It’s 7:15 PM on January 17th, 1950 in Boston, Massachusetts.
In a room deep in Brink’s financial security building, employee Charles Grell kneels in front of an open vault.
He reaches for a money pouch and calls out the number written on it, before handing it to another employee. Charles and the other three men in the room are doing a final count of cash and checks before they close up the building.
Charles is the only one armed, with a gun holstered under his shoulder. He and his fellow employees are behind several locked doors and feel safe.
But as Charles reaches for another pouch of money… an unfamiliar voice calls out, “Okay boys, put ‘em in the air and turn around slowly.”
Startled, his coworkers swivel around with their hands raised, but Charles stays still. He calculates whether he can reach for his gun fast enough to shoot before the intruder does. But as he contemplates this, a new voice rings out. And it’s another different man, warning Charles not to try anything.
Realizing there’s more than one stranger behind him, Charles raises his hands above his head and stands up slowly. As he turns, he quickly abandons any thought of reaching for his gun. Before him are seven men standing in the shadows at the edge of the room, wearing coats and rubber Halloween masks. All seven are pointing pistols at Charles and his co-workers.
The masked men stride forward, tie the workers’ hands behind their backs, and tape their mouths shut. Within minutes, Charles and the other employees are lying helpless on the floor while the masked men make off with millions.
In the 1950s, organized crime is on the rise in the United States. After alcohol was outlawed in 1920, gangs formed to smuggle and sell liquor, and they stuck around well after alcohol was legalized again. Many turned from bootlegging to stick-ups and cracking safes. But few of them ever attempted a robbery as bold as this one, now known as the Great Brink’s Robbery.
The seven-man crew of thieves will score big, stealing the equivalent of about 33 million dollars today. It will be the largest armed robbery in U.S. history at the time, and many will call it “the crime of the century” – in part because of how elusive the perpetrators will be.
By the time Brink’s employees call the police, the thieves will be long gone. A six-year manhunt for the robbers will begin. And for years, a lack of evidence will keep the FBI from making any arrests. But when a violent disagreement turns one of the robbers against the others, he will decide to cooperate with authorities just days before the statute of limitations runs out, leading to the arrests of most of the gang on January 12th, 1956.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 12th, 1956: The Fortuitous Arrests of the Great Brink’s Robbers.
Act One: The Robbery
It’s January 17th, 1950, one hour before the robbery at Brink’s.
41-year-old career criminal Joseph O’Keefe rides in the back of a pickup truck with seven other men. They’re headed for the Brink’s building where they’re about to attempt the biggest robbery of their lives.
Joseph and his companions all come from different backgrounds, but they have a lot in common. Many of them grew up poor during the Great Depression, and have been in and out of prison for theft and armed robbery. All of them started off as small-time criminals, but lately, they’ve been pulling off bigger scores as a crew.
Tonight will be their biggest operation yet. They’ve spent months planning and casing the Brink’s building. They’ve made schedules of the gaps in guard shifts, and when the amount of money in the vault is the greatest. In a series of covert raids, the gang even managed to temporarily take the locks out of the building’s doors and had keys made to fit them.
Now, it seems like the gang’s payday is finally near. On five separate occasions, they almost attempted this robbery but called it off for various reasons. Just last night, they approached the building and decided there were too many Brink’s employees present to go through with the heist. But Joseph and the other robbers hope tonight will be different.
The mastermind behind the heist, Tony Pino, passes out uniforms to Joseph and the other men in the back of the truck. They have gloves to cover their fingerprints, soft-soled shoes to muffle their footsteps, and rubber Halloween masks to conceal their faces.
After all the men receive their disguises, the truck comes to a stop in front of the Brink’s building. Seven of the gang members jump out leaving the driver behind. As the truck speeds off, Joseph leads the line of masked men toward the building. They take cover behind a row of bushes and look up to the roof of the building to the left of Brink’s. There, Tony’s brother-in-law Jimmy Costa is stationed with a pair of binoculars and a flashlight. Jimmy will flash them a signal when all the employees are in the vault room at the same time.
A few tense minutes pass with the men all staring up at Jimmy on the roof. They curse in mutter wondering if tonight is going to be called off like the last five attempts. But then, Joseph sees a signal, a light flashing off and on, three times. They’re good to go.
So Joseph runs toward the Brink's building and pulls out the key they made for the front door. The lock clicks open, and the men rush into the dark hall of the building.
Wordlessly, they turn right, head for a flight of stairs, then hustle up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs is another lock. The man behind Joseph pulls out another key, opens the door, and they quickly move into the next hallway. Then they approach the locked door to the vault room. From the hall, Joseph peers through a glass pane in the door. On the other side, four Brink’s employees stand around the open vault, calling out numbers with their backs to the door.
Joseph pulls out yet another key and very carefully opens the lock. He eases the door open, slipping quietly into the shadows of the vault room. The rest of the men file in behind him. They spread out and take up positions around the room, pointing their pistols at the employees.
With everyone in position, Joseph speaks up, telling the workers to put their hands in the air. The startled employees jump at the sight of the robbers. They quickly raise their hands in surrender except for one of them, a man with a gun holstered under his shoulder, who needs a little coaxing. But within minutes, the robbers tie them all up and tape their mouths shut.
With the employees out of their way, each robber then pulls a bag from under their coats and begins stuffing it with cash and other valuables from the vault. Joseph fills one bag and hauls it to the door, then pulls from his coat another. With all seven men contributing, the pile of bags grows quickly.
In less than ten minutes, they’ve effectively cleared out the entire vault. Then the men spread out to form a line through the building. Their getaway vehicle pulls up outside and the thieves load it up with sack after sack. Then Joseph and the others frantically climb in, and the truck peels out into the street.
After they stash their haul at a safe house, the men disperse to establish alibis that will distance them from the robbery. Tony strikes up a conversation with a police officer on the street. Joseph heads to a bar. But all spend the night wondering how much money they have waiting for them. In the end, their haul is almost 3 million dollars, the equivalent of more than 10 times that today.
After the heist, police and FBI agents will comb the Brink’s building for evidence. But nothing will be found. The FBI will hear rumors that Tony Pino and his associates are responsible, but they will be unable to prove it. And for years, investigators will be stumped – until bad blood among the robbers will lead one of them to snitch.
Act Two: Betrayals
It’s June 16th, 1954 in Boston, more than four years after the Great Brink’s Robbery.
Joseph O’Keefe quickly scans the street around him as he walks to a relative’s house. Feelings of paranoia plague his every step.
Joseph hasn’t lived the easy life of wealth he expected after the Brink’s robbery. Despite the suspicions of the FBI, Joseph, and the others did get away with the heist. But shortly after their success, Joseph was arrested for a different robbery.
While he was in prison, he had to entrust his share of the money to one of the other men, Jazz Maffei. But when he got out of jail, the money was gone. Jazz told him it was stolen, but Joseph doesn’t believe that one bit. Now, he needs the money for some legal battles, and none of his fellow Brink’s robbers are willing to compensate him, despite his persistent pleas.
So, a month ago, Joseph took matters into his own hands and kidnapped Tony Pino’s brother-in-law, Jimmy Costa. Tony paid Joseph a few thousand dollars as ransom, but now tensions in the group are high. Joseph worries that Tony and the others might attempt to retaliate for the kidnapping. So, as he walks down the road tonight, he keeps his eyes peeled for possible assailants.
And, soon enough, Joseph thinks he’s spotted one. Out of the corner of his eye, Joseph notices someone walking toward him from the side. He picks up his pace and glances over his shoulder. He doesn’t recognize the man approaching him. But with a shock of panic, Joseph realizes he is holding a machine gun at his side.
Adrenaline pumps in his veins as Joseph sprints for cover. The man begins shooting, but he’s a second too late. A spray of bullets misses Joseph and cracks into the bricks of a nearby building. Joseph sprints down another street, searching frantically for an escape route.
As he runs, he considers his options. Joseph doesn’t recognize this man, and he knows most of the criminals in the area. If this guy isn’t from around here, then Joseph probably knows these streets better than him. If he can shake him for long enough, he can get to a main street. And there, out in the open, Joseph suspects his assailant will be much more reluctant to follow with his machine gun.
But Joseph needs to act fast. He can hear the footsteps behind him drawing closer. So Joseph turns down an alley. He’s almost to the end when the sound of gunfire erupts behind him again. Joseph feels a sharp shooting pain as a bullet grazes his wrist, but he doesn’t have time to assess the damage. He can see a busy street up ahead, but he has to get to it before his attacker gets to him.
Again the night air is split by the crack of gunfire. This time a bullet hits Joseph square in the chest. He stumbles but keeps running until he reaches the busy street. A few people gasp as they see him bleeding from his wrist and chest, but he ignores them and runs across the road. When he looks back, his attacker is nowhere to be seen.
A year and a half later, Joseph sits in a chair, with his hands cuffed to the table in front of him. The door to the room he's in opens, and two FBI agents walk in and sit down across from him. These men have questioned him before, based on tips that he was involved in the Brink’s robbery, but Joseph hasn’t told them anything yet. In the last few weeks, however, he’s begun to hint that he might be willing to talk.
Shortly after his run-in with the would-be assassin, Joseph was arrested for carrying a gun while on probation for a different crime. From prison, he’s been sending messages to the other Brink’s robbers, threatening to rat them out if they didn’t send him money. But so far no one has sent any cash, and he’s about to lose his leverage.
There’s a six-year statute of limitations on the Brink’s case. That means, legally, someone has to be charged for the robbery within a little over a week, or not at all. So soon, any threats Joseph makes about talking to the police will get him nowhere.
So after some small talk, Joseph is questioned by the agents one more time about the Brink’s robbery. Joseph is still hesitant at first. He tells them nothing they haven’t heard already. But then, in the middle of one answer, he stops talking. He didn’t plan to open up, but the attempt on his life has turned him even further against his former co-conspirators. Somewhere deep inside him, he makes a decision; then takes a deep breath, looks up at the agents, then asks “All right, what do you want to know?”
Over the next few hours, Joseph will give the FBI agents the whole story, from start to finish. His account is thorough, and they’ll stay up all night, fact-checking him with the evidence they’ve already gathered. Everything will fit together and it will be enough for the FBI to make arrests, but with the statute of limitations about to expire, they will have to move quickly.
Act Three: The Capture
It’s January 12th, 1956, six days after Joseph O’Keefe’s confession to the FBI.
Tony Pino is inside his house having dinner with his wife when they hear a knock at the door. Tony pauses, his fork halfway to his mouth. He has no idea who could be calling.
Enough time has passed that he’s confident he won’t be arrested for the Brink’s robbery. There's only five days left before the statute of limitations runs out, and, despite threats from Joseph O’Keefe, Tony believes his old co-conspirator is far too much of a crook to become a snitch. Still, a lifetime of crime has left Tony naturally suspicious; he tells his wife to see who’s at the door while he moves toward the back of the house. She stands and walks with trepidation to the front door and looks through the peephole. She turns and mouths “the feds” and Tony heads for the back door. But just as he’s about to flee, the FBI announce that they have the house surrounded.
Tony realizes that his chances of escape are slim. He figures that he will seem less guilty if he lets the FBI in himself. So, he waves his wife aside and opens the front door. Three agents stand on the other side, their guns holstered but visible. Tony starts to invite them in, trying to play it cool, but one of the agents cuts him off. He tells Tony he’s under arrest, and that it’s in his best interest to come with them peacefully. Tony sighs and lets himself be handcuffed.
Tony isn’t the only Brink’s robber to be arrested. After Joseph’s confession, the FBI tracked down all the other thieves. The same day Tony is arrested, the FBI arrest five others. And of the remaining three gang members, one had recently died of a brain tumor, and the other two are captured by the FBI four months later.
All the robbers will eventually be tried, found guilty, and given life sentences for their part in the theft. For cooperating with the FBI, Joseph O’Keefe will be let out of prison just four years later. By 1971, fifteen years after their arrests, all of the robbers will be paroled, except one who died in prison.
Despite their capture, the vast majority of the $2.7 million stolen from the Brink’s building will never be recovered. In the end, the Great Brink’s Robbery will go down as the largest robberies in US history. And the perpetrators will become famous for besting the FBI and getting away with the historic heist for years, evading culpability until just before the statute of limitations ran out when they were finally arrested on January 12th, 1956.
Next onHistory Daily. January 13th, 1968. American singer and songwriter Johnny Cash records his best-selling live album in front of an audience of convicts.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.