Hazardous Duty : With Violence on the Rise, Some Armed Couriers Are Wondering if Any Amount of Pay Is Enough

Times Staff Writer

Filiberto Lujan sat in the armored truck, keeping an eye open as two men emerged from a Whittier bank and walked toward his partner, who was unloading cash outside an automated teller machine. Suddenly one man jabbed his hand under his sweater and pointed it at the guard as if it were a pistol.

Lujan shoved open the truck’s heavy door and yelled to his partner, “Leo, down!”

The guard, whose attention had been fixed on the cash, dropped to a crouch and leveled his weapon at the only potential threat he saw: A woman bent over her young daughter a few feet away. Lujan was already exerting pressure on the trigger of his .44 Magnum when the man threw up his hands and let out a terrified laugh. He had been joking.

Both Lujan and his partner held their fire.


But that was seven years ago.

Threat Has Grown

If the same scene were played out today, Lujan figures there is a good chance that the prankster and the innocent bystanders would be shot.

Today, armed couriers work with the knowledge that two of their comrades were murdered at close range late last year, and that a few of the suspects in at least 13 possibly related robberies in Southern California remain at large. Meanwhile, bullets continue to fly.

Monday morning, police reportedly apprehended two of three men who fled after attempting to rob an armored truck outside a Boys Market in South-Central Los Angeles. And last Wednesday, robbers got more than $200,000 from a Brinks truck in downtown Los Angeles after firing shots. No one was hurt in either shooting. But couriers worry that it may only be a matter of time before another courier--or an innocent bystander--is shot.

A few guards who were willing to talk about their jobs said that they have been rethinking the stress and safety issues since robbers killed Stewart Cruz Tecson, 27, outside a San Fernando Valley bank in October, and fatally shot Patrick Rooney, 35, in the head as he picked up cash at a Lucky supermarket in Bellflower a month later.

Life on the Line for Low Pay

With a minimum of training, and for wages that at some companies aren’t much higher than a day laborer’s, armed couriers transport and protect virtually every cent of cash that flows through the American economy--"hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every day,” as the secretary of one industry trade association put it.

“Am I scared?” asked Lujan, who did three extended combat tours in Vietnam before joining Armored Transport of California Inc. in 1974. “As soon as I sit in the truck.”

And the bullet-resistant trucks are the safest place to be while working, armed couriers agree.

“As soon as you open the door, you’re meat on the table,” said Lujan, who now spends his days delivering cash throughout gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles. “Silly as it sounds, it’s like combat.”

At Armored Transport Inc, which has “about 300 trucks . . . in seven or eight states,” according to part-owner Robert Irvin, couriers generally work shifts of about eight hours.

Armored couriers begin their day at one of the company’s “barns"--large, heavily guarded buildings where employees pick up sorted canvas and plastic bags containing the cash, negotiable securities and receipts they will deliver.

100 Exposures a Day

From the moment they leave the barn, the couriers are, for the most part, on their own, making anywhere from 70 to 100 or more deliveries a day, depending on the team and the turf covered.

Moving quickly from restaurants to department stores to major banks and savings and loans, the two-person teams take turns. Secured by bulkhead doors, the driver keeps watch from within the truck, while his partner--the “hopper” or “jumper"--unloads and delivers coins and cash, pushing heavy loads on handcarts or hauling bags weighing up to 100 pounds on his or her shoulders.

Armored Transport supplies guards’ weapons--although many prefer to carry their own. The company also pays half the price of a bulletproof vest and encourages their use, although many guards prefer not to wear them.

A single father raising his 2- and 3-year-old sons alone, David Troy Nelsen likes the job and the company for which he works.

“I’m one of the crazier guys. The stress hasn’t gotten to me,” said Nelsen, whose telephone answering machine carries his snarling impersonation of Dirty Harry, a persona similar to the one he projects on the job.

Before joining Armored Transport, Nelsen graduated from three months of training at the police academy. But he is concerned that the training some armored car guards receive is inadequate.

“It should take more,” he said.

To get a job at Armored Transport, where the requirements are among the highest in the industry, couriers said, an applicant undergoes a psychological evaluation, an oral interview, a polygraph test, a medical exam and in some cases a background check by a private investigator.

In addition, all armed couriers in California must meet State Department of Consumer Affairs requirements for any armed security guard--a two-hour, open-book test, and a 14-hour firearms course that includes eight hours of classroom instruction and six hours on the firing range, a spokeswoman for that department said.

Security Training

Armored Transport and other companies provide additional on-the-job training as well as periodic seminars in which trainers detail recent holdups and discuss security procedures.

“They’re helpful but it leaves too much up in the air, too many uncertainties,” Nelsen said as he sat over a pitcher of beer with several of his colleagues, some still attired in Armored Transport’s blue uniform with silver badge.

Most of the training is of the trial-by-fire variety, guards said. But because of the daily rush to make all the stops on a route, learning the intricacies of the business by riding with veterans has drawbacks, said Bart Gibbons, 27, who has worked for Armored Transport for three years.

“Some guys are made for this job and some guys aren’t,” he said. “A lot of (veterans) won’t take the time to train people.”

The armored transport industry itself tends to be tight-lipped.

“The nature of the work we do is in itself defined by secrecy,” said a spokesman for Brinks, who asked not to be named. “The more we can adhere to that policy, the better we can . . . minimize losses and crime and the risk to our people.”

Size of the Industry

James Dunbar, president of Federal Armored Express Inc. and chairman of the Armored Transport Institute, an industry training organization in Baltimore, estimates that the whole business, with about 5,000 trucks on the road on a given day, grosses about $500 million--the same figure quoted in the Wall Street Journal in 1984.

Comprised of mom-and-pop operations with only a single truck or two and giants such as Brinks, Loomis and Armored Transport, the industry is--despite antitrust convictions of several armored car company executives in the late 1970s--extremely competitive.

It is also virtually unregulated. To get into the business, Dunbar explained, “You’ve got to have a desire, a truck, a gun and the insurance.”

“The problem, naturally, is the insurance,” he said. “In the past, when there really weren’t the losses that there are now,” insurance premiums were reasonable, he said. As they continue to rise, the insurance agency has become a de facto regulator, he said. And slipshod operators simply can’t get insurance against the types of huge losses a robbery could incur.

Safety Statistics

Neither the California Bureau of Criminal Statistics nor the FBI maintain statistics on armored car robberies. But company owners and industry spokespeople said they believe the business has a remarkably good security record.

“We’ve . . . had three people killed in 40-some years,” Irvin of Armored Transport said. ". . . We haven’t had very many injured. If you’re running a service station or a liquor store you would have a higher mortality rate.”

“Companies do a very good job of giving the employees the tools needed to do a good job, to drive and work safely,” said Ron Bray secretary-treasurer of the 52-member Independent Armored Car Operators Assn. “Whether they use those tools is another story.”

Many couriers believe they would be significantly safer if companies would mandate a policy of keeping three people on each truck--a driver, a messenger (the “hopper”) and a guard who could cover the man carrying the cash.

But Irvin said that the three-person truck “would add 25% on to the cost (of running a truck) and wouldn’t solve the problem,” since criminals could always add an additional person to their robbery teams.

Disparities in Pay Scale

On the road, couriers from different armored car companies flash their lights at each other as a gesture of camaraderie. When they talk, though, they often find that there are wide disparities in their working conditions and their pay, the Armored Transport couriers said.

At the various bank or armored car company-owned cash vaults around Southern California, where guards from various companies converge to pick up additional cash, they sometimes have time to talk about their jobs, said Chuck Barber, 31.

At Armored Transport, wages start at $8.40 for new full-time employees, and top “first men” earn about $12.90 an hour. “Guys doing the same job at other companies make $6.50,” said Barber, who is Nelsen’s partner and a representative for the Armored Transport Employees Assn.

“That’s the problem. There’s idiots who will do this job for less money. . . . We’re meat. We’re replaceable . . . $6.50 an hour! You can make that at Taco Bell and not get shot at.”

Hauling enormous quantities of cash weighs heavy on couriers, both physically and emotionally, Barber said. “As soon as money is missing, we’re immediately on the defensive. . . . We’re guilty until proven innocent.”

“A small typo could mean a $100,000 loss,” another courier said--and news reports show that money turns up missing at armored car companies with some regularity.

Adding to the stress is a public that has little understanding or respect for the job, they added.

“If the public would just realize, when they see these trucks pull up . . . to avoid us like the bubonic plague, our job would be 1,000% easier,” Lujan said.

But even with the recent shootings, a surprising number of people let their strange sense of humor override their sense of self-preservation.

“They ask, ‘Got any free samples?’ ” Barber said. “I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got some bullets for you.’ ”

Two months ago, Nelsen entered a check cashing store in Garden Grove carrying a bag of cash.

‘This Is a Robbery!’

“This guy, he looked like a full-on gang member, had a newspaper in his left hand,” Nelsen said. “His right hand was inside the newspaper. And he yells at me, ‘This is a robbery!’

“I put my hand on my gun. I said, ‘That’s not even funny.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, if it were real you’d be squirming on the ground right now.’

“Basically, I could have pulled my gun and put it to his head right when he said ‘This is a robbery,’ ” Nelsen said. “I was waiting to see the gun myself. That’s where the training comes in.”

“You’ve gotta think that every person out there is your adversary,” another Orange County courier said. “I do. Every second, I think it’s going to happen now.”

‘I’m Shaking’

In a separate interview, Lujan, who is vice president of the Cash and Securities Handlers Assn., a Los Angeles-based courier’s union, said he levels his gun at someone fairly often.

“There’ve been times when I’ve gotten back in the truck and the driver gets ready to pull out and I say, ‘Just sit here for a minute,’ ” Lujan said.

“And I’m sitting back there and I’m shaking. It’s not so much that I’m scared, it’s that I almost shot someone for nothing, because he was being stupid. Anyone who is going to play games with an armed person . . . something is not right between his ears, his cornbread ain’t done yet.”

Lujan is 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds. A plaque in the house he shares with the younger of the three sons he raised sports dozens of medals: Silver Star, Navy Cross, five Purple Hearts, Bronze Star and marksmanship medals won in Vietnam and afterward.

When he’s driving, he lets anyone who looks see the working replica Thompson submachine gun he carries, sometimes the sawed-off shotgun as well. At every stop he carrys a .44 Magnum in one hand and he keeps another tucked into the small of his back. He purposely exudes the sort of “negative vibes” that make most sensible people keep their distance, he said.

“When you step out of the truck, your senses all come out--your sense of hearing, your visual sense, even your sense of smell, everything is up. You’re constantly rotating the head. You don’t want to walk in a straight line. You zig a little, zag a little.”

And when a courier arrives at a stop, “you see something you don’t like, put that puppy in gear and keep on trucking. . . .”

Lujan knew both of the Armored Transport guards who were killed last year. Both of them had experience, good instincts and the requisite hard-nosed attitude, he said.

Many of the neophyte guards have neither, he said. That worries him.

“I know quite a few police officers and sheriffs and they keep telling me, ‘There isn’t enough money to make me do what you do,’ ” Lujan said.