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A Heist Bitterly Hatched Armored Car Driver Gone With $22 Million

Mon., June 23, 1997, midnight

Philip Noel Johnson toiled 10 years as an armored car driver, hauling millions of dollars around Florida and Georgia for wages of $7 an hour.

He complained constantly, bitter about a lifetime of lost opportunities - how a crooked spine kept him out of police or military service, how God never gave him a wife, how he couldn’t find a good-paying job.

The complaining ceased in late March. Johnson may finally have succeeded at something significant. In one of the biggest heists on record, he is accused of robbing his employer and stealing a van stuffed with $22 million.

Johnson, 33, was initially considered an amateur who would be nabbed in days. That was before authorities discovered he’d been painstakingly planning the robbery for years.

The crime has stumped the FBI and police. Some officials suspect he’s fled overseas.

Johnson lived alone in a small house he’d bought in a modest neighborhood for $44,000 seven years ago. Inside, after the robbery, police found a spray-painted message scrawled across a wall - “House of Pain.”

In the days before the heist, friends and neighbors say, Johnson voiced his frustrations.

“He just couldn’t get anywhere in life. He was always talking about his disappointments and his job didn’t pay good. It was always negative things,” said neighbor June Glover.

Dr. Richard Hollinger, a University of Florida sociology professor who has studied employee theft, said inside jobs are “closely linked to feelings of inequity that employers engender over a long period of time.”

At the time of the robbery, Johnson made less than $15,000 a year.

“It sounds like this was pretty well thought out,” Hollinger said.

This is what occurred Saturday, March 29, according to law enforcement officials:

About 7 p.m., Johnson drove his armored car to the Loomis office about a mile from his home. Fellow guards Dan Smith, 27, and James Brown, 52, were inside, placing money into the vault.

Johnson pulled a gun, handcuffed the guards and slipped bags over their heads, then stuffed a large white van with bags of money from floor to ceiling.

Before leaving, Johnson gathered surveillance videotapes, paperwork from Saturday pickups and his personnel file and sabotaged the vault so it couldn’t open when time locks released at 2 p.m. Sunday.

He took Brown to his house and handcuffed him to a pipe in the bedroom closet. He drove Smith in the stolen van to the mountains near Asheville, N.C.

When Brown and Smith had not come home by Sunday afternoon, relatives called police, who discovered the robbery. About that time, authorities found Smith unharmed. He told police where to find Brown.

Police found the van, empty, the next morning in Asheville.

FBI agents believe Johnson took a bus to the Mexican border, according to Capt. Bruce Pike of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office in Asheville.

Johnson used fake IDs, some of which had been acquired in 1995, to avoid police, and has fake passports he could use to leave the country, the FBI said.

“They know he spent a night or two in Mexico and might have moved from there,” Pike said.

“I would have thought we would have him by now,” said Rick Seibler, chief of detectives for the Jacksonville sheriff’s office. “We may be in for the long haul.”


 
Tags: fugitive

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