CLEVELAND — Imagine pulling off one of the biggest bank heists of our time, stealing millions of dollars, only to be found out because one of your friends forgot to bring the fake IDs.
In episode one of our "Bomb City, U.S.A." podcast, we talked about the rise and fall of the Irishman, Danny Greene. In episode two, we dug into the mafia boss who flipped on his Cleveland crime family and helped take down five New York city godfathers.
Now, 3News investigator Rachel Polansky is taking a closer look at a crew of mobbed-up burglars who pulled off one of the biggest break-ins ever, and almost got away with it.
"A score of a lifetime."
That’s what Youngstown burglar Amil Dinsio was thinking in 1972, when a Cleveland mobster told him about the job.
"President Nixon [allegedly] had $30 million in a bank in California," Dinsio said.
Nixon was still in the White House (Watergate hadn’t happened yet), and according to the tipster, a stash of $30 million – some of which was rumored to belong to the president - was sitting in a bank vault in California. Nixon had allegedly been shaking down the U.S. dairy farmers – promising to raise the price of raw milk if the farmers' lobby gave him a big contribution.
While it sounded unbelievable, Dinsio said it came from a well-known source.
"I really didn’t believe it at first, but coming from a source like Jimmy Hoffa, who got around good, he knew and he was friends with the mafia. Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia were pretty tight," Dinsio remembered. "So he told us where it was. He said 'Laguna Niguel.' We didn't know where it was, so we got ready and we took a trip out there. We drove out there."
The tipster said the loot was in safety deposit boxes at the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, a sleepy beach town about one hour south of Los Angeles. Amil Dinsio – along with his brother James and his brother-in-law Chuck Mulligan – rented a car and headed west, arriving in the Golden State a few days later.
"So we found Laguna Niguel, and the bank sat perfect," Dinsio said. "So we did surveillance on the bank and all that."
The bank was located inside a shopping center, so they spent the first night watching what happened after dark. While there were a few nearby stores, none of them stayed open 24/7. This was a good thing, because it meant people wouldn't be around.
Everything was going according to plan. Now, it was time for Dinsio to drive back to Youngstown and prep – get the tools and the crew he needed to pull this off.
Amil Dinsio was the leader, and also handled the alarms. James Dinsio was the explosives expert, and Chuck Mulligan was responsible for acquiring and hiding the tools.
Amil also enlisted his nephews, Harry and Ronnie Barber. Harry would be the getaway driver, and Ronnie – who lived in California and had a clean record – would be able to rent a condo nearby.
Then there was Phil Christopher, a Cleveland burglar who was nicknamed "Super Thief" and specialized in alarms, and his mobbed-up partner Charley Broeckel.
"A lot of people say, 'Where did you get the nerve to do it?'" Christpher says. "I don’t know, it just became a routine thing. It was simple, you know?"
We met with the 78-year-old "Super Thief" on a cool, autumn day at a suburban park in Chesterland. Phil Christopher is clean shaven, wearing a black polo and a baseball cap that says "Ironworkers Local" He grew up in Danny Greene's old stomping grounds of Collinwood. and he remembers his childhood fondly.
"Family life, my parents were wonderful," he recalls. "Even when I did something wrong, maybe to their mistake, they were there to back me up.".
He was an ambitious – yet rebellious – teenager, and he liked making money.
"I think I was around 16 or something like that," he told us. "I was a doorman at a dry cleaner on St. Clair avenue where I'd let guys in and out where they'd have dice and card games. I was able to meet a lot of older guys, and one of them took me under his wing. He taught me and a friend of mine how to open a square door safe.
"So we were 16 and there [were] four of us, and we burglarized a drug store, got $1,600, and that was a lot of money back then. It just sort of escalated after that."
Christopher says Cleveland and Youngstown were home to the best thieves in the world. So he watched and he learned – about alarms, safes and vaults
"If you learn from the best and you’re mechanically inclined, you're gonna be the best of the best," he said. "That's all there is to it."
What happened next, and how did they pull off the heist in Laguna Niguel? All that and more in episode three of "Bomb City, U.S.A."