14 Feb 19
Orange County Register
This is the transcript for the Crime Beat podcast: Stealing Nixon’s Millions, Episode 1.
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The following contains language that, while it may be completely appropriate for candid discussions of bank heists, car chases, penal codes, betrayal, firearms, lying, corruption in the oval office, love and larceny, it might not be suitable for more delicate audiences.
When you play it back, it almost sounds like a job interview. A twisted job interview, but still a job interview. I’m in a restaurant having lunch with one of the guys who pulled off the biggest bank heist in the history of the United States.
Harry: I had a couple jobs.
Me: What did you do?
Harry: Mostly landscaping. Worked at a gas station on and off.
Me: If I would have met you at that time, what were you going to be when you grew up?
Harry: I really didn’t know. I was undecided.
Being undecided, naturally, he switched to a life of crime. He joined a crew, and they were pretty good.
Harry: We started doing supermarkets first. And the supermarkets were too easy.
Back in those days, businesses would collect their profits, wrap the cash up with all the proper accounting forms, and drop them into a slot at the bank after hours. The money would sit in the bank’s night drop until the next morning, and stealing that cash didn’t prove to be much of a challenge.
Harry: We tried the night drops. And they were a snap.
Me: They were easy too?
Harry: Easier than the supermarkets. Because the alarm systems were nothing in those days like they are today. They were like a ringer outside to say somebody was in the place. That was it.
Me: Easy to beat?
Harry: Very easy.
The crew kept getting better and better at their craft.
Harry: You gotta know what the hell you’re doing before you do it. Now thinking about an alarm system is a lot more than doing the alarm system. Because when you go somewhere, you don’t want nothing to happen when you’re inside.
Me: You guys were good?
Harry: Nobody no better. Nobody no better. Anywhere. Nobody was doing what we were doing. Nobody.
When you’re that good, you’ve got to take your show on the road. I’m thinking, by this time, they’re rolling in the dough. They’re living the life, partying. And, like I found out so many times when I talked to Harry Barber, I was wrong.
Harry: There was Texas. There was Oklahoma. Florida was our hangout. When the snow was back east we would head to Florida, and stay down there all winter.
Me: Was that a good, fun lifestyle for you?
Harry: It was different.
Me: I think you enjoyed yourself.
Harry: You know what, this was a business. People don’t understand. Everybody thinks you’re a weekend warrior. Well, weekend warriors get killed. We did this seven days a week. We studied the alarm systems. We studied all these companies that had alarms. And we got to the point there was not one out there that we could not defeat. Not one. Not one.
My name is Keith Sharon. I’m a reporter for the Southern California News Group based in Orange County. In 2003, I wrote a 10-part series for the Orange County Register about the biggest bank heist in the history of the United States. Then I wrote a screenplay based on the same material. I have been obsessed with this burglary for almost 20 years.
This podcast is going to cover the half-century history of the top U.S. bank burglary of all time — from the moment it was just a twinkle in the eye of a master thief, to the long weekend in March of 1972 when the crew went after Nixon’s money, to the investigation in which only one of the thieves got away, to the night this story will appear on the big screen as a Hollywood movie. When you see the movie, and you start asking yourself, “Did that really happen?” this podcast will answer your questions.
This is Episode 1 of “Stealing Nixon’s Millions.” THE TARGET
The first weird thing, among so many weird things on that day, was that the vault door wouldn’t open.
The bank manager had the right numbers of the combination, and the door wouldn’t budge. What the hell? Yes, the door was designed to keep people out, but not people with the combination. He tried again. And again, the vault stayed locked.
It was Monday, March 27, 1972.
A representative from the company that designed the vault door drove to the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, a tiny beach-front community that wasn’t yet a city in South Orange County. He couldn’t figure it out either. The door seemed to be jammed from the inside.
A little context … The United California Bank had two sources of money. One was the new, crisp dollar bills, the operating money. That’s 3 percent of the total money the bank has taken in. When you walked up to a teller and withdrew money from the bank, that’s the operating money. It came from a sophisticated safe that is kept in the vault. The second source was the money in the safe deposit boxes. No records were kept for the contents of safe deposit boxes. If you had valuables you didn’t want to keep at home, and you wanted to put them in a secure place, and you didn’t want anyone to know about it, you put them in a bank’s safe deposit box.
In this case, the target was that second source of money. The money in the safe deposit boxes. The vault where both sources of money was kept had all the state-of-the-art safeguards — the steel door, combination lock, the reinforced concrete walls.
The guy from the door company figured something was wrong, so he climbed on the roof to check the alarm.
That’s when he saw what you don’t want to see when you’re in charge of keeping a bank vault free from intrusion.
There was a gaping hole in the roof.
When law enforcement representatives finally arrived at the United California Bank that afternoon, here’s what they saw in the breached vault:
Hundreds of safe deposit boxes had been smashed open. The floor of the vault was full of debris from people’s lives — birth certificates, passports, divorce decrees, baseball cards, coins, urns filled with human remains, jewelry.
Thousands of dollars in cash.
Who breaks into a bank and leaves cash lying on the floor?
When you think about it, bank robbery is a stupid crime.
The risk is too high. The reward is too low.
Quick — name a bank robber. Did you say Jesse James? Jesse James was gunned down by a member of his own gang in 1882 when Jesse was 34 years old. Did you say John Dillinger? John Dillinger was gunned down by the Feds outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in 1934 when Dillinger was 31. Did you say Bonnie and Clyde? Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were gunned down by a posse of police officers in Louisiana in 1934. Bonnie was 23. Clyde was 25.
You may detect a pattern here.
And then there’s Willie Sutton.
He may be the most recognizable bank robber in history because of something he didn’t say. Reporter Mitch Ohnstad of the New York Herald said he asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. Ohnstad wrote that Willie gave the all-time answer. “Because that’s where the money is.”
Apparently, Ohnstad was the creative one in that interview scenario. It’s a quote that evolved into “Sutton’s Law,” which is used to teach medical students to accept the most likely diagnosis rather than search for endless possibilities, and by accountants who give the most attention to the endeavors that cost the most, and scientists who consider the most obvious possibility first.
Willie Sutton denied he ever said it, and I believe him. So does the fact-checking website Snopes.com. Snopes called the “Where the money is” quote malarky. Willie Sutton was a bank robber, and you know what George Clooney said about bank robbers. Remember that movie “Out of Sight” where Clooney played bank robber Jack Foley?
Foley said, “Most bank robbers are fucking morons.”
Willie Sutton was successful only because he carried a pistol or a Thompson submachine gun. Even then, he wasn’t that successful. He kept getting arrested. He broke out of jail three times.
He was caught for the last time on a subway train by an amateur sleuth named Arnold Schuster.
Willie Sutton lived to be 79. He spent more than half his adult life in jail. His wife divorced him while he was in jail. His daughter was born when he was in jail. He died of emphysema in 1980.
What Willie Sutton did say was this: “I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.”
In other words, he enjoyed himself immensely when he was pointing his Thompson submachine gun at a bunch of traumatized people in a bank.
When you think about it, that is one crappy life.
Frank Calley worked the bank robbery detail in Los Angeles and Orange County for the FBI for 25 years in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Calley is the real deal. In the 1970s, he worked on the Falcon and the Snowman case where Christopher Boyce sold U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union. That, however, wasn’t the best case he ever worked on. The best case he worked on happened at a bank.
Listen to what Calley says about most of the bank robbers he encountered.
Calley: The typical robbery at that time probably was a note/gun job. The typical case was a junkie walking in with a note. “Give me your money, I have a gun.” Sometimes simulating a gun. Sometimes showing a real gun. Rarely using the gun in the robbery. That was the typical. The average take was around $1,300 dollars, and of that $1,300, $1,500 went into his arm or up his nose. So that’s what we had at the time. They were mostly all junkies.
Bank robbery is a crime of desperation.
Where is the art in that?
When you’re talking to people after you listen to this podcast, and they ask you what it’s about, do me a favor. Please do not say it’s about a bank robbery. Bank robbery is US Code 18 2113 subsection A. Stealing something by force, violence or intimidation. Bank burglary is US Code 2113 subsection B. Taking something with the intent to steal or purloin. Bank burglars purloin things. If you say this podcast is about a bank robbery … just don’t.
This podcast is about a bank burglary, baby.
Burglary attracts the geniuses.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to introduce you to the greatest bank burglar of all time. How successful was he? The FBI agents I talked to only have estimates about how many banks, supermarkets or jewelry stores he and his crew knocked over. The FBI can only guess how much money they stole.
His name is Amil Dinsio, and unless you’re an FBI agent, you probably haven’t heard of him because he doesn’t talk. I have tried to interview him several times. He won’t budge. He sent me an angry letter once accusing me of stealing his intellectual property, in other words, his methods of breaking into banks. I interviewed his daughter Melissa once, and Amil told her to stop talking.
She did, however, give an interview in October of 2014 to WOCA radio in Ocala, Florida. That’s 96.3 FM and 1370 on your AM dial. Do not call Melissa Dinsio’s dad a bank robber.
Melissa: There is a distinction between a robber and a burglar. Any idiot can walk into an open bank with a gun, and say to the teller, “Give me all your money.” That’s a robbery. A burglary is way more sophisticated, at least the way my father did it. You have to be pretty darn smart. In fact, the FBI has labeled him genius. They say the only thing that matches his genius about him is his compassion.
Amil Dinsio was so good at what he did, people had to use very colorful language to describe him.
Harry: He probably had more balls than 20 people put together.
That was Harry Barber, Amil’s nephew. He was the getaway driver in Dinsio crew. He’s the guy I was interviewing a Diamond Bar Chili’s in the opening of this podcast in case you were wondering about the background noise. And, if you’re scoring at home, he’s saying his uncle had more than 40 balls.
Metaphorically of course.
Let’s look at the list of biggest heists in U.S. history.
The Lufthansa Heist at JFK Airport in 1978. Thieves strong-armed airport personnel and stole almost $6 million in cash and jewels. Have you seen the movie “Goodfellas?” This heist was at the heart of that movie.
That was a robbery. And not a bank.
The great Brinks Job. Jan. 17, 1950. 11 co-conspirators held Brinks workers hostage and escaped with $2.8 million. The Brinks Job was made into a movie, too. 1978. Peter Falk. Peter Boyle. Paul Sorvino. It was directed by William Friedkin.
That was a robbery. Again, not a bank.
In preparation for this podcast, just to get in the right frame of mind, I started binge watching bank heist movies. For more than 25 hours, I listened to creatively masked gunmen and gunwomen yell, “GET ON THE FLOOR” and other emphatic dialogue like, “I SAID GET ON THE FLOOR.” Is there such a word as “gunwomen?” Shouldn’t there be? Have you ever noticed in bank heist movies, there is always an off-duty police officer who just happens to be in the teller line with a gun under his shirt just as the heist is going down? I have learned that you don’t want to be the off-duty cop with a gun in a heist movie. It never ends well for them.
I asked my boss, senior editor Todd Harmonson, to help me make a list of the best bank heist movies of all time. He’s a movie nut too, so this was a fun exercise. We made a list of 12, and I will count them down for you in this podcast. Two at a time. You will not find “Ocean’s Eleven” or “Reservoir Dogs” or “The Sting” on our list. Those were heist movies, but they had nothing to do with banks.
Numbers 12 and 11 are two Los Angeles-based bank heist films — “Point Break” and “Set It Off.” You know what they have in common? The lead investigator in both films is the great John C. McGinley. He’s a loudmouth, clean-shaven, compassion-less prick in both movies. But in one of them, he has a change of heart. I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Who would have figured that Los Angeles banks were under siege in the 1990s, first by a crew of psychotic surfers, and later by a crew of down-on-their-luck janitorial workers.
“Point Break” is cool because the surfers call themselves the “Ex-Presidents” and they wear masks of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and yes, our favorite, Richard Nixon during their heists. Nixon even gets to say “I am not a crook” as he’s running out of a bank with an automatic weapon.
“Set It Off” has a breakout performance by Queen Latifah as Cleopatra Sims. Its cool factor goes way up when you notice that Dr. Dre has a couple of lines, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony is on the soundtrack.
Let’s just say that several of the lead bank robbers don’t make it out of either film alive. The robberies aren’t very well planned. The only goal in both films is to make it out of the bank fast, a goal that falls apart when each robbery crew gets more greedy and takes more time to find more money.
If only these would have put some more thought into their crimes and stuck to the plans. Both movie heist crews should have considered burglary.
Any half-wit with a gun can pull off a robbery. But to burgle, that is some next level stuff.
How do you beat the state-of-the-art alarm system? How do you get past the intricate combination of the vault door? How do you penetrate reinforced steel walls? How do you carry all that loot out of the bank? And how do you do it all without being seen?
There’s one more thing about burglary that was especially important. How do you pull off the crime and then slip back into your normal life without being detected? In the case of the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, what happened after the crime was even more interesting than the crime itself.
No. 1 on the list of the biggest heists in the history of the United States is a burglary. As it should be.
This particular burglary happened in Laguna Niguel, a coastal California town in the southern reaches of Orange County. It was a sleepy, little bedroom community that had never had anything notable happen there until seven guys from Youngstown, Ohio showed up there in the spring of 1972.
This true story has all the elements for a box office smash. It’s got a team of thieves with a really smart leader and a getaway driver that turns out, unexpectedly, to be the star of the drama. It’s got the methodical FBI guys trying to figure it out. It has a villain who just happens to be the most powerful man in the world. It’s got a love story and politics and millions of dollars and the 10 Most Wanted List and colossal mistakes by the genius crew where you’ll be yelling at your listening device. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
The movie based on this story, by the way, is called “Finding Steve McQueen.” The title comes from something Harry Barber told me. When he was a young man, Harry had a Steve McQueen poster on his wall.
Harry: I used to love Steve McQueen when I was young. He was my hero. Everything clicked for him. I know he was a movie star, but his way of living, I liked it. He had fast women, fast cars. I was into that.
That’s Harry. You will get to know him well.
The world premiere of “Finding Steve McQueen” was March 2 at the Monte Carlo Film Festival in Monaco. I didn’t go. I’m just the screenwriter. Screenwriters don’t fly to Monaco.
I started working on the Dinsio heist story in 2002 just after one of the greatest days of my life. In March of that year, my screenplay became a film: “Showtime” with Robert DeNiro, Eddie Murphy, William Shatner and Rene Russo.
I had visited the “Showtime” set, and that is an amazing thing to do. You see all these people running around trying to recreate the ideas that were once inside your head. I remember getting choked up seeing Robert DeNiro acting in a scene I had written. The director, Tom Dey, saw the tear in my eye and said, “It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” I had lunch that day with William Shatner. He didn’t know my name so he called me “Author” and my life felt complete.
The movie opened on March 15 at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. My wife Nancy and I walked down the red carpet with all the photographers taking our picture and trying to figure out who we were. We liked that experience so much we left the theater through a side exit and walked down the red carpet one more time.
Ever since then, I’ve dreamed about having that experience again.
And that dream is coming true this year. Just wait til you hear the 15-year story of how a newspaper article became a movie.
In 2002, I had no idea the biggest heist in U.S. history had taken place just a few miles from my house. OC Register columnist Frank Mikadeit told me about the case.
I searched the Register’s archives and found a couple articles. But the coverage of the case in 1972 didn’t show the burglary was special in any way. An undisclosed amount of money had been taken from a tiny bank off Pacific Coast Highway. That’s all it said.
The details of the crime sounded juicy. The thieves had disabled the exterior alarm, cut through the roof, blown a hole in the bank vault with dynamite and opened more than 400 safe deposit boxes.
I think one fact caught my eye more than any other. These thieves broke into that bank three nights in a row. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was like a magic trick. How did they disappear and reappear like that? Something was different about this case. Why would you keep breaking into the same place? And why weren’t they getting caught?
As I kept searching, I saw more stories about arrests and the trials. Thirty years later, a couple of the thieves were in jail for other crimes. A couple of them had died. And a couple were in the witness protection program.
One name stood out: Harry Barber. He was only 31 when the crime was committed. I thought it was funny. When I did a Google search of Harry Barber, I found that name had been used for the lead character in the 1998 movie “Palmetto” with Woody Harrelson.
Harry Barber. Who names their kid Harry Barber? Isn’t that a little like naming your kid “Tree Lumberjack” or “Porky Butcher”?
I found an address for Harry Barber in Redondo Beach. When I drove out there, the homeowner told me Harry had once done work on her porch. He was a handyman. She had another address for him. And a phone number. Bingo.
I called immediately and left a message. But no one called me back.
I drove about 50 miles to a trailer park in Montclair. I found his trailer and knocked on the door. I could hear a yappy dog inside. No one answered. What kind of criminal has a yappy dog?
I left a note on the door. In it, I introduced myself and left my phone number. I wrote that since the crime had happened three decades ago, I thought he would be open to talking about it.
I tucked the note into his screen door.
A week passed. Then two. It wasn’t until three weeks later that Harry called me.
He seemed pissed off. Harry always seems to be teetering on being pissed off. Why did I want to talk to him? Was I with the FBI? Why the hell would I want to write a story about an old case like this? We talked for what seemed like a long time about how much he didn’t want to talk.
I could tell he kinda wanted to talk.
I told him I would buy him dinner. He agreed to meet.
Out of all the places in the world he could have picked, Harry chose Denny’s off Pathfinder Road and the 57 Freeway in a city called Diamond Bar.
Harry is a barrel-chested guy, big gap between his two front teeth. He looked like a guy who had never tucked in his shirt.
My strategy was to play to his vanity. I started talking about the intricacies of the crime. How they broke into the same place three nights in a row without getting caught. How they beat the alarm systems.
He looked at me and said, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about do you?”
I guess not, I said.
He slammed his fist on the table.
“We were after NIXON.”
Nixon? President Richard Nixon? Watergate Richard Nixon? I-am-not-a-crook Richard Nixon?
In all the newspaper stories written about this case over the decades, no one had ever reported that the target of the biggest bank heist in the history of the United States was President Nixon.
I remember thinking to myself: This is going to be good.
So let’s start with Nixon, the 37th president of the United States. At one time, Richard Milhous Nixon was considered the shadiest president of all time. At one time.
Nixon, a Republican, had beaten Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat from Minnesota, in the 1968 election by about 500,000 votes — 43.4 percent to 42.7. George Wallace, the independent candidate from Alabama, got 13.5 percent of the vote.
The Democrats won Texas, and the Republicans won California. Wallace won the South. Nixon breezed to victory in the electoral college, winning 301-191.
But Nixon had a problem. As he prolonged and lied about the Vietnam War, his popularity took a hit. Students were marching in the streets trashing the Nixon name. Nixon was hellbent on re-election in 1972. He established the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) and he filled that committee with shady operatives who turned out to be as creepy as their name implied.
Two of Nixon’s strategies are particularly relevant to this podcast.
First, he wanted to amass a big war chest for his re-election campaign. In doing so, Nixon agreed to raise the price of milk supports and raise the profits for the Associated Milk Producers Inc. In return, the AMPI would contribute major moola to his campaign.
What you’re about to hear is part of the White House tapes from March 21, 1971.
Nixon: We’ve given them the 85 percent of parity thing. See, we’re doing more than they ever expected. We’re going all out, all out. … [Connally] knows them well, and he’s used to shaking them down, and maybe he can shake them for a little more. You see what I mean?
Shaking people down, sports fans, is a crime.
He’s talking about Treasury Secretary John Connally, who is “used to” shaking down the dairy farmers. Connally, if you remember your history books, was the former Texas Governor. He was shot in Dealy Plaza when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The scandal that ensued from the White House conversation about the dairy farmers was called the Milk Fund.
You want to know what is funny about the Milk Fund scandal? It didn’t become public until the Watergate tapes were released in 1974. The Laguna Niguel bank heist was in 1972.
On the night I had dinner with Harry Barber in Denny’s he looked at me like I was an idiot when I had never heard of the Milk Fund.
The Milk Fund, he said, was one of the reasons he and his buddies tried to knock over that bank in Laguna Niguel. They believed Nixon was hiding the Milk Fund money there.
The second reason was Jimmy Hoffa. And, in truth, Hoffa was probably the first reason. In the 1960s, Jimmy Hoffa was a household name. He ran the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the most powerful labor organization in America, until he was arrested on bribery charges. In 1967, Hoffa began serving a 13-year prison sentence.
Nixon wanted the Teamsters’ vote. So, the story goes, Hoffa’s cronies sent a $3 million secret donation to Nixon’s re-election campaign. In return, Nixon pardoned Hoffa.
Hoffa walked out of prison on Dec. 23, 1971, and, shortly after, Nixon got the Teamsters’ endorsement which was shocking at the time because the Teamsters, in their history, usually hated Republicans.
Nixon’s pardon, however, included the caveat that Hoffa would not be allowed to participate in union activities for the next eight years. Hoffa got pissed off.
So he decided he needed to get his money back from Nixon. Through his contacts with the Cleveland mob, Hoffa got word to Amil Dinsio.
The word on the street was that the Milk Fund and the Hoffa donation were both being hidden in a little bank in the sleepy little town of Laguna Niguel. That’s got to be bogus, right? The president wouldn’t hide dirty money in safe deposit boxes. Well, check out the newspaper stories in 1972 about Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo. Nixon’s pal admitted to Watergate investigators that he had hidden a $100,000 cash contribution to Nixon from Howard Hughes in a safe deposit box in Key Biscayne.
The word on the street was that Nixon had hidden a bunch of his ill-gotten money in the little bank in Laguna Niguel.
The total amount they were talking about: $30 million dollars. Amil Dinsio wanted to steal Nixon’s millions.
Harry: We didn’t give a shit, Democrat or Republican. We didn’t care about nobody except us. We wanted his money. We didn’t want Nixon.
The president hadn’t put the money in a bank account. He hid it in a safe deposit box under someone else’s name.
Harry: Nixon ain’t never going to put his name out there on Front Street. And I don’t know to this day whose safety deposit box it was.
The crew was convinced Nixon couldn’t go after them even if he wanted to. What was he going to say? They stole the money I extorted?
It was the perfect crime.
Or so they thought.
Next time on Crime Beat Season 1: “Stealing Nixon’s Millions:” WHO ARE THESE GUYS? Meet the team of thieves that flew from Youngstown to Los Angeles. They might have pulled it off without a hitch if they had stuck to the plan. But one of them got another idea.
Crime Beat Season 1 was produced by the Southern California News Group. The executive editor was Frank Pine. The senior editor was Todd Harmonson. Production and Original music by Michael Kroh. Sound editing by Jeff Gritchen. Graphics by Kurt Snibbe. And I want to give special thanks to podcasters who inspired this work: Amy Wilson and Amber Hunt on Accused, Sarah Koenig on Serial, Brian Reed on S-Town, Chris Goffard on Dirty John, Madeleine Baran on In the Dark, Nate DiMeo on The Memory Palace and Phoebe Judge on Criminal.
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