1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina
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The Loomis Fargo Bank Robbery was a robbery of $17.3 million in cash from the Charlotte, North Carolina, regional office vault of Loomis Fargo & Company on the evening of October 4, 1997, by Steve Chambers armored car driver and vault supervisor David Scott Ghantt. An FBI criminal investigation (which became international in scope) ultimately resulted in the arrest and conviction of eight people directly involved in the heist, as well as 16 others who had indirectly helped them, and the recovery of approximately 95% of the stolen money.
This robbery was the second-largest cash robbery on U.S. soil at the time, as only seven months earlier in Jacksonville, Florida, on March 29, 1997, Phillip Noel Johnson had taken $18.8 million from the Loomis Fargo armored vehicle he was driving.
Although the history of the predecessor Wells Fargo & Company dates back to 1852, Loomis Fargo & Company was a recent creation, formed in 1997 by the consolidation of Wells Fargo Armored Service and Loomis Armored Inc.; the resulting corporation employed 8,500 people and provided armored transportation, cash handling services, and automatic teller machine maintenance. Its Charlotte office would be the victim of Ghantt and his confederates later that year.
Ghantt had struck up a relationship with fellow Loomis Fargo employee Kelly Campbell; they continued to maintain contact even after Campbell left the company. In August 1997, Campbell informed Ghantt of an old high school friend of hers, Steve Chambers, who could assist Ghantt in executing a massive cash robbery of the Loomis Fargo vault in one night. Chambers had broached the possibility of a robbery to Campbell earlier in the summer.
The plan was for Ghantt to commit the actual robbery and then quickly leave the country for Mexico - but to leave the bulk of the cash with Chambers. Chambers would then occasionally wire Ghantt money and see to his basic financial needs; when "the heat was off," Ghantt was to re-enter the U.S. and the money would be split up among all of the co-conspirators.
With the plan in place, Ghantt sent a newly-hired employee he had been assigned to train home early (reportedly, at 6 p.m.) and then proceeded to load a little more than $17.3 million in cash (approximately $11 million of which was in $20 bills) into the back of a company van.
Outside of the building, Ghantt met up with Campbell, Chambers, and others who were involved in the plot, and drove off to a printing business called Reynolds & Reynolds in northwest Charlotte. From there, the money was moved from the armored car to private vehicles. Then, keeping with the plan, Ghantt took $50,000 (the maximum that could by law be taken across the border without further authorization) with him and left for Mexico, winding up at the popular Yucatan Peninsula resort of Cozumel.
Ghantt as prime suspect
Loomis Fargo employees could not open the vault the next morning, and called the police. The police almost immediately called the FBI, since 95% of the money handled at the facility was owned by banks. This technically made it a bank robbery — a federal offense.
Investigators considered Ghantt to be the prime suspect almost from the beginning. He was the only employee unaccounted for the next morning, and videotapes recovered at the Loomis Fargo Charlotte office showed Ghantt removing "cubes of cash" and loading it into a Loomis Fargo armored van for over an hour.
Two days later, when the FBI found the Loomis Fargo armored van, they discovered almost $3.3 million in cash left in the back of the van; it was later discovered that the thieves had miscalculated the sheer bulk of the small denomination currency, and that they simply left the cash that they could not take with them in the back of the van. Investigators also found Ghantt's pickup truck, abandoned at the warehouse. Inside the truck, they found Ghantt's ring and surmised this was a sign of Ghantt's intention to end his relationship with his wife.
Although the FBI investigation was able to quickly connect Ghantt to Campbell, connecting Ghantt to Chambers was a more difficult task. Tips had led the FBI to begin monitoring Chambers' (and his wife's) activities, but it was not until the FBI recorded a phone call from Ghantt in Mexico that the final connection was made. By then, the FBI had become greatly concerned for Ghantt's personal safety; they had learned that Chambers had plotted to have Ghantt killed in a murder for hire scheme using a "hit man" named Michael McKinney.
The FBI investigation was aided by the gang members' extravagant spending. They had initially agreed to control their spending for a year or two, in the belief that the government would vigorously track the spending habits of any and all suspects for at least a year before relenting. However, Chambers had no intention of following those rules, believing the FBI would never connect him to Ghantt. He and his wife, Michele, moved from their mobile home in Lincoln County to a luxury house in the wealthy Cramer Mountain section of Cramerton. They kept several furnishings from the previous owners, including a painting of Elvis Presley on black velvet. They also bought a BMW Z3 with cash and made several large purchases, including a $600 cigar store Indian. Campbell used part of her share of the money to buy a Toyota Sienna minivan in two cash installments.
An additional tip reached the FBI when Michelle Chambers made a large deposit at a bank. She had previously been making frequent small deposits to avert suspicion. But after one visit, she asked a teller "How much can I deposit before you have to report it to the feds?" followed by "Don't worry, it is not drug money," the bank filled out a suspicious activity report, which ultimately reached the FBI.
Ghantt's spending in Mexico was extravagant at first. He had stayed in a luxury hotel and paid for expensive food and activities such as scuba diving and parasailing. Ghantt reported to Chambers that his supply of money was running low, but Chambers sent Ghantt just $8,000. Ghantt, in order to conserve this money, curtailed his spending. He also took various measures to change his appearance, such as shaving, after a patron at a restaurant pointed out to him that he "looked like the man who robbed a bank of $20 million."
Arrests, trials, and convictions
After successfully tracing Ghantt's phone call, FBI agents and Mexican police arrested Ghantt on March 1, 1998 at Playa del Carmen, a resort near Cozumel. The next day, Steve and Michele Chambers, Campbell, and four other gang members were arrested. On March 12, a Charlotte grand jury indicted the eight people for bank larceny and money laundering; the latter offense was included because of how they spent the stolen money. Nine other relatives and friends of the gang were also charged with money laundering, as they had co-signed for safe deposit boxes used to store some of the money; prosecutors opted to charge them on the grounds that they should have known the money was obtained illegally. On similar grounds, four other people were ultimately also charged with money laundering.
All but one of the defendants pleaded guilty. The defendants received sentences ranging from probation for several relatives to 11 years and three months in federal prison for Steve Chambers. The only defendant to not plead guilty, Chambers' attorney Jeff Guller, was found guilty of money laundering and sentenced to eight years in prison. By comparison, Ghantt was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Michelle Chambers received a harsher sentence than Ghantt — seven years and eight months — because she had violated several bond conditions.
The defendants became the targets of many barbed jokes in Charlotte and across the country, in part because of their extravagant spending. For a time, it was nicknamed "the hillbilly heist" because nearly all of the major players in the case came from small towns around Charlotte.
It was later confirmed by the FBI that more than 95 percent of the stolen cash had been located or otherwise accounted for.
Chambers released from prison
- The robbery was the subject of the book Heist!: The $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft (ISBN 0895872528) by Jeff Diamant (published September 2002). Diamant was a Charlotte Observer newspaper reporter working in their Gaston County bureau when the theft took place.
- A comedy film based on the events, Masterminds, began filming in July 2014, with a planned release date of October 2015. It is directed and written by Jared Hess, and stars Zach Galifianakis as Ghantt, Kristen Wiig as Campbell, Owen Wilson as Chambers, and Jason Sudeikis as McKinney.
- "F.B.I. Finds Armored Car Cash" The New York Times, September 19, 1997.
- "Wells Fargo and Loomis forming armored car company", The New York Times, July 16, 1996.
- Ghantt and other gang members arrested in March 1998
- Ghantt pleads guilty in September 1998
- Steven Chambers released from prison; announces he is a "retired criminal"
- Review of this case and the Book Heist! by Jeff Diamant