Something about a tourist returning from Mexico reminded U.S. Customs Service inspector Virginia Rodriguez of that guy on “Saturday Night Live” who played a pathological liar.
That proved just the ticket to help her nail Philip Noel Johnson, an armored car driver accused of stealing $22 million from his employer last March in Jacksonville, Fla.
Because Johnson reminded Rodriguez of comedian Jon Lovitz, formerly of “Saturday Night Live,” she ran the name he gave - Roger Lawter - through a national crime data base.
It was a known alias of Johnson, 33, accused of pulling the biggest heist in U.S. history.
During routine questioning on Aug. 30, Rodriguez, a senior inspector at Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border, asked Johnson what he had been doing in Mexico. He was one of 25 passengers on a bus headed to Houston.
“He said he had gone to visit friends. I repeated, ‘To visit friends?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. That’s it. To visit friends.’ And it reminded me of that character on ‘Saturday Night Live,”’ she said.
If she were a private citizen, her hunch would have earned her a $500,000 award. Instead, she got a trip to Washington, a certificate, a distinguished service medal and a handshake from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in front of television cameras.
“I feel a little awkward about accepting this award when all I was doing was my job,” said Rodriguez, a 10-year veteran of the Customs Service.
“We apprehend fugitives all the time,” she said. “I was only doing the same job that every Customs Service inspector was doing.”
During this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the service has apprehended 1,956 fugitives along the Mexican border, agency spokesman Bill Anthony said.