The day SHAZAM committed the greatest crime in US history?

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On April 5, 2019, Warner Bros released their latest superhero film, SHAZAM. In an attempt to move away from the earlier grim and gritty films the company had achieved moderate success with – such as Batman, Superman and the Justice League – the bighearted, lighter tone story of a foster kid receiving superpowers from an ancient entity hit the right tone with moviegoers everywhere, and to this point has made well over $300 million at the box office. The character has a long history, and few know there was even a time when SHAZAM was America’s most wanted felon thanks to what has been called the nation’s most “perfect crime”.

A reporter wearing a Captain Marvel rubber mask similar to those worn by the bandits, and points to a name plate on the first of six locked doors opened by the gunmen. Boston Public Library

Boston Massachusetts. On January 17, 1950, the days last shipment of cash was brought into the Brink’s armored car depot situated at the east corner of Prince St. and Commercial St. for sorting and storage. The vault sat on the 3rd floor of the building, and as they worked the five guards on-duty suddenly became aware of a group of six or seven armed men silently walking into the room wearing gloves, chauffeur caps, naval “pea jackets and outlandish masks”, according to Life Magazine (30 Jan, 1950).

Overpowered and outnumbered, the guards were taken prisoner, tied up and the robbers began the monumental task of stuffing the days takings into large sacks. For an estimated 15 minutes the robbers bagged the money and moved it to their own truck, only stopping when a sudden buzzer caught them by surprise. A Brink’s employee had arrived and buzzed the security door to be let in, and even though he left after receiving no reply, his appearance was enough to cause concern and the robbers decided it was time to depart.

The thieves not only got away with $1,218,211.29 in cash and $1,557,183.83 in cheques and other bonds – $28 million in modern currency – they took with them the prestige of the Brink’s security company, which claimed to be the safest in the nation. Once alerted to the theft the police began their investigation, and as some of the money stolen had been federal funds, so too did the FBI.

FBI image of the adhesive tape the robbers had left behind.

Due to the ease of entry the initial feeling among the investigators was this had been an inside job, and they began interviewing everyone connected to the business and collecting the few clues that had been left behind. This included the tape and rope used to gag and bind the employees, along with one of the chauffeur caps, which had been dropped at the crime scene. Later the remains of the truck believed to have been part of the heist was found in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

The chauffeur cap left behind by the robbers. Boston Public Library

They followed this up by interviewing every criminal on their books, hoping someone might give the robbers up. Despite a growing list of suspects, many of who were called in to testify about what they knew before a grand jury, no one was saying anything. This led nowhere, but another team had been researching who could have provided the articles the robbers had left behind, but no local distributor seemed to have been the supplier. Rather than a dead end, this led investigators to believe the gang had come from out of town, perhaps even out of state.

The amount of money was sure to make a splash somewhere, so next the authorities contacted any location where large sums of hard cash could be moved with anonymity. Race tracks, casinos, even holiday resorts were staked out in the hope that someone entered them to spend an unusually large amount of money, but once again this path led nowhere.

The nation’s newspapers filled with admiring headlines like this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though the money was insured, the company’s reputation was not, especially when so much praise was heaped on the robbers. Newspaper titles like the “crime of the century,” the “perfect crime” and the “fabulous Brink’s robbery” forced Brinks to regain their status as the nation’s preeminent security company, and so they announced a substantial reward for any information that led to the perpetrators. It did not work!

For six long years the crime was investigated with seemingly little luck, and bizarrely for the investigation team time was soon running out. The Federal limitations statutes for robbery had already passed and the Massachusetts statute was mere days from passing as well. That’s when the FBI struck.

The remains of the 1949 green Ford stake-body truck with a canvas top that had been used to haul the money away, found in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Boston Public Library

It would seem instead of having no idea, the authorities had been careful with their investigation, gathering information and chasing down every lead, and they were now ready to move. The break in the case proved to be the getaway vehicle. Two men the FBI had suspected lived near where the remains from the truck had been dumped, including a well-known thief called Joseph O’Keefe.

Six months after the robbery, the F.B.I. got the break it was looking for when Mr. O’Keefe was arrested by the Pennsylvania State Police for speeding. Inside the car were five guns and another Boston hoodlum with a long criminal record, Stanley Gusciora. The men were tried and convicted of firearms violations and sent to prison. Then, the pieces fell into place. Mr. Gusciora’s brother lived in Stoughton, Mass. next to the junk yard where the cutup truck was found (March 28, 1976, New York Times).”

Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe – Boston Public Library

When O’Keefe was sentenced to 27 months jail for a probation violation and mysteriously began sending requests to other suspects of the robbery for large sums of money to aid in his defense, the investigators decided to have a word with him. Their timing was perfect as O’Keefe, known in the trade as ‘Specs’ was ready to make a deal.

Specs sang like the proverbial canary and his tale was like something from a Dick Tracy novel, full of colorful characters and daring do.  It would seem Joseph ‘Big Joe’ McGinnis came up with the plan to rob the company, and brought in Stanley ‘Gus’ Gusciora and Anthony Pino – who in turn recruited Michael Vincent ‘Vinnie’ Geagan, Thomas ‘Sandy’ Francis Richardson, Adolf H. ‘Jazz’ Maffei, Henry Conan, James ‘Guillemets’ Faherty, Joseph Banfield and Vincent Costa. The men took up a position on the roof opposite the building and noted schedules and the building’s layout. They then began breaking into the building, one secure door at a time, opening and pulling apart the door’s locks and making copies of the tumblers inside so they could cut their own key. They then practiced the break-in by actually breaking into the building during the hours they knew the staff were not there. It took two years for them to feel they were ready for the real thing.

O’Keefe described how they broke in on January 17th and took control of the staff, bagged and carried the loot away and then made good their escape. Later they split up some of the money, but only enough to give those involved some cash in their pockets, but not enough that it would cause suspicion. The bulk of the money was hidden, as the plan was the take would not be touched for another 6 years until the statutes of limitations had expired and they could no longer be arrested for the crime.

Workmen replacing the locks at the Brinks
Boston Public Library

O’Keefe claimed he never saw any of the money, which is why he was caught during another burglary just a few months later. At the time he was questioned about the larger job, but kept his mouth shut, did his time and was released on parole – and later busted for speeding and found in violation of driving a car full of weapons.

Before this happened though and in need of cash, O’Keefe left jail and promptly kidnapped one of his fellow criminals (Vincent Costa) and demanded some of the heist money. The rest of the gang decided it was simply easier to get rid of Specs than pay the ransom, so they hired a hitman called Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke to kill him. Trigger managed to find Specs and shot him, but the kidnapper survived. It was when the FBI approached the thief and kidnapper while in hospital recovering from the gunshot that Specs realized it was now in his best interest to admit to everything.

Armed with Specs’ testimony and the evidence they had been collecting, the law swept down and picked up the remaining gang members, all of who it turns out had been previously questioned about the robbery by the grand jury. Every one of them was successfully sentenced, with most receiving life imprisonment. The hefty sentences was likely because they never revealed where the money was held, and it remains undiscovered to this day.

The two styles of masks used in the Brinks Robbery. Captain Marvel Jr (left) and Captain Marvel (right). FBI

SHAZAM

One piece of information the FBI had sought was the source of the masks, which they reported depicted the Superhero SHAZAM, known at the time as Captain Marvel. These masks were considered one of the possible keys to the investigation early on, and the FBI released reports on the masks hoping someone might recall selling them.

At one point the mysterious gang behind the theft became so famous that Ed Sullivan got in on the act and had a group of men in similar Captain Marvel masks appear on his Sunday night show. The men he jokingly introduced beforehand as special guests, and when they appeared on stage and were introduced as the Brinks robbers, they received thunderous applause.

The identification of the masks as Captain Marvel (and Captain Marvel Jr.) continued as late as 2017, when the FBI highlighted the robbery and the mask on their twitter feed, but there is something odd about the rubber faces.

The masks were sold by a mail order company called Johnson Smith, and the son of its Australian founder, Paul Smith, was interviewed by Esquire magazine’s Stanley Elkin (July 1st, 1974). After talking about his long career selling whoopee cushions and x-ray specs in magazines and comic books, Elkin offered up the following comments about the masks his company once sold.

 “The rubber masks have been used in holdups. As a matter of fact, that Brinks robbery in Boston—the F.B.I. came and went through our letters for a year back and tried to locate…They took every order for rubber masks and checked it.”

“Were they your rubber masks?”

“Oh no, but every once in a while I’ll read where a gas station has been held up and the thieves were wearing rubber masks.”

“Does that sort of thing happen often? I mean when your merchandise is used to. . . ?”

“I don’t think so. Not often. Some boy will steal some money or he’ll forge a check and the police will go to his room and they’ll find something that he’s bought by mail, and they’ll want to know if it was ordered from us, so we’ll try to look up the order.”

Elkin pointed out the masks had not been supplied by his company, yet this is doubtful as a Johnson Smith catalog page in 1950 reveals the company selling a number of masks at the time. Among the Santa Claus, Witch and the highly prejudiced China man and comic negro sits the Captain Marvel Jr mask highlighted by the FBI. Evidence that the mask was indeed the same as that sold by the company is, even with a casual glance it’s easy to tell not only are the masks identical, both images are likely from the exact same photo.

Interestingly the 1950 catalog does not list the mask as belonging to the superhero, instead it is listed by the more generic ‘Handsome Man’ label, and the reason for this could be connected to why you can go to the cinema today and watch either a SHAZAM film for DC and a Captain Marvel movie from Marvel.

Whiz Comics #22 (Oct. 1941), featuring Captain Marvel and his alter-ego, the 12-year-old Billy Batson. Art by C.C. Beck. image: Fawcett Publications

In 1938 DC comics published the most famous and rarest comic in the world. Action Comics #1 not only contained a new character in Superman, but began a new genre we today know as the superhero. The immediate success of this title had other publishers scrambling to release their own superhero titles, and among the crowd was WHIZ comics from Fawcett, containing an entirely new hero called Captain Marvel. The story is similar to that in the current film, an orphan boy is tagged by an ancient entity with the power of the immortal elders Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. When saying the magic word SHAZAM – made from the combined names of the immortals – the young Billy Batson is transformed into the world’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel.

Whiz Comics #2 (Feb. 1940) containing the first appearance of Captain Marvel; art by C. C. Beck. Fawcett Publications

Unlike many of the other superhero comics that followed Superman, DC comics took a serious interest in Fawcett’s character, especially when WHIZ Comics started outselling Superman by a substantial margin. Though kids loved Superman, they really did not identify with a powerful alien living in an adult world… they could however identify with a boy who used a magical word to transform into a superhero that could beat up school yard bullies. The immediate success of Captain Marvel led to a film serial, a number of other related titles and characters (such as Captain Marvel Jr), and of course product placements and toys. This of course included the line of rubber Halloween masks sold through the mail by Johnson Smith.

DC was not happy and sued Fawcett in 1941 as they believed Captain Marvel was clearly based on Superman – for example both were super powered with mild mannered alter egos. Seven years of back and forth between both companies could not find a resolution and the case finally went to court in 1948. It was clear Fawcett had a case to answer, and the Judge did find them in breach of copyright, though in a strange twist he also noted that DC had been negligent in fully copyrighting Superman in his newspaper titles, and in 1951 decided Fawcett did not have a case to answer.

Judge Learned Hand

DC immediately appealed and Judge Learned Hand (not the first person in this strange tale to have a comic book character name), felt Fawcett was in breech. Seeing the writing on the wall, and with plummeting sales after the war as many readers began looking for more hard-edged story-lines, Fawcett decided to settle. The company stopped printing Captain Marvel, paid their damages bill to DC and handed over several characters that could also have been in breach of copyright, and that was that…

…until Marvel Comics stepped in.

The tongue-in-cheek animosity between the worlds two largest comic publishers has a long history. Even today, whenever DC/Warner Bros announces or releases a movie trailer for an upcoming superhero film, the industry juggernaut that is MARVEL Entertainment seems to immediately follow up with one of their own to steal their competitors thunder. This company bickering goes back decades, and the publisher of Spider-man and the Avengers was never happy that another publisher had a title with the word MARVEL in it.

When superhero titles had a resurgence in the 1960s, DC comics decided to publish new stories containing Fawcett’s former hero, yet when they went to publish Captain Marvel they discovered they no longer had the right to the name. It would seem between Fawcett ending its publication of Captain Marvel and DC looking to begin, MARVEL had rushed out their own comic series with an all new hero using the name, and so gaining the copyright.

Cover to ‘’Shazam! The Original Captain Marvel’’ #1 (February 1973), Art by C.C. Beck with Nick Cardy. DC Comics

DC could still use the character but was forced to change the title, and chose ‘SHAZAM, the Original Captain Marvel’. This brought a swift cease and desists from Marvel’s lawyers, forcing DC to change the title again, this time to the ‘World’s Mightiest Mortal, SHAZAM’.

This nasty lawsuit could explain why businesses that had been using the characters likeness to sell their products began backing away from Captain Marvel, for example the 1950 Johnson Smith advertisement lists the mask as ‘handsome man’ and not the superhero. The character was part of the ongoing lawsuit between Fawcett and DC at the time and it was likely anyone using the character’s name were concerned they would soon be receiving a visit from DC’s lawyers. This could explain why most media outlets missed the point that the masks used in the Brinks robbery depicted Captain Marvel, at the time not even the company producing the masks were using the name to describe them.

And if you think this is the end of this strange story, well there is one last twist – the proverbial cherry on top of the cake so to speak. Some of the Brinks robbers died in prison, some did their time and were released after several years, and what happened to Specs O’Keefe? In 1976 the nation’s newspapers were once again filled with stories about the crime as O’Keefe had recently died in LA.

March 27, 1976: Joseph J. “Specs” O’Keefe, who took part in the celebrated 1950 Brink’s heist then turned informer, died in California at age 67. It should be noted that the reason for his demise was listed as natural causes, since he lived under a series of assumed names and faced the constant threat of gangland retribution for testifying against eight fellow bandits. in the North End robbery.

According to his obituary in the Globe, O’Keefe — known for his natty attire — carved out a new life on the West Coast, even working for a time as a valet and chauffeur for Cary Grant. The movie star apparently was unaware of O’Keefe’s shady past.”

Only in this story could a man who wore a SHAZAM mask and a chauffeurs cap to help perpetrate the greatest robbery in US history – then kidnap one of his fellow criminals to get a cut of the take and escape an assassination attempt by the others who refused to pay up – later secretly become the driver for arguably the largest movie star on the planet, Cary Grant. Its like Specs was living his own comic book life.