Bank heists, illegal and reckless though they may be, hold a special place in the American heart. Although modern technology has made getting away with an armed bank robbery virtually impossible these days, we live in a country that was founded by rebels. It’s our heritage. It’s why big buildings full of money still call out to that special red, white and blue place inside that makes us wanna don a Nixon mask, help ourselves to some cash and then go surfing. Hollywood knows. We just eat it up.
In honor of this staple of American culture, we’ve decided to start a new series that revisits some of the most famous bank robberies in American history. This week, we’ll be discussing one of the granddaddies of them all. The Great Brinks Robbery was, according to many, the perfect crime.
Let’s go back half a century, to 1950. ATMs hadn’t been invented yet, so banks used off-site vaults, provided by security companies, to store their excess money and checks. The Brinks Security Armored Car Depot in Boston had one of these vaults, and it contained a lot of money. However, as the name implies, the building was also as heavily guarded as a building could be. In fact, no Brinks building had ever been infiltrated before. Robbing it was a task fit only for fools or criminal masterminds.
Anthony Pino, an Italian immigrant and career bank robber, was a little bit of both. He knew that such an unprecedented crime would result in an unprecedented payday – if he could pull it off. Because a successful heist would require a ridiculous amount of preparation, Pino assembled a team of 11 crooks – including hired gun Specs O’Keefe – and spent the next year and a half scouting out the building.
Pino’s team observed and recorded everything. They figured out when the depot held the most money, as well as the number and positions of the guards at any given time. The team even stole the plans for the depot’s alarm system, then copied and replaced them before anyone noticed they were missing.
On January 17th, Pino was ready to make his move. At 7:30 p.m., when the Brinks employees were just beginning to restock the vault for the evening, five members of Pino’s team infiltrated the building. They donned Halloween masks, pea coats, hats and gloves to totally hide their appearance, and their soft-soled shoes let them move about quietly.
One by one, the robbers tied the guards and employees up. They then helped themselves to $1.2 million in cash and $1.5 million in checks before making their exit. All in all, the operation took less than 30 minutes.
The heist, which the press billed as “The Perfect Crime,” was nationally famous by the following morning, in part because it was the largest heist committed to date, but also because the robbers left virtually no useful evidence for police to work with.
Pino’s team, knowing that they were being pursued by nearly every law enforcement agency in the country, took great pains to cover their tracks. They cut the getaway truck to pieces and stashed it in a scrap yard. They agreed to keep their sudden windfall a secret, and they laundered the money for six years, waiting for the statute of limitations to expire. If they could wait it out, they’d be able to spend freely.
The police worked to piece together the few clues that they had, but every theory was a dead end. In time, they came to suspect that Pino was responsible for the heist, but they had no way to prove it. Five years passed without any major breakthroughs, and it looked like Pino and his team of merry robbers would get away with their crime.
But then someone started causing trouble. Specs O’Keefe – remember him? – was imprisoned for an unrelated crime and had to leave his share of the money with another team member. While in prison, he began to worry that he was being ripped off, so he bitterly complained to the gang that he deserved a bigger share of the loot.
Pino and company responded to O’Keefe’s demands exactly the way you’d think a team of hardened criminals would. They tried to kill him. They made three attempts on O’Keefe’s life, and all of them failed. After that third missed hit, O’Keefe decided he’d had enough and proceeded to rat out the team to the FBI.
In January, 1956, the FBI arrested the eight remaining members of the team, including Pino. Each man was convicted of robbery, and each received a life sentence. Everyone but O’Keefe, that is. Because of his cooperation, he got just four years.
Although the robbers would all be released by 1971, The Great Brinks Heist still serves as a lesson on the danger of organized robberies. The more people you bring into the fold, the more likely it is that there will be a weak link in the chain – and as Pino and his gang learned the hard way, it only takes one weak link for the entire operation to fall apart.
The Great Brinks Heist was so close to being the “perfect crime,” just as the press breathlessly described it in 1950. But because of how it all went down in the end, history will remember it as something else.