1977 Arizona armored car robbery
The 1977 Arizona armored car robbery was an armed robbery of an armored car that took place along Interstate 17 in which the two guards of the car were murdered. The robbery was committed by brothers Michael and Patrick Poland. Both brothers were eventually executed for their parts in the crime, becoming one of two sets of brothers executed in Arizona, the others being the LaGrands.
The story was featured on an episode of The FBI Files on December 4, 2001.
Description of crime
On May 24, 1977, guards Russell Dempsey and Cecil Newkirk were on duty for Purolator Courier. They were driving along I-17 when a vehicle they believed was a police car pulled them over. After pulling over, they were ordered by the men they believed were police officers to open the truck, after which the Poland brothers took over. Patrick Poland continued to drive the fake police vehicle while the other was to drive the armored truck. But when Patrick took off his brother did not follow so he reversed the fake cruiser in front of the armored car then proceeded to see what was going on. By the time he reached the back Michael was already beating the two guards and Patrick told him to stop it and Michael went to get a pair of tasers which they used to stun the guards. The two brothers then drove the vehicles to a remote area, where they abandoned the truck.
In the remote area, after seeing that one of the couriers died from the beating, Michael Poland made up his mind, retrieved a makeshift garrote and strangled the other courier to death, then they took the money, totaling $293,000, and then took the bodies of the couriers to Lake Mead, where using a rented boat, they dumped the bodies.
The investigation first focused on the two missing couriers. Both were ruled out as suspects when their wives reported that they had no financial problems, and their employer reported that each of the couriers had faithfully worked for the company for over 20 years.
The truck was eventually found in the remote desert near the town of Bumble Bee. Though the couriers were not there, blood was found in the back of the truck along with several thousand dollars in coins. The truck's doors were left locked until a spare set of keys were brought to unlock them. Upon examination it was discovered that the vehicle's radio was found to be left on but no distress calls were received by the base, also the van's siren had not been tripped and an unfired shotgun was found in the back. US$293,000 worth of paper currency was missing.
After the discovery the FBI had local news agencies made the news public. Sure enough several motorists called in saying that they saw the van stopped on the northbound side of Interstate 17 on the morning of June 24, exactly the same date when the guards were reported missing. One motorist said he saw an Arizona Highway Patrol officer walking towards the van, and other witnesses had similar stories but in their accounts the make and model of the trooper's car varied, while others claimed to have seen the police cruiser stopped in front of the armored van. After checking with the Arizona Highway Patrol they learned that none of their officers remembered stopping an armored van on Interstate 17 on May 24, so the assumption was made that whoever that Arizona state trooper was, he was actually masquerading as one. Several motorists underwent hypnosis to provide details of that officer to a sketch artist but there were different results.
Mojave County Sheriff's Deputy Dale Lent and FBI agents processed the spot where the armored car was believed to have been stopped. Digs and gouges in the dirt indicated that there had been a struggle near the rear of the van. In addition tire tracks from a second vehicle were found, consistent with the tire tracks found in the remote area near where the armored van had been abandoned however those same tracks were also found in front of where the van had been pulled over.
But then on June 16, 1977, 300 miles northwest of where the armored van had been abandoned, a body in a black canvas bag had been discovered in Debbie's Cove in Lake Mead by a pair of anglers. The men contacted the National Park Service who sped to the scene along with investigators and local officers. After recovering the body a wallet was found in the back pocket and the victim was identified as Russell Dempsey, one of the two missing courier guards, continued searching found no sign of the second courier but two sticks of wood connected by a rope, which resembled a makeshift garrote. A subsequent autopsy indicated that the guard found had suffered a heart attack and had been strangled, possibly with a garrote like the makeshift one found near the body, but it was not until a strand of hair found tangled in the device had confirmed to be from the deceased guard for their suspicions to be answered.
During the next few weeks, FBI agents canvassed area service stations until one station owner reported his suspicions. He had towed a pickup truck which had inadvertently backed into the lake, from a boat ramp named Bonelli Landing, at Lake Mead the day after the robbery. Though there did not seem to be any fishing equipment in the back but here were drag marks in the bed of the vehicle. The receipt for the towing had the signature of Michael Poland. Sure enough a search of boat rental receipts turned up one which had his name for a rental for a boat to Bonelli Landing, where the pickup had been towed.
Agents returned to Lake Mead and after searching between Bonelli Landing and the boat rental shop across the shore, Cecil Newkirk's body was recovered, floating in a black canvas bag just like his partner. An autopsy conducted revealed that he had been severely beaten before being drowned and wounds on his chest were discovered to be consistent with the wounds left by a high-voltage taser gun. His personal effects had been removed including a self-winding watch which stopped working at 10:37 p.m on May 26. An intensified search yielded a 3rd canvas bag similar to the first few bags used to cover the courier guards' corpses, which contained two corroded revolvers, concrete dust caked in the weave of the bag and more crucially, a license plate similar to the ones used on Arizona Highway Patrol cruisers. The service station owner identified Michael Poland in a picture lineup.
Investigators eventually located Michael Poland, and they observed that he did not appear gainfully employed, but he had recently purchased a new motorcycle. Investigators identified a man who frequently visited as Michael's younger brother, Patrick Poland. He had just bought a new car. Michael's teenage son told them that Michael Poland had recently bought two new motorcycles and a lot more. Further investigation revealed that both brothers were in financial trouble but after the robbery their debts had been paid completely and they had purchased new vehicles, spending money beyond their real means. The Poland brothers' father said that both brothers had borrowed the truck on the day of the robbery and that several weeks before the heist, Mr. Poland had mixed concrete in the pickup's flatbed, and examinations revealed it was the same batch of concrete that left the dust stuck in the canvas bag recovered at Lake Mead. However the station owner could not positively identify Patrick Poland but he did confirm that their father's pickup truck was the one he towed from Bonelli Landing.
On July 27, 1977, agents arrived at Michael Poland's house with a search warrant but he claimed that on the day of the heist he was in Las Vegas buying jewels. Several gems and $12,000 in cash were found and Michael claimed that they were for his jewel business. Several receipts were confiscated including a receipt for two taser guns sold one month before the robbery. However, when Patrick Poland was asked regarding the robbery he said they were at Lake Mead fishing but had difficulties answering other questions but his brother Michael later called him to tell him to not to talk to investigators. A search of Patrick's house yielded a stash of weapons and $16,000 in cash. After much investigation it was revealed that neither of the cars the brothers owned before the robbery left the tire tracks found near the crime scene. The clerk of the gun store which sold the tasers to Mark Harris could only remember Mark Harris as a white male in his 20s.
10 months of surveillance on the brothers revealed the brothers closing a deal on a gaming arcade but there was insufficient evidence for an arrest warrant so agents focused on determining where the black canvas bags came from. That paid off when one store owner recognised the bags as coming from his company and the special cord which came from a company in Georgia. The owner gave receipts he had left from years of business and after much searching, a receipt for three custom-sized black canvas bags was found to have been sold to Mark Harris, similar to the taser receipt found during a search of Michael Poland's home months earlier which convinced agents that Mark Harris was an alias for Michael Poland.
On May 18, 1978, after nearly a year of investigation, a Federal Grand Jury returned an indictment against the Poland brothers for robbery, kidnapping and murder. However FBI agents suspected that both brothers would not surrender quietly so they decided to arrest them away from their homes fearing a shootout. Michael Poland went to a real-estate office while Patrick went to the game arcade. When Patrick Poland reached the arcade the FBI arrest team nabbed him before he entered however he surrendered without a fight, and they later found a stash of weapons in his car including a .44 Magnum gun. Eventually despite the risks the second arrest team entered the real estate office and arrested Michael Poland uneventfully. However Michael refused to answer questions and insisted his brother do the same. No fingerprints linked them to the murdered guards or the armored car.
Trials and convictions
State and federal prosecutors split the charges and the Poland brothers went on trial for robbery and kidnapping in federal court on February 15, 1979, were found guilty on those charges based on the circumstancial evidence alone, and were sentenced to 100 years in prison. In November 1979 an Arizona state jury returned the guilty verdict for murder and that meant the death penalty for both of them but they appealed their convictions. The Arizona Supreme Court found that the testimony of a hypnotized witness and the taser gun evidence should not have been used. They also found out that the jury had inappropriately discussed the federal trial and that meant their murder convictions were overturned and parole laws at the time meant they would be eligible for parole in less than 7 years.
In 1982 an Arizona prosecutor declined a retrial for the brothers due to cost and evidence already excluded by the Arizona Supreme Court. U.S Attorney Melvin Macdonald, outraged that the Poland brothers would possibly get away with murder, was deputized as an Arizona State Prosecutor. In spite of evidence difficulties prosecutors decided to try to determine the time the victims had been deposited in Lake Mead and prove that it was the same time the Polands were at the lake. After much pondering a crucial piece of evidence was found, in the form of Cecil Newkirk's self-winding watch, which stopped working at 10:37 p.m on May 26, 1977. That particular watch would stop working if it were not moved for 12 hours, which meant that the watch stopped working 12 hours after the deceased guard's arm came to rest at the bottom of Lake Mead. But to prove so they actually had watch experts from Switzerland examine it to determine that the watch did not stop due to water damage.
Forensics experts used this evidence to estimate when the bodies had been dumped into the water. Their estimation exactly matched the time the FBI had established that the Polands were at the lake, getting their pickup towed from Bonelli Landing. The prosecutor explained that the Polands had indeed been there to dump the bodies and that convinced the jury to return the guilty verdict for murder for Michael and Patrick Poland on November 18, 1982. The defendants appealed again but this time, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the death sentences for the Polands.
Patrick Poland's confession
In 1987, knowing that he had nothing to lose, Patrick Poland agreed to tell investigators and the families of the victims exactly what happened. FBI Special Agent Frank Mallory (Rtd.) took his confession.
Prior to the robbery, the Polands had spent almost a year tailing the van. They had knowledge of its route on the mornings when it went to Prescott and delivered the money to the banks in Prescott, the route it took plus the stops it made and the times for the stops.
For the heist it was decided that both of the brothers' own cars would not be used. They rented one which investigators could not conclusively find. They put on an emergency lighting system, a siren that could be turned on with a simple switch, along with a license plate similar to the one used by the Arizona Highway Patrol and the department's door decals. They readied their tools needed for the heist, including a uniform similar to the one used by the Arizona Highway Patrol to be worn, and went to an ideal spot to wait. Their plan was to stop the van on the pretext of speeding then go to a remote spot to steal the money.
Unfortunately a problem with the van's side door latch meant they were delayed for an hour, and the brothers had to wait for that hour. But when they saw it, they put their plan into action. Michael hid under the dash while Patrick drove the car. After pulling the armored car over, Patrick went to the side of the van and approached the guards and asked the driver to step out but then Michael went to the other side of the armored car and the brothers took the guards captive. Patrick Poland continued to drive the fake police vehicle while the other was to drive the armored truck. But when Patrick took off his brother did not follow so he reversed the fake cruiser in front of the armored car and then proceeded to see what was going on. By the time he reached the back Michael was already beating the two guards and Patrick told him to stop it and Michael went to get a pair of tasers which they used to stun the guards. The two brothers then drove the vehicles to a remote area near the town of Bumble Bee, where they abandoned the truck. Patrick's decision to reverse the car to a spot in front of the van, left the tire tracks which would later be found by investigators.
In the remote area, after seeing that one of the couriers seemed to have died from the beating, Michael Poland made up his mind, retrieved a makeshift garrote from his pocket and strangled the other courier to death, then they took the money, totaling $293,000, and then took the bodies of the couriers to Lake Mead, where using a rented boat, they dumped the bodies. After the robbery they buried the rest of the money in the desert, the location was known also by a female relative of theirs. But the money had rotted in the years ever since the robbery.
For her cooperation that relative was not prosecuted.
After his lawyers tried multiple appeals for the death sentence to be commuted to life due to the fact that the time he had spent waiting on death row had made him insane; all of which were denied, the State of Arizona administered a lethal injection to Michael Poland on June 16, 1999. Just before the execution was to be carried out Michael Poland requested for the prison guards bring him lunch after the execution as he made a large last meal request consisting of three Fried eggs, sunny side up; four slices of bacon; order of hash browns; two slices of whole wheat toast, with two pats of real butter; two individual serving size boxes of Raisin Bran cereal; two cartons of milk and two cups of Tasters Choice coffee as he said that he was hungry.
In the execution chamber, Michael raised his head several times to look at the window into the witness chamber as his death warrant was being read. The last words he mouthed to two of his sons and a daughter-in-law who witnessed the execution were simply "I love you,".
The lethal injection prodecure for Michael Poland was carried out at 3:12 p.m. During that time Poland's chest heaved several times as the lethal dose of medications began flowing. He puffed out his cheeks twice before being declared dead at 3:14 p.m.
Just 9 months later; despite multiple appeals due to the fact that Patrick Poland had confessed to how the crime had been perpetrated from the criminal point of view and multiple calls for clemency by Arizona state prosecutor Melvin McDonald who had, ironically but originally ensured that both brothers be sentenced to death; all of which were denied. Michael's brother, Patrick Poland, suffered the same fate as he was executed on March 15, 2000.
During one of the clemency hearings, the relatives of Cecil Newkirk and Russell Dempsey, the two guards murdered during the robbery, were not as forgiving and moved. Newkirk's widow sent a letter to the clemency panel stating that Patrick Poland had to pay with his life. Camilla Strongin, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said Poland spent his final hours with a Catholic priest, receiving last rites about 2 1/2 hours before his execution. Among the witnesses to the execution included the widow of one of the murdered guards, Lola Newkirk; relatives of the deceased, Patrick's girlfriend; Sherri Jo Christensen, and also Melvin McDonald, the Arizona state prosecutor who had originally ensured that the brothers would be sentenced to death, but tried to persuade the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency to commute Patrick's death sentence to life in prison yet failed. "I hope that his death will bring peace, said McDonald. He also said this during an interview with the local media after Patrick had been executed. "Mr. Poland paid for this crime each and every day for 23 years. I think he had genuine remorse. I felt justice was done in the execution of the first brother. "I felt mercy could have been done today by giving Patrick Poland life in prison.
Unlike his brother, Patrick Poland asked for no last meal, and used what time he had left to live as his death warrant was being read, to express regret for the suffering he and his brother had caused. His last words were, "If I may, once again, to the Newkirk and Dempsey families, please accept my apologies. I'm sincere. I'm sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused. I do thank you for your forgiveness. I ask my family to forgive me for the pain I have caused them. I ask all my friends and people who believed in me to please forgive me, and I ask the woman I love to remember I will always love her." The lethal injection procedure commenced at 3:03 p.m. As the lethal chemicals started flowing into his system, Poland's head jerked four times. His body shook slightly, his head rolled to the side and his eyes shut. He was pronounced dead at 3:07 p.m.