"What was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?" asked Rodriguez, 41. The man—in jeans and a clean blue T-shirt—replied, "To visit friends."
"To visit friends?"
"Yeah, that's it. To visit friends."
Suddenly suspicious, Rodriguez asked him for identification. "It was like he was thinking, 'Yeah, that sounds good,' " she explains. A computer check of the North Carolina driver's license he handed over showed that Roger Lawter, the man he purported to be, was in fact an alias used by Philip Noel Johnson, the 33-year-old Florida resident who, police believe, pulled off the largest armored-car cash heist in U.S. history. On March 29, according to authorities, Johnson allegedly handcuffed and shackled two coworkers at the Loomis, Fargo armored car company in Jacksonville, Fla., and disappeared with nearly half a ton of unmarked bills worth $18.8 million. (On Oct. 6, David Ghannt, another employee, was indicted for stealing up to $15 million.)
That morning in Brownsville, customs inspectors searched the traveler's three duffel bags and turned up $10,714 in cash along with several phony birth certificates and ID cards. Johnson was arrested and turned over to the FBI; three weeks later, FBI agents, tracing a receipt they found in a room Johnson had rented in Mexico City, located all but $200,000 of the stolen money in the Mountain Home Storage facility near Asheville, N.C. Although at first he denied his identity to police, he finally admitted to being Philip Johnson, the angry loner who may have tried to remake his unhappy life by masterminding the heist.
One thing was certain: Philip Johnson was miserable in his own skin. "Anger was Philip's best friend," says his mother, June, 62, a home health care worker. Larry Taylor, a former Loomis, Fargo coworker, calls Johnson "a habitual complainer. No one wanted to be around him because he was so negative." He complained he had no girlfriend. He complained he was white and male and that the deck was stacked against him. Mostly he complained that after 10 years with Loomis, Fargo, he was still an armed courier making $7.75 an hour—with little real hope of promotion. "He'd show up for work late or not at all," says Taylor. "Everything he did, he screwed up."
Except, as the authorities see it, that $18.8 million heist. That was executed with the flair and daring the rest of his life seemed to lack. Early in the evening of Saturday, March 29, Johnson and a driver picked up several cash deposits from Jacksonville supermarkets and minimarts, then drove back to the Loomis, Fargo warehouse. The driver went home, but Johnson's job required him to stand watch with his .38 revolver drawn as two guards, Dan Smith, 27, and James Brown, 52, prepared to lock the cash in the vault.
That was when police say Johnson made his move. Around 7 p.m., they believe, Johnson turned his gun on the coworkers, stripped Brown of his weapon and ordered both guards to lie on the floor, where he handcuffed and shackled them. He then backed a transport van into the vault and loaded it with bundles of red canvas bags filled with cash. Police estimate the money took 2 hours to load.
Next, police say, he put Smith and Brown in the back of the van and removed the videotape from the warehouse's surveillance camera. Around 9 p.m., Johnson drove to his modest, three-bedroom Jacksonville home, where he lived alone, and handcuffed Brown to a pipe in a bedroom closet. But Smith remained in the van, a blanket over his head, for a long drive north. Midmorning Sunday on a secluded road off the Blue Ridge Parkway southeast of Asheville, Johnson stopped the van, marched Smith down a hill and handcuffed him to a tree. Just out of Smith's reach he left snacks, a sleeping bag and a tent—apparently a deliberate bit of cruelty to Smith, who had just been promoted. "Phil thought he should have gotten that promotion," says Taylor.
Still, Johnson promised he would alert authorities to Smith's whereabouts within 48 hours. But as soon as he drove off, Smith picked his locks with his Swiss army knife and got a lift to a nearby forest ranger's station, where he reported the crime. About 2 p.m., Jacksonville sheriffs, joined by FBI agents, descended on Johnson's house and freed Brown. There, they found evidence that Johnson had been planning his robbery for four years: reams of research material on banking laws in South America, teach-yourself-Spanish texts and several sets of false identity papers. There was also a message spray-painted in black across a bedroom wall—House of Pain.
Some people who know Johnson say he was motivated less by greed than by a need to assuage his nearly lifelong inner torment. "He wouldn't know what to do with all that money," says neighbor June Glover. "This was about revenge." One of three children born in Tampa to Robert, a Greyhound bus driver, and June, Johnson never seemed able to come to terms with his parents' 1967 divorce. "He was very bitter about it," says his mother, who split with Philip's father when Johnson was 3. "He never could let it go."
Over the years, Johnson was shuttled among his parents and other relatives; though he changed schools often, his sister Sharon Heinrich, 35, says he did well in science and got good grades. He earned an associate degree in criminal justice from a community college outside Rochester, N.Y., in 1983, but had trouble with psychological tests that would have allowed him to work in law enforcement. "On one test," reports Sharon, "they asked if he believed in nuclear war. He said yes." With little hope of becoming a police officer, he worked at odd jobs until joining Loomis, Fargo in 1986.
The job enabled him to buy a small house in Jacksonville for $44,000, but, say those who knew him, it didn't pacify his demons. Away from work, Johnson "didn't mix well with people," says Rev. Stanley Lyon of the Southside Assembly of God church, which Johnson attended until about five years ago. "He had very strong opinions, and it was difficult for people to talk to him."
Women were a particular challenge. "I heard he took one date to a Taco Bell," says Edith Hibel, Johnson's next-door neighbor. "He gave her a coupon to buy dinner." In the mid-'80s, Johnson joined a Christian singles group, hoping to make friends, but things didn't work out. "He would say, 'I'm mad at God,' " recalls his sister Sharon.
But $18.8 million can make up for a multitude of social flaws. Police say that after hiding the money and dumping the stolen van, Johnson caught a Greyhound bus to Brownsville, and then on into Mexico. His brazen return to the U.S., probably to retrieve more of his hidden loot, authorities believe, showed that Johnson "never thought he would be caught," says Jacksonville sheriff Lt. Lonnie McDonald, cohead of the investigation. "He thought he had committed the perfect crime."
So far, though, Johnson is not admitting he committed any crime at all. On Sept. 30 he pleaded not guilty to armed robbery, kidnapping and money-laundering charges; held without bail, he now awaits his Dec. 8 trial in Jacksonville. If convicted, he faces life in prison. His lawyer has given no indication about the line of defense, but Johnson's family feels he may have been suffering from chronic depression, and they hope the courts will take his mental health into account. Says Sharon: "We just want him to get the help he needs."
MEG GRANT and MARISA SALCINES in Jacksonville
- Meg Grant,
- Marisa Salcines.
PERHAPS THE RICHEST MAN TO ever board a bus in Matamoros, Mexico, got on the dingy El Expresso at 7 a.m. on Aug. 30. Forty-five minutes later the Houstonbound bus stopped at the U.S. border crossing in Brownsville, Texas, where Customs Inspector Virginia Rodriguez interrogated all 25 passengers. Her questions were routine—"How long were you in Mexico? Where are you going in the U.S.?"—and so were the answers, until she got to the thin, bearded American who'd gotten on in Matamoros.