Brian O'Neill: The great Brink’s job of Bethel Park
March 9, 2017 12:00 AM
The escort for the armored car was also taken out in the explosion that enabled America's first known armored-car robbery. It happened March 11, 1927, on what is now Brightwood Road in Bethel Park.
Pittsburgh's Flathead gang packed enough explosives under what is now Brightwood Road in Bethel Park to flip this armored car in March 1927, snatch more than $100,000 (worth more than $1.4 million today) and speed away.
Kids came running to see the results of the first armored-car heist, 90 years ago this Saturday. Its doors popped open and Paul Jawarski and his Flathead Gang became briefly rich.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Western Pennsylvania loves to talk about its firsts: first commercial radio station, first cure for polio, first Big Mac, first roadside bombing to take out an armored truck.
Or hadn’t you heard about that last one?
This Saturday marks the 90th anniversary of the day the Flathead Gang buried enough explosives under or beside what is now Brightwood Road in Bethel Park to flip over a Brink’s truck, disable an escort car and get away with $104,205. That’s more than $1.4 million today.
I’m not sure how, or if, we should celebrate that, but I met a couple of men in Bethel the other day to talk about it.
Richard Painter, bomb technician with the Allegheny County Police Department, says he has often asked students on classroom visits where they think the first roadside bombing occurred. “Iraq” is commonly guessed. “Bethel Park” never is.
But these bandits, most likely using some or all of 500 pounds of black powder that had been stolen from a nearby coal mine days before, went all Wile E. Coyote two decades before the cartoon came out.
They probably followed that old guideline used by amateurs — “if enough is enough, then too much is just right,” Mr. Painter said. Pushing the plunger on the detonator left a mass of holes and mud for 60 feet. Nobody was killed but the doors of the truck sprang open and eight guards, some in an escort car, were knocked senseless. The gang, waiting a safe distance away in the bushes, grabbed the Coverdale mine’s weekly payroll from the truck and sped for the hinterlands in a stolen car.
A gravel turnaround patch across from Lenox Drive, 200 yards or so west of Brightwood’s intersection with Route 88, is about where it happened. There’s no plaque.
Two years after this heist, the gang leader, Paul Jawarski, was executed for the murder of guard Isaiah Gump in a previous payroll holdup at the coal camp then in Mollenauer, about three-quarters of a mile from the armored-car explosion. His gang had gotten $48,000 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1925.
In the span of less than two years between the Brightwood Road robbery and his death, Jawarski was captured at a Washington County farmhouse, handed over his $36,000 share, pleaded guilty to three payroll robberies and two murders, made a spectacular shoot-’em-up escape from the Allegheny County Jail in August 1927, and was captured after another bloody shootout with police in Cleveland in September 1928.
When he was electrocuted on Jan. 21, 1929, in Rockview Prison, Centre County, for the killing of Mr. Gump, Jawarski was 30 years old. He had been facing capital murder charges in Ohio and Michigan, too.
A search of newspaper archives shows that locals remained fascinated with the killer’s notoriety a generation later. In April 1949, Ray Sprigle, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Post-Gazette, began retelling the story this way:
“All that Paul Jawarski wanted out of life was a farm — and a living wrung from the good earth.
“What he got were flaming moments of exaltation, when his blazing guns spat murder and he dealt death like a god — wild intervals of orgy when loot from gutted payroll cars bought women he despised and whiskey that made him sick — a few brief months with the decent girl who loved him enough to marry him, and their baby — and finally the searing blast of a 2,000-volt thunderbolt that cooked his brain and curdled the blood in his arteries.”
Jawarski helped make Allegheny County “the crime capital of the United States” in the Roaring ‘20s, according to Mr. Sprigle. That armored car heist was the highwater mark of a spree that was said to have brought more loot to the Flatheads and other gangs than the James gang or the Dalton brothers ever got.
Jawarski killed seven people, including three payroll guards and two policemen, in the course of five years. That the guards in this first armored-car robbery didn’t die in the explosion is a minor miracle.
All of it seems out of place in today’s Bethel Park. Bill Haberthur, volunteer director of the Bethel Park History Center, spends much of his time fundraising to replace the windows in the old school building that’s punctuated with miners’ lunch buckets and vintage high school baseball jerseys.
But Mr. Haberthur reached out to the PG because, if this truly was the first armored car robbery — Brink’s Inc. did not respond to a request for comment, but this is widely credited as the first — the history center wants as many details as can be shared.
So if your granddad found any of that loot in his backyard, email email@example.com.
Stories like these remind us that those who long for the good old days might think again. Take it from a county cop who knows his local history.
“The world’s always been messed up,” Mr. Painter said, then added, “I think the world’s a good place and it’s maybe better now than it ever has been.’’
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947 or on Twitter @brotheroneill
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