Friday, July 1, 2011

Charlestown Was The Armored Car Robbery Capital Of The Nation - Once...

My paternal grandfather died in Charlestown. With his boots on, so to speak. He was a nightwatchman for the Hood's Milk Company, whose old brick smokestack I can still see out the window of my subway car every time I ride the Orange Line home from my hitman gigs in Boston. His employers found him dead one morning. They told his family he'd died of a heart attack, but for all I know he might have discovered B-and-E guys in the building and died from the shock of it. God knows, there's always been enough crime in Charlestown. When Ben Affleck's movie, The Town, came out last year, a lot of critics knee- capped it for what they considered its portrayal of that tired anachronism, the Boston Irish criminal with the noble soul. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Charlestown residents balked at the idea that their town - or, indeed, Boston as a whole - is a hotbed of violent crime. The Monitor cited statistics to bolster that claim. The FBI reports that Massachusetts accounts for less than 3 percent of bank robberies nationwide, and the Boston police assert that only 2 percent of all Boston robberies take place in Charlestown. After all, the place has gotten a touch gentrified. I've walked through the burg myself on my way home lots of times, and I sure as hell never felt afraid.

The MIT newspaper, The Tech, reported that between 200 to 300 bank crimes - mostly robberies - had taken place in Massachusetts in the seven years prior to 2010. Massachusetts accounted for roughly three quarters of bank crimes in New England, but "larger states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida, and California far outweigh the Bay State in terms of bank robberies." Moreover, fully one third of U.S. bank robberies in, say, 2009 took place in the South, and only a fifth occurred in the Northeast as a whole. As for the assumption that bank robberies are invariably occasions for mayhem, "the FBI reports that only 4 percent of bank robberies, burglaries, and larcenies in the US include acts of violence; hostages were taken in only 47 of the approximately 6,000 cases in 2009. Thieves accessed bank vaults in only 29 incidents whereas explosives were used in only 193 cases in 2009. All of the 21 deaths linked to bank crime in 2009 were those of the perpetrators themselves."

I think I have an intuitive sense of the fundamental wussiness of most bank robbers, too, which is why I generally feel safe in banks. But I do get a glance every now and then if I walk into a bank, Whitey-Bulger-style, wearing a ball cap and sunglasses.

Armored cars though, they do make me nervous. Whenever one of those big clunky things is idling at a traffic light and I'm, like, on foot (still wearing the ball cap and the sunglasses), I feel compelled to avert my gaze from the guys inside, lest they think I'm checking it out. I definitely get a certain vibe from those guys that make me do that, and maybe that vibe is an intangible vestige of a period in Boston history when the town really did lead the nation in a particular type of crime. Between 1990 and 1996, "the Boston area averaged 16 armored car robberies a year, three times more than statewide averages across the country. One in five armored car heists in this country happened here. States such as California, New York and Florida experienced just half the heists of Boston." And the guys behind those robberies came from Charlestown. In fact, according to ASIS Magazine, Charlestown guys were even behind some of those armored car robberies in California, New York and Florida. From the seventies through the nineties, Charlestown actually was a kind of training ground for armored car robbers, who developed their criminal specialty almost like a respectable trade, passing skills down from one generation to the next. Some veterans of this period have suggested that the "forced busing" crisis of mid-1970's Boston interrupted the schooling of Charlestown teenagers, causing many of them to fall into crime by default. In any event, this career choice seemed secure enough, as the close-knit Charlestown community helped keep the identities of the robbers secret. "Between 1975 and 1992, 33 of Charlestown’s 49 murders were unsolved, a no-arrest rate double other Boston neighborhoods. The phenomenon became known as The Code of Silence and federal authorities took note." When they did get caught however, the Charlestown guys discovered that their notoriety had preceded them. One ex-con said that once you ended up in federal prison, and your fellow inmates would "hear you’re from Boston, [they'd] say ‘hey you must be in here for armored truck or bank robbery.’ "

The armored car robberies came to an end when The Code of Silence began to crumble. "Beginning in 1991, the DEA targeted the community and spent at least $2 million in just one case to provide thieves and drug dealers immunity from prosecution and new identities with the witness protection program." As a result, by 1997, the number of armored car robberies had dwindled to two.

Nonetheless, not so long ago, Boston did lead the nation in at least one kind of major crime. Reputations are always built around the core of something actual, even if things change over time.

'The Town': Is Charlestown really America's 'bank robbery capital'? (Christian Science Monitor)
Is Boston a hotspot for bank theft? (The Tech)
Boston: Armored Car Robbery Capital (ASIS Magazine)

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