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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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Podcast #131 – An Inside Job

 

I’ve been to Washington, DC several times over the years and it offers an incredible assortment of great architecture, monuments, and museums, all with free admission. I keep a mental list of places that I would like to visit the next time I am there and one of those is the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be in the place where they print the money? It’s the place where you can theoretically smell the money, although free samples are probably out of the question.

A survey of records by the Bureau revealed that there had been a total $2800 stolen during twelve thefts in the thirty years prior to 1954. That’s nothing when compared to the estimated $3.4 trillion dollars worth of securities that were printed during that same time period.

There are so many checks and counterchecks built into the system that it was once thought that it would be nearly impossible to steal newly printed money in any significant quantity. Only a fool would dare do so and would most certainly be caught before ever exiting the premises.

That line of thinking would all change on January 4, 1954. That’s when Sewell A. Davis, a stockman for the Bureau, was assigned to transfer bricks of currency from a pallet in Vault D-19 to another location. As he lifted two of the bricks, one in each hand, he noticed a discrepancy in one of them.

Davis turned to his coworker Paul Coakley and stated: “One of these bricks feels light.” He handed the brick to Coakley and added, “Does it feel light to you?” As Coakley gave it a heft, he replied, “Yes, it does.” Davis then tore off the brick’s kraft paper wrapping and was shocked by what he saw: a stack of blank, white paper. While the two were alerting supervisors to the fake brick, another employee, Frederick A. Minor, discovered a second one.

Sewell Davis and Paul Coakley  discovered the two dummy packages.
Sewell Davis (left in white T-shirt) and Paul Coakley (right) discovered the two dummy packages. Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Eight-thousand $20 bills – a total of $160,000 (over $1.5 million adjusted for inflation) – had disappeared from the vault. The Secret Service was immediately alerted and an investigation launched. Believing that it would be impossible to get two bricks that measured 14-inches (35.6 cm) x 6-inches (15.2 cm) x 2-½-inches (6.4 cm) and weighed in at around 8-pounds (3.6 kg) out of the heavily guarded facility, a search was begun internally. Nothing was found.

The only clue that investigators had were the date-stamped seals found on each of the packages. They were confirmed as authentic and were dated December 17, 1953 and December 31, 1953. That means that the money had been stolen recently and suggested that the thief or thieves had intentionally timed it so that the theft took advantage of the three-day New Year’s holiday weekend that year.

Believing that the theft could have only been done by a Bureau employee with direct access to the vault, investigators began to question the staff. Unable to interview everyone before their shift had ended, they planned to continue the questioning the next morning.

Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks.
Associate Bureau Director Henry J. Holtzclaw holding a real brick (left) and one of the unwrapped dummy bricks (right). Image appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

They never got that far. At 5:00 AM the next morning, Virginia State Police received a call from 45-year-old Irving Grant, who worked as a butler and chauffeur on a 340-acre farm located near Middleburg, Virginia, which is about 40 miles (64 km) west of the Capitol. Grant informed them that they could find the missing money there. Troopers raced to the scene and Grant led them to a metal toolbox which contained forty-four bundles of newly printed $20 bills – a total of $88,000 – and an additional $7,000 in smaller bills, which were believed to have been given as change for bills that were cashed in at various retail establishments.

Grant had an interesting story to tell. He said that his daughter, her husband and another man had driven down from DC the night before in a newly purchased Oldsmobile. They said that they had “pulled a smoothie” and needed to hide the money on the farm until “it cools off a little.” Grant initially refused to cooperate but quickly changed his mind when one of the men pulled out a gun. In exchange for his efforts in concealing the money, they gave him a sock filled with $3,000 in cash.

After the three left, Grant’s conscience got the better of him. He stayed awake all night and decided early that morning to notify the police. He later told the press, “It was hard to do. She was my daughter. But I knew what the right thing was. The truth is right. The truth is right.” He added, “I figure my life isn’t worth that. I know my life is in danger. I don’t need anything. I figure I’m working for an honest man and he gives me what I need.”

The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found.
The 340-acre farm owned by William A. Phillips where the bulk of the stolen money was found. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

Later that morning, at 10:00 AM, Secret Service agents arrested Grant’s son-in-law, twenty-nine-year-old James Rufus Landis, at his place of employment: the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Landis would seem like an unlikely suspect: he had worked at the Bureau since he was sixteen years old, had received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, and Good Conduct Medal for his service in Europe during World War II, and had been twice wounded and granted a medical discharge. At the time of his arrest, Landis was earning $1.42 an hour ($13.69/hour today) to move newly printed money from the packaging machines to the storage vaults.

Landis initially denied that he had removed any cash from the building. He claimed that a man from New York, a Mr. Shapiro, had conceived of the plan to steal the money. When investigators laid out the evidence before him, Landis admitted to pulling the heist. He then led agents to a storage room on the fifth floor of the building. There they found a paper bag filled with an additional $32,000 that he had hidden under a pallet on the day of the theft.

At 2:00 PM, agents arrested his wife, 26-year-old Mamie Landis, at their Addison Chapel apartment in Capitol Heights, Maryland, which is located just over the Washington-Maryland border. The couple had met when she was eleven years old and married three years later – at the age of fourteen – while James was home on furlough during World War II. At the time of the couple’s arrest, the pair had been married for twelve years and were the parents to two young boys.

Under questioning, Mrs. Landis denied any knowledge of the theft of the money. “If he did this thing he did it for the kids and me.” She added, “Times have been hard. He worried about not being able to give us the things he wanted us to have—the things everybody else had.

“He wanted the kids to be doctors or lawyers or something like that…Like every father does. I will do everything I can to help him. He has always been a wonderful husband.” She continued, “He always handled the money. He just left enough here for me to buy small things, like bread. I know there was never much left out of his check after the bills were paid. Once in a while he would come home with some extra money. He said he got lucky gambling. I always figured that if there was anything he wanted me to know he would tell me…I’m not a prying wife.”

Her husband James told the press, “I really messed things up. I got my wife involved.” For the crime, both faced up to ten years imprisonment and a possible $10,000 fine. A judge set bail for James at $50,000 and his wife’s at $10,000. (About $480,000, in total, today.)

James Landis and his wife Mamie.
James Landis and his wife Mamie at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

There was still one man still unaccounted for: the person who accompanied the couple out to farm the previous evening. He was identified as twenty-seven-year-old William Giles, a government flagpole painter who had told his wife that he had made the money gambling. They arrested him in his apartment, which was in the same building that the Landeses lived. He readily admitted to his involvement. “I did it for the future of my family. I can’t give them all the things I want to give them.”

The next day, January 6th, two additional suspects were arrested. They were two of James Landis’s cousins: 27-year-old Charles Howard Nelson and 24-year-old Edith Irene Chase. Police were also on the hunt for 29-year-old Roger Paterson, who had been flashing bills at a card game on New Year’s Eve. A witness told detectives that Patterson had “a stack of bills about 6-inches high” under the back seat of his car. Their search ended when Patterson came stumbling into the 12th Precinct station on January 9th and said, “Somebody is looking for me and I’m giving myself up.” He was too intoxicated to be questioned at the time, but later told detectives that he knew of Landis’s plan to rob the Bureau thirty days before it occurred.

So how did he pull it off?

First, Landis paid careful attention to every detail involved in the packaging and storage of the money. As the money was stacked into the packaging machines, a wooden block would be placed at either end to prevent damage. Then the stack of money would be compressed and wire bands would be wrapped around to secure the bundle. Finally, the brick would be wrapped in kraft paper, and then labeled and dated before being stacked onto a pallet. What really caught Landis’ attention in this whole process was how lax workers and inspectors were when it came to disposing of unbroken wire bands, extra wooden end blocks, and the kraft paper that had the Treasury seals on them. He began to collect these and took them home in his pockets.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 1 of the January 6, 1954 issue of the Owensboro Messenger.

It was while his wife was busy taking care of the children each evening that Landis would attempt to duplicate the bricks of money. It took him close to three months, but he was able to come up with a dummy brick that would pass for the real thing. The only thing he lacked was a machine capable of pressing the paper tightly together, which is the reason why his dummies were lighter than the real thing: he simply couldn’t squeeze the same number of sheets of paper into his stacks.

Surprisingly, this detail was of little concern to him because he knew that if he could successfully replace a couple of the bricks on a pallet, it could be months before the theft would be discovered. That’s because the pallets were typically stored in a Bureau vault for a couple of months before being shipped off to any of the twelve Federal Reserve banks around the country. Once there, the money could sit untouched for several more months before being distributed to banks. By then, it would be very difficult to determine by who or where in the distribution system the bricks had been stolen.

It was shortly before 7:30 AM on December 31st that Landis entered the Bureau with two of his fake bricks wrapped in a package. It was standard practice not to search anyone with packages coming into the facility, but those who did were supposed to check them at a receiving desk. A guard directed Landis to the desk, but as soon as Landis felt that the guard’s attention had been diverted, he quickly changed course and headed down the hall with the package in hand. Landis then took an elevator to the third floor and hid the dummy bricks under a burlap bag which lined a trashcan in locker room number 327.

From there, Landis headed to his normal locker room, D-101, on the first floor to change into his work clothes. At 7:30 AM, he reported for duty at his scheduled time. His job was to place an enormous stack of bills on to a platform so that they could be sent through the wrapping machine. He knew from previous experience that it would be twenty minutes before he would need to refill the platform. That was twenty minutes to pull off the next step in his plan.

James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest.
James and Mamie Landis at the time of their arrest. Image originally appeared on page 24 of the January 21, 1954 issue of Jet magazine.

At 7:50, he walked over to one of the pallets and removed two of the bricks. He immediately walked over to a roll of kraft paper and tore off enough to conceal the two bricks of currency. His destination was a prechosen storage room on the fifth floor of the D-Wing. The only way for him to get there from his current first-floor location in the A-Wing was to use the passageway that connected all of the wings in the basement of the facilty. Upon arrival in the storage room, he quickly removed the paper packaging from each of the bricks, being careful not to damage the two ends that carried the official Treasury labels and date stamps. He folded them and placed the labels in his pocket. After breaking the metal bands with a pair of pliers, he placed the bulk of the money into a paper bag. The $32,000 that didn’t fit into the first bag was placed into a second. Both were hidden under one of the pallets in the storage room.

Landis promptly returned to his assigned duty without anyone suspecting anything out of the ordinary.

At 10:40 AM, it was time for a scheduled rest break. Landis rushed to the locker room where he had hidden those two dummy packages under the burlap bag. He then pulled out the packaging labels that he had stuffed in his pocket, soaked them under hot water in the sink and removed the Treasury labels from the paper. To dry them, he placed the labels between the fins of a radiator. Once dry, he pulled the two dummy packages out of the garbage can and affixed the labels to the brick ends using glue that he had concealed in his pocket. They now looked exactly like the real thing. As the end of his break approached, he walked back toward his station, placed the dummy bricks on to the pallet, and continued with his normal work until the end of the day.

When the workday ended at 3:10 PM, Landis went to the locker room to change into his street clothes and then took a detour to that fifth-floor storage room to grab his fortune. Realizing that he would be unable to get two bags filled with money past the guards, he left the smaller one behind, the one that he would later lead investigators to after being caught.

Getting the money through security was easier than anyone could have imagined. Since it was the holiday season and many of the workers had been exchanging gifts, security was somewhat more relaxed than usual. And, since it was common for workers to take laundry home to wash, he placed a pair of trousers in the bag to conceal his stolen loot. below As he passed through security, Landis pulled one leg of the trousers out of the bag to show that it contained dirty clothing and the guard just let him pass through.

And with that final move, James Rufus Landis had just stolen $128,000 from the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Irving Danner and Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills.
Irving Danner (left), manager, and President Isaac Jacobson of the National Produce Co. in Washington, DC examine one of the stolen $20 bills that had been spent there. Image appeared on page 13 of the January 5, 1954 issue of the Pittsburgh Press.

While he had done it all himself, he knew that he had, at best, six months before the Bureau realized the money was gone. And since the bills all had consecutive serial numbers, they would be easy to trace. Landis concluded that he needed to get rid of the money quickly. His plan was straightforward: make a small purchase with one of the stolen $20 bills and then the change would be in legitimate money. This is simpler said than done because a $20 bill had a lot of buying power in 1954 – nearly $200 today. Not many stores could give change from that and if the same person kept walking in day-after-day to do so, someone was certain to become suspicious.

His solution was to have others assist him in spending the money. That’s where the others who were arrested, excluding his wife, come in. They all would drive around the region, stopping in every liquor store that they passed and purchasing a bottle of spirits. All the change from these purchases was turned over to Landis, who planned to split the profits later on. For the next few days, they were living the high life. In addition to purchasing three automobiles, Landis’ cousin Charles Nelson was observed lighting a cigar with a burning $20 bill.

Everything was great until the holiday weekend ended and everyone, including Landis, returned to work on Monday, January 4th. That was the day that the money was discovered missing. It was later that day that Landis made the decision to drive out to his father-in-law’s place with his neighbor William Giles to hide the money. They probably never imagined that Irving Grant would have a guilty conscience and turn in his own daughter for the crime.

The missing money was found in the metal toolbox and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building.
The missing money was found in the metal toolbox (rear) and the sock. The bag in the foreground contains the loot found still hidden in the Bureau building. Image originally appeared on page 30 of the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

On February 15th, a grand jury charged James Landis with theft of the money. His four accomplices received a lesser charge of “feloniously and unlawfully” receiving and passing the stolen money. All charges against Mrs. Landis were dropped.

While awaiting trial, Landis, Charles Nelson, and two other men were caught passing even more of the stolen money. This resulted in both Landis and Nelson would receiving stiffer sentences than it was initially thought that they would receive.

On May 28, 1954, Landis was sentenced to three to nine years in prison and fined $10,000. Federal Judge David A. Pine said that he took into consideration the fact that Landis had been cooperative with the Secret Service. He added that if Landis was able to produce the money that was still missing – an estimated $15,680 – he would consider dropping the fine.

As for the others, Charles Nelson was sentenced to 2 to 8 years in prison with a $3,000 fine, Roger Patterson got 20 months to 5 years and Edith Chase received a suspended sentence of 1 to 3 years.

There would be a larger theft at the Bureau in 1989 by Robert P. Schmitt, who was in charge of the Threaded Currency Paper project. He took advantage of his position and was able to smuggle out $1.6 million in $100 bills that he had concealed in a zippered compartment in his briefcase. That may be more money, but it doesn’t come close to the creativity and ingenuity that Landis used to pull off his daring theft in 1954.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

6-Year-Old Goes on a Buying Spree

 

On April 29th 1933, 6-year-old Bertha Deshefy, who resided at 317 Nepperhan Avenue in Yonkers, NY, decided to go on a spending spree. In just four short hours, Bertha managed to purchase $110 (that’s approximately $2,100 today) worth of candy, ice cream, and toys at stores in her neighborhood.

Bertha started her buying spree with the help of her friend Helen Semendie, but pretty soon more and more “friends” were helping her. Some of these friends, if you can call them that, spent her money on slot machines in an effort to win various prizes.

This image of 
Bertha Deshefy appeared on page 5 of the June 4, 1933 publication of the Salt Lake Tribune’s Magazine Section.

David Astor, a store proprietor at 218 Warburton Avenue became suspicious when he saw such a young child with nearly $20 on her. He called police and soon dad was notified.

It turns out that Dad had been saving the money at home and Bertha had found the hidden stash. She blew through $110 of the $130 originally in the money roll.

“You just can’t keep up with this younger generation,” said police Sergeant William Coney. He continued, “They are stepping faster than ever.”