Photo of the Day

A newsman wears a rubber mask similar to that worn by bandits who robbed Brink’s armored car firm in Boston Jan, 1950. The reporter points to nameplate on first of six locked doors opened by the gunmen. The Mask was one of several purchased in joke shops by newsmen and police to see if they resembled description given by Brink’s employees. PHOTO: AP Photo

The Great Brinks Robbery

They left few clues. It was almost the perfect crime. Almost…

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.

Tony Pino, a lifelong criminal, was the mastermind behind the audacious theft. Together with Joe McGinnis, he assembled a group that meticulously planned the heist. They staked out the depot for a year and a half to figure out when it was holding the most money. Then, the gang stole the plans for the depot’s alarm system and returned them before anyone noticed that they were missing.

The criminal team held repeated rehearsals, with each man wearing blue coats and Halloween masks. On January 17, they finally put their plan into action. Inside the counting room, the gang surprised the guards and tied up the employees. Multiple canvas bags, weighing more than half a ton, were filled with cash, coins, checks, and money orders. Within 30 minutes, the Brinks robbery team was gone–taking $2.7 million with them.

“Shortly before 7:30 p.m. on the evening of January 17, 1950, a group of armed, masked men emerged from 165 Prince Street in Boston, Massachusetts, dragging bags containing $1,218,211.29 in cash and $1,557,183.83 in checks, money orders, and other securities,” the FBI writes in its account of the crime on its website. PHOTO: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

The great Brinks Robbery or Brinks Job is one of the FBI’s most famous cases. The robbers were later captured, but most of the money was never recovered. The robbery was the largest in U.S. history until that time, and was considered the Crime of the Century. The Brinks gang planned the robbery for about a year. They meticulously observed the employees’ daily routine from a building across the street.

They removed the lock cylinders of many doors and had a locksmith make keys. Members of the gang went into the building several times after-hours to memorize the layout and practice their planned entrance and escape. The gang even broke into an alarm company in Boston to review the plans of the security system inside the Brinks building.

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.

Anthony “Fats” Pino. Photo FBI.

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 safe house 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.

Joseph “Specs” O’Keefe.

Shortly before 7:30 p.m. on the evening of January 17, 1950, a group of armed, masked men emerged from 165 Prince Street in Boston, Massachusetts, dragging bags containing $1,218,211.29 in cash and $1,557,183.83 in checks, money orders, and other securities. These men had just committed the “crime of the century,” the “perfect crime,” the “fabulous Brink’s robbery.” At 7:27 p.m. as the robbers sped from the scene, a Brink’s employee telephoned the Boston Police Department. Minutes later, police arrived at the Brink’s building, and special agents of the FBI quickly joined in the investigation.

Boston Police and the FBI rounded up every suspect they could find. Rope, adhesive tape, one hat, and a witness observing the getaway car were the only initial evidence. Hundreds of leads led to dead ends, but the investigation was relentless. Constant pressure was put on the narrowing list of suspects by surveillance and personal interviews.

At the outset, very few facts were available to the investigators. From interviews with the five employees whom the criminals had confronted, it was learned that between five and seven robbers had entered the building. All of them wore Navy-type peacoats, gloves, and chauffeur’s caps. Each robber’s face was completely concealed behind a Halloween-type mask. To muffle their footsteps, one of the gang wore crepe-soled shoes, and the others wore rubbers.

The robbers did little talking. They moved with a studied precision which suggested that the crime had been carefully planned and rehearsed in the preceding months. Somehow the criminals had opened at least three—and possibly four—locked doors to gain entrance to the second floor of Brink’s, where the five employees were engaged in their nightly chore of checking and storing the money collected from Brink’s customers that day.

All five employees had been forced at gunpoint to lie face down on the floor. Their hands were tied behind their backs and adhesive tape was placed over their mouths. During this operation, one of the employees had lost his glasses; they later could not be found on the Brink’s premises.

As the loot was being placed in bags and stacked between the second and third doors leading to the Prince Street entrance, a buzzer sounded. The robbers removed the adhesive tape from the mouth of one employee and learned that the buzzer signified that someone wanted to enter the vault area. The person ringing the buzzer was a garage attendant. Two of the gang members moved toward the door to capture him; but, seeing the garage attendant walk away apparently unaware that the robbery was being committed, they did not pursue him.

Each robber’s face was completely concealed behind a Halloween-type mask. PHOTO: FBI

All of the robbers wore Navy-type peacoats, gloves, and chauffeur’s caps. PHOTO: FBI

In addition to the general descriptions received from the Brink’s employees, the investigators obtained several pieces of physical evidence. There were the rope and adhesive tape used to bind and gag the employees and a chauffeur’s cap which one of the robbers had left at the crime scene.

The FBI further learned that four revolvers had been taken by the gang. The descriptions and serial numbers of these weapons were carefully noted since they might prove a valuable link to the men responsible for the crime.

In 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.

Since Brink’s was located in a heavily populated tenement section, many hours were consumed in interviews to locate persons in the neighborhood who might possess information of possible value. A systematic check of current and past Brink’s employees was undertaken; personnel of the three-story building housing the Brink’s offices were questioned; inquiries were made concerning salesmen, messengers, and others who had called at Brink’s and might know its physical layout as well as its operational procedures.

An immediate effort also was made to obtain descriptive data concerning the missing cash and securities. Brink’s customers were contacted for information regarding the packaging and shipping materials they used. All identifying marks placed on currency and securities by the customers were noted, and appropriate “stops” were placed at banking institutions across the nation.

Roll of waterproof adhesive tape used to gag and bind bank employees left at the scene of the crime.

The tampered lock at the Brink’s building. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

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.

The Brink’s case was “front page” news. Even before Brink’s, Incorporated, offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible, the case had captured the imagination of millions of Americans. Well-meaning persons throughout the country began sending the FBI “tips” and theories which they hoped would assist in the investigation.

For example, from a citizen in California came the suggestion that the loot might be concealed in the Atlantic Ocean near Boston. (A detailed survey of the Boston waterfront previously had been made by the FBI.) Former inmates of penal institutions reported conversations they had overheard while incarcerated which concerned the robbing of Brink’s. Each of these leads was checked out. None proved fruitful.

Many other types of information were received. A man of modest means in Bayonne, New Jersey, was reported to be spending large sums of money in night clubs, buying new automobiles, and otherwise exhibiting newly found wealth. A thorough investigation was made concerning his whereabouts on the evening of January 17, 1950. He was not involved in the Brink’s robbery.

Rumors from the underworld pointed suspicion at several criminal gangs. Members of the “Purple Gang” of the 1930s found that there was renewed interest in their activities. Another old gang which had specialized in hijacking bootlegged whiskey in the Boston area during Prohibition became the subject of inquiries. Again, the FBI’s investigation resulted merely in the elimination of more possible suspects.

Many “tips” were received from anonymous persons. On the night of January 17, 1952—exactly two years after the crime occurred—the FBI’s Boston Office received an anonymous telephone call from an individual who claimed he was sending a letter identifying the Brink’s robbers. Information received from this individual linked nine well-known hoodlums with the crime. After careful checking, the FBI eliminated eight of the suspects. The ninth man had long been a principal suspect. He later was to be arrested as a member of the robbery gang.

Of the hundreds of New England hoodlums contacted by FBI agents in the weeks immediately following the robbery, few were willing to be interviewed. Occasionally, an offender who was facing a prison term would boast that he had “hot” information. “You get me released, and I’ll solve the case in no time,” these criminals would claim.

One Massachusetts racketeer, a man whose moral code mirrored his long years in the underworld, confided to the agents who were interviewing him, “If I knew who pulled the job, I wouldn’t be talking to you now because I’d be too busy trying to figure a way to lay my hands on some of the loot.”

“At 7:27 p.m. as the robbers sped from the scene, a Brink’s employee telephoned the Boston Police Department. Minutes later, police arrived at the Brink’s building, and special agents of the FBI quickly joined in the investigation.” PHOTO: AP Photo

In its determination to overlook no possibility, the FBI contacted various resorts throughout the United States for information concerning persons known to possess unusually large sums of money following the robbery. Race tracks and gambling establishments also were covered in the hope of finding some of the loot in circulation. This phase of the investigation greatly disturbed many gamblers. A number of them discontinued their operations; others indicated a strong desire that the robbers be identified and apprehended.

The mass of information gathered during the early weeks of the investigation was continuously sifted. All efforts to identify the gang members through the chauffeur’s hat, the rope, and the adhesive tape which had been left in Brink’s proved unsuccessful. On February 5, 1950, however, a police officer in Somerville, Massachusetts, recovered one of the four revolvers which had been taken by the robbers. Investigation established that this gun, together with another rusty revolver, had been found on February 4, 1950, by a group of boys who were playing on a sand bar at the edge of the Mystic River in Somerville.

Shortly after these two guns were found, one of them was placed in a trash barrel and was taken to the city dump. The other gun was picked up by the officer and identified as having been taken during the Brink’s robbery. A detailed search for additional weapons was made at the Mystic River. The results were negative.

Through the interviews of persons in the vicinity of the Brink’s offices on the evening of January 17, 1950, the FBI learned that a 1949 green Ford stake-body truck with a canvas top had been parked near the Prince Street door of Brink’s at approximately the time of the robbery. From the size of the loot and the number of men involved, it was logical that the gang might have used a truck. This lead was pursued intensively.

On March 4, 1950, pieces of an identical truck were found at a dump in Stoughton, Massachusetts. An acetylene torch had been used to cut up the truck, and it appeared that a sledge hammer also had been used to smash many of the heavy parts, such as the motor. The truck pieces were concealed in fiber bags when found. Had the ground not been frozen, the person or persons who abandoned the bags probably would have attempted to bury them.

Burlap money bags recovered in a Boston junk yard from the Brink’s robbery.

The truck found at the dump had been reported stolen by a Ford dealer near Fenway Park in Boston on November 3, 1949. All efforts to identify the persons responsible for the theft and the persons who had cut up the truck were unsuccessful.

The fibre bags used to conceal the pieces were identified as having been used as containers for beef bones shipped from South America to a gelatin manufacturing company in Massachusetts. Thorough inquiries were made concerning the disposition of the bags after their receipt by the Massachusetts firm. This phase of the investigation was pursued exhaustively. It proved unproductive.

Nonetheless, the finding of the truck parts at Stoughton, Massachusetts, was to prove a valuable “break” in the investigation. Two of the participants in the Brink’s robbery lived in the Stoughton area. After the truck parts were found, additional suspicion was attached to these men.

As the investigation developed and thousands of leads were followed to dead ends, the broad field of possible suspects gradually began to narrow. Among the early suspects was Anthony Pino, an alien who had been a principal suspect in numerous major robberies and burglaries in Massachusetts. Pino was known in the underworld as an excellent “case man” and it was said that the “casing” of the Brink’s offices bore his “trademark.” Pino had been questioned as to his whereabouts on the evening of January 17, 1950, and he provided a good alibi. The alibi, in fact, was almost too good. Pino had been at his home in the Roxbury Section of Boston until approximately 7:00 p.m.; then he walked to the nearby liquor store of Joseph McGinnis. Subsequently, he engaged in a conversation with McGinnis and a Boston police officer. The officer verified the meeting. The alibi was strong, but not conclusive. The police officer said he had been talking to McGinnis first, and Pino arrived later to join them. The trip from the liquor store in Roxbury to the Brink’s offices could be made in about 15 minutes. Pino could have been at McGinnis’ liquor store shortly after 7:30 p.m. on January 17, 1950, and still have participated in the robbery.

Patrolman Thomas O’Brien (left fore ground) talks with Charles S. Grell (center) and Herman G. Pfaff (right), two of the five employees of Brink’s Inc., who were tied up and gagged by bandits who fled with more that a million dollars from open vault (right, rear) in Boston, Massachusetts,, Jan. 17, 1950. Police said the robbers reached the second floor of the garage by opening six locked doors, “probably with a passkey.” PHOTO: AP Photo

And what of McGinnis himself? Commonly regarded as a dominant figure in the Boston underworld, McGinnis previously had been convicted of robbery and narcotics violations. Underworld sources described him as fully capable of planning and executing the Brink’s robbery. He, too, had left his home shortly before 7:00 p.m. on the night of the robbery and met the Boston police officer soon thereafter. If local hoodlums were involved, it was difficult to believe that McGinnis could be as ignorant of the crime as he claimed.

Neither Pino nor McGinnis was known to be the type of hoodlum who would undertake so potentially dangerous a crime without the best “strong-arm” support available. Two of the prime suspects whose nerve and gun-handling experience suited them for the Brink’s robbery were Joseph James O’Keefe and Stanley Albert Gusciora. O’Keefe and Gusciora reportedly had “worked” together on a number of occasions. Both had served prison sentences, and both were well known to underworld figures on the East Coast. O’Keefe’s reputation for nerve was legend. Reports had been received alleging that he had held up several gamblers in the Boston area and had been involved in “shakedowns” of bookies. Like Gusciora, O’Keefe was known to have associated with Pino prior to the Brink’s robbery. Both of these “strong-arm” suspects had been questioned by Boston authorities following the robbery. Neither had too convincing an alibi. O’Keefe claimed that he left his hotel room in Boston at approximately 7:00 p.m. on January 17, 1950. Following the robbery, authorities attempted unsuccessfully to locate him at the hotel. His explanation: He had been drinking at a bar in Boston. Gusciora also claimed to have been drinking that evening.

Some of the gang members could not stay out of trouble, and ended up in jail for other offenses such as firearms possession in other states. The need for money to defend themselves legally, and other reasons, led to distrust amongst the members.

The gang met and split the proceeds of the theft. They agreed that each would stay out of trouble for six years and they almost made it. However, one of the men, Specs O’Keefe, left his share with another member because he had to serve a prison sentence for another crime. O’Keefe, worried that he would be cheated out of his money, indicated that he might begin to talk. The others decided to send a hit man to kill O’Keefe but he was only wounded, and the assassin was caught.

Criminal Downer Tromenhauser, handcuffed to Charles Plemmons after being charged with robbery and assault in Brinks robbery.

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 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.

They almost got away with it, because in just a few days the statute of limitations for most of the crimes they were charged with would have run out, and they would have gotten off scot-free.

Eight men were sentenced by Judge Forte on October 9, 1956, Pino, Costa, Maffie, Geagan, Faherty, Richardson, and Baker received life sentences for robbery, two-year sentences for conspiracy to steal, and sentences of 8 years to 10 years for breaking and entering at night. McGinnis, who had not been at the scene on the night of the robbery, received a life sentence on each of eight indictments which charged him with being an accessory before the fact in connection with the Brink’s robbery. In addition, McGinnis received other sentences of two years, two and one-half to three years, and eight to ten years.

While action to appeal the convictions was being taken on their behalf, the eight men were removed to the State prison at Walpole, Massachusetts. From their prison cells, they carefully followed the legal maneuvers aimed at gaining them freedom.

The record of the state trial covered more than 5,300 pages. It was used by the defense counsel in preparing a 294-page brief which was presented to the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. After weighing the arguments presented by the attorneys for the eight convicted criminals, the State Supreme Court turned down the appeals on July 1, 1959, in a 35-page decision written by the Chief Justice.

On November 16, 1959, the United States Supreme Court denied a request of the defense counsel for a writ of certiorari.

All were paroled by 1971 except McGinnis, who died in prison. O’Keefe received 4 years and was released in 1960. Only $58,000 of the $2.7 million was recovered. O’Keefe cooperated with writer Bob Considine on The Men Who Robbed Brink’s, a 1961 “as told to” book about the robbery and its aftermath.

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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Historical Photos: Boston’s Great Brinks Robbery – WCVB-TV

The Great Brinks Robbery of 1950: Not Quite the Perfect Crime – New …

Great Brink’s Robbery – Wikipedia

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