By Gary Craig
280 pages, $19.95
From the start, the $7.4 million holdup – one of the biggest crimes in the history of Western New York -- had the look of an inside job.
Indeed, the security at the Brink's armored car depot in Rochester was surprisingly lax. But the crime was clearly pulled off by someone who knew exactly where all the building's weak spots were.
Someone who knew exactly where the money – big, big money – was stored and counted. Someone who knew when a new shipment of cash would be coming in. Someone who knew that the doors leading to the money-counting room would be conveniently left unlocked at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 5, 1993.
And when police learned that one of the Brink's guards who were robbed was one Thomas O'Connor, an ex-cop with a very checkered past, they immediately suspected that he was the bandits' inside connection.
The long, twisting and turning, still ongoing investigation into this major heist is detailed in a fascinating new book by Gary Craig, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. His book, Seven Million, works well on two different levels – as a gripping mystery and as an intriguing study of a cast of characters worthy of a first-rate Hollywood screenplay.
Craig writes with a newsman's sharp eye for interesting detail, and also with a mystery writer's knack for ending each chapter with a line that leaves readers anxious to move on to the next page.
The author begins his story inside the Brink's depot on the night of the crime, as O'Connor and two fellow guards counted a fresh shipment of $20 and $100 bills that had arrived from the Federal Reserve Bank branch then located in downtown Buffalo. O'Connor told his co-workers he had to step outside to a storage shed and get some cloth money bags. His announcement was a bit surprising to one of the other guards, who noticed that there were plenty of bags already on hand.
O'Connor returned with the bags in a few minutes, and very soon after that, a masked man with a gun burst into the room.
"Get down on the floor before I blow your (expletive) head off!" the gunman said.
With help from at least one cohort, the masked gunman put bags over the security guards' heads and tied them up. The thieves escaped with a monster load of cash and left in a van. As they pulled away from the depot, they kidnapped – or pretended to kidnap – O'Connor.
Hours later, O'Connor would "escape" from his "captors," and turn up at a bar in the Rochester suburb of Greece, seemingly out of breath and complaining of chest pains.
In the weeks and months that followed, all signs pointed to O'Connor as the inside man who helped the thieves. The former officer was the only Brink's employee who was reluctant to speak with investigators. He was the only one who refused to take a polygraph test. And he was the only one to hire a prominent defense attorney to represent him.
O'Connor, 53 at the time of the robbery, is just one of many interesting characters in this story. Craig describes him as an enigmatic, jovial Irishman whose mouth always seemed to be curved into a semi-smile "as if aware of something humorous that was apparent to no one but him." O'Connor also seemed to have a dark side. He was questioned about two unsolved homicides – including the murder of a man who was dating a former O'Connor girlfriend – after leaving his Rochester Police job. Detectives and FBI agents had all kinds of suspicions about O'Connor, but had never been able to charge him with anything.
Another thing about O'Connor: He was a devoted supporter of an organization suspected of having links to the Irish Republican Army, and O'Connor had been suspected of helping a former IRA soldier – Sam Millar – illegally emigrate from Ireland to Rochester some years before the Brink's heist.
Millar, who had spent time in a notorious Irish prison, and Father Patrick Moloney, a colorful and outspoken Irish-American priest from New York City, were watched and followed for months by FBI agents. In November 1993, the surveillance led to a police raid at a Manhattan apartment where Moloney had been seen on several occasions. More than $2 million in loot from the Brink's job was found in the apartment.
That led to charges against O'Connor, Millar and Moloney. Two of those men were convicted of stolen property charges, but one of the trio – read this fine book to find out which one – beat the charges in court.
That looked like the end of the line for the Brink's probe, but in 1996, Craig began getting tips and then broke a story about a disturbing new angle to the case. That was the disappearance of Ronnie Gibbons, an Irish-born boxer who had close ties to Millar. Gibbons had vanished, leaving a borrowed car in an Applebee's restaurant parking lot, after bragging to friends that he was somehow involved in the Brink's holdup.
As Craig closes his story, more than 24 years after the holdup, the apparent murder of Gibbons remains unsolved. And more than $5 million in stolen Brink's cash remains missing and unaccounted for.
Craig names the three suspects he thinks are most likely involved in Gibbons' demise. Will any of them ever be charged with murder? Will the lost millions ever be recovered?
Let's hope Craig gets to answer those questions in a sequel someday. And let's hope the sequel is as good as Seven Million.
Dan Herbeck covers crime and courts as a staff reporter for The Buffalo News