On September 20, 1998, Jose Vigoa, a child of Fidel Castro’s revolution, launched what would be the most audacious and ruthless series of high-profile casino and armored car robberies that Las Vegas had ever seen. In a brazen sixteen-month reign of terror, he and his crew would hit the crème de la crème of Vegas hotels: the MGM, the Desert Inn, the New York—New York, the Mandalay Bay, and the Bellagio. The robberies were well planned and executed, and the police–“the stupids,” as Vigoa contemptuously referred to them–were all but helpless to stop them. But Lt. John Alamshaw, the twenty-three-year veteran in charge of robbery detectives, was not giving up so easily. For him, Vigoa’s rampage was a personal affront. And he would do whatever it took, even risk his badge, to bring Vigoa down.
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John Huddy, a network producer and print journalist for three decades, has won two Emmys for editorial writing and on-air commentary and other national awards for producing, newswriting, and documentary filmmaking. Huddy is a former Miami Herald columnist and critic whose print and broadcast subjects have included Charles Manson, Federico Fellini, O. J. Simpson, Steve Martin, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Burt Reynolds. He lives in Granada Hills, California.
From the Hardcover edition.
GUNFIGHT ON LAS VEGAS BOULEVARD
Chapter 1 FIRST BLOOD
It is June 28, 1999, 9:52 a.m.
Pedro Sandoval tosses his empty plastic water bottle into the wheel well and double-checks his paperwork as the moving van threads its way down the Strip to the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino at 3145 Las Vegas Boulevard. It's going to be a long, hard day. The blistering heat rises from the desert, eventually reaching 110 degrees by midday. The crew is scheduled to drop off twenty-four electronic slot machines, each costing $15,000, weighing six hundred pounds, and featuring stars like Pat Sajak whooping and hollering on the sound track. Lots of bells and sirens for the fanny-pack and flip-flop crowd.
At 9:54 the eighteen-wheeler pulls up to the south side of the hotel, next to the Desert Inn Race & Sports Book.
After manhandling five of the machines onto a forklift, Pedro wipes the sweat from his brow and glances toward the Sports entrance as an off-duty showgirl pedals by on her red bicycle. Beyond the casino doors is a strip of landscaping about thirty feet long and twenty feet wide; there, something catches Pedro's eye. On a morning devoid of breeze, it seems odd that the rosemary plants in the mini-oasis appear to be moving. Pedro looks again. The thick shrubbery shakes vigorously and then, to Pedro's amazement, expels two dark shapes. Pedro blinks. "What the fuck?"
As a second, smaller truck-gray and boxlike, with blue striping on its side-turns off Spring Mountain Avenue and approaches the casino entrance, the shapes from the shrubbery come into focus: two men dressed in black from head to toe. They are moving, all too quickly, toward Pedro and the eighteen-wheeler. They are armed.
Pedro Sandoval, a former paratrooper, recognizes the firearms and issues new orders to his three-man slot machine crew, perhaps the most prudent and useful instructions he has given in his twelve years as a foreman. "Fuck the slots!" he yells. "Vamonos, vamonos, muchachos! Vete de aquí! Get out of here!"
The movers break and run in the direction of Las Vegas Boulevard.
The gunmen are now within thirty yards of the moving van, but they have no interest in the slot machines or the laborers fleeing the scene. The men in black have been hiding in the bushes since four in the morning, sleeping, fidgeting, quarreling, dreaming of untold riches and pristine beaches in Costa Rica, beautiful women in Spain, oceanfront villas in Portugal, and leggy, bronze women in Rio. Although the desert night is balmy and the early morning uncomfortably warm, the two men wear black fatigue trousers, black boots, black sweatshirts, black hoods, black baseball batting gloves, and black ski masks. The shorter man clutches a white garbage bag. His taller, heavier partner carries a duffle bag containing hand grenades and spare ammunition magazines that rattle. The larger man has a .45-caliber Glock pistol in his right hand.
The squat gray truck that just pulled off Spring Mountain Avenue and rolled to a stop in front of the Desert Inn is the target of the gunmen. Often called an armored car, the vehicle is a 25,500-pound 1994 International Harvester 300 truck with 10-gauge galvanneal zinc-alloy steel plating, level-three window armor capable of stopping a .44 Magnum, five gun ports, and high-security six-pin key-lock cylinders. There is an emblem on the truck and the word BRINK'S spelled out in large blue letters. Inside are a driver and two guards. Each carries a .38-caliber pistol in a holster.
The Brink's truck, on the road since six in the morning, began the day at the Sahara Hotel and Casino, then picked up cash at hotels along the southern end of the Strip, including Circus Circus, Westward Ho, the Stardust, Treasure Island, the Mirage, Caesars Palace, Harrah's, and the Venetian. The Desert Inn will be the last stop before the armored car heads for the suburbs to make additional pickups at shopping centers.
The gunmen close in.
Pay attention to the shorter man. There is something different about him. He walks like a prizefighter on his way to the ring, witnesses will later recall. He dances, he bobs, he weaves, he's ready for action, he's ready to do damage, but now he is telling us to pay attention. Look at me, he is saying. Look at how nimble I am, how strong and swift and sure. I am the leader. Look at me and do as I say.
The second gunman, taller and heavier, is described by eyewitnesses as "lumbering," most likely because of the obvious body armor he wears and the spare ammunition and duffel bag he carries.
Now the shorter man reaches into the garbage bag and pulls out a compact black weapon with a long banana clip that curls forward. When compared to a hunter's .30-30 or a U.S. Army M16, it is stubby and compact. The gun has no wooden stock, a large front sight, and a prominent flash suppressor. Thanks to the hurried, energetic way the gunman approaches the truck, he almost seems like a casino host greeting an important arrival.
The Brink's truck is now stopped in front of the Desert Inn's south casino entrance facing Las Vegas Boulevard and the Frontier Hotel and Casino. The engine rumbles. Two thirty-six-inch-wide side doors, with continuous stainless-steel hinges, shock-absorbing nylon-web straps, and nonslip internal steps, swing open.
Chuck Fichter is the designated guard on this run. Randy Easton is the driver, and Donald Bowman will handle the money-the messenger, in Brink's terminology. Sometimes Fichter drives the truck, but today Chuck will exit the vehicle first, move into a prearranged position by the casino doors, and cover the messenger, who physically transports the money into the casino on a two-wheel metal dolly known as the money cart. At five foot eight, 180 pounds, Fichter is stocky, square jawed, gray haired, and athletic, and although he is fifty-six, he could pass for a man in his mid-forties. Despite degrees from Indiana University and Northern Arizona University, and dual careers as a high-school social studies teacher and a tennis instructor, Fichter considers himself adrift in life. A self-described hedonist, he came to Las Vegas in 1989. But now Fichter has become a drinker, a gambler, a man attracted to any female with a discernible pulse. Fichter admits he is out of control. He was once a devout Catholic, an altar boy at St. Ann's church back home in Dixon, Illinois. For two years, Fichter worked as a casino supervisor in a sports betting operation, but he grew tired of rousting angry drunks and took the Brink's job, he says, because it requires absolutely no intellect. He has never fired a gun in anger and, unlike many Brink's guards, has no military or law enforcement background. He earns $9.50 an hour.
Fichter's partner is forty-nine-year-old Donald Bowman. Other Brink's employees marvel that Fichter and Bowman are close friends. Fichter is intense and educated, a talker and a cynic, while Bowman is easygoing, a listener, a man who takes life as it comes. At six foot one and 205 pounds, Bowman has rough, calloused hands from a career in construction. He's also an ex-marine, having spent two tours in Vietnam as an ammunition handler. As a rifleman, Bowman qualified as a crack shot. Bowman tells Fichter that he was in Vietnam for two Christmases, '67 and '68, and his claim to fame was "seeing Bob Hope twice. The second time, he brought Ann-Margret."
Today the two men, between stops on the Strip before they reach the Desert Inn, talk about the amount of cash aboard the truck. They've never seen the truck so filled with money bags, and Fichter is concerned. There are so many stops and pickups now, so much cash to haul back and forth to the casinos-doesn't anybody ever win in this town?
Bowman grins, but Fichter is not necessarily joking. The local Brink's manager is bucking for a promotion, and the truck guys get the short end of the stick, Fichter says. He feels the manager is overloading the trucks with too much cash. The two men have picked up so much money today that the cash is stuffed in what the guards call body bags-sacks that when filled come up to the courier's waist.
"People think this is easy work, but it's not," Fichter says as the armored vehicle approaches the Desert Inn. "In and out of the trucks, up and down the ramps, working your way through the crowded casinos, pulling heavy loads on carts-this is hard work. If anything goes wrong, God forbid, it's never Brink's' fault."
Bowman smiles broadly. He's heard this before.
"The Brink's mentality is, if there's a robbery, it must be an inside job," Fichter continues. "The driver didn't do the right thing. The messenger didn't do the right thing.
The guard didn't do the right thing." The truck turns off Las Vegas Boulevard and enters the south Desert Inn parking lot. Instead of picking up money, as they have at the other casinos, Fichter and Bowman will deliver cash to the Desert Inn-and a cart loaded with heavy boxes containing $500 in nickels, dimes, and quarters.
The brakes squeal loudly. Bowman starts to load his dolly. "Well, compared to roofing work or what I did in Vietnam, I'll take this job any day," he tells his friend.
The former marine ammo loader has one more thing to say to Fichter: "Sure there's a risk to this job, and I think about it every day. When we go into a bad neighborhood, we yell out loud, 'Lock and load! Get ready! Don't be lax at this stop!' In L.A. we did that plenty of times. Here in Vegas, when we pull up to the check-cashing store over on Rancho, I always yell, 'Lock and load!' before we jump out. I try to get everybody fired up because there are certain areas that are dangerous. Of course, you can kick back and get lax in other places. Most places aren't so bad . . ." His voice trails off. This is a long speech for Donald Bowman, the quiet Marine.
Fichter reaches for his door handle. Nobody says lock and load. The Brink's men step out into the bright sunshine and gasp at the heat. "Like stepping into an oven, every fucking time," Fichter says.
It is 10:02, and the temperature is already 108 degrees.
The robbery that's about to unfold, unlike the typical Vegas 7-Eleven stickup, has been tirelessly rehearsed for four weeks at an old junkyard south of Las Vegas. It is the end of the financial quarter for casino accountants, and one well-kept Vegas secret is this: To inflate their books and show an abundance of cash, hotels move as much money as possible from the casinos to the local banks in time for the quarter's end. Once the cash is posted, the accountants return the money to the hotels at the beginning of the new accounting period.
The plan calls for the gunmen to wait until the Brink's guards exit the vehicle, enter the Desert Inn, and return to the truck an estimated fifteen minutes later, pulling behind them a dolly piled high with cash. The leader of the crew has been following the truck for months on its daily 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. route and knows its schedule, the number of stops, and the approximate arrival time at the Desert Inn.
The men in black estimate there will be $10 million in the truck, and they are nearly right. Which is why the stocky, muscular leader of the crew says over and over during the run-throughs that are choreographed like a Balanchine ballet, "We are not after the money from the Desert Inn but the money already in the truck." Nevertheless, the gunmen plan to attack when the guards return from the casino because that's when both armored car doors will pop open-and expose the driver, as well as the guards, to gunfire.
"You'll be fat and happy for the rest of your lives," the leader told his crew the day before the robbery. "Our children will go to the best schools, we will drive German-made sports cars with giant motors, and we will have houses all over the world."
"Will the guards shoot back?" one of the crew asked.
"Maybe we don't kill nobody," the leader said impatiently. "The guards have little pistols, and we have big guns. I don't want their fucking wallets or wristwatches or cheap little gold-plated wedding rings, I want the money in the truck. It's not their money. There's no reason for any hero bullshit."
If you want God to laugh out loud, tell him you have great plans.
At four in the morning, precisely on schedule in a robbery that is planned to the second, the gangsters arrive at the south end of the Desert Inn and hide in the rosemary bushes next to the Sports Book side door. At eight, two police cars pull up to the side entrance of the hotel, and the Metro officers enter the casino. The two robbers hiding in the shrubbery considered fleeing, but the police, barely thirty feet away, return and drive away. Later, a large moving van containing slot machines and fork lifts pulls up. Again the gunmen consider aborting. But then the leader realizes that the truck blocks the view of the boulevard, which is to the benefit of the robbery crew. The movers will force the armored truck to park closer to where the gangsters are hiding.
But the wait is long, and the gunmen have grown impatient. Even as the Brink's armored car comes to a stop before the casino doors, the leader of the crew, anxious to spring his ambush, calls the criminal equivalent of a quarterback's audible. Reeking of rosemary and weary from more than six hours spent crouched in the shrubbery listening to his partner belch, pass gas, and snore-and perhaps unable to delay those extravagant fantasies of wealth and travel dreamed during those seven long hours in the dark-the leader springs out of the bushes, followed by his confederate.
A third gunman, who serves as the getaway driver, waits in the parking lot in a bronze Isuzu Rodeo. The new plan is to take the Brink's guards as they exit the truck, and while the truck doors are still open, penetrate the interior of the vehicle and either disarm or kill the driver. Access to the truck's interior is essential to the heist in any case, but the new tactic requires two things to happen almost simultaneously: The gunmen must attack the guards before the side door closes, and they must kill or disable the guards at precisely the right instant. Too soon, and the Brink's men will reenter the armored truck, button up, and drive off. Too late, and the doors will close, with guards left outside to fire upon the robbery gang. It is 10:03.
From the Hardcover edition.
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