In the 1990’s, when Boston easily led the nation in armored car robberies, one tiny neighborhood at the edge of town dominated the trade. Charlestown, only one square mile of 15,000 people, drove the record setting spike with disciplined robbery crews who stole millions and passed tips on to younger generations.
Between 1990 and 1996, the Boston area averaged 16 armored car robberies a year, three times more than statewide averages across the country. One in five armored car heists in this country happened here. States such as California, New York and Florida experienced just half the heists of Boston. But numbers don’t capture the craze: Charlestown crews robbed armored cars in those three states too.
Underworld figures and the FBI both knew: the overwhelming number of thieves came from Charlestown, a neighborhood where the stick-up man, not the drug kingpin or mob boss, captured the criminal imagination. At one point during the criminal craze, Townies were printing and wearing t-shirts of masked leprechauns robbing an armored car under the words “Boston Bandits.”
Charlestown, it is said, produced more armored car robbers than any other square mile in the world.
“Robbing armored cars just seemed natural, it seemed normal,” Anthony Shea, a Townie doing life in federal prison told As Is. “Everyone was doing scores. You see people make a lot of money, they had a skill, they were wise at what they did. Your uncles or cousins were doing it and they passed on the experience as they got older. The older guys told the younger guys in the neighborhood how to do it, you share the tricks of the trade.
“If our uncles were dentists, we’d all be pulling teeth.”
Townie criminals had an advantage over other Boston lawbreakers: their neighbors. The physical isolation and tight-knit city blocks bred a mistrust of outsiders, and lips stayed shut when police came around.
Between 1975 and 1992, 33 of Charlestown’s 49 murders were unsolved, a no-arrest rate double other Boston neighborhoods. The phenomenon became known as The Code of Silence and federal authorities took note.
The most effective robbery crew of the 1990s was a gang without a name. Anthony Shea, Mike O’Halloran, Matt McDonald, Pat McGonagle and Stephen Burke formed in 1990 and went on to commit more than 100 planned, carefully executed armed robberies, stealing several million dollars in four states over the next five years. Their biggest scores included $600,000 in Lynn and $300,000 in Seabrook, N.H.
They treated robbery as a profession: after each job, they huddled to divide the money and critique their performance. If a guy committed a serious mistake, he had to pay a fine.
On August, 25, 1994, four masked men were lying in wait on the floor of a Chevy Lumina minivan in the parking lot of the NFS Savings Bank in Hudson, N.H. When an armored car pulled in, the gang spilled out, brandishing weapons.
Guard Ronald Normandeau opened the door of his truck, and the gang members picked him up and threw him against the side of the Lumina, shot him in his side and hauled him into the minivan.
A robber leaped into the back of the armored car and grappled with Johnson, who struggled and pulled off the mask worn by the gang member, who then slammed a .45-caliber weapon into Johnson’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
With their robbery plans turned bloody, the gang drove the armored car and the minivan to a remote field where a third vehicle awaited their escape.
They made off with at least $500,000. Normandeau was 52 and Johnson 57. Both were described by friends as good neighbors and fathers.
On the run from the feds, Shea and Burke fled to Palm Beach, Florida where they allegedly robbed three more armored cars for six-figure scores.
Burke, Shea, O’Halloran and McDonald were eventually caught, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Nine former Charlestown criminals turned snitch and testified for the prosecution during their trial, including perhaps the greatest breakdown of the Code of Silence - brother versus brother - when John Burke testified against his younger brother Stephen Burke. (John Burke also admitted to an unsolved murder - which he would never be charged with - and 20 years of smoking cocaine when he testified.)
McGonagle, who was not at the Hudson robbery, was sentenced to 30 years.
ASIS magazine recently interviewed Anthony Shea, one of the men convicted in the Hudson, N.H. holdup.
ASIS: What was it like growing up in Charlestown?
Shea: Charlestown’s a spirit. Whether you’re a citizen or a criminal there’s a spirit of honor, pride, character. If you left and went to prison, you came back everybody knew who you were, they never forgot you. It’s a tight community. There were large families so there are people who grew up with different parts of people’s families. It was pretty tight then busing came along and that destroyed a lot of it. A lot of kids couldn’t go to school no more because of the busing. Busing turned a lot of kids to crime.
ASIS: Why did that one particular neighborhood produce so many armored car robbers?
Shea: That’s a funny question. You don’t see many guys in federal prison for robbing armored cars. When people from Colorado, California hear you’re from Boston, they say ‘hey you must be in here for armored truck or bank robbery.’ That’s the first thing everyone else from all over the country thinks when they meet ya. Well, first they wanna hear ya say car or Harvard Yard then they go into you must be here for armored truck.
In the 70s in Charlestown you could go down to the corner with a robbery all worked out in your mind and find a kid like me to help you pull it off. Then you drop me off at the same corner and we don’t see each other again. Charlestown’s been like that since I was a little kid. Shit, I robbed my first bank at 14. That’s just Charlestown for ya.
You also see people they got nice houses, nice cars and you say how do we get that? Oh he robbed a bank. And you say damn I want that.
After the neighborhood’s premier robbery crew went off to federal prison for life, there was no shortage of Townies willing to step up and try to take their place. A younger generation of crooks and convicts home from jail had the same idea: take over the business. Bungled heists and sloppy daytime shootouts follow.
March 1, 1995: three Townie stick-up men - Keith Leahy, Brendon Smith and Richard Brennan - are shot by an armored car guard in a wild daytime heist in the middle of Harvard Square. Guard William Crowley, a former Washington D.C. police officer, walks through the square - revolver in each hand - and fires as many as 30 shots through the crowded streets after Leahy and Smith, wearing fake beards, big wigs and goggles put a gun to his head and snatch a bag of $281,000 in cash. Smith is hit in the head, Leahy in the back and Brennan in the shoulder. Witnesses find them on their backs, in a snow bank, blinking up at the sky. All three men live but Smith suffers serious brain injuries and Leahy and Brennan serve seven years in federal prison.
July 31, 1996: Three masked men dressed head to toe in black, “ninja-style” gear, jump out of a minivan in Somerville’s Twin City Plaza and shoot and kill Edward Kubera, armored car driver and father of three. Witnesses say the shooter opens fire on Kubera instantly.
The total take for the deadly heist? $3,775. None of the Twin City robbers are ever arrested but Brendan Brennan and P.J. Hansen, both 19, who four days earlier stole the minivan used in the heist, are sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. After his conviction, Brennan turned snitch and his sentence reduced to 10 years.
Charlestown had become legendary in law enforcement circles for its Code of Silence and intricately planned heists. But beginning in 1991, the DEA targeted the community and spent at least $2 million in just one case to provide thieves and drug dealers immunity from prosecution and new identities with the witness protection program.
By 1997, armored car robberies in Massachusetts dropped to just two.
“I think this is the end of an era,” said one FBI agent.