Column By Mike Bibb
The Federal Correctional Institution-Safford located a few miles south of its namesake city has incarcerated several notorious criminals; drug dealers, white-collar scammers, political prisoners, and an occasional mob offender have spent time at the correctional facility.
Some of the more notable characters are John Ehrlichman of the Watergate scandal; David Hall, former Oklahoma governor; Lyle Jeffs, Polygamous Fundamentalist Church leader; Kevin Tubbs, member of the ecoterrorist group Earth Liberation Front; Dennis Alexio, world kickboxing champion, and professional boxer and numerous others.
Another celebrity of a different profession, and maybe not as well recognized, was an armed robber who was a gang member who committed the largest cash robbery in United States history.
I was unaware – or had forgotten – of the infamous crime until conducting research on a similar but unrelated topic. Believe it or not, while perusing Old West crimes and criminals one Wikipedia search led to another until eventually, I came across the Dunbar Armored Car Company robbery in Los Angeles, Calif., Sept. 12, 1997.
A record $18.9 million in cash was stolen during the heist by six armed men. However, as often the case, the cleverest of criminals are sometimes victims of their own carelessness.
Allen Pace III, 32 years old at the time of the robbery, was the brains behind the operation. Five other associates, including Eugene Lamar Hill, were involved. Two additional individuals were later convicted for helping launder the money.
A robbery of this magnitude often involves someone with inside knowledge. In this case, Pace was the guy, having worked for Dunbar as the company’s safety inspector. A position that enabled him to secure pertinent information regarding daily operations, building security features, and schedules of Dunbar’s fleet of armored delivery vehicles. He also furnished a couple of pistols, a shotgun, facemasks, and radio headsets to his co-offenders.
However, the day prior to the robbery, Pace was terminated by the company. Supposedly, he was discovered tampering with certain vehicles. By then, he had already provided the group with detailed floor plans of the facility, locations of cameras to avoid, and door keys to critical areas.
In Hollywood movie-like fashion, the assortment of would-be thieves attended an evening neighborhood house party to make their presence known and to establish an alibi for their whereabouts should the police inquire. Alcohol was avoided – they had more important things on their minds.
The robbery was set for a Friday night, shortly after midnight. Pace was aware Dunbar’s vaults were usually left open on Fridays because of the large volume of cash that was continually being moved in and out of the building. A couple of vault guards were stationed close by to provide additional security but were later neutralized by the group.
Using Pace’s keys to gain entry into the facility, the gang sneaked into the company cafeteria and subdued employees as they took their lunch breaks around 12:30 a.m. They bound and gagged the unsuspecting workers with duct tape before they could set off alarms.
So far, the caper was proceeding according to plan. No one had been hurt and the vault was ready to be emptied.
Backing up a rented U-Haul van to the vault dock, the men loaded selected bags of money. Pace already knew which bags contained the higher denominations and non-sequential bills. He also had knowledge of the security recording devices and removed the tapes from the machines.
In less than 30 minutes, the thieves tossed nearly $19 million into the U-Haul, closed the van’s back door, left the area, and returned to the party.
Police had little information to go on. Other than a broken taillight lens from a U-Haul truck and suspicion of Pace’s involvement, there was virtually no evidence of who the perpetrators were or where they had fled.
The robbers were a patient group, realizing spending large sums of newly acquired cash would draw the attention of authorities, they waited more than six months before enlisting the help of a local immigration attorney to assist in laundering the loot.
Paying David Matsumoto and his assistant, Joaquin Bin, $1 million each to devise various ways to get rid of the cash, gang members were soon involved in real estate transactions, purchasing cars, creating bogus W-2 tax forms to give the appearance of earning wages and establishing phony front companies to pass money through.
Things continued to inconspicuously roll along for another two years until Eugene Hill slipped up; he mistakenly failed to remove the original currency paper wrappers from a stack of cash he was using to purchase additional real estate. The skeptical realtor showed the money to the police. Cops discovered Hill was also the individual who rented the U-Haul truck the day of the robbery.
Hill was soon arrested and confessed his involvement in the crime. He implicated other members of the gang, including Allen Pace, who was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 24 years in prison on April 23, 2001.
Pace served his time at FCI-Safford, until being released on Oct. 1, 2020.
The crime was featured in season five of The FBI Files “The Price of Greed” which aired Oct. 4, 2002. Presently, another film is in production detailing events of the crime. Tentatively entitled “The Dunbar Heist,” produced by Caleeb Pinkett, is scheduled for release in 2021-22.
Interestingly, it is estimated about $12 million remains unaccounted for. Apparently, none of the culprits ever spoke of where they hid the money. I’m sure everyone involved in the heist will continue to be under the watchful eyes of the FBI, police authorities, and insurance investigators for the rest of their lives. Other nefarious types may also be interested in trying to obtain a portion of the missing treasure.
Allen Pace and his buddies are now walking around outside prison walls, but their newly regained freedom came at an uncomfortable price, even though several million dollars may be stashed within reach.