Miami's Flood of Pennies From Heaven Seeps Away


A dozen police officers fanned out through the impoverished neighborhood of Overtown on Thursday, demanding that residents return the loot that fell from an overturned Brink's truck the day before.

After going door to door for six hours, warning that keeping the money was a crime and offering a 48-hour amnesty, they returned to the station house.

The total turned in: zero.

The total missing: more than $400,000 in bills and coins, and $300,000 in food stamps, out of a total of $3.7 million the Brink's truck was carrying before it flipped on a highway overpass and rained manna on scores of residents below.

"The streets were like silver," one man said. Another witness reported that some women took off their blouses and filled them with money, walking off in their bras.

Police Lt. Bill Schwartz said his officers "got no response" on Thursday to the amnesty offer. "No one helped," he said, expressing something like shock.

But no one in Overtown seemed surprised. "I wouldn't give it up either," said Margaret Calhoun, 29, who was at work when the armored truck flipped over and burst open like a sledge-hammered piggy bank. "These people need to feed their kids, and that money was like from God."

Indeed, the theory of divine providence was much in the air Thursday in Overtown, where incomes are low and unemployment high. As boys and girls on their way home from school stopped to sift through the weeds and dirt of the embankment below the I-95 overpass, a group of men stood in front of an adjacent apartment complex and echoed the explanation for the crash offered the day before by James Toni.

"These are hard-working people," Toni said. "They don't make enough money. God sent a truck."

"That's right," said Dion Gittens, 18, who admitted to picking up some small change. "God gave it, so let God take it away."

From folks shopping and hanging out at tiny corner markets, laughs and mocking cries of "You got the money?" were heard.

The counter was busy at nearby Republic National Bank, with customers asking for coin wrappers and changing coins for currency.

"They were bringing money in bags and in their shirts," Michelle Barrett, who works at the bank, said Thursday. "They brought in an average of $200 apiece."

At Brink's Inc. headquarters in Darien, Conn., even company spokesman Marven Moss seemed a bit cynical about the amnesty offer. "Do you really think they're going to get much of it back that way?" he asked.

But as Schwartz insisted, pocketing the money is theft, and theft is wrong.

"Immoral and unethical," he added. "People are treating this like a carnival, but this is a serious crime. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were stolen."

So, after the amnesty period ends at noon Saturday, Schwartz said police will begin to review television news videotape and file charges against those who can be identified.

"Finders keepers, losers weepers is just a saying," he said. "This is a depressed area, we know that. And none of us likes to think there is anyone out there unable to feed their children. But that money belongs to someone else.

"I'm hoping people will realize that this money they have stuck in their underwear drawer, or buried in the backyard, is more of a burden than a blessing. And it could be dangerous. They have to know that if we're looking for it, the bad guys are looking too."

Police said they have had at least two reports of homes being ransacked by people looking for hidden loot.

Meanwhile, the Brink's driver, Walter Cravero, was charged with careless driving and operating improper equipment because the truck had three bald tires. The truck flipped on a ramp leading from one freeway to another.

In the scramble Wednesday to beat out the hundreds of people looking for free money, one firefighter found an overlooked bag along an embankment. It contained more than $300,000 in bills.

The poor neighborhood has been the site of racial strife in the last 15 years.

Once the lively center of Miami's black community, Overtown has most often been in the news recently as the scene of rioting. A major disturbance broke out in May 1989 after a Latino police officer shot and killed a black motorcyclist. A passenger on the motorcycle also died.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World