On This Day In 1985: Lower West Side Wells Fargo Heist Dwarfed Lufthansa

On this day in 1985, four armed robbers made off with $7.8 million in cash from a Wells Fargo Co. terminal on Manhattan's Lower West Side, netting a larger haul than the crooks aligned with the Luchese family who in December 1978 robbed a Lufthansa cargo building of around $6 million ($5 million in cash and $875,000 in jewelry). In both robberies, much of the loot was never recovered.

John (Beansie) Campanella
Beansie in middle.

On April 29, 1985, four ski-masked bandits ambushed four employees of a Wells Fargo facility as they opened the firm's vault to prepare for the day's business. They made their escape in a bright red armored truck that they left abandoned in a parking lot beneath the Brooklyn Bridge approach on the Lower East Side.

Wells Fargo offered a $350,000 reward for their arrest and conviction.

According to police, the four robbers used drills and sledgehammers.to crack their way through two cinder-block walls to access first the Merrill Lynch depot, then the Wells Fargo terminal, which was located at Houston and West Streets near the Hudson River. When the employees arrived and opened the vault at 1:50 a.m., the robbers emerged from the shadows, brandishing pistols. ''Don`t worry. We don't want to hurt you. We just want the money," one of the four said. The employees were handcuffed to a nearby forklift truck and ordered to close their eyes.

The robbers spent the next 20 minutes loading about 100 bags of cash into one of the Wells Fargo armored trucks parked in an adjacent garage. The stolen money was to have been deposited in the Federal Reserve Bank in Lower Manhattan the next morning. The robbers left behind four larger bags, which contained a total of more than $12 million.

''The fact is they left behind more than they took,'' said Kenneth Walton, deputy director of the FBI`s New York office. ''I think the truck was full.''

At the time, the robbery was called the largest cash heist in U.S. history.

In May 1985, Jeffrey Grubczak was arrested after someone dropped a dime to report seeing him use a sledgehammer to break into the Wells Fargo truck that had been found in a parking lot near the Brooklyn Bridge. (The robbers couldn't unlock the rear doors of the truck, so they allegedly drove to where Grubczak lived for help.)

Grubczak, who supposedly had been paid $100,000 for his role in the robbery, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He began cooperating with the authorities. He was the prosecution's key witness in the trial of the three men charged with committing the robbery, who were arrested in July 1986; two of the three suspects were seized at 6:30 am while playing poker at the Sea Wolf social club in a building on Peck Slip near the Fulton Fish Market.

Joseph Coffey, Paul (Little Paulie) Mazzarese, and John (Beansie) Campanella were arrested. (Coffey and Campanella allegedly masterminded the heist)

In December 1986, after a two week trial, the three were acquitted, though Coffey was convicted of conspiracy, which carried a maximum term of five years in prison.

Only about $9,000 of the $7.8 million was ever recovered.

Today, the FBI considers the 1997 Dunbar Armored robbery the largest cash robbery to have occurred in the United States. Five men robbed the Dunbar Armored facility in Los Angeles of $18.9 million.