Twenty years ago this Wednesday, a small group of people stole $17 million in cash from the main vault of a Loomis Fargo & Co. armored-car warehouse in west Charlotte.
It was the second-largest cash heist in U.S. history, and it wasn’t solved right away. The main players had time to conspicuously spend some of their money and, in the case of David Scott Ghantt, the Loomis Fargo employee who removed the money from the vault, flee to Mexico.
The images of the aftermath – the huge house on Cramer Mountain with its leopard-print carpet, the blue barrels full of money, the lonely hotel room in Playa del Carmen where Ghantt ate M&Ms instead of going to the beach – endured long after 21 people were convicted for their connections to the heist.
The heist led to a book, TV specials, a major movie. Here’s how to catch up on one of the Charlotte area’s strangest stories.
The 2016 movie “Masterminds,” starring N.C. native Zach Galifianakis, loosely interprets the facts of the heist in a goofy action comedy. It’s available to stream on Netflix, and the description on the site starts with the phrase “Four dim-witted Southerners,” which should tip you off that this retelling deserves a few grains of salt. Ghantt was an on-set consultant for the film.
The 2015 revised edition of former Observer reporter Jeff Diamant’s book, “Heist: The Oddball Crew Behind the $17 Million Loomis Fargo Theft,” written by one of the lead reporters who covered the heist and its aftermath. Diamant captures the human side of the crime as well as the bizarre details, including a clown-faced lava lamp.
The Gaston Gazette interviewed Ghantt, who’s now in his late 40s and living as a free man in Florida. He misses Tony’s Ice Cream in Gastonia, and he discusses how he tells employers about his criminal history.
A series of snapshots published in the Observer on March 8, 1998, just as the FBI – and everyone else – was getting a grip on just how strange the heist had been.
And there’s the story of then-Observer reporter Joe DePriest’s race to Mexico to catch Ghantt as he was getting arrested.
When Ghantt was found in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, five months after the heist, DePriest and photographer Kent Johnson raced to the airport, according to Observer records.
During a layover in Florida, they learned that Ghantt was already on his way back to the U.S. with authorities, but they flew to Cancun anyway and rented a car to reach Playa del Carmen, a resort town. DePriest talked to employees at the hotel where Ghantt had stayed under the name James T. Kelley and claiming to be an oilrigger on vacation.
“I found the young woman who worked as a hotel receptionist and remembered many details about Ghantt: how he stayed in Room 101 eating M&Ms, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, reading Superman comics and listening to the Eagles,” DePriest wrote.
The receptionist told DePriest that she could see the pain on Ghantt’s face, though she didn’t know what caused it. He rarely went to the nearby beach, she said. Later, DePriest would learn through Diamant’s reporting for his book that Ghantt was terrified of being followed in Mexico, always looking over his shoulder and sitting near the exit in restaurants.
He wasn’t just being paranoid. According to federal indictments, some of Ghantt’s co-conspirators were planning to fly to Mexico and kill him. FBI agents got to him first.