If you didn’t live in the Charlotte area 25 years ago, you might not believe it. But if you did, you’ll never forget it.
Tuesday marked 25 years since a group of buddies pulled off the third-largest money grab in U.S. history -- the Loomis Fargo heist.
How did they get away with stealing more than $17 million?
A former FBI agent who helped crack the case sat down with Channel 9 Reporter Glenn Counts to talk about the clues that led to solving the crime, and how the group got caught.
FBI agent who worked case: ‘It just happened to fall on my desk’
Money. It has a certain feel, a smell and weight to it. For the defendants in the Loomis Fargo heist, its allure was irresistible.
David Ghantt was just an “average Joe” with an average low-wage job. But being the vault supervisor at Loomis Fargo had one perk -- exposure to tons of cash.
“He’d never really been in trouble, he wasn’t a career criminal,” said retired FBI agent John Wydra.
Of course the problem was, the money belonged to someone else. But on Oct. 4, 1997, that no longer mattered and Ghantt took off with $17.3 million.
“He quickly found out when you have money, you just have different problems,” Wydra said.
Though Wydra is retired, 25 years ago, he was an agent with the FBI.
“Not every agent has a case like that,” he said. “You can have your whole career and not have a case like that. It just happened to fall on my desk.”
By now, you probably know the names -- David Ghantt, Steve Chambers and his wife Michelle, and Kelly Campbell. Campbell used to work for Loomis and continued the friendship with Ghantt, eventually hooking him up with Chambers.
Jim Gronquist was Campbell’s defense attorney. He said at first, they were very proud of what they had been able to do.
“Well she was a pretty happy-go-lucky person,” he said. “I think if you remember some of her early ‘photographic opportunities,’ shall we put it that way, she was sort of laughing, not seeming to take it seriously.”
It wasn’t hard for feds to crack the case
To the community, the Loomis Fargo heist was a big joke -- the largest hillbilly caper of all time. The gang made numerous mistakes.
For example, Steve Chambers and his wife were living in a trailer and upgraded to what would today be a multi-million-dollar mansion at Cramer Mountain.
FBI video shows the agency searching that home and finding drawers full of cash.
The Chambers home is now gated, which means Channel 9 crews can’t drive up to it like we used to. The property has changed hands several times since then.
Of course the most famous thing inside the home was a velvet Elvis portrait. It, too, has changed hands several times. It’s said the current owner now has it in storage in Phoenix, Arizona.
The participants in the heist also spent lavishly on fancy jewelry, fancy cars and breast enhancement surgeries.
“Well they were in some sense celebrities,” Gronquist said.
The hillbilly outfit did more that just drop a few breadcrumbs. In addition to their extravagant spending, Michelle Chambers made the mistake of loudly asking a bank teller how much cash she could deposit in her account without it being reported to the feds, and then said, “it’s not drug money.”
“But what the bank didn’t tell Michelle, and Michelle didn’t know, was that one of those forms get filled out if you ask about it, or if it’s close to $10,000 or if they suspect that any part of that transaction is suspicious,” Wydra said.
So the pieces were falling into place for investigators. They assumed that whoever was involved would keep the cash in a safe place, like a safe deposit box.
“Then we went on a mission to calculate exactly how much size-wise the money was, $11.3 million in $20 bills, and it weighed over 2,000 pounds,” Wydra said. “So we were able to figure out with all the denominations, it would require about 20 safe deposit boxes to store it all.”
Ghantt had fled to Mexico with $50,000 in cash, leaving the rest of the money with Steve Chambers. By this time, agents knew where he was and had a general idea who the other players were, so they went to every bank in town to see if any of them rented a safe deposit box. And they hit the jackpot -- FBI video shows agents recovering most of the stolen cash.
“What kind of surprised me is how much the car smelled like money, like if you ever hold money up to your nose it has a distinct smell,” Wydra said. “When I put that cash in the back of the car, by the time I got to the office the whole car smelled like that. That was the thing that sticks in my mind to this day.”
While Ghantt trusted Chambers enough to leave his cut behind, Chambers had other plans. He allegedly hired a hitman to take Ghantt out, tying up the ultimate loose end.
“I don’t know if Steve would have done it himself, but he definitely was capable of buying someone to do it for him and I think that was going to happen if we didn’t step in and arrest Ghantt,” Wydra said.
Arrests and the rise to the public eye
All of the co-defendants were arrested the next day, about six months after the heist.
“So the original gang was all totally shocked,” Wydra said. “They didn’t expect it.”
“‘Oh we’re not going to talk to anybody,’ ‘they’re not going to be able to convict us,’ that bravado happens in the beginning and then it often gets worn down by the reality,” Gronquist said.
All but one of the 24 defendants pleaded guilty, and the one who didn’t take the deal was convicted.
Since then, there have been numerous articles, books, documentaries and even a movie about this gang -- the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
The movie was called Masterminds and stars Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson. It was released in 2016 and Wydra was invited to the premiere.
“So that was kind of like this once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Wydra said. “How many people have walked the red carpet at a movie premiere in a case that was yours?”
All of the defendants are out of prison -- the longest sentence was 11 years. But that only tells part of the story. All of the primary players got fined millions of dollars --for example, Kelly Campbell was hit with more than $4 million, an amount that she will never come close to paying.
“What it does is put a ball and chain on that person for the rest of their lives, they are walking around and they are basically an indentured servant,” Gronquist said.
None of the suspects had been in any serious trouble before this. Was the temptation too much?
“People don’t seem to understand human nature. Human nature is a flexible part of life,” Gronquist said. He added that money can be a motivator for anyone.
“Temptation to do something that you think you normally wouldn’t do can change a lot of minds when it’s that kind of cash, and that’s what it was.”
(WATCH BELOW: VIDEO: The Loomis Fargo heist: 25 years later)