Gary craig

Unsolved heist

Father Patrick Moloney enters the Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building in Rochester during the 1994 trial.

PHOTO BY BURR LEWIS, COURTESTY OF THE DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

On a freezing night in January 1993, masked gunmen walked through the laughably lax security at the Rochester Brink’s depot, tied up the guards and made off with $7.4 million. In “Seven Million: A Cop, A Priest, A Soldier for the IRA and the Still-Unsolved Rochester Brink's Heist” from which we publish extracts here, author Gary Craig unwinds the half-truths, false starts and dead ends, taking us from the grim prison cells of Belfast to the illegal poker rooms of Manhattan to the cold lakeshore on the Canadian border where the body parts began washing up. And the money? Most of it is still out there somewhere.

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Outside the depot, within the area cordoned off by the yellow tape, police used their cars as mobile offices. They placed calls to the State Police and the customs patrol at the Canadian border. The cops could offer little more information than that the get-away vehicle was likely a van. It could be on the New York State Thruway, which stretched east to west across the state, or it could be heading for the Canadian border. Unless the thieves had a local connection to provide a secure hiding place, they would probably try to move the cash out of the area as fast as possible. And according to the Brink’s guards, they had [Tom] O’Connor. Some of the officers who’d responded remembered him from his days as a beat cop and detective. They hoped for the best, for his safe return.

Irving had a different reaction to the news that O’Connor had been kidnapped. When he’d heard O’Connor’s name, he looked toward another veteran cop at the depot and the two nodded slightly at each other, as if sharing a secret from the rest of the world. Yes, O’Connor’s police career had been unremarkable but unblemished. But since then his name seemed to keep coming up at the wrong times.

After his retirement from the force, O’Connor went to work as a security guard at Rochester’s Genesee Brewing Company, one of the nation’s oldest breweries. A colleague there, Damien McClinton, was fatally shot while on the job. While O’Connor was never publicly identified as a suspect in the killing and the crime was never solved, some homicide investigators thought that he knew more than he was willing to tell. McClinton, after all, was in a serious relationship with a former girlfriend of O’Connor. And O’Connor’s alibi, provided by a fellow cop and friend, seemed shaky.

There had also been a homicide in Gates, a Rochester suburb, that O’Connor had been questioned about. Again, he was never identified as a suspect, but again, some police wondered whether he had told all he knew.

About a mile from the depot, at the Public Safety Building—a six-story utilitarian structure that appeared Soviet in design—nearly a dozen cops were meeting to discuss recent parolees who might deserve special attention. Their pagers started beeping one by one, until the noise merged into a single hive-like buzz. One of the cops got word of the depot robbery, and it was clear there was an “all hands on deck” order for the department. Another veteran investigator knew Tom O’Connor worked as a security guard at Brink’s.

“If Tom O’Connor isn’t dead, he did it,” the investigator said.

While cops at the depot and police headquarters recalled their suspicions about O’Connor—some quietly, some vocally—the evidence technicians went to work inside the Brink’s facility. Two of Rochester’s best techs were on the scene, two men whose skills were admired by the department but whose personalities were polar opposites.

Robert Garland had been collecting evidence—from fingerprints to fibers—for the department for over a quarter-century. Unflappable and quiet, he exuded professionalism. Defense attorneys hated to see him on the witness stand. He couldn’t be ruffled, and his work was always cautious, efficient, and thorough. Some defense lawyers long ago gave up trying to rattle him; he often got the better of them with a firm politeness that played well to juries.

The other evidence technician—Greg MacCracken—was, as Irving often called him, the consummate “ball buster,” full of high-octane energy and as wired on adrenaline as Garland was infused with steady composure. Irving likened MacCracken to a fine point guard on a basketball court, constantly moving, surveying everything in sight.

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Tom O’Connor, right, and his attorney, Felix Lapine, during the 1994 trial.
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PHOTO BY JAMIE GERMANO, COURTESY

OF THE DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

The FBI and other police began surveillance in Queens of Samuel Ignatius Millar, a former IRA member who’d twice been imprisoned at Long Kesh. The Feds were particularly interested in determining if the tires on the Millars’ family van matched tire prints at the Brink’s depot.

The terrorism squad wasted no time acting on the legwork of [FBI Special Agent Richard] Vega’s team. The squad had its own surveillance team—known as S09—that it operated jointly with the New York City police and New York City transit police.

By the afternoon of February 10, the team had the basic information about [Sam] Millar, his residence, and the possibility of his involvement with the Brink’s robbery.

That afternoon, the van was still parked outside of the 24th Avenue apartment. Kevin Frazer, a New York City cop, was the first member of the team to see the van. He, too, had been told that investigators wanted to check the width of the tires. This wasn’t the time—Millar or his wife might emerge from the apartment at any moment—but he could do some elementary canvassing.

Frazer walked by the van, jangling his car keys in his hand, then dropped themkeys next to the van’s front passenger tire as if by accident. He bent over and noticed that the tires seemed new, with the whitewalls still shaded blue.

He walked for a moment more, turned around and again passed the van, stopping this time at the rear tires to tie his shoes. These tires were also new, matching those in the front. He committed the make and manufacturer’s name to memory and continued on like any neighborhood pedestrian.

The surveillance team from the day before had also checked out the tires and observed something entirely different. Vega had spotted older tires, their whitewalls discolored and their tread low. Now, not even twenty-four hours later, the van was adorned with a brand-new set of Goodyears. Whether this was important or not, Frazer didn’t know.

Sometimes cops are good, sometimes they are lucky, and sometimes they are both. Through [FBI Special William] Dillon’s initial tip and the legwork of Vega’s surveillance team, the Brink’s investigation had located Millar and the van his wife owned. And the investigation was about to be blessed with yet another bit of good timing.

****

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-Sam Miller’s wife, Bernadette Fennell, enters the Monroe County, New York, jail to visit Millar as he awaits trial in 1994.
PHOTO BY DARCY CHANG, COURTESTY OF THE DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

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Late that afternoon Millar left his apartment with his infant child, whom investigators would later learn was a son named Corey. Frazer and other cops and agents shadowed him as he drove away in the van.

He stopped at a gas station, filling the tank. He then headed for McDonald’s for an early dinner with his child.

Frazer and colleagues continued the tail after McDonald’s. Thus far, this wasn’t amounting to much of interest, save for the fact that Millar apparently didn’t have a job that required him to be somewhere that day.

The van returned to the 24th Avenue apartment. But before parking, Millar made a U-turn and maneuvered the Voyager into a nearby vacant lot. He parked the van, stepped out, and opened the rear hatch.

Frazer watched as Millar pulled two tires from the back of the Voyager, dumped them in the vacant lot, then drove back to his apartment and parked outside.

Frazer waited until he was sure that Millar and his son were tucked inside their home for the evening. He went to the parking lot, picked up the tires, marked his initials on the whitewalls in case they were ever needed for evidence, and handed them in at the FBI’s New York City headquarters for safekeeping.

Later, when measured, the tires would turn out to be a good match for just what the Brink’s investigators were looking for. Had the police started their surveillance two days later, they likely would never have found the tires.

***

Surveillance is an art, requiring multiple men and women so the target is not surrounded by the same faces daily. When tailing a car, one person takes the task for a short time and then turns it over to another. The “eye” of the surveillance team—the person with the target in sight—fluctuates regularly.

Millar’s travels were so short, and so restricted to the same few blocks of his neighborhood, that his trackers did not even have the time or distance for significant rotations. Yet the surveillance continued, with Millar remaining unaware of his new friends.

A decade before, he’d fled Northern Ireland, fearful that he would not escape the eye of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. But now, in the new country he considered home, he was the focus of surveillance far more intense even than what he had encountered in Belfast.

The investigators still didn’t get the sense that Millar had a job. Nor did [his wife Bernadette] Fennell seem to be employed. In the very first day of the S09 surveillance, she’d left the apartment alone and taken a cab to LaGuardia Airport. Investigators checked flight logs and found that she was traveling back to Rochester for a short visit. he was scheduled to return only days later.

Over the weekend, the cops noticed something in particular about Millar’s travels around Queens. He apparently liked comic books. He made several stops at a comics store—the Strike Zone—chatting up whoever was at the counter and perusing the stacks of comics. He often didn’t buy but just flipped through different comics. Occasionally he stopped at a collectibles store in the neighborhood and strolled up and down the aisles. With his wife away with their youngest child, he took his two daughters along on his travels, doing just what parents do. While there were questions about his employment, he didn’t seem to be spending money extravagantly. This was just a dad with an aging van and children to keep occupied.

On February 13, Fennell left Rochester to return to her family. On her hour-long flight back to LaGuardia, holding sixteen-month-old Corey, she struck up a conversation with the woman next to her.

The two talked about their homes and their families. Fennell said she had a husband and two more children—seven-year-old Kelly and three-year-old Ashley—at home in Jackson Heights. She was a full-time homemaker, she said. She said nothing about whether her husband worked.

The two women enjoyed each other, talking amiably. Fennell’s neighbor, a slender and petite woman with brown curly hair falling to her shoulders, was someone Fennell sensed she would like to know better. She was chatty and friendly, the kind of neighbor one hopes for on a flight if in a talking mood.

Fennell gave her new friend her telephone number. They got off the plane together, and there at the airport were Fennell’s husband and the two young daughters she’d mentioned.

The two women said goodbye and promised to get in touch again one day.

As Fennell and her family walked away, Caryl Cid, who had been an agent with the FBI for fourteen years, pulled a notepad scribbled down all of the information she’d committed to memory from her conversation with Bernadette Fennell. She then forwarded that information to the hub of the New York City portion of the investigation.

Millar and Fennell were getting more interesting with each passing day. They had no apparent jobs but the financial wherewithal to raise three children in Queens. The rents in their apartment complex were average for a working family, but this family did not seem to be working.

Then there were those discarded tires. Why unload them in a vacant lot?

The surveillance would continue. Millar had lived in the United States for years now, and as far as the police knew, he had caused no troubles for anyone. His immigration status was of far less concern than the missing millions—and the question of whether the money might land in the hands of the IRA.

Ronnie Gibbons and his cornerman

during a fight, in an undated photo.

© ABBOT GENSER

Ronnie Gibbons, who grew up in a Liverpool Irish family, enters the story. He was a philosopher-quoting boxer who had, says the author, a “charisma and gentlemanliness that were both arresting and authentic.”

Trading blow for blow, the two fighters whaled away at each other.

Ronnie Gibbons, wiry and muscular, was a disciplined boxer whose technique and intelligence in the ring had boxing aficionados thinking he could fight his way to the top of the super welterweight ranks. Gibbons’s fitness was often unrivaled, and while he was recognized mostly for his pugilistic craftsmanship, he could also serve up a powerful punch—especially a wide hook—that landed like a hammer blow.

Danny McAloon also was known for his wily ways in the ring; he was a smart and popular fighter who always seemed on the brink of competing for a championship.

McAloon could take a pounding, staggered by an opponent, yet stay upright and keep swinging. Rarely was he knocked out; most of his losses came from judges’ decisions.

Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and movie-idol handsome, Gibbons looked as if he’d been chiseled from stone, with his angular cheeks and his physique sculpted by hours in the gym and his refusal to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy foods (with the occasional lapse brought on by a sweet tooth that he could not always keep at bay). Gibbons had a youthful countenance that showed no lasting traces of previous punches to the face. Twenty-three years old, he was a decade younger than McAloon.

@ 2017 Gary Craig

For more about the author, click here.