Brink's robbery (1981)
The Brink's robbery of 1981 was an armed robbery committed on October 20, 1981, which was carried out by Black Liberation Army members Jeral Wayne Williams (aka Mutulu Shakur), Donald Weems (aka Kuwasi Balagoon), Samuel Brown (aka Solomon Bouines), Samuel Smith, Nathaniel Burns (aka Sekou Odinga), and Cecilio "Chui" Ferguson; several former members of the Weather Underground, now belonging to the May 19th Communist Organization, including David Gilbert, Judith Alice Clark, Kathy Boudin, and Marilyn Buck; and an unknown number of accomplices.
They stole $1.6 million from a Brink's armored car at the Nanuet Mall, in Nanuet, New York, killing two police officers, Edward O'Grady and Waverly Brown (the second African American member of the Nyack, New York police department) and a Brink's guard, Peter Paige.
The robbery began with Boudin dropping off her infant son, Chesa Boudin, at a babysitter's before taking the wheel of the getaway vehicle, a U-Haul truck. She waited in a nearby parking lot as her heavily armed accomplices drove a red van to the Nanuet Mall, where a Brink's truck was making a pick-up.
At 3:55 pm, Brink's guards Peter Paige and Joe Trombino emerged from the mall carrying bags of money. As they loaded the money into the truck, the robbers stormed out of their van and attacked. One fired two shotgun blasts into the van's bulletproof windshield, while another opened fire with an M16 rifle. Paige was hit multiple times and killed instantly. Trombino was able to fire a single shot from his handgun, but was struck in the shoulder and arm by several rounds, nearly severing his arm from his body. The criminals grabbed $1.6 million in cash, got back in their van, and fled the scene.
Trombino survived his injuries, and continued to work for the Brink's company for the next 20 years until he was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks while making a delivery in the World Trade Center North Tower.
After fleeing the scene, the robbers drove to the parking lot where a yellow Honda and the U-Haul truck, manned by members of the May 19 Communist Organization, were waiting. The robbers quickly threw the bags of money into the car and truck and sped away. In a house across the street, an alert college student spotted them as they switched vehicles and called the police.
Meanwhile, police units from all over the county were converging on the mall where the shootout occurred and attempting to cut off all possible escape routes. Soon police officers Edward O'Grady, Waverly Brown, Brian Lennon, and Artie Keenan spotted and pulled over the U-Haul truck, with David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin in the front seats, along with the yellow Honda at an entrance ramp to the New York State Thruway off New York State Route 59. The police were not sure if they had the right truck, since it had been reported that the robbers were all black-skinned, while the occupants of this vehicle were white-skinned (a deliberate part of the original plan by the robbers, hoping to fool the police). But since the truck matched the description of the getaway vehicle they were looking for, the officers pulled it over and approached with guns drawn.
The police officers who caught them testified that Boudin, feigning innocence, pleaded with them to put down their guns and convinced them to drop their guard; Boudin said she remained silent, that the officers relaxed spontaneously. After the police lowered their guns, six men armed with automatic weapons and wearing body armor emerged from the back of the truck and began firing upon the four police officers. Officer Brown was hit repeatedly by rifle rounds and collapsed on the ground. One robber then walked up to his prone body and fired several more shots into him with a 9mm handgun, ensuring his death. Keenan was shot in the leg, but managed to duck behind a tree and return fire.
Officer O'Grady lived long enough to empty his revolver, but as he reloaded, he was shot several times with an M16. Ninety minutes later, he died on a hospital operating table. Meanwhile Lennon, who was in his cruiser when the shootout began, tried to exit out the front passenger door, but O'Grady's body was wedged up against the door. He watched as the suspects jumped back into the U-Haul and sped directly towards him. Lennon fired his shotgun several times at the speeding truck as it collided with his police car.
The occupants of the U-Haul scattered, some climbing into the yellow Honda, others carjacking a nearby motorist while Boudin attempted to flee on foot. An off-duty corrections officer apprehended her shortly after the shootout. When she was arrested, Boudin gave her name as Barbara Edson.
Three other suspects failed to escape. May 19 Communists Chris Dobbs, Samuel Brown, and Judith Alice Clark crashed the Honda while making a sharp turn. South Nyack police chief Alan Colsey was the only officer initially at the scene of the crash, but he managed to hold them at gun point until backup arrived. After that, all three were arrested. Inside the car, police found $800,000 from the robbery and a 9mm handgun on the floor of the back seat.
Police traced the license plate on one of the getaway vehicles to an apartment in New Jersey. Inside, the police found weapons, bomb-making materials, and detailed blueprints of six Manhattan police precincts. Investigations later revealed the apartment was rented by Marilyn Buck, another former Weatherman turned May 19 Communist who had been previously arrested for providing weapons to the BLA. She had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, but in 1977 she was granted furlough and never returned.
While at the apartment, police also found papers that listed an address in Mt. Vernon, New York, a small city in Westchester County about 20 miles from the mall where the robbery occurred. When police raided that apartment, they found bloody clothing, ammunition, more guns and ski masks. Investigation later revealed that the bloody clothing belonged to Buck, who had accidentally shot herself in the leg when she tried to draw her weapon during the shootout with the police.
All the plates on the vehicles seen near the Mt. Vernon address were entered into the NCIC system. Two days later, NYPD detectives spotted a 1978 Chrysler with a license plate that had been seen at the Mt. Vernon Apartment. The vehicle, driven by Samuel Smith and Sekou Odinga, fled from the police when they tried to pull it over. After the vehicle crashed, the two occupants engaged the police in a gunfight that left Smith dead and Odinga captured. Inside Smith's shirt pocket, police found a crushed .38 caliber slug they believe was fired from officer O'Grady's service weapon. Three more participants were arrested several months later, including Weems (Balagoon).
The investigation for the participants in the robbery would continue for years. Buck was arrested in 1985. The last person to be arrested in connection with it was Willams (Shakur), the ringleader of the robbery, in 1986.
Trials and sentencing
Gilbert, Weems, and Clark were the first of the Brink's robbers to go to trial. Because the BLA was known for attempting to break their members out of prison (as in the case of Assata Shakur), massive security precautions were undertaken, turning the courthouse in Goshen, New York into a heavily armed compound. The job of presiding over what was expected to be an arduous and potentially dangerous trial was assigned to Judge David S. Ritter who tried to balance ensuring the rights of the unpopular defendants with keeping the peace in the courtroom while they used unconventional approaches to making their case. All three defendants declined assistance from defense lawyers and chose to represent themselves. Their contention was that since they did not recognize the authority of the United States, the government had no right to put them on trial. Throughout the trial, they repeatedly disrupted the proceedings by shouting anti-US slogans, proclaiming to be "at war" with the government and refusing to respect any aspect of the US legal system. They called the robbery an "expropriation" of funds that were needed to form a new country in a few select southern states that ideally would be populated only by African Americans.
When it came time for the defendants to present their case, they called only one witness, Nathaniel Burns (Sekou Odinga), who had already been convicted of multiple bank robberies. He said that his organization was "fighting for the liberation and self-determination of black people in this country." Burns testified that the killings were suitable because the three victims had interfered with the "expropriation." In his view, the theft of money was morally justified because those funds "were robbed through the slave labor that was forced on them and their ancestors." After his testimony, he was praised by the defendants and led out of the courtroom to serve his 40-year federal prison sentence. The jury was not convinced by Burns' reasoning and at the end of the trial, it took the jury only four hours of deliberation to return a verdict convicting all three defendants of armed robbery and three counts of murder. When the verdict was announced, Clark, Gilbert and Weems refused to appear in court. They remained in the basement holding cells, drinking coffee and railing against, what they perceived to be, a racist court system. "I don't think any interest is served by forcing them to be here," said Judge Ritter.
Rockland County D.A. Kenneth Gribetz told reporters: "Our goal is to see that these people, who have contempt for society and have shown no remorse, will never see the streets of society again!" Judge Ritter apparently agreed. On October 6, 1983, he sentenced each defendant to three consecutive twenty-five year-to-life sentences, making them eligible for parole in the year 2058. After the trial, Weems claimed, "As to the seventy five years in prison, I am not really worried, not only because I am in the habit of not completing sentences or waiting on parole or any of that nonsense but also because the State simply isn't going to last seventy five or even fifty years." He died in prison from AIDS in 1986. Gilbert and Clark remain in prison. In September 2006, Clark was granted a new trial by a judge in a district court on grounds that she had no representation at trial. On January 3, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a unanimous decision, reversed the district court's judgment granting a new trial. The Second Circuit panel noted that she chose to represent herself and defaulted any claim by failing to appeal until after the time for appeals had expired.
Unlike their fellow robbers, Boudin and Brown attempted to mount a legal defense. Boudin hired Leonard Weinglass to defend her. Weinglass, a law partner of Boudin's father, arranged for a plea bargain and Boudin pled guilty to one count of felony murder and robbery, in exchange for a single twenty year-to-life sentence. She was paroled in 2003. However, Brown was unable to reach any deal that would spare him a life sentence. Since he had nothing to lose by going to trial, he decided to have one. At his trial, he claimed to have only had a minor participation in the robbery and had not fired a weapon at anyone. The jury was not convinced. In addition to being caught in the escape attempt with the other robbers, witnesses identified him as a participant in both shootouts. He was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.
Buck was later convicted of multiple charges related to the Brink's robbery and other crimes and sentenced to 50 years in a federal prison. She was released from prison in July, 2010, and died of cancer in August, 2010. Williams (Shakur), the alleged ringleader of the group, was the last one to go on trial on charges related to the robbery. In 1988, he received a 60-year prison sentence. He has a parole release date of 2016.
In 2004, the Nyack post office was officially renamed after the two police officers and the Brink's guard who were killed in the shootout. In 2008, Kathy Boudin was appointed as an adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, prompting a 2013 governmental condemnation of the university's action and a call for her termination as professor.
- Gado, Mark. "AMBUSH: THE BRINKS ROBBERY OF 1981". Crime Library. Retrieved January 13, 2013.
- "Remembering September 11, 2001: Francis Joseph Trombino Obituary". Legacy.com. Retrieved 2013-09-19.
- "Ceremony to Officially Rename Nyack Post Office in Slain Officers' Honor Will Be Held May 1" (Press release). Office of Sen. Charles Schumer. April 26, 2004. Retrieved August 29, 2009.
- Celona, Larry; Dan Mangan (April 2, 2013). "Outrage 101: Radical Jailed in Slay Now Columbia Prof". New York Post. Retrieved 2013-04-14.
- Knight, Robert (April 11, 2013). "Hometown Outrage at Boudin Hiring". Rockland County Times. Retrieved 2013-04-14. "Shocked at last week’s Rockland County Times revelation that Columbia University has hired convicted, jailed and released Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin as an adjunct professor, a furious Orangetown Town Board Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution of condemnation, and has demanded the university terminate Boudin immediately and send letters of apology to the families of the three officers killed during the infamous 1981 Brinks armored truck robbery in Nanuet and Nyack."