Purolator armored truck robbery in 1982 remains unsolved

$2.5 million theft in Brentwood terminal called well-planned

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Even after nearly 30 years, authorities still can't identify the men who used cunning in lieu of violence to pull off the largest local robbery in history, the $2.5 million theft at an armored truck terminal in Brentwood on March 17, 1982.

By contrast, it took only hours Tuesday for Pittsburgh police to identify an armed security guard as a suspect in the fatal shooting of his partner and the theft of more than $2 million from their armored truck left idling in the Strip District.

Whoever committed the Brentwood robbery on St. Patrick's Day 1982 got away with the crime -- and nearly $6 million in loot when adjusted for inflation -- because the statute of limitations expired five years later.


In Tuesday's crime, Pittsburgh detectives quickly alerted law enforcement agencies nationwide to be on the lookout for the suspect, Kenneth John Konias Jr., 22, of Dravosburg.

The difference between the cases is striking, said retired FBI agent Larry Likar, chairman of La Roche College's Justice, Law and Security Department.

The bloodless Brentwood heist was the result of meticulous planning and execution by professionals, said Mr. Likar, who as an FBI agent investigated the robbery as a cold case in 1987. By contrast, he said, the slaying Tuesday of the armed guard, Michael Haines, 31, of East McKeesport, and Mr. Konias' reported actions afterward -- fleeing in his own car, returning home where he left his blood-splattered uniform coat, using his cell phone -- seemed to indicate there had been little or no effective planning.

"Armored vehicles are normally the realm of professionals," said Mr. Likar. "It takes planning, connections. You have to do it effectively to get away with it."

And, he said, that's exactly what happened in the Brentwood case.

The drama began about 11:30 p.m. when two men slipped under the garage door of the Purolator Armored Inc. terminal. The door was closing after a Purolator truck pulled out for a delivery.

James Powers, a 54-year-old security guard from Brookline, later told investigators that a white man and a black man -- both about 6 feet tall, dressed in trench coats and wearing dark glasses and carrying walkie-talkies -- flashed badges and said they were from the FBI. They had been tipped the terminal was going to robbed, they said.

Mr. Powers let down his guard in the presence of the would-be G-men. That's all the robbers needed to yank a shotgun out of his hands, turn him around and snatch his pistol from its holster. He was handcuffed, his legs were tied at the ankles, and his eyes were taped shut.

Later, in the only act of violence, he was struck on the head. Forced to lie on the concrete terminal floor, he heard the two men talking on their walkie-talkies and a vehicle pull into the garage.

The robbers used steel carts to roll to their getaway vehicle 30 bags full of $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills -- all of which weighed about 500 pounds. They left behind about $55 million.

And just like that, they vanished into the night and into Pittsburgh crime lore.

"It was a classic ruse-type of operation," Mr. Likar said. "Not every criminal can pull that off. Some robbers are more comfortable displaying physical force, but the ability to use subterfuge, to be an actor in a script, demands a higher degree of skill and intelligence."

Investigators believed the bandits had inside help and organized crime was involved but could find no evidence to pin the theft on anyone.

The FBI grilled Mr. Powers as part of its investigation and ultimately cleared him. Fired a month after the robbery, he filed a lawsuit against his former employer, which was settled out of court in 1984. He died in November 1996.

Likewise cleared was a Pittsburgh police officer who abruptly quit his job in the days following the robbery.

FBI agents hypnotized a witness who had reportedly caught a glimpse of the getaway vehicle to try to learn its license number, but it didn't work.

Investigators never publicly identified any suspects, but they received tips from throughout the country. The only time a name was connected to the robbery was in September 1990, during an organized crime trial in Pittsburgh. Federal informant Joseph Rosa, a convicted drug dealer from Penn Hills, testified that one of the defendants in the trial, Geno Chiarelli, had confided that he had committed the Purolator robbery. But nothing ever came of that assertion and, besides, the statute of limitations had expired.

"It was a dead end," Mr. Likar said of his look at the cold case. "I came away with the belief it was linked to organized crime, but I couldn't be sure any one individual was involved.

"I was impressed. It was a successful job and they didn't get caught and there was a lot of money."

Retired Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ronald Freeman, a college professor and police historian, said the case was unlike any other he knew of locally.

"It was well-thought out, well-executed and very successful. You had multiple agencies such as the FBI, Pittsburgh police, Brentwood police and other local police and an internal investigation looking at it and the combined efforts of all of them came up with nothing, which again shows how well-planned it was," he said.

"These people had to have monitored, observed and paid attention to what was going on [at Purolator] and planned accordingly. They had to plan this over a long period of time.

"It's the kind of stuff you read about in novels or see in the movies, created by writers. This is a crime we rarely ever see."

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. First Published March 2, 2012 5:00 AM


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