Stranger Than Fiction

June 2020

Cops & Robbers

By Dean Jobb

 

The-Last-Pirate

A bank robbery turns two Southern California counties into a war zone. A nineteenth-century New York pirate—one of the last of his breed—sets his sights on a vessel with a skeleton crew and plenty of cash on board. And in London, a gang of elderly thieves plans the biggest, boldest caper of their long careers. A round-up of recent books on the real-life crooks behind three shocking heists and the police officers who pursued them.

When the sailing vessel E.A. Johnson was found abandoned and adrift in New York Harbor in 1860, the fate of its crew was obvious. The blood-stained deck and the discovery of fingers severed from a man’s hand told a shocking tale of piracy and murder. And a missing rowboat made it just as obvious the killer—soon to be identified as Albert Hicks—had fled for shore.

Connecticut-based bestselling author Rich Cohen, who has written about music and baseball as well as gangsters, recreates Hicks’s crimes and his final murderous rampage in The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation (Spiegel & Grau). Considered “the baddest man” in a city with plenty of bad men terrorizing its waterfront and vile slums, he was a menacing presence. “If you met his gaze,” Cohen writes, “you’d regret it.”

Cohen weaves an engaging yarn, evoking the look and feel of a lost New York, “the wild seafaring town buried beneath the towers and highways.” Local police estimated hundreds of pirates were based in the city in the 1850s, most of them teenaged boys who swarmed and robbed small vessels. Hicks was something more dangerous and sinister—an old-school buccaneer who would not hesitate to kill to get what he wanted. When he joined the crew of the sloop E.A. Johnson, he was after the cash the captain intended to use to buy a cargo of oysters.

He was violent, but by no means clever. After butchering the captain and the other two crewmen with an axe, he botched an attempt to scuttle the vessel. Confident the boat had sunk, destroying all traces of the crime, he flaunted his loot and left a trail of eyewitnesses for the police to follow to his hideout in Rhode Island. He proclaimed his innocence but a jury needed just seven minutes to find him guilty and send him to the gallows.

Before his execution, Hicks confessed to a slew of piracies and scores of murders during a two-decade, globe-trotting career of crime. The claims are “largely true,” Cohen believes, despite the lack of supporting evidence (Hicks, for instance, was supposedly aboard Saladin when the ship ran aground in Nova Scotia after an 1844 mutiny, but his name does not appear in the transcript of the subsequent trial). Cohen makes a stronger case that Hicks could be considered America’s proto-gangster, the trailblazing grandfather of the Al Capones who have followed in his footsteps. If so, they have done a much better job of covering their tracks.

 

The-Last-Job“The largest burglary in the history of England began on a bus.” The No. 96, to be exact, running from the town of Dartford to central London. And on an April evening in 2015, one of the passengers was seventy-six-year-old Brian Reader, the mastermind behind an audacious plan to break into a safe-deposit vault in the Hatton Garden jewelers’ district and grab millions of dollars’ worth of gems and jewelry.

That’s the opening of The Last Job: The Bad Grandpas and the Hatton Garden Heist (W.W. Norton), Dan Bilefsky’s engrossing account of how a group of grey-haired robbers—the cumulative age of the four ringleaders was 277 years—planned one last score and almost got away with it. The British tabloids christened them the “Bad Grampas” and the “Diamond Wheezers.” If the scenario sounds familiar, that’s because there have been three movie versions of the story (one, released in 2017, invented and added a younger character, portrayed by actor Matthew Goode, to usurp the role of the brains behind the robbery).

Bilefsky, a New York Times staffer formerly based in London and now one of the paper’s correspondents in Canada, has dug deep to uncover the true story of the theft, drawing on interviews with key players, crooks who knew the robbers and Scotland Yard detectives who knew what it took to catch them.

The plan was bold but simple. First, break into the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Limited on the Easter long weekend, when the unguarded building would be empty and the vault would be full of merchandise from neighboring jewelry stores, brought in for safekeeping. Then set up an industrial-scale drill, wait for it to bore through the thick wall of reinforced concrete surrounding the vault, crawl inside, and clean out the safety-deposit boxes.

Bilefsky, who described the story to an interviewer as “like Ocean’s Eleven-meets-geriatrics,” offers a version that’s rich in detail. One of the crooks studied a copy of Forensics for Dummies for tips on how to avoid leaving incriminating evidence at the scene. This being England, gang members (they grandly dubbed themselves “The Firm”) held strategy sessions over pints at a pub—by chance, it was Bilefsky’s own neighborhood watering hole. The robbers gathered there after the job, unaware they were under police surveillance and a lip-reader would later transcribe the conversation as they boasted about their exploits.

Why did they do it? A couple of the robbers planned to use their cut of the estimated $20 million haul to set up their children and grandchildren for life. The biggest factor was likely boredom: After lifetimes of planning and pulling heists, they could not resist a final swing for the fences. With the discipline and step-by-step pacing of a fine police procedural, Bilefsky offers the definitive account of an improbable crime and the investigation that followed.

 

NORCO-80The clerk at a California gun shop thought he was making a joke when George Wayne Smith came to the counter with his latest purchase—a high-caliber automatic assault rifle. “What are you doing,” the clerk asked, “getting ready to start World War III or rob a bank?” Both, as it turned out. A week later, on May 9, 1980, Smith and four other heavily armed men tried to rob the Security Pacific Bank in Norco, a small city (with a population just shy of 20,000 at the time) due east of Los Angeles. The holdup would set in motion what author Peter Houlahan describes as “one of the most violent events in law enforcement history.”

A former emergency medical technician turned freelance writer, Houlahan meticulously recreates this heist for the ages in Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History (Counterpoint Press). Smith planned the robbery with housemate Christopher Harven, but attack might be a more fitting word than robbery—their plan boiled down to amassing and wielding an arsenal of guns and homemade bombs. The Over-the-Hill-Gang behind the Hatton Garden break-in prided themselves on not resorting to the use of guns or violence; the Norco robbers had no such qualms.

Things quickly went south. A passing patrolman responded to the scene within minutes, touching off a fierce firefight. The driver of the getaway van died at the scene and the other robbers fled in a stolen pickup, leaving behind their loot—a meagre $20,000.

The high-speed, bullet-riddled pursuit that followed could have been lifted from a Hollywood script. And in Houlahan’s capable hands, this unbelievable-but-true chase and gun battle unfolds at a relentless pace and in riveting, cinematic detail. Thousands of rounds were fired, more than thirty police cruisers were shot up, and even a police helicopter was damaged. One more robber and a policeman died, but it was a miracle that more bystanders and out-gunned police officers were not killed or seriously wounded.

Houlahan’s thorough reporting and in-the-moment narrative make Norco ’80 a wild, full-throttle ride. But he does not neglect the emotional toll on the officers who survived, the acrimonious trial that followed, or the bizarre motive behind the robbery. The robbers were landscapers, not professional crooks, and the ringleader was a Christian fanatic who was convinced the end of the world was approaching. The bank job was supposed to provide the money needed to prepare for an apocalyptic battle for survival.

More than a century separates the bloody deeds of Albert Hicks from the indiscriminate violence of the Norco robbers and the audacity of the Hatton Garden thieves. But a common thread runs through these well-told stories—determined robbers will risk everything in the pursuit of a big score.

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Dean Jobb’s new book recreates the hunt for Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, England and Canada – a true tale of crime and madness told against the backdrop of the birth of forensic investigation. Coming in 2021 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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