The $1.5 million daylight robbery Tuesday in Cheektowaga is part of a national crime wave against the armored car companies that move billions of dollars through the United States every day.
The thefts have police and private security agencies worried -- not only about the big amounts of money involved, but also about the increasing professionalism in the heists.
"There's a definite increase in the number of attacks on armored trucks," said Martin Crowe, vice president of security for Brink's, the world's largest armored courier service. "We're seeing more carefully planned attacks, as opposed to the amateurish jobs. What you've seen in Buffalo has happened before."
In 1986, the FBI reported just 18 armed robberies, burglaries or larcenies from armored courier companies.
By 1989, the figure rose to 62, and police say the total for 1990 probably will be higher than that.
Three major heists of armored courier services have occurred in Western and central New York in the past 10 months. The total take: $15.3 million.
"The problem has just exploded this year," said Special Agent Paul Moskal, spokesman for the Buffalo FBI office.
The holdup Tuesday morning outside a bank branch in Walden Galleria is believed to be the biggest theft of cash ever recorded in Erie County, police said. Four masked men blocked the path of a Brink's truck, threatened a guard at gunpoint and escaped with the cash in a stolen car.
"The whole thing was very professionally executed -- it only took them a minute, two minutes at the most, and they never fired a shot," said Cheektowaga Police Detective Lt. James Morath.
Other guards haven't been so lucky.
One day after the Cheektowaga holdup, four bandits killed a guard and shot another four times while taking $613,600 from an armored truck in New Castle, Del. Four suspects were arrested after a three-state police chase that ended in New Jersey.
FBI agents are checking the remote possibility that the men being held in New Jersey also pulled off the Cheektowaga heist, Morath said.
"We're certainly checking it out, but it seems unlikely," he said. "After all the planning and execution that went into the robbery here, it would be unusual for the same guys to go all the way to Delaware and go through it all again."
Across the nation, FBI agents are comparing notes on the recent heists. Some had marked similarities to the Galleria robbery, according to Special Agent Paul Moskal of the Buffalo office.
"Given the magnitude of the robberies, you have to consider the possibility that there's a connection," Moskal said. "There's definitely a pattern there. It could be that the same guys were involved in a few different cases."
According to the FBI, two armored truck holdups in the Minneapolis area were similar to the Cheektowaga heist.
On April 18, 1989, three masked men escaped with $1 million from an armored truck in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. Agents believe the same three men may have been responsible for another holdup in nearby Burnsville on March 27 of this year. Although authorities said a large amount of cash was taken in that robbery, they never have disclosed how much.
In the two Minnesota robberies, two vehicles were used to block the pathway of the armored truck. That is the same technique used in Cheektowaga.
And in all three thefts, guns were trained on security guards as the armored vehicles pulled up to the banks.
"It's too soon to say whether there is a connection in the cases," said Crowe, the Brink's security chief. "It looks like it, but it's too soon. We'd need a lot more information."
Crowe, a former FBI agent who graduated from Niagara University in 1954, is one of the world's foremost experts in protecting the movement of large amounts of cash. Working out of Darien, Conn., he heads a security operation that has offices in 40 countries. He has 150 offices in the United States and Canada alone.
On any given day, Brink's has 1,500 trucks moving billions of dollars, Crowe said, but he won't discuss how much money is carried in individual vehicles.
He also keeps exact figures on the amounts that have been stolen in recent years, but he won't disclose that information either.
Crowe did say, however, that 1990 is shaping up as the worst year of thefts in the past decade.
"I think it has to do with a tightening of the economy, and it has to do with drugs," he said. "There's been a general increase in crime in all categories throughout the country this year. I also think the publicity on these crimes is a factor. People read about them and say, 'I didn't know they kept all that money in those trucks.' "
After bandits in Montreal escaped with $16 million in jewels, gold and securities on Dec. 1, the news media in the Canadian city "glamorized" the thieves because they got away without firing a shot, Crowe said.
"They write some of them up like Robin Hood," the security chief said. "But believe me, these guys aren't stealing to raise money for the orphanage or the cancer society. It's more likely for drugs or some other bad purpose."
Besides the Cheektowaga case, two other major thefts this year have involved armored couriers, and both happened less than a four-hour drive from Buffalo.
On June 26, gunmen took $10.8 million from an Armored Motor Service of America Corp. car in Henrietta, outside Rochester, after two security guards stopped at a deli for coffee and submarine sandwiches.
On May 25, burglars struck at the Armored Motor Service of America office in East Syracuse and took $3 million. But in that case, three men -- including a company security guard -- were arrested.
Shortly after the theft, police said, two of the suspects rented a fancy limousine and hired prostitutes to join them in a party on wheels that rolled through three states.
There is believed to be no connection between the Cheektowaga, Henrietta and East Syracuse heists, Moskal said.
In strife-torn South American and Central American countries, Brink's uses many more guards with its trucks than it does in the United States, Crowe said. The militaristic shows of force have armed guards lining the streets when a big cash delivery is being made.
"I don't think people in the United States are ready for that right now," Crowe said.