The Great Vault Robbery
For 10 years, Philip Johnson went every day to a job he hated. The routine was stultifying--extended periods of boredom interrupted by brief, terrifying sensations of vulnerability. But what really scorched his shorts was the money.
An armored-car guard, he made $7 an hour. No overtime. No health. No dental. No pension. No prospects.
These things tend to erode your self-confidence. Philip once told his friend Tim Gray that he would never get married because no woman would want him.
That may have changed the day before Easter, authorities say. On March 29, the cranky, embittered wage slave pulled a regular shift. But when it was over, instead of driving his beat-up VW Rabbit home to another lonely Saturday night, Philip Noel Johnson, 33, climbed behind the wheel of a company van groaning under the weight of $20 million in cash and trundled off into American mythology.
It is more money than anyone has ever stolen in the United States. The loot weighs close to half a ton. Yet for four months, Johnson has managed to keep it out of sight.
And despite an international manhunt, no one has laid eyes on him, either.
Not at Johnson’s concrete-block Jacksonville ranch house, where police found one of his co-workers handcuffed in a bedroom closet, with snack food and a jug of water.
Not in the North Carolina forest where Johnson left another shaken colleague chained to a tree.
And certainly not at the warehouse of the Loomis Fargo armored-car company where the three men had been working side by side when Johnson unsnapped his holster and pulled out his company-issued .38 revolver.
Gray was at a funeral when a friend sidled up and gave him the extraordinary news:
“Hey, Phil gave himself a raise.”
Now Johnson’s worth $20 million.
He’s also worth $500,000 to anyone who turns him in.
“He looks like anybody,” says Mike Heard, the FBI agent leading the search for Johnson. “So go find him and we’ll give you a half a million.”
His was the last truck in.
Johnson was the courier, the guard who climbs out alone at each convenience store and supermarket, hauling the empty canvas bags from the truck and bringing them back full, while the driver stays in the cab, doors locked.
The courier was on his own out there, and in certain neighborhoods at certain times of day the bulletproof vest and the .38 left you feeling next to naked.
For facing this risk, couriers received an additional 75 cents an hour.
When Johnson’s truck pulled up to the Loomis Fargo warehouse on the night of March 29, Johnson climbed out, walked to a video camera and pushed the intercom button. Inside, a guard recognized him and opened the garage door. Following procedure, Johnson remained outside with his gun drawn, his back to the truck as it pulled in. Still following procedure, he backed in after it as the door closed in front of him.
The driver was done for the night. He clocked out. Johnson’s job required him to remain while their load was processed, then help the two vault guards close up.
James Brown, an assertive man of 52, was known as Terry. At 27, Dan Smith was young for a vault job, which is coveted because it pays better, is indoors and is considered relatively safe. The job involves mostly paperwork and wrestling wire mesh cages of cash, which was what was going on when, about 7 p.m., Johnson pulled his gun.
He took Brown’s gun, ordered the unarmed Smith to lie down beside his co-worker, and handcuffed both. Then he went into the yard and backed a white Econoline van up to the vault. He filled it halfway to the top with bags of cash.
It took two hours. He took no coins, no checks, no singles or fives. Every canvas bag he loaded contained tens or higher. Unmarked, nonsequential bills.
He also took the videotape from the surveillance cameras. He went into company records and pulled out the first thing the police would ask for: his personnel file.
Finally, he swung shut the huge vault door and set the timer so it would not open until the next day, Sunday afternoon. He directed Brown and Smith into the van, ordering them to lie on top of the money. Johnson pulled into the driveway of his little tan house on Keystone Drive North about 9 p.m., where he left Brown handcuffed.
Back in the van, Johnson threw a blanket over Smith and steered north. He drove all night. When he spoke, it was to tell Smith he was willing to kill him. But when Johnson opened the panel doors, what he reached for was the money. He offloaded it somewhere. Smith does not know where they were.
Not until midmorning on Easter did Johnson order Smith out, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway not far from Asheville, N.C. He handcuffed the guard to a small tree and left him provisions. He promised to alert authorities to Smith’s whereabouts within 48 hours.
But the tree was so small that Smith jimmied off the cuffs in about an hour. Flagging down a motorist, he got a lift to a U.S. Forest Service station. (Two days after Easter, Johnson kept his promise to Smith. Apparently unaware Smith had escaped, Johnson phoned a TV station with directions to find him.)
Back in Jacksonville, the morning crew had not been able to get into the warehouse and summoned a supervisor, who called police. They were all looking at the closed-circuit image of the locked vault, trying to figure out what had happened, when the call came in from the police in North Carolina.
The cops who arrived at Keystone Drive found Brown. There were papers suggesting Johnson had been busy establishing false identities. By the dates on some of them, it appeared he had begun planning the heist five years ago.
But the most unsettling evidence was staring them in the face. On his bedroom wall, Johnson had spray-painted a message. Three words.
“House of pain.”
“He lived in that world, a world of pain,” says Johnson’s sister, Sharon. She does not want her last name used. She sips an ice water at a big corner table in Denny’s, her husband opposite, their three children playing quietly at their feet.
This was the domestic scene Philip was so jealous of, she says. He claimed Sharon had everything he wanted but would never have.
She is a year older, which means Philip would have been 3 when their father left. Brother David would have been 6. Their mother went on welfare and moved into public housing in Atlanta that cost $17 a month.
After five years, the Johnson children were split up. Philip lived with his mother in a trailer near Rochester, N.Y., then was farmed out to in-laws in Pennsylvania for a year, only to end up in California with his father, who returned him by bus to New York. He landed with an aunt who paid his tuition to Lima (N.Y.) Christian Academy, the high school years his sister calls the most stable period of his life.
“He had some problems,” says Richard Ludeman, who remembers most of his students from the then-new school’s tiny first classes. “You knew he just didn’t trust authority figures, especially male authority figures.”
The skinny blond teenager was “very bright, sort of cynically critical,” Ludeman says.
He had no girlfriends. “None of us really did,” says John Shafer, who still lives in the area. “That’s why we hung out together.”
The trio was Shafer, Gray and Johnson.
Johnson was meticulous, Shafer said. And he was smart. Johnson scored a 1,200 on his SATs, Ludeman says.
No one knows when he decided he wanted to be a cop. It was Johnson’s life’s ambition, though. He nursed it at Monroe Community College, near Rochester, where he got a two-year degree in criminology, then went south to Jacksonville, where his mother and sister had moved.
The only detour was a happy one: a Christian fellowship mission to Latin America. He loved the culture, showed signs of a religious awakening, and met a blond who liked him.
But when they returned to the States, she dumped him. And no police department would take him on.
Johnson hopped from job to job, demonstrating vacuum cleaners, peddling Amway. Guard work was a temporary position that stretched into 10 years. He felt trapped. He wanted to return to school but could not do so and hold a job. He wanted a girlfriend but had no money for dates. Phil Lyon, the best friend he had met at a church group before he gave up on that, too, says Johnson was listening to a lot of Rush Limbaugh.
“To him, everything was a Catch-22,” Lyon says. “I didn’t want to be around him sometimes because he was so negative.”
Johnson complained most relentlessly about Loomis Fargo. But in the past two years, he seemed to be reaching the end of his rope. “He would make comments like, ‘I don’t have this, this and this. I might as well be dead,’ ” Lyon says.
“He was suicidal,” Johnson’s sister avers. With her mother, she consulted a private mental hospital. They were told that without insurance, the only option was involuntary commitment.
“He had no money for that. No means to see a doctor.”
In the past year or so, Johnson rarely saw his family. He spoke more with neighbors who wanted to help. Edith Hible brought extra food and, on Sundays, the employment section. When he crossed the street to borrow tools, June Glover made a place for him under the shelves of ornamental teapots and asked him why he wouldn’t go to church.
“I’m mad at God,” Johnson would say.
When the chief of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office robbery unit arrived at the warehouse on Easter morning and found the vault empty, he was more impressed than worried. “I thought we’d have him in a couple weeks,” Lonnie McDonald says.
Three months beyond that target, the lieutenant still exuded a confident patience. But the wanted poster hanging across from his desk is written in Spanish:
Johnson always liked Latin America. He could speak Spanish. Recently, he had been learning Portuguese. Among the travel literature discovered in his house was a copy of “Dollarwise Brazil.” The country has no extradition treaty with the United States.
“He was always real good with languages,” his sister says. “He could be anywhere.”
The hunt for Johnson, with 65 lawmen on his trail, started in Asheville, where the morning after the robbery the van turned up in a National Guard armory parking lot. It had not been there the night before.
The FBI believes Johnson bought a bus ticket to Atlanta, then one to the border town of Brownsville, Texas. They found evidence that he spent a few nights in Mexico. That was months ago now. The trail is cold.
Loomis has its own security people on Johnson’s trail, a representative says, and there are also private eyes on the case.
Rather than solid leads, what they keep coming up with is evidence of Johnson’s planning. The aliases he has been using are supported by driver’s licenses and checking accounts Johnson compiled over the years in the names of Phil Lyons, his best friend; Robert C. Johnson, his half brother; and Roger D. Lawter, a housemate he kicked out years ago for being a slob.
It is a heck of a lot of money. It is difficult for anyone to imagine Johnson lugging the 21 cubic feet around with him. It would fill six or seven duffel bags, the big kind that draw attention at airports.
You might try putting it in a bank. But by law, banks must report all cash deposits over $10,000. So you might try putting it in a lot of banks. It would take 2,000 banks.
You might dig a hole and bury it somewhere, and disappear until the heat is off.
You might put it in a storage locker. The FBI has thought of that and has been flashing Johnson’s mug at self-storage outlets between Florida and North Carolina. But it hasn’t found the money.
Eventually, though, wherever you are, you would have to spend the money. The temptation would be unbearable. You would start paying for things in cold cash.
“If Philip even has the money--if he hasn’t buried it somewhere--he’ll probably just give it away,” his sister says. “Find an orphanage or something in South America and give it to them.”
What it’s really all about is payback, Sharon says: “To show the world what morons Loomis Fargo is.
“Because Philip never cared about money.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him to sit there and burn $20 million,” Shafer says. “As a spite thing.”
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