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Burgles and Bungles

Richmond's Most Infamous Heists - Clever and Otherwise.



But did these men devise some ingenious scheme to slip in and stealthily remove the cash?

No. They kidnapped the cash depot manager and his family, told him they'd shoot his wife and 8-year-old son if he didn't cooperate and forced him to disable the security system. They were thuggish robbers, plain and simple.

Safecracking used to be an art. The best "yeggmen," as they were called, could open a bank vault with just their fingers or some piano wire. They felt the tumblers drop into place, one by one, and bingo — they were in. The less talented ones used nitroglycerine and gunpowder to blast open the safes. Not as elegant, but still dramatic.

It's not that the crooks of old were brilliant. "It's that the police and the security systems were so absolutely defective," says James D. Calder, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied criminology and history.

Take Richmond's earliest big burglary, which didn't require much art: On Oct. 22, 1811, John McCaul and two female accomplices knocked a hole in the wall of the State Treasurer's Office in the Capitol, forced open a great iron chest and stole $17,000 (roughly the equivalent of $233,000 today). McCaul was caught five days later, and about $11,000 was recovered from the women.

Vaults and safes were terribly unsophisticated until recent times, Calder says. The pin tumblers in old locks were "noisy as hell," he says, and easy to open. The federal Bank Protection Act of 1968 was the first to establish security standards for financial institutions, and soon after its passage, banks — and later, jewelers — became much more difficult to burgle. Today's high-tech vaults take the experts hours to break into. Robberies, as opposed to stealthy burglaries, are now the modus operandi of choice.

Just last year, a gang of four got away with more than $1 million worth of jewelry from a Libbie and Grove jewelry store. Richmond police believe the suspects trailed a jewelry distributor for Madison Avenue firm Judith Ripka from a show in Baltimore to jeweler Victoria Charles Ltd., in the Libbie and Grove shopping district.

The distributor had just picked up several pieces of gold, diamond and gemstone jewelry from the safe Nov. 9 at 8:40 a.m., police say. As he walked to his car with a store employee, four armed men came out of a blue minivan and surrounded them.

The bandits seized the distributor's two carrying cases, took watches from him and the employee and attempted to stuff the two men into the trunk of the distributor's car. The trunk wouldn't close, however, and so the thieves sped off in the van. The distributor estimated the retail value of the jewelry at between $1 million and $1.5 million. The jewels and the thieves are still missing.

The event was a horrific experience for the distributor and employee. Yet such heists, whether swift or clumsy, captivate our imaginations. Why? Calder theorizes it's part of the American psyche: our disdain for the rich and our respect for innovators. Thus we admire "the person who comes along and demonstrates that he can conquer a system … and break into those pockets of wealth we didn't like anyway," he says.

Our fascination with the heist is one of the few constants in popular culture. Hollywood can't get enough. Every year, there seems to be a blockbuster movie celebrating the sophisticated caper. And last month, NBC launched its television drama "Heist," a show about criminal schemers who burglarize jewelry stores and rob banks.

This fascination is nothing new. In the good old days of safecracking, in the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, Richmonders couldn't get enough of stories about the daring criminals who robbed us.

Here are four tales from Richmond's Golden Age of cracksmen. These guys weren't criminal geniuses — they tended to screw up, as you'll see. But they had ambition and pluck. And you don't see too much of that nowadays.

The Case of the Awkward Haul

Who could forget Eddie Fay and Little Dick Harris? Fay was a handsome rascal, a man in his 30s with gray eyes and hair like "burnished metal," according to a newspaper account. Harris was a graying, foxlike little guy with a red mustache.

Fay was an expert safe-blower and had escaped from the pen in Wisconsin in ought-four. Harris was a professional robber. Scrappy, too. When Harris was arrested in Detroit with diamonds back in 1899, he fought the cops so hard they had to chloroform him and strap him to a chair just to take his mug shot. That may be the only photo of him that was ever taken.

Fay and Harris really stirred things up when they came to Richmond. They got the whole city in a lather, and over what? Stamps, two-cent postage stamps.

Sometime in the early hours of Monday, March 28, 1910, the boys broke into the Franklin Street post office through the window. They moved over some heavy office cabinets as a screen, so people walking by wouldn't see them.

They drilled into the iron doors of the vault, then screwed blunt bolts into the holes to push back the inner locks and break them. They got away with about a million stamps — and missed a box that had about $2,000 in cash.

Those stamps weighed about 675 pounds, all told, and were worth about $86,000. What they planned to do with them nobody knows. The paper talked about "possible hiding places or agencies of the underworld, where the stamps could be turned into money."

Today $86,000 doesn't seem like enough reward to risk so much. But back then it was front-page news even when someone was robbed of $9. What Fay and Harris stole would be worth more than $1.72 million today.

Fay and Harris might've gotten away with it, if they hadn't been in so much of a hurry. It didn't take the police long to talk to the night clerk at the Alhambra Hotel down the street, who had heard a wagon come to the hotel's side entrance at 4 a.m. Said he also heard "unusual commotion" from the basement storage room, which he'd recently rented to a man who said he was a novelty salesman and wanted the room to demonstrate toys.

The men must have fought with each other the night they got back from the post office. Bloodstains were found all over the storage room. Detectives even found the bloody imprint of a hand on the wall.

No, they never learned the art of a graceful getaway. Instead, after they finished tussling, Fay and Harris jumped in a wagon with all their stamps and tore around town at 4 in the morning. They got noticed. A bunch of workers at a print shop saw that wagon speeding down Eighth Street and round the corner to Cary.

Then a baggage agent at the Byrd Street train station told police that at 4:45 Monday morning, he saw a nervous-looking man with a red mustache ship three trunks to Washington, D.C.

All police had to do was follow the trunks. On the night of March 29, they caught up with the cracksmen in New York City's Grand Central Station. Fay and Harris tried to escape, but the cops caught them and beat them senseless. A third mystery man escaped into the crowd.

The police seized two trunks, one of which held $35,000 in stamps and the other "the most perfect and up-to-date kit of burglar tools and implements ever seen in New York," the paper said, including two .38-caliber revolvers, nitroglycerine and dynamite.

The two men were shipped back to Richmond April 7 and held for trial.

"We are ironed up here like two tigers," Harris told a News Leader reporter. They had plenty of sympathy from the press and the people — one lady even sent them some candy. But that didn't do them any good in the dock. They pleaded guilty, and the judge gave them both 10 years in federal prison in Atlanta, plus a fine of $6,000 each.

After the trial, Harris gave the News Leader reporter a penny, a souvenir from the post office haul. "Do not spend it," he said, "but keep it as a memento of a man who will very possibly never be free again."

The Case of the Double-Crossed Safe-Blower

Robert Pulling and William Sommerville were Richmond's failed Robin Hoods. They stole from the rich — in this case, the federal government's tax office. But instead of giving to the poor, they handed the money right back to the cops.

In the fall of 1857, amid an economic downturn, Richmonders were on the verge of a financial panic. Banks in Virginia and elsewhere had stopped paying specie — gold or silver — in exchange for paper notes. Currency lost its value and prices for everything, including slaves, plummeted.

The city was shocked when, on the morning of Oct. 13, a porter discovered that robbers had blown up the safe of the Custom House on 15th Street and stolen $20,688 in tax revenue, all in gold coins. Their haul would be worth more than $422,000 today.

It appeared the safe-breakers hadn't thought through their crime very carefully. Police found another $47,000 in gold scattered on the floor of the building that the robbers had been unable to carry. The coins they did take weighed more than 100 pounds.

The thieves used chisels to cut a hole beneath the safe's lock and poured in gunpowder to blow the safe. "The artistic manner in which the work was performed, bespeaks the practiced hand of some noted cracksman, whose laurels were gathered on other fields than this," conjectured the Richmond Whig shortly after the crime.

The writer turned out to be dead-on.

On Oct. 16, Pulling, a well-known safe-blower, was arrested in Washington, D.C., purely because a suspicious policeman had seen him on his way to Richmond shortly before the robbery.

Pulling, the son of an English thief, and a man called William Sommerville were found together at a D.C. boarding house. Pulling had $1,000 in gold $5 pieces that were tied up in a woman's stocking. Sommerville had $213 and had been seen by a shopkeeper looking shifty and shamefaced when he came in to buy a silk purse.

Sommerville, the accomplice, confessed readily and said he met Pulling in a bar and had been suckered into participating in the crime.

But where was the rest of the money? Pulling tried to make a deal. While in jail, he told Officer Aquila R. Allen, who had arrested him, that he would hand over $15,000 of the plunder if he were allowed to keep the rest and go free.

Accept the terms, the secretary of the treasury told Allen. "Pulling, who appears to have been wanting in that distrust and caution, which we would expect to find in so adroit a scamp, proceeded hither with the officers; apparently not dreaming of any treachery on the part of others or meditating any himself," relates The Richmond Whig.

Pulling did dither a bit, saying to Allen at one point, "O damn it, I'm afraid to trust you." Then he brought the officer to a frame house on the north side of Broad Street and dug up several bags of gold from under the house.

Allen and another officer allowed him to leave with $2,000, then promptly rearrested him as he was about to leave on a train for Petersburg. Pulling couldn't believe they'd double-crossed him.

Pulling's attorney later called this tactic "unallowable, disingenuous and disreputable" and "offensive to all who had regard for the fidelity of an oath." Mayor Joseph Mayo, who presided over the hearing, said Allen did the right thing. Pulling ended up behind bars, $20,000 the poorer.

The Case of the Jail-Breaking Gangsters

"Me, I'm against women in gangs. They always get you into trouble."

So used to say Walter Legenza, one of the members of the notorious Tri-State Gang. And don't you know he was right? Two gun molls helped the police track him down — not once, but twice.

You might not have thought big-city gangsters — real Capone-style gangsters — would have bothered with a small Southern city like Richmond, but there were plenty around back in the 1930s. Quite a few skipped New York and New Jersey and came here to lie low for a while.

Legenza and his partner, Robert Mais, weren't as glamorous as John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. Legenza was a thin, haggard-looking man of 40, 5 feet 4 inches with cold blue eyes. Mais, 29, was dapper-looking but with a thin, squeaky voice. He had "Mother" tattooed on his arm.

These unlikely characters became the best-known gangsters in Richmond for a while — not because they wanted to, but because they botched a heist.

It was 6 p.m. on March 8, 1934. Ewell M. Huband was driving a Federal Reserve Bank mail truck toward a warehouse over a little-used road behind Broad Street Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia). As he drove over the bridge above the railroad tracks, he saw two Plymouths parked side by side in the road. He slammed on the brakes.

Two men jumped out from behind a nearby hedge, ripped open the rear doors of the mail truck and began shooting. One bullet hit Huband in the head; he slumped over his steering wheel, dead. His companion, Ben Mead, hit the floor and kept quiet as the robbers slung the mail sacks into the trunk of a waiting Plymouth. Another man drove up and came upon the scene only to get a gun shoved in his face; but then the gangsters fled. Police were unable to catch them.

The city mourned the death of Huband, 46, an affable man who had two teenage daughters. The sacks the robbers had taken held nothing more than canceled checks and worthless mail.

Police searched for the bandits — also suspected of a holdup the week before wherein $60,000 was taken at gunpoint from two bank messengers — with no success. Their getaway car was found four days later, abandoned along with the mail pouches in a garage near C Street.

Police finally got their break a few weeks later, when Leonora Fontaine, the girlfriend of Tri-State Gang leader "Big George" Phillips, fingered fellow gang members Mais and Legenza as the bandits.

Fontaine, a little French-Canadian brunette, had a good reason for snitching. Mais had shot her, she told police, after she interfered in an argument between him and his girlfriend, Marie McKeever. She believed Mais had also shot her to keep her quiet, because Fontaine had been with him and Legenza when they went to scope out the mail truck's route two days before the robbery.

"Mais told me to shut up," Fontaine later told a jury in her sultry French accent. "In his hand he had a big gun. Marie was standing behind him with big, big eyes." Mais shot Fontaine in the chest and left her for dead.

But she lived, and while under heavy guard in the hospital told the police what she knew. Police tracked Mais and Legenza to their hide-out in a quiet Baltimore neighborhood, and a bloody shootout ensued. Mais took six bullets before he was captured; a police officer donated blood for two transfusions to save his life. Legenza tried to speed away, but police shot out his tires.

It didn't take a Richmond jury long to convict both men of Huband's murder, with the testimony of Fontaine and another Tri-State gangster, Arthur Misunas. A hulking, sly-looking man, Misunas had been present for the robbery (some thought he might have been the triggerman himself) and testified in exchange for a lighter prison sentence of his own.

Legenza pleaded not guilty Aug. 20. Two days later, he became the first white man to be sentenced to death by a Richmond jury in 26 years, ever since they'd traded the noose for the electric chair. Mais got the same fate shortly after.

But those boys weren't ready to give up. On Sept. 29, less than a month before Legenza's date with the electric chair, a guard at the Richmond jail unlocked their cell doors to escort the gangsters to a meeting with their lawyer. Mais and Legenza drew pistols and charged into the front reception room of the jail, firing wildly. A warden was shot in the leg; a deputy got a slug in the stomach; and Richmond Police Officer W.A. Toots took a round in the chest. The floor was stained with blood.

Mais and Legenza never looked back. They raced out of the jail's unlocked front door, jumped on the running board of a mail truck and commandeered it from the driver. They drove to 18th and Grace streets, hijacked another car and disappeared.

The escape threw the city into turmoil. Mais' mother, a frail, white-haired woman, was held on suspicion of having smuggled her son two pistols hidden in a baked-chicken tin, but it was never proved conclusively that she'd done it. Toots, the police officer who had been shot, died. And Richard C. Duke, the 65-year-old deputy who had unlocked the gangsters' cell doors that day, shot himself in apparent remorse.

Mais and Legenza seemed to have disappeared.

It wasn't until Jan. 18, 1935, that word came from New York City: Mais and Legenza had been captured again. Legenza's fears about including women in gangs had come back to haunt him — the police followed Mais' girlfriend and gang member Marie McKeever right to them.

A task force including police, postal inspectors and the FBI tracked McKeever to Presbyterian Hospital, where Legenza was lying helpless on a bed with a broken leg and two crushed heels. He'd injured himself by leaping from a railway embankment after a shootout with Philadelphia police Dec. 14. Then the force followed McKeever to Mais' third-floor Harlem apartment. At 5 a.m., police burst in and arrested Mais, who was sound asleep with a pistol under his pillow and a knife at hand.

He was taken without a struggle. "Mais was too much of a dirty rat to do any shooting," FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said.

Shackled so heavily they could barely move, the two men were shipped back to Richmond and resentenced to die Feb. 2. In those days, they didn't waste time. Legenza, usually as impassive as a stone, closed his eyes and shook violently when he heard the pronouncement.

Richmond was eager to see the gangsters off. About 200 people, including four women, asked to be on the 12-person jury that would witness the execution. In the end, the authorities chose 24 people — one jury for each man. No women were permitted to be witnesses.

Mais spent his last days reading books and the Bible, smoking cigarettes and confessing — but to other crimes, denying his involvement in Huband's killing to the last.

Legenza lay on his cot and stared at the ceiling, silent. He said he didn't believe in God. But he sang hymns with Mais in the days before their execution.

On Feb. 2, Mais walked the 13 steps to the electric chair. His body strained against the leather straps of the oaken chair as the charge knocked him senseless. At 7:50 a.m. he was dead. Legenza followed 16 minutes later, receiving the dubious distinction of being the first man executed in Virginia with a broken leg.

Mais' mother collected her son's body. Legenza was displayed at Phaup's undertakers at 826 W. Grace St., as thousands of curious Richmonders filed in to see him. After a life spent robbing banks and post offices, his total assets amounted to 22 cents, a shaving kit and a pack of cigarettes.

The Case of the Schwarzschild Jewels

The best team to hit Richmond was the Old Man and his buddies. They busted into the Schwarzschild Jewelers on Broad Street in 1949 and walked away with a cool $222,000 in jewels.

They did it right: They had a plan, plain and simple, and carried it out. But they got sloppy. In the end, forgetting the details did them in.

It was Feb. 11, 1949, right before Valentine's Day, when young Robert Augustus Pinkerman walked into Schwarzschild's and asked to see the engagement rings. He looked them over, then started complaining of a pain in his side. He asked to use the men's room. They sent him upstairs to a bathroom, near a skylight.

While Pinkerman was in the bathroom, Monte Bostelmann — "The Old Man," he was called — was inquiring at a second-floor dentist's office next door to the jewelry store. They were scoping out the place — a window in the office opened onto Schwarzschild's roof, near the skylight.

The stage was set. Sometime Saturday night or early Sunday morning, one of the men climbed up a fire escape, ran over rooftops and slipped through the dentist's office window. He then unlocked the street-level door and let in his accomplices, who brought in their welding equipment and broke through the pyramidal skylight into the jewelry store.

They tied a rope and shimmied down. The loot was in a big safe labeled "Burglars Beware," booby-trapped with tear gas.

No problem. With a torch they cut a little hole between the combination lock and the bolt, neat as could be, without setting off the tear gas. They opened the safe, burned through the inner steel chest and bam — a gem mine. They grabbed 579 diamond rings, about 500 gems and 100 watches, worth more than $1.6 million today.

Thieves today are like jackdaws, grabbing anything that's shiny. Pinkerman and his crew were smarter than that. They left behind the cheaper stuff in the showcases.

But they also left behind their equipment. They left their oxygen and acetylene tanks, the rope and the tarp they used to hide the light from the torch. It took police only a few days to find the man who'd sold the tanks. One young guy and one old guy had come in Saturday, he said, and signed the ticket "Dr. E. Jamison."

So the police knew what they looked like. They started checking up on the whereabouts of all kinds of jewel thieves, all over the country. And they got a tip that Pinkerman and a burglar and fugitive named William Harvey Flowers had been involved.

A tip alone, however, never put anyone in the clinker. They arrested Flowers in Kansas City, Mo., on a fugitive warrant, from a shootout he'd been in a year earlier. Police waited to ask him about the Schwarzschild burglary. Flowers asked the police to take him to his safe-deposit box so he could post bond.

And there it was in the box: $20,000 in cash and 11 pieces of jewelry, marked with Schwarzschild inventory codes. To top it off, Flowers was wearing a one-and-a-half-carat diamond on his finger.

Before long, police found the others. Detectives searched all the garage parking tickets in town — there were about 20,000 — and found Flowers' car had been there in early February. They also discovered the Old Man's car had been there too.

Monte Bostelmann wasn't that old, really — no more than 55. But he had a record as long as your arm. Holdups, bank robberies, safe crackings, you name it. He'd met Flowers in the Colorado state pen years earlier.

Bostelmann had talented fingers, and on occasion the guards would use him to open vaults and safes at local businesses when the combinations had been lost. If anyone had the know-how to carve up that Schwarzschild safe, he did. And coincidentally, a guard at the prison was known as "Doc Jamison" — the alias on the receipt for the tanks.

So they got Bostelmann and Flowers in November 1949 and nabbed Pinkerman a month later in Kansas City. The FBI lab found his handwriting on a hotel registration card. And the Schwarzschild employees and the welding supply salesman who sold the acetylene tank all could identify him, of course.

The final blow came in December, when police arrested John Gould, a friend of Flowers and Bostelmann, for a department store burglary in North Carolina. He had some familiar tools in his possession, including an oddly shaped, notched pry bar that just happened to match up with a mark left on a pried-open door in the Broad Street dentist's office.

Gould told police he borrowed the tools from Flowers. He also mentioned that Flowers and Pinkerman had bragged about the biggest jewelry score of their lives — the Schwarzschild burglary in Richmond.

So there it was. Bostelmann got four years. Pinkerman got eight. And Flowers, he got 20, and a $221,955 judgment against him.

The boys did one thing right, though: Most of the jewels were never found. S

Research assistance provided by: Roger Christman and the Library of Virginia, the Valentine Richmond History Center, retired Detective Norman Harding, Postal Inspector Ron J. Pry and Ashland Police Chief Frederic Pleasants Jr.

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