The Great Brinks Robbery was the biggest armed robbery in U.S. history at the time. Thieves vanished after stealing $2.7 million, leaving few clues. It was almost the perfect crime. Almost.
It happened in 1950 at the Brinks Armored Car depot in Boston’s North End. The gang of 11 that stole the money after two years of meticulous planning almost got away with it. They failed because they fell out over the division of the spoils. All had been arrested five days before the statute of limitations ended.
The idea for the heist came from Joseph ‘Big Joe’ McGinniss, but the mastermind was career criminal Anthony ‘Fats’ Pino. McGinness and Pino recruited a gang to watch the depot for 18 months to figure out when it held the most money. They stole plans for the depot’s alarm system, and returned them undetected. They also removed the cylinders from locks, one by one, and had a locksmith duplicate the keys. Planning for the Brinks robbery took two years and included six failed attempts.
The gang wore outfits similar to Brinks uniforms – Navy pea coats and chauffeur’s caps – and rubber Halloween masks. At 6:55 p.m. on Jan. 17, 1950, seven of the gang members entered the counting room, surprised the five employees and bound and gagged them face down on the floor. They cleaned out everything except the General Electric payroll. It took them only 35 minutes to load 14 canvas bags with a half ton of cash, coins, checks, securities and money orders. Two of the gang waited outside in the getaway truck
They left but three clues: a chauffeur’s cap, the adhesive tape used to gag the Brinks employees and the rope used to tie them up. No one was hurt. The thieves divided up some of the loot and promised each other they wouldn’t touch the money for six years so the statute of limitations would run out. Then they split up to establish alibis.
They almost made it. Investigators had few leads and little solid evidence. Law enforcement officers interviewed hundreds of people who lived and worked near the Brinks depot and questioned known criminals. According to the FBI,
"!n the hours immediately following the robbery, the underworld began to feel the heat of the investigation. Well-known Boston hoodlums were picked up and questioned by police. From Boston, the pressure quickly spread to other cities. Veteran criminals throughout the United States found their activities during mid-January the subject of official inquiry."
The truck the robbers used was found cut to pieces in Stoughton, Mass., but didn’t offer many clues. The FBI was flooded with unhelpful tips.
One gang member blew it for all of them. Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe left his loot with another member to serve a prison sentence for a different crime. While behind bars, he wrote angry letters to his cohorts demanding money and suggesting he might talk. When O’Keefe got out of prison, Fats Pino sent a hit man to kill him. The hit man shot at O’Keefe with a machine gun in the Dorchester section of Boston. O’Keefe escaped with minor wounds and made a deal with the FBI to testify against the gang. All eight were caught and convicted. Two died before they were tried.
Only $58,000 of the $2.7 million was ever recovered.
This story was updated in 2017.