Berkshire Armored Car heist Police probe quarry, mobsters in theft

 

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series looking into the investigation of the unsolved $1.9 million robbery at Berkshire Armored Car Co. on Jan. 31, 2002, in Rutland. Investigators have been tight-lipped for years. This series focuses on recently released federal documents containing interviews, internal memos and other investigative materials compiled since the biggest robbery in Vermont’s history.) By BRENT CURTIS STAFF WRITER More than two years after $1.9 million was stolen from the Berkshire Armored Car Co. in Rutland, federal investigators were contacted by a man who said he knew where $100,000 of the money was — loot he would take for himself if he could only swim. In one of the more quickly dismissed tips received over the years regarding the unsolved January 2002 heist of Berkshire Armored Car Co., FBI agents met with a man who told them he’d heard that part of the stolen money was packed into an airtight container and dumped into the quarry at the end of Marble Street Extension in Proctor. The informant, whose name was redacted in case files released recently by the FBI, told federal agents who met with him at a Rutland McDonald’s in November 2004 that “he was interested in the reward money. (And he) mentioned several times that if he could swim he would go get the money himself.” The man’s information — based on a conversation he had with someone at the former Stoplight Bar in Rutland — was deemed unworthy of further investigation on the grounds that the quarry would have been frozen over at the time of the robbery. But that tip was only a small part of the iceberg of rumors, leads and innuendo that investigators chased down during the more than 10 years that the case was active. Three years after the FBI officially closed the case in 2012, the federal agency responded to a Freedom of Information request from the Rutland Herald by sending hundreds of pages of interviews, forensics analysis and internal memos generated during the search for the lone gunman who pulled off the biggest heist in the state’s history. From interviews and tips, investigators explored a host of theories involving everyone from mobsters and desperate drug addicts to ex-husbands and parents with criminal records. An inmate at the St. Albans jail serving time on a federal weapons charge told investigators in March 2002 that he had been invited to participate in a robbery that he believed was the armored car heist. Two weeks before the robbery, the inmate said he was approached by someone who offered him a role in a robbery that he was promised would make him “set for a while.” The inmate, who worked for Commercial Building Services — the Howe Center company that owned a van investigators believe was stolen and used the day of the robbery as a getaway vehicle — said the acquaintance who invited him to be a part of the robbery had asked him repeatedly to help steal one of his employer’s vans. When the inmate was asked why he was volunteering the information, he said he didn’t know about the $20,000 award offered by the FBI or the $50,000 reward posted by Berkshire for information on the heist. Instead, he said he wanted to get out of jail. “(The inmate) advised that his mother was sick and his girlfriend had a nervous breakdown,” FBI agents reported. He wasn’t the only tipster with a vested interest. A number of informants offered up information while inquiring about whether they would receive the rewards offered by the FBI and Berkshire for information that would solve the case. One ex-convict contacted federal agents days after the robbery to report that he had been called about a week before the heist by an acquaintance who invited him to be part of a “big score” and said he was interested in the reward money for the information he provided. The ex-con said he was told the job involved robbing Berkshire Armored Car in Rutland at the same time as the event happened and using a stolen van — all details that had been reported in the media by the time he spoke with investigators. But on top of those details, the informant, who turned down the job for fear that he would get a lengthy prison term because of a prior felony conviction, added a number of others. He said the man who offered him a role had been planning the job for three months and the plan included transferring the money from the van to a 1960s-era white Pontiac LeMans “which is souped up with dual exhausts of ‘750 dual pipe and a Holley 4-barrel carburetor with a 350 cubic engine.” The informant said he was told if he participated he would be given a .357 silver Magnum with pearl handles and hollow-point rounds. The plan after the robbery was to lie low for a while and if the “heat came down he would leave and go to Mexico.” Asked why he was coming forward with the information, the informant told police he was a heroin user and needed the reward money. In February 2003, federal agents were contacted by another man connected to the drug trade who they described as being “jammed up” on sale of cocaine and federal firearm offenses. The accused man told investigators that the $1.9 million was hidden in an apartment above a downtown Rutland pizza shop. The informant told police that he had heard secondhand that a woman visiting an apartment above Cara Mia’s Pizza on Strongs Avenue had seen someone with “a bunch of cash” and that it was mentioned that the money bags from the theft — more than 30 of them — were hidden in the ceiling above the apartment. When agents contacted the woman who visited the apartment, she said an interview would be a “waste of time” because the money she saw in the apartment was winnings from a lottery ticket and she said she knew nothing about the Berkshire robbery. Other people had axes to grind. One woman told federal agents she suspected her ex-husband, who she said had committed a number of armed robberies, including one in Schenectady, N.Y., where he knocked over a jewelry store to settle a $5,000 drug debt. The woman said her ex-husband watched the Weather Channel to plan his robberies around winter storms, which he believed aided in covering his tracks — a technique she said he added to by sprinkling laundry detergent on his tracks to cover his scent. She told FBI agents she believed her former spouse, who lived in Schenectady, was involved because he had talked frequently in the past about robbing an armored car and, since his release from jail Dec. 18, 2001, he had talked about purchasing crack cocaine from three drug dealers he owed large debts to. One woman told investigators in 2004 that she suspected her father of the crime. The woman said her suspicions were stirred first by a phone message left on the day of the robbery by her father who said that “all his drug debts had been paid and there would be no further worries about harassing phone calls.” Based on her father’s criminal history and the discovery of a ski mask and gloves under the seat of his car, the woman told investigators that it “certainly was possible” he was the robber. In 2004, the investigators began looking into possible mob connections to the crime after the Organized Crime Task Force of the New York attorney general’s office contacted federal agents about a “very reliable informant” who said the heist was carried out by a member of the Tanglewood Gang out of the Bronx. The agents were told that the gang was comprised of the sons of the “wise guys” of the Lucchese family and that two Berkshire guards were involved in the robbery. After initially refusing to meet with federal agents for fear that his life would be put in danger, the confidential informant met with the lead FBI agent and said he knew only the first name of the robber. Early on in the case, investigators followed another lead involving a confidential informant after a detective in the Worcester (Mass.) Police Department told federal agents he had spoken with one of his informants who said he spoke with a man who was paid $4,000 to drive a getaway van during a robbery. “During the conversation between the informant and the driver, the words ‘armored car’ were used,” federal investigators added. No follow-up on the lead was recorded in the federal filings. In a local lead, an employee at the former Bellomo’s Market on Forest Street in Rutland told investigators in March 2002 that he believed two former Giancola Construction Co. employees — the Giancola family owns the Howe Center where the heist took place — were involved in the robbery because one of the men had the same build as the gunman and spoke with a New York accent. In another local lead from July 2002, agents received multiple tips from an anonymous caller who said he sold cars in the Rutland area and suspected a man who paid for a $7,514 Toyota Tercel in cash may have been involved in the robbery. The car dealer said he visited the buyer’s home July 8 and watched him withdraw money from a box containing at least $200,000. “Money, money, money. You gotta love it,” the buyer said, smelling the bills as he handed them over to the salesman. Another lead came from an employee who worked in the building next door to the Berkshire terminal in Rutland. During an interview on the first anniversary of the heist, a Westminster Crackers employee said someone he knew had been offered $30,000 to “keep quiet” about the robbery. The cracker company employee said he suspected one of his co-workers because he had talked in the past about all the money on the other side of a maintenance room wall that bordered the Berkshire vault. brent.curtis @rutlandherald.com

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