked up for an earlier robbery and found guilty in 1955. But as he went off to jail, he knew his share of the $2.7 million would be waiting for him when he got out. But I guess prison is not all that it is cracked up to be, and he wanted out. In letters to his crew, he demanded some of his share be release so he could hire an attorney to get his sentence reduced. When that did not happen, he implied that he might start talking.

Now this where a non-criminal mind would come up with a pragmatic solution that appeases O'Keefe's desire to get his sentence reduced, without putting the kibosh on the entire operation. It is at this critical point when these things always pivot in the wrong direction, and we learn why crime doesn't pay. Fats and the other members agreed that hiring a hit man to eliminate O'Keefe (in prison) was the way to go. I would have loved to have been at that meeting. Anyway, the hit man was of course discovered before he could complete the task, managing to only wound "Specs" and seriously tick him off. And with only 11 days before the six years were up - 11 days! - O'Keefe started singing. The rest, as they say, is history. Although most of the money was never found, eight of the gang members were convicted to life sentences, two died before going to trial, and O'Keefe cut a deal. The heist and subsequent investigation inspired the 1978 film The Brinks Job with Peter Falk, which I highly recommend.

Now if you want to visit the site of the most famous heist in U.S. history, you can't. The Brinks building, located on the corners of Commercial and Prince Streets in Boston, was torn down and replaced with a parking garage. Why are these things always turned into parking garages? Anyway, it is on the Freedom Trail, Boston's famous walking tour of the city's (and the country's) rich history, so why not have a look? You can get a timeshare rental at Marriott's Custom House and take in the entire city on foot.

Well, I am off to the Warren Anatomical Museum on the grounds of Harvard University to see the skull of one Phineas Gage. I know that sounds macabre, but it gets worse. This was the fellow who had a metal rod blown clean through his head back 1848 while working on a Vermont railroad. And lived! Yeah, he was unwisely tamping a stick of TNT down into a hole with a 12 lb. metal rod, when the TNT blew up and sent the rod straight through his coconut, passing out the top of it. Not only did he live, he never lost consciousness. He went on to be a bit of a celebrity/freak, dying in San Francisco in 1860. People who knew him before said that he was more or less the same after, except that he was a bit irritable and erratic, and became prone to cursing a lot. Are you kidding me?! Ask anyone who has known me for a while and I am quite certain that's what they say about me.

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