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An infamous heist revisited: The story of a gigantic robbery in downtown L.A.

In 1997, five men in downtown L.A. stole $18.9 million in under 30 minutes.
(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times, photo via Tim Boyle, Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Jan. 3, and I’m Justin Ray.

This is the first story in a series about the Dunbar Armored robbery 25 years ago. Here are the second, third and fourth installments.

So to begin 2022, I’m doing something different. I’m starting the year off with a four-part series about a daring mega-heist that took place 25 years ago.

In 1997, five men in downtown L.A. stole $18.9 million in under 30 minutes. At the time it was the largest cash armed robbery in history. Over the next four newsletters this week, I’m going to tell you all about it.

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The way they carried out the heist was smart — but severely flawed. Nevertheless, it took authorities years to figure out the culprits. A special task force was established that included as many as 15 investigators under the code name “Operation Dunrob.”

One bit of evidence left behind at the scene of the crime ended up getting the whole gang busted. Although the culprits were caught, a mystery remains about the whole saga.

Here is the story behind the Dunbar Armored Co. depot heist.

The party and the plan

It all started with a man named Allen Pace III. The Compton resident had been working at the Dunbar Armored facility on Mateo Street as a safety officer. At the single-story depot, money from clients was trucked in, counted and sent out. On top of mundane tasks like making sure fire extinguishers were filled, Pace’s job required him to know things such as floor plans, security camera locations, and a way into the vault, where cash destined for automated teller machines was stored.

On Thursday, Sept. 12, 1997, Pace was fired for tampering with company vehicles. It was a setback — not only because of the lost paycheck, but because he had a big plan in the works: you guessed it, a robbery that was planned for the next day. His recent job loss would surely draw suspicion to him.

Thankfully, his plot included an alibi.

Pace had recruited four other people: Thomas Lee Johnson, 27, of Las Vegas; Freddie Lynn McCrary Jr., 29, of Arleta; Terry Wayne Brown Sr., 37, of Los Angeles; and Erik Damon Boyd, 29, of Buena Park. The co-conspirators worked as “rent-a-cops,” The Times reported. Pace’s recruits had no idea of the magnitude of the money they would be taking.

The five went to a party that Friday. They attended a bash in Long Beach. After a few hours, they discreetly slipped away from the bash, changed into black clothing and masks, and drove to the Dunbar depot.

They entered the facility through a side door shortly after midnight with a key Pace still had (the only reason I can think of that he still had the key is, it was the ‘90s). They brought ski masks, pistols, a shotgun and radio headsets to help them communicate.

When they got inside, they rounded up a few employees who had been on duty for overnights. Those graveyard shift workers were forced to lie face down on the floor, while the robbers tied their hands and feet with duct tape. Although the culprits had guns, nobody got shot. Pace then led the men into the vault area using a key taken from a supervisor.

What happened next? The robbers hauled the money off in a strange way. Investigators also found a crucial clue at the scene of the crime. The saga continues in tomorrow’s newsletter!

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

How will California’s new laws affect you? Here are the laws now active in 2022. They cover COVID-19, housing, policing, healthcare and so much more. Los Angeles Times

Black and white photos with colorful borders and the question, How will California's 2022 laws affect you?
(Illustration by Allison Hong / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s the first installment of our new money newsletter “Totally Worth It.” Here’s how you can make a budget. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Smash-and-grabs and follow-home robberies captivated L.A. The real story was complicated. A series of high-profile crimes in upscale parts of Los Angeles have gotten widespread attention in recent months. Yet for all the uproar, the crimes make up only a fraction of the city’s burglaries and robberies, which overall have not seen a significant increase. The Times was able to identify some of the criminals behind the robberies. Los Angeles Times

What made Betty White the most beloved TV star of her (or maybe any) generation. White, perhaps the most beloved actress and personality of her and several other generations, died Friday, New Year’s Eve, 17 days short of what would have been her 100th birthday — a landmark already being celebrated in media and social media. Times television critic Robert Lloyd reflected on her legacy in Hollywood: “Graced with bright eyes and a wide, dimpled smile, she radiated delight — delight to be working, delight to be alive, delight in conversation, delight in animals, but also delight in wickedness.” Los Angeles Times

Betty White in Burbank, California, in Nov. 2009.
Betty White in Burbank in November 2009.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll love our daily podcast “The Times,” hosted every weekday by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Go beyond the headlines. Download and listen on our App, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

California Politics: Five stories to watch in 2022. Given all the political surprises in 2021 for California — a tempestuous but unsuccessful campaign to remove the governor, the historically delayed redrawing of the state’s legislative and congressional maps — it seems especially risky to predict too much about what’s in store for 2022. Still, there are a few clear storylines emerging about the year ahead in California politics and government. As we get settled in for the journey that lies ahead, here are five items worth watching in 2022. Los Angeles Times

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

A bloody three-month stretch took place in a single Oakland neighborhood. In just a 13-week period, eight people were murdered in the four-by-eight block area, illustrating the complicated challenge that Oakland faces in reversing its worst spike of homicides in 15 years. Crime is nothing new to the San Antonio Park neighborhood, often known by residents as Funktown. But in recent years, illegal casinos operating out of back-alley doorways and dilapidated storefronts have grown more prevalent, as has the narcotics trade. Mercury News

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

The floods of ‘97. After years of concern about California running dry, it can be hard to remember what it’s like when the water is too high. On New Year’s Day in 1997, the rain just wouldn’t stop, leading to devastating flooding in the days to follow. KCRA has an interactive story explaining why the floods took place and the damage they caused. KCRA

Around 75% of COVID variants detected in Palm Springs wastewater is Omicron. Palm Springs Councilman Geoff Kors recently released the city’s latest wastewater report. It revealed that more than 70% of coronavirus variants in the city’s wastewater contains the Omicron variant. Kors said the report shows that the amount of COVID per liter in the city’s wastewater increased by more than 300% from Dec. 13-14 to Dec. 20-21. KESQ

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Events canceled and postponed. The Critics Choice Assn. announced Dec. 23 it is postponing the 27th Critics Choice Awards. The Palm Springs International Film Society announced that the Palm Springs International Film Festival scheduled for Jan. 7-17 will not happen. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the Academy Awards, also said that it is postponing its Jan. 15 Governors Awards. More cancellations can be found at the link. Los Angeles Times

New housing or a community garden? A Bay Area city roils over the choice. The Jefferson Union High School District wants to boost school revenue and teacher retention by building apartments, shops, offices, and subsidized housing for educators. However, this plan has been impeded by residents who don’t want to give up a fruit and vegetable garden. I’m not making this up. About 3,600 people have signed an online petition to curb the project and save a community garden the district has hosted for about two decades. Mercury News

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Overcast, 62 San Diego: Sunny, 60 San Francisco: Rainy, 55 San Jose: Rainy, 57 Fresno: Overcast, 55 Sacramento: Rainy, 55. Here’s a cute dog. Make sure to swipe to see the video.

AND FINALLY

Celebrity Birthdays

Taye Diggs was born Jan. 2, 1971. I met him at a wedding.

Bradley Cooper was born Jan. 5, 1975. He stars in the recently released movie “Nightmare Alley.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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