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The Brink's Heist: How A Guy Called 'Specs' Spoiled The Perfect Crime

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Police question Brink's employees in the vault room on the night of the robbery. The open vault is in the background. Herald-Traveler Photograph, January 17, 1950
Boston Public Library
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0122-BRINKS.mp3

How many parking garages are there in the Boston area? Hundreds? Thousands? Only one was the scene of the (very nearly) "perfect crime."

The North Terminal Garage in the North End, explains Stephanie Schorow, author of "The Crime of the Century: How the Brink's Robbers Stole Millions and the Hearts of Boston," looks largely today as it did in 1950, with one important exception.

"This was once the headquarters of the Brink's armored car company in Boston—their Boston office," she explained. "And this is where the money was processed. Money came in, money went out."

It was the money that caught small-time crook and master lock pick Tony Pino’s eye. For more that a year, he meticulously studied the layout of the building, the timing of the truck deliveries and the behavior of the employees. 

"The idea of the Brink's was that the guys would go in at the precise moment when all of the money had been brought into the office, but before it was locked in the safe," said Schorow. 

But there was a small problem: a series of locked doors leading from the street to the Brinks office.   

"So on successive evenings some month before the robbery he would break in, he would break the lock, take the entire lock cylinder out of the door, take it to a friend of his who was a locksmith, have a key made, bring it back and put the lock back in the door," explained Schorow.

By the evening of Jan. 17, 1950, Pino had assembled a team of neighborhood pickpockets, hoods and money launderers to put his plan into action.

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The robbers used Captain Marvel, Jr. and Captain Marvel masks like the ones seen here.
FBI

Eight men, custom-made keys in hand, dressed in navy peacoats and chauffeur caps—they looked very much like Brink’s employees, save for the full-face, rubber Halloween masks. As the robbers waited at the base of the building, another stood on a rooftop across the street, watching through the windows of the Brink's office.

"At the right moment he signals. So the guys who are waiting down here they put on their caps, they put on their masks, they went around the corner and went in the door on Prince Street," said Schorow.

The robbers climbed the stairs, breezed through the locked doors, and—guns drawn—surprised the five Brink’s employees on site who they quickly tied up. Then they went to work.

"It was a mad dash," said Schorow. "They scooped up all kinds of money, everything—securities, money, even bags of change—and brought it down these stairs and loaded into the truck which was brought [to Prince Street]. So they loaded up in a matter of just a few minutes and jumped into the truck and took off."

Start to finish—the entire heist took just half an hour. Eleven career criminals from the neighborhood had pulled of the crime of the century. Their $2.7 million haul—$1.2 million of it in untraceable cash ($12 million in today’s money), made it the largest armed robbery in U.S. history.

"The crime was considered the perfect crime," said Schorow said. "It wasn’t like the robbers knocked off the local church or the local orphanage. They picked a big company that could afford—in the minds of many—to lose this money so people took a perverse pride in it."

Most importantly, says Schorow, no one had been killed or even hurt. The scant evidence left—one cap and a length of rope—proved no help to the cops. The crime made headlines across the country. For six years, tips and theories came in from across the globe—and yet, the cops still had essentially nothing.

"And it might have been the perfect crime except for the actions of one of the robbers, Speckie O’Keefe," Schorow said.

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Joe "Specs" O'Keefe
Leslie Jones

Joseph "Specs" O’Keefe decided to skip town on the heels of the heist, leaving his share of the money with another one of the thieves. O’Keefe got himself arrested in Pennsylvania for another robbery. When he returned to Boston after a few years in jail he went to collect from his partner in crime. There was only one problem, says Schorow: He had spent all of Specs’s money and he had spent all of his own money.

O'Keefe felt the rest of the gang owed him and pressed them to all kick in a little to make up his share.

"Well, the gang didn’t quite see it that way and they felt that he had become a liability and so they hired a hit man to take Specs out," said Schorow. 

The attempt on O'Keefe failed, and just days before the state statute of limitations ran out on the crime, Specs turned state’s witness and gave everyone up. By the time of the trial two of the gang had died. The other eight all received life sentences. Specs, who pled guilty, got four years.

"If wasn’t for that, if Specs hadn’t done that, they would have gotten away with it. No question about it," Schorow said.

Still, the crime became the stuff of Boston legend. A 1978 a film, "The Brink's Job," portrayed Pino—played by Peter Falk—and his gang as antiheroes. The film’s release was celebrated heartily here. Kevin White declared the week of the film's release "Brink's Week" in Boston. The filmmakers, and two still-living robbers, out by then on parole, took part in parades and spoke at events around town, including at Harvard University.

"When they went into the Harvard classroom the Harvard students gave the filmmakers and the two robbers who were with them a standing ovation," Schorow said.

As for Specs, after his release from jail he moved out west under an assumed name. Among the numerous jobs he held? Chauffeur for Cary Grant. No word on whether he wore a cap. 

The Brink's heist, when a nondescript parking garage in Boston’s North End that still stands today became the scene of the crime of the century -– and the stuff of Boston legend – 66 years ago this week. 

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