For a long time, the armed heist known as the Brink’s Holdup was the most successful robbery in United States history. It took place in Boston’s North End on 165 Prince Street at the headquarters of Brink’s Incorporated on January 17, 1950. The job was meticulously planned and brilliantly executed, and the thieves made off with over $2 million. The robbers were local heroes; Boston for some reason has a longstanding love affair with bank robberies. Because the story of the heist is not generally known to younger readers, we will relate it here.
The idea for the robbery began in the mind of a North End tough guy named Tony “Fats” Pino. He put the Brink’s company on Prince Street under observation, knowing that it dealt on a daily basis with large amounts of cash and bonds as part of its payroll operations in the local area. Plans began to form slowly in his mind. From rooftops and overlooking rooms nearby, his sharp senses noticed that the Brink’s employees would often let their guards down when dealing with large amount of cash. He was convinced that a successful heist was possible. But it would be difficult, and would need a disciplined team with precision timing.
The next step was to recruit a first-rate crew. To this end Pino turned to two underworld chums he knew well: Stan “Gus” Gusciora and Joseph “Specs” O’Keefe. Both had come from the Boston streets and were true professionals at their trade. Gusciora was good with the muscle, and O’Keefe was known to be a calm, calculating, and highly intelligent thief. Together they would plan and stage the greatest robbery in US history.
Various plans were discussed. One scheme had the robbers hide in the building and overpower the employees in the morning; another idea was to take the head foreman hostage and make him open up the cash vault. O’Keefe thought that there must be a better way. So he and Gus eventually figured out how to enter the Brink’s building at night through an abandoned garage; once in, they performed a thorough reconnaissance of the cash house itself. The key to a successful robbery, they realized, would be to disable the Brink’s alarm system, which was only set at around seven o’clock each night.
From these preparations, O’Keefe hit on the idea of removing the lock cylinders from all the doors leading to the cash vault itself. He thought it would be possible to remove the lock cylinders, have keys cut for the locks, and then replace the cylinders in the various doors without anyone noticing. If they could do this, then they could enter the building during the day without triggering the alarm.
From this point the general plan took shape. Seven men would enter the building using the duplicate keys. They would disable the employees in the vault and take all the moveable cash. Drivers would wait in a getaway vehicle outside. Another man would meet the team at a safehouse after the getaway to divide the loot. The crooks found a way to get uniforms that looked just like the ones worn by Brink’s employees. The jump-off date for the operation was set for January 17, 1950.
At 165 Prince Street, O’Keefe and his men entered the Brink’s building armed with pistols, rope, bags, and duct tape. They put on Halloween masks and headed straight for the vault. Going right up to the shocked employees, they pulled out guns and told everyone to shut up or else. A couple workers were picked out to accompany the bandits to the vault, and there they filled multiple bags with cash. In about twenty minutes, it was all over. The crew left the building laden with loot and drove away, leaving the stunned employees to try to figure out how it had all happened. Each member of the crew received about $100,000 as his take in the haul.
When news of the robbery leaked out, Boston Police Superintendent Edward Fallon summoned over 150 law enforcement men to police headquarters to brief them on what had happened. Meanwhile, the public’s imagination was captivated by the daring robbery. The crooks had gotten off scot-free, it seemed; there were few leads and no real clues, and soon the story faded from public attention.
But as often happens, the thieves would prove to be the source of their own undoing. Greed, jealousy, and suspicion would doom them all. Specs O’Keefe and Stan Gusciora would eventually be arrested for unrelated crimes and ended up doing time in Pennsylvania; while they were away, “friends” spent their stolen loot. The police did eventually discover parts of the getaway car at a junkyard; the hold-up men had tried to bury its parts, but the frozen ground prevented this. Not much else was forthcoming, and the three-year statute of limitations on prosecutions loomed for the FBI. Unless a break in the case was found, they would never be able to do anything, even if they caught some suspects.
When O’Keefe got out of jail and found out that his friends had spent all his money, he was furious. In a long series of machinations too convoluted for us to follow here, O’Keefe took increasingly desperate measures to try to recover his money from other members of the gang. Soon violence came into the picture, and Specs narrowly missed an attempt to kill him. He had been wounded, and this provided FBI agents an opportunity to try to turn him against his former comrades. They made a point of telling him how most of the former gang members had grown rich, while he himself had nothing to show for masterminding the Brink’s job.
Slowly, O’Keefe’s hardened exterior began to crack. Seething with anger at having been used and cast aside, he agreed to spill his guts to the FBI. He revealed the names of all the participants in the Brink’s job, and described in detail how he pulled it off. With this precious information, prosecutors brought indictments against all the surviving gang members (two had since died). When the trial was held in Boston in 1956, they got life in prison.
Specs was given special consideration for his role in solving the crime. Law enforcement frankly admitted that without his cooperation, the crime never would have been solved. He was paroled in 1960 with a name change, and died quietly sixteen years later. Most of the loot from the Brink’s job was never recovered. While a perfect accounting is impossible, it is accurate to say that about $1 million in untraceable loose cash was hidden from the robbery, and has never been found.
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