Advertisement

Lots of Loot on the Lam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the mastermind behind what the FBI says is the largest cash armed robbery in U.S. history is sentenced in federal court today, FBI Special Agent John McEachern III and Los Angeles police Det. John Licata plan to be there, sitting quietly--and observantly--in the back of the Los Angeles courtroom.

The federal agent and the street cop wouldn’t miss this court appearance for the world. It’s not just that the two men have spent much of the last four years nearly joined at the hip in pursuit of Allen Pace III and his crafty cadre of co-conspirators.

It’s because Pace and five other men made off with a record $18.9 million from the Dunbar Armored Co. depot in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 13, 1997--and as much as $10 million of the cash has never been recovered.

McEachern and Licata want that money back. And they want to know who else helped Pace and company in their thus-far successful effort to hide or launder much of the loot.

Advertisement

They’ll arrive at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles early, and leave late, checking out the friends and relatives who come to court in support of Pace, just as they did at the sentencing hearings for his accomplices.

And when Pace is dispatched to federal prison for as long as 27 years, the two will stroll outside so McEachern can have a smoke. And then they’ll continue just where they left off--leading the charge on “Operation Dunrob,” the code name for the multi-agency task force still investigating the mega-heist.

Opposite in almost every way, McEachern (pronounced Mac-CARE-an) and Licata would seem as unlikely a dynamic duo as imaginable.

But working together, they have played a lead role in cracking a case that ranks high in the pantheon of legendary American crime capers--in dollars taken, if not publicity.

Advertisement

Most everyone has heard of the Brinks robbery of 1950 in Boston and the 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport in New York. Both the subject of books and movies, the robberies netted roughly $2 million and $6 million, respectively.

By most accounts, the take from the Dunbar depot caper equaled or surpassed that of those crimes, even taking inflation into account. The robbers stumbled onto so much cash that when they dumped it all into the 14-foot cabin of their rented U-Haul truck, it created a carpet of money that went all the way up to their thighs, McEachern said.

Two recent heists in North Carolina and Florida equaled or surpassed the take from the Dunbar, but both of those were strictly inside jobs--not daring and violent armed robberies. The FBI says more cash was taken in the Dunbar robbery than any other armed takeover robbery in American history.

Size of Haul Surprised Robbers

The origins of the Dunbar robbery were almost inauspicious. Pace, a disgruntled Dunbar security guard, recruited a few “rent-a-cops” he knew, saying they could make some easy money robbing the depot, which stored cash headed for Los Angeles automated teller machines. His co-conspirators have since said they had no idea of the magnitude of the money they would be taking.

The execution was brazen and purely professional. Using a floor plan, photographs and a key provided by the recently fired Pace, the masked gunmen tied up and terrorized the graveyard shift, and left virtually nothing to give themselves away--not so much as a vague witness ID. They even took the videotapes out of the high-tech security cameras.

Even so, “both of us, at the crime scene that very first day, we knew we were going to clear this,” says McEachern. “Neither of us said it. It was just sort of a vibe.”

McEachern, 46, was the armored car coordinator for the FBI and was on weekend duty that Saturday morning when he got the call: Several masked gunmen had hit the Dunbar truck depot at 676 Mateo St. in downtown Los Angeles just after midnight.

Advertisement

Licata, 54, was at home, on a short vacation. But as the senior bank detail detective in the LAPD’s elite robbery-homicide unit, his pager went off anyway, at 5 a.m.

The two had met before on bank robberies, which the FBI and LAPD often investigate together. As veterans on details with high turnover, they shared a mutual respect.

Most cops and FBI agents like to work bank robberies for a few years and then move on to more glamorous beats, organized- and white-collar crime to name two. Not so McEachern and Licata. Both stayed on the streets because they love the immediacy of the bank robbery detail, the fact that you never know what the next day, or the next minute, will bring.

So when they met up at the Dunbar depot, “We just sort of clicked,” says McEachern. “We’re both ‘old school’ kind of cops.”

Adds Licata: “This is our life’s work. If it happens that you find someone else like that, it makes things easier.”

To LAPD veterans like Licata, FBI agents are often perceived as young and green, “accountants with guns” straight out of the academy and in need of tutoring in the ways of bank robbery investigation. But McEachern had spent 14 years as a street cop and detective in the tiny town of Opelika, Ala., and had worked dozens of heists.

“There were a lot of things we didn’t have to explain why were doing them,” Licata says.

“It was a given,” adds McEachern.

Advertisement

Their fondness for bank heists is about all the two have in common.

McEachern is perfectly tanned and coiffed. His suit, shirt, tie, shoes--and pocket kerchief--match so perfectly that he looks as if he just walked off the pages of a men’s fashion magazine.

He comes from a town so deep in the South that he says he had never seen an “Eye-talian” like Licata until he joined the service. He is affable and loquacious, speaking in an accent so thick that he jokes, often, about how everyone in the bureau still needs subtitles just to understand him.

“Where I’m from,” says the Auburn University graduate, “if you from Tennessee, you almost a Yankee.”

Licata is the intense one.

Tall, lanky, and with the no-nonsense demeanor and pasty complexion of his native Brooklyn, he seems almost mute at times, his eyes focused on some far-off spot as if lost in the reverie of deductive crime-solving.

Licata appears to have never gone anywhere near a men’s fashion article. And, he says in his thick “Noo Yawk” patois, “I get kidded about my accent as much as he does. Maybe more so.”

Tiny Plastic Shard Was Key to Cracking Case

During that first day at the Dunbar crime scene, McEachern and Licata spent several hours together, asking questions, interviewing witnesses, and scouring the crime scene for clues.

As Licata walked alone among a crowd of authorities in the dimly lighted Dunbar garage, he spied a tiny rectangle of amber-colored plastic that looked like it had come from a vehicle taillight.

“He’s very thorough,” McEachern says of Licata.

“I just saw it lying there,” says Licata, almost embarrassed.

The shard didn’t look like it had come from one of the many armored trucks parked nearby. It would take more than two years of further investigation, but the piece of plastic ultimately linked Pace and one of his co-conspirators to the heist.

Even without evidence, Pace, 32, of Compton was a suspect from Day 1. Not only did he have inside knowledge of the depot, he had a grudge; he’d been fired just the day before for unspecified improprieties.

One Dunbar employee said she recognized a fellow employee’s voice as the leader of the robbers. But there were also signs of forced entry, which Pace’s accomplices later said they had been told to do to throw off the investigators.

Even if Pace was involved, the two veteran investigators both knew they needed to maintain an element of surprise, to see if he and other potential suspects changed their lifestyles in any way--going on spending sprees, acting secretively or simply altering their routines.

If the massive size of the haul became public, the Dunbar heist would have been a major national story, and investigators feared that could have driven the bank robbers underground. For that reason, they say, they described the haul as “more than a million dollars,” and said nothing more.

McEachern and Licata spent a lot of time together on surveillance those first months. But Pace was smart, not only in planning the heist, but in establishing alibis for himself and his cohorts, and in instructing them to lie low in the months afterward, according to court testimony.

At first, all of the robbers stuck to the plan. There were no slip-ups, no extravagant purchases, little contact among themselves or with Pace.

McEachern and Licata weren’t the only ones working the case, but it consumed them, even as they tried to juggle other assignments. With the help of the FBI crime lab, authorities had determined that the rectangle of plastic that Licata found could have come from a rental truck. They pored over thousands of truck rental slips but failed to find a truck rented by Pace or any other potential suspect.

‘Operation Dunrob’ Task Force Launched

By the first anniversary of the heist, the investigation was stalled. Even the $250,000 reward offered by Dunbar wasn’t helping. Then, an informant came forward and said a man named Eugene Lamar Hill Jr. was somehow connected.

Suddenly, McEachern and Licata had new avenues to explore. They went to their bosses asking for help, and in October 1998, Operation Dunrob was established. Soon, as many as 15 investigators were working the case out of a secure room on the 16th floor of the Federal Building in Westwood.

McEachern was named case agent in charge and began working 16-hour days overseeing all the moving parts of the increasingly complex investigation. Assistant U.S. Atty. Alka Sagar was brought in full time. LAPD Det. John Wong and FBI Special Agent Susan Hall were also on board. IRS criminal investigators Ken Fazende and Martin Juarez joined too.

Over the next year, they surreptitiously watched Hill, Pace and others, connecting the dots. Task force members determined that Hill had rented a U-Haul truck the day before the robbery and returned it a day later. McEachern hand-delivered the amber piece of plastic to the FBI crime lab, which concluded it had come from that very same rental truck.

The team arrested Hill on Sept. 22, 1999, and found a stack of bills in his possession that had money wrappers missing from the Dunbar depot. Within hours, Hill confessed and began naming names.

Over the next few months, authorities quietly arrested Thomas Lee Johnson of Las Vegas, Freddie Lynn McCrary Jr. of Arleta and Terry Wayne Brown Sr. of Los Angeles. Like Hill, all three cooperated, leading to the arrest of Pace and a sixth suspect, Erik Damon Boyd of Buena Park.

Prosecutors are seeking a 27-year sentence today for Pace, as well as up to $18.9 million in restitution in case the money is ever recovered. Boyd was recently sentenced to 17 years in prison, plus restitution. The other four are all receiving significantly reduced sentences of eight to 10 years.

Three other men were arrested for conspiring to launder the money through “straw” purchases of homes, cars and businesses. Two have pleaded guilty; a third awaits trial.

A lengthy sentence for Pace will provide McEachern and Licata with no small amount of satisfaction, they say. They’ve determined that the six convicted robbers blew some of the money in Las Vegas and may have spent millions on homes, cars and businesses.

But that still leaves as much as $10 million missing, and the likelihood that there are other accomplices at large who know where the cash is stashed.

Says McEachern: “If there are others out there, and the money’s still out there, this ain’t over.”


Advertisement