Friday, May 16, 2003

Big Stick-Up at Brink's! by Noel Behn

It must have been 1978 when I saw a film about a group of men who planned an executed a robbery at the Boston headquarters of the Brink's Armored Car Company, a film which impressed me not on its artistic merits (they may have been impressive and they may have not--I was seven, I didn't know) but because it was a "true story." In 1950 an estimated $2,700,000 was in fact stolen from Brink's, the largest robbery ever in the United States at that time. That film was based on this book, written by a man who went on to act as a consultant and sometime writer for the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street." The narrative is based on interviews with four of the culprits.

The book concentrates on the groundwork and preparation for the heist, beginning with the release of the mastermind Tony Pino from prison in September 1944. Pino was the engine driving the eventual gang of eleven men towards Brink's and, eventually, prison for all involved. Pino was an obsessive and incorrigible safecracker, shoplifter and job planner--when he realized that he was going to be brought in on suspicion of the job and probably strip-searched, he lifted a pair of clean boxers from a Boston department store. He and his cronies are professionals, and they put in their time on Brink's. Nearly six years of preparation went into the job, and the robbers are believed to have entered Brink's as many as two hundred times to surveil and plan.

The FBI fought for jurisdiction over the Brink's heist, because J. Edgar Hoover wanted the publicity for his Feds. But when the Federal statute of limitations on the robbery ran out after three years there had been no arrests made. Despite continued harrassment of the suspected robbers and their families by federal, state and local authorities, they would have gotten away with it if one of their number, incarcerated on unrelated charges, hadn't cracked under the pressure and turned state's evidence six days before the statute of limitations ran out.

Behn's style is clear and drily humorous, and the buildup to the heist is meticulously illustrated. The narrative comes to an abrupt end, however, and the voices of the amiable crooks are lost when Behn abruptly moves to a journalistic wrapup of the aftermath of the heist. But this is a fascinating account of professional criminals in their heyday, and I highly recommend it.


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