Brink's robbery (1981)
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|Brink's robbery of 1981|
|Location||Nanuet, New York|
|Date||October 20, 1981|
|Target||Brink's armored car|
|Robbery, left-wing terrorism|
|Perpetrators||May 19th Communist Organization|
(Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground members)
The Brink's robbery of 1981 was an armed robbery and three related murders committed on October 20, 1981, which were carried out by six Black Liberation Army members: Jeral Wayne Williams (Mutulu Shakur), Donald Weems (Kuwasi Balagoon), Samuel Brown (Solomon Bouines), Samuel Smith (Mtayari Shabaka Sundiata), Edward Joseph, and Cecilio "Chui" Ferguson; and four former members of the Weather Underground, now belonging to the May 19th Communist Organization, consisting of David Gilbert, Judith Alice Clark, Kathy Boudin, and Marilyn Buck.
They stole $1.6 million in cash from a Brink's armored car at the Nanuet Mall, in Nanuet, New York, killing a Brink's guard, Peter Paige, seriously wounding Brink's guard Joseph Trombino, slightly wounding Brink's truck driver guard, James Kelly, subsequently killing two Nyack police officers, Edward O'Grady and Waverly Brown (the first African American member of the Nyack, New York police department), and seriously wounding Police Detective Artie Keenan. Trombino recovered from the wounds he received in this incident but was killed in 2001 in the September 11 attacks.
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 Joseph 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 truck's driver, James Kelly, noticing the shooting behind him, fired several rounds at the robbers through a gun port on the door of his truck, but came under heavy gunfire, and took cover underneath the dashboard, but he was hit in the head by glass and bullet shrapnel. 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; he was almost killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and eventually was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks while making a delivery in the World Trade Center North Tower.
Car swap and second gunfight
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, Sandra Torgersen, 19, 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 Boudin in the front seat, 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, while the occupants of this vehicle were white (a deliberate part of the original plan by the robbers, hoping to fool the police). 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 managed to fire two or three rounds at the robbers before he 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, then fired two rounds from his pistol.
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.
May 19 Communists Gilbert, Brown, and Clark crashed the Honda while making a sharp turn, injuring Brown's neck, and knocking Clark's handgun onto the floor of the car. South Nyack police chief Alan Colsey was the only officer initially at the scene of the crash, but managed to hold them at gunpoint until Orangetown Police Officer Michael Seidel and Rockland County District Attorney's Office Detective Jim Stewart arrived. After the trio were arrested, police found $800,000 from the robbery and Clark's 9mm handgun on the floor of the back seat of the car.
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 Buck, 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. Three days later, NYPD Detective Lt. Dan Kelly spotted a 1978 Chrysler with a license plate that had been seen at the Mt. Vernon Apartment and called for backup. The vehicle, driven by Samuel and Nathanial Burns, 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.
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 Williams, 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 (Shira Scheindlin) 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. In December 2016, Andrew Cuomo commuted Clark's sentence to 35 years, citing "exceptional strides in self-development". She was denied parole in April 2017. Her parole has been finally granted on April 17, 2019.
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 pleaded 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, 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. His parole release was denied for unspecified reasons in 2016 and he will be eligible for another one in 2018.
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 Orangetown Town Board condemnation of the university's action and a call for her termination as professor.
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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 Brink's armored truck robbery in Nanuet and Nyack.
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