Suspect in Biggest U.S. Heist Arrested in Texas

From Associated Press

A disgruntled armored car driver believed to have taken $22 million in the biggest heist in U.S. history was arrested Saturday when he crossed the border into Texas, using the name of a former roommate, the FBI said.

No money was recovered and authorities do not know where it might be.

Philip Noel Johnson, 33, was stopped by U.S. Customs agents and asked for his identification as he was crossing from Matamoros, Mexico, into Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas.

When Johnson gave the name Roger Lawter, the name popped up as an alias used by the former Loomis, Fargo & Co. driver, said George Cheek, a spokesman for the FBI in Jacksonville. The theft happened March 29 in Jacksonville.

The FBI in Brownsville was contacted and Johnson was taken into federal custody. He will be arraigned Tuesday before a U.S. magistrate in Texas on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

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FBI agent Jim Dougal and Jerry Rigdon, a Jacksonville police detective, flew to Texas on Saturday night.

Johnson, 33, was initially considered an amateur who would be nabbed in days. That was before authorities discovered he had allegedly been painstakingly planning the robbery for years.

The crime had stumped the FBI and police. Some officials suspected that Johnson had fled overseas and others thought he had died.

Loomis, Fargo will not discuss the robbery. It has offered a $500,000 reward for Johnson's arrest and conviction.

Johnson used fake identification to avoid police and had phony passports he could use to leave the country, the FBI said.

The name he was using when he was arrested was that of Roger D. Lawter, a sailor who rented a room in Johnson's Jacksonville home from October 1991 to September 1993. Lawter said he could not take Johnson's rages about keeping a neat house and moved out.

The FBI learned Johnson had used Lawter's birth certificate to obtain a false driver's license and passport.

George Lueders, assistant chief of detectives for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, said Johnson's arrest will mean more work for his office.

"This just adds another piece to the puzzle," adding that investigators hope to learn about the whereabouts of the money, other possible suspects and "what he did to make it work."

Investigators said earlier Johnson had spent a night or two in Mexico and might have moved on. Inside his Jacksonville home, police found a travel brochure for Brazil.

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Cheek said authorities had tracked Johnson from Jacksonville to Asheville, N.C.--where the Loomis, Fargo van was found--to Texas then to Mexico.

"We had reported sightings in the Houston area and the Brownsville area and that led us to that part of the country," Cheek said Saturday. "We were concentrating our efforts in the Rio Grande Valley [of Texas]."

Authorities don't know what happened to the bags of money that filled a Loomis, Fargo van from floor to ceiling and weighed up to 900 pounds. Johnson may have stashed the money in a self-service storage warehouse or shipped it out of the country, some authorities believe.

He faces charges of armed robbery, kidnapping and interstate flight to avoid prosecution.

John DeLeon, FBI spokesman for south Texas, said Johnson was being held in the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville without bond and would remain there until his arraignment.

The Jacksonville heist was double the previous largest armored car theft in U.S. history. On June 26, 1990, in Rochester, N.Y., a truck owned by Armored Motor Service of America was stolen and $10.8 million was taken.

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