In the fall of 2005, Karls Monzon’s childhood friend and neighbor Onelio Diaz approached him with a proposal. Diaz worked as a security guard for Brink’s (BCO) at Miami International Airport. Every day, he explained, a Lufthansa (LHA) jet from Frankfurt landed at the airport carrying bricks of $ 50 and $ 100 bills in bags. The shipments were from Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank (CBK), and averaged between $ 80 million and $ 100 million per flight.
Brink’s employed Diaz and a few other guards to escort the bills from the tarmac to a warehouse at the airport perimeter to clear customs. The guards would examine the bags for tampering or tears and drive them in armored cars to the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve, about four miles away. The whole process took about two hours.
Diaz was attentive at work, but not in the way his employers might have wished. To Monzon, he ticked off the security vulnerabilities inside the warehouse: The bills lay exposed; the security cameras didn’t work; the guards removed their guns before entering the building; and most alluring of all, the warehouse’s enormous bay doors led directly onto the street, which meant that one could bypass the perimeter fence and the airport gatehouse. Diaz didn’t want to join the robbery attempt, but for an even cut of the haul he would signal Monzon when it was time to strike. Monzon was in.
In 2011 the Federal Reserve physically handled transfers of about $ 640 billion in cash. That’s about 35 billion bills. The money mainly passes through a handful of cash logistics companies, themselves a $ 14 billion sector of the U.S. economy. The most famous and important of these companies is Brink’s, which dates to 1859. It handles an average of about 250 flights worldwide each day, part of about 1,500 high-value shipments the company runs daily.
Despite the rivers of cash, surprisingly little is stolen. Armored carriers overall reported only 42 thefts in 2011, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On those rare occasions when money is snatched, however, things can get messy. In February 2012 a Garda driver in Pittsburgh allegedly shot his partner in the back of the head before driving off with $ 2.3 million. In December, four men shot a Loomis armored car driver in the face before taking the truck from a Maryland strip mall.
At the time Diaz laid out his plan, Monzon, a then-32-year-old Cuban immigrant, worked at United Rentals (URI), which leases construction equipment, delivering cranes and backhoes to work sites. On weekends he rode fast Japanese motorcycles, collected Glock pistols, and frequented a swingers’ club called Miami Velvet with his wife, Cinnamon (who did not respond to requests for comment on this story).
According to court records and interviews with FBI Special Agent Alex Peraza—which form the basic sources for this article—Monzon went to work putting together a gang. His first thought was to try some members of his motorcycle club. A few seemed to be involved with a gang who preyed on criminals. He couldn’t get that together, so he turned to family and friends. He recruited his uncle-in-law Conrado “Pinky” Perera, who had a criminal past but also planned to start his own legitimate business; his co-worker, Roberto Perez, who agreed to join only as a lookout; and his brother-in-law, Jeffrey Boatwright, who struggled with drug addiction.
Illustration by Nathan Fox
At around 3 p.m. on Nov. 6, Boatwright, Monzon, and Perera arrived at the airport warehouse in a black pickup truck. Monzon and Perera got out, pulled bandannas over their faces, hauled themselves onto the loading dock, and went through the open doors. Inside the warehouse they saw what Diaz had described: a gaping space littered with crates and plastic packing wrap. Right by the doors, a handful of guards, including Diaz, sorted through canvas bags stuffed with cash. The day’s shipment, 42 bags, added up to $ 88 million, about $ 2.1 million a bag.
Monzon and Perera pulled out their guns and ordered the guards onto the floor. They grabbed six bags of cash, each weighing about 38 pounds. When they ran to the bay door, one bag dropped. They left it on the warehouse floor. They threw the others into the bed of the truck and made off with $ 7.4 million. The only clue the guards would report to the newspapers was that the thieves were speaking in both Spanish and English.
Back at Monzon’s home, Monzon, Boatwright, and Perera divvied up the haul. Each took $ 1.6 million. They set aside $ 1 million each for Perez and Diaz, and $ 500,000 for Alex Leon, who had been hired to ditch the pickup truck. The only other time anyone had ever pulled off an airport robbery with a payoff as large was in 1978, when the Gambino and Lucchese crime families robbed $ 8 million in cash and jewels from a Lufthansa shipment at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The thieves involved in the heist, which became the basis of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas, paid off figures within the crime families, including John Gotti, to protect themselves. Nevertheless, 13 people connected to the crime ended up dead.
Monzon’s plan, naturally, was to lie low. The crew sealed the money in vacuum packs and split up. Monzon stashed some of his money in PVC pipes and buried them under his family’s house in Homestead, a rural area halfway between Miami and the Florida Keys. Some went into the attic. He didn’t hide it all, though: He bought a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle worth about $ 14,000. But the everyday dramas of ordinary life continued. Monzon kept his job at the rental company. Cinnamon kept working as well, as a receptionist at Vista magazine. “I get up every day at six in the morning to come work like a slave,” she complained months later in a phone conversation tapped by the FBI.
Boatwright took a different approach. He bought a Rolex and a set of gold caps for his teeth and began days-long drug binges at strip clubs. He dropped thousands of dollars partying with friends. Rumors spread to Monzon that he was doing drugs right out in the street.
Ultimately, the success of a heist rests on what happens after the money is stolen. “You better know more than just how to steal the money, because that’s just the beginning of the process,” says Timothy Wagner, director of the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a program that coordinates the activities of local police detectives and federal agents. With no authority like the police or courts to appeal to, smaller, weaker criminals are preyed on by larger, better organized, more aggressive counterparts. “You become a target. You’re naked out there,” says Special Agent Peraza, who headed the investigation of Monzon and his gang.
Monzon worried that sooner or later Boatwright would either be targeted by other criminals or get caught by the police, so he decided to hire someone to scare him, as Peraza sees it. Monzon seems to have picked his acquaintances at the motorcycle club for the job, the same people he originally tried to involve in the heist. On their own initiative, it appears, they turned on Monzon. The gang abducted Boatwright outside the Gold Rush, a black-lit strip club in downtown Miami, in December 2005. They drove him south to a farm in Homestead, coincidentally near Monzon’s own house. The FBI speculates that the gang had figured out that Monzon had far more money than he was paying them. They set a ransom of $ 1 million. They beat Boatwright and tore at his fingernails with pliers. After Monzon delivered the money—it was part of Boatwright’s cut—he had to bring Boatwright to the hospital. Monzon’s problems had only begun.
The FBI’s investigation got off to a poor start. Leading the effort was Peraza, a 20-year FBI veteran who, with his untucked tropical shirts and well-trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee, looks something like an agent in Margaritaville. From the get-go, he says, he suspected the supervisor at the warehouse to be the inside man, but he couldn’t prove it. Brink’s then offered a $ 150,000 reward for information. (Brink’s declined to comment.) Among a flood of useless calls, the FBI received one from a tipster within Monzon’s circle. The FBI, which has not released his name, dubbed him the Private Investigator. According to Peraza, when they met at the police station, the PI was so terrified, he shook as he chain-smoked. In spite of his nerves, he identified Monzon and his crew. By February 2006, Peraza had wiretapped Monzon’s phone, but instead of just uncovering details of the robbery, Peraza and his agents arrived in the middle of a second kidnapping.
The first kidnapping, it turned out, had neither brought Monzon security nor silenced Boatwright. Soon after Boatwright left the hospital, he turned back to drugs and partying, using up the little money he had left. The $ 1 million ransom didn’t satisfy the kidnappers. Instead, it inspired another nabbing of Boatwright, this time, according to court transcripts, led by gang member Michael Hernandez.
On the night of Feb. 16, 2006, Boatwright was partying at the Gold Rush when two strangers, Tatiana and Mimi, joined his table. The women charmed Boatwright and drew him out of the club and into an SUV in the parking lot. Once inside, Tatiana and Mimi got out and two men got in. One cracked Boatwright on the head with the butt of a pistol and tied a shirt over his face. The other started driving.
Twelve hours later, Monzon got a call on his tapped cell phone while he was at work. It was from Robert Salty, a friend of Boatwright’s who was secretly collaborating with the kidnappers for a cut of the ransom; they spoke in Spanish. “I just got a call from a guy, and he told me that they caught Jeffrey. They have Jeffrey again. They want some money,” said Salty. “I spoke with Jeffrey and everything. Jeffrey is there screaming and crying.”
Monzon had lost his appetite for rescuing his brother-in-law, and he tried to keep his distance. “I did what I can, bro. I’m sorry,” he said. “Let his mother take care of that.”
Not long after, he got a second call. This time it was Guillermo Del Regato, one of the kidnappers. “I have your brother-in-law here, the fat one,” he said. “He’ll stay here with me until someone comes up with half a million. I know what you guys did, and I don’t want to get involved with the feds or anything like that. That’s not my problem. The only thing I want is my money.”
“I have nothing to do with what he’s done with his life,” said Monzon.
Del Regato put Boatwright on the phone.
“Bro, you got to fix this,” he said.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Monzon.
“Where’s your money? Does the money mean more to you than me, than my life?”
The answer was not straightforward for Monzon. He still had most of his $ 1.6 million stake of the split stashed on his family’s property.
“Hey, you looked for it, bro,” Monzon said. “Now you deal with it. I told you to get the f- - - out of here, but you wanted to party. Now deal with it.”
Not long after, Cinnamon Monzon spoke on the phone with her husband. She had just gotten a call from the kidnappers, which she’d recorded. She played it back for Monzon. In the call, the kidnapper left some instructions: “If you think that we are playing, then look tomorrow at 9 o’clock in the morning, check the mailbox at 2930 Southwest 76th Ave., and you are going to see your brother’s finger.”
Monzon wasn’t a totally unfeeling brother-in-law. Boatwright meant something to him. He just didn’t want to pay to get him back. He left work, went to a gun shop, walked out with a new AK-47 and ammo, and put it in the trunk of his car. Later, the FBI reported, he called Salty and told him, “I am gonna say that I have money, and I’m gonna go over there and I’m gonna shower them with bullets from the car. I have an AK-47 with me already with two clips.” He said he was going to turn the kidnappers’ car into “a strainer.”
At that point, Peraza realized that the only responsible course of action was to arrange a kidnapping of his own. From the tapped calls, Peraza knew that Monzon and his wife had scheduled a doctor’s appointment on the evening of Feb. 17, 2006. So as Monzon and Cinnamon were inside South Miami Hospital, an unmarked van waited at the hospital entrance. When Monzon stepped outside, Peraza gave a signal and a SWAT team poured out of the van, dragged Monzon inside, and drove off. “Welcome to the FBI,” Peraza told Monzon. If anyone noticed, nobody reported it, which suited the FBI. They didn’t want the kidnappers to know they had Monzon.
In the Miami-Dade County precinct headquarters, Peraza sat face to face with the man he’d been stalking for four months. Monzon at first refused to cooperate but finally agreed in return for a few moments with his wife.
By the time Monzon agreed to cooperate, the kidnappers had held Boatwright for more than 24 hours. It was well past midnight, and they were getting antsy. They dropped the ransom to $ 150,000. They pleaded with Monzon. “You did your thing, you came ahead. S- - -, let me be on top, too,” said the kidnapper on the other end of the call. Peraza, now dictating Monzon’s response, told Monzon to stall, which he did, saying it would take him time to gather up the money.
The call came from Bent Tree, a neighborhood to the west of Miami. While they spoke, FBI and Miami-Dade detectives wound through Bent Tree’s cul-de-sacs in a van equipped with a device called a Stingray, a satellite dish that can track the direction of cell signals, but not their precise location. The van roved the neighborhood trying to pinpoint the kidnappers’ hideout until around 3 a.m., when the signal started to move east.
The kidnappers were heading to a drop-off site where they’d leave Boatwright before collecting the ransom. On a hunch, one of the detectives suggested the FBI try the Miami Princess Hotel, beside the airport. The Princess is a pink stucco motel with kitschy theme suites such as the Jungle Room and the Disco Room. Each has its own garage, so patrons can come and go discreetly. As the Stingray van pulled into the lot, a man noticed the dish on its roof and rushed up to the second floor. The cell signal stopped, and a black SUV backed out of a parking spot and sped away.
A detective and an agent got out of the van and ran up to the second floor. They pulled their guns on one kidnapper, who was still in the walkway beside the open door of a room. They shouted for him to show his hands. Instead he reached into his pocket and threw a small satchel into the room. The officers tackled him. Later, when they opened the satchel, they found watches and a set of gold tooth caps. Boatwright wasn’t in the room.
Meanwhile, the detective in the van called for backup as he began to pursue the SUV, which was now out of sight. Pulling out of the parking lot, he drove the van one way down Northwest 11th Street, saw no one, and reversed course. A few blocks away, he saw the SUV stopped at a red light. The flashing lights of police cars streamed from the opposite direction and surrounded it. Inside, the detective found two of the kidnappers, Manuel Palacio and Guillermo Del Regato, who had Monzon’s phone number on a piece of paper in his wallet.
The police found Boatwright in the back of a pickup truck parked in the hotel garage, his mouth, eyes, and hands duct-taped, blood on his shirt. When the agents tore the tape from his mouth, Boatwright’s first words were, “Please don’t hurt me.”
Illustration by Nathan Fox
In all, the FBI arrested five men for the second kidnapping of Jeffrey Boatwright. Robert Salty, Michael Sanfiel, and Guillermo Del Regato all pleaded guilty and were given from 7 to 15 years. Manuel Palacio and Michael Hernandez went to trial and received 34- and 26-year prison sentences, respectively. Both feel they were misrepresented by their lawyers and are fighting to be tried again. Hernandez says his lawyer only visited once while he was in custody. “I’m not saying whether I’m guilty or not guilty. All I’m saying is that they never gave me the opportunity to defend myself the right way,” he says.
The thieves all pleaded guilty to taking part in the robbery. Monzon was sentenced to 17 years; his friend Onelio Diaz received 16. Boatwright was given a 13-year sentence. Pinky Perera got 11 years, Roberto Perez was given six years, and Alex Leon received three. Cinnamon Monzon was sentenced to three years for being an accessory to theft.
As for the money, Monzon led the FBI to the $ 1.2 million he had hidden in his attic, buried in pipes in the backyard, and tucked under the tiles of his mother-in-law’s living room floor. Of the $ 7.4 million stolen, that would be all the FBI would recover. Diaz claimed that a good portion of his money was stashed with Monzon’s—the rest he had spent. Boatwright spent most of his share on drugs and paying off his kidnappers. Perera had gone to Georgia with his million to start an aftermarket auto parts company, which soon failed. In a phone call from prison, when asked what happened to all the money he had, Perera mumbled, “It’s gone. I wasted it.”
“For all we know they may have a stash somewhere for them to enjoy when they get out of prison,” Peraza says. “But I feel confident that whatever’s left, it’s not significant.”
Cash planes still crisscross the skies daily. Brink’s won’t say if it’s changed any of its security measures.
Grushkin is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.
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