Monday, December 21, 2009

Notorious Crimes of Charlotte



Mail Truck Robbery nets $120,000

It was an early morning in Charlotte - the date was Nov. 15, 1933. A mail deliveryman making his rounds pulls his truck into a dirt side street as a black car screeches to a halt just beside him. Several men jump out - one of them is armed with a submachine gun. He points the weapon at the delivery driver and orders him out of the truck. In less than two minutes, they commit the
largest robbery to date in Carolina history, getting away with an
estimated $120,000. The robbers were members of a Chicago gang - the Touhy Gang - on the lamb from Illinois police and trying to scrape up money to defend the gang's leader in an upcoming kidnapping trial. Then Charlotte Police Chief Frank N. Littlejohn blew the lid off the case when he uncovered the gang's hideout in Charlotte and tracked them back to a Chicago address by piecing together bits
of paper from a garbage can. Gangsters Basil "The Owl" Banghart, Ludwig "Dutch" Schmidt, Charles "Ice" Connors and Isaac Costner. Connors was later found dead in a Chicago suburb clutching a penny (a gangland symbol for betrayal). Banghart was later sentenced to 36 years in prison, Costner turned state's evidence and got five years, while Schmidt was given 32 years, with his sentence later reduced.



Commando-like Gang invades downtown Belk

Late Saturday evening on April 1, 1967, Onan Smith Sr. was making the
rounds of the sprawling old downtown Belk Store, that once stood where the Bank of America Corporate Center is today.
Smith had just finished the first floor when three men suddenly appeared before him. The store was already closed for the evening so Smith thought it was
particularly odd that the men had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. He didn't notice the fourth man behind him, who knocked him unconscious with the barrel of a gun before he had a chance to react.
While he was still unconscious, the men dragged Smith up a stairwell
to the fourth floor and handcuffed him to the staircase railing. Smith wouldn't regain consciousness for a few hours.
During that time, the well-organized gang of thieves used acetylene
torches to cut into a large walk-in vault and three other smaller safes. In the jewelry department they ripped open another safe and a wooden cabinet. According to police, they would walk away with as much as $200,000 in cash and $13,000 in furs and jewelry. According to John McCaskill, a former manager of the
downtown store, the case was never solved. "That was a long time
ago," McCaskill recalled. "But for the time, it was quite a sum of money."



Serial Arsonist: Charlotte's Lounge scene goes up in Flames

Over a five-year period in Charlotte, North Carolina, from 1971-76,
numerous nightclubs throughout the city were torched systematically, all using a similar method of soaking the club’s interiors with kerosene or gasoline. Among the businesses to be burned: The Purple Penguin, The Scorpio Lounge, the C’est Bon, the Carrousel Lounge,
the Soul Train and a host of others. Local nightclub owners are fearful of a so-called "protection racket" that is extorting business owners for money — so they won’t be burned out. Others suggest that rival bar owners are simply trying to squash competition — and that it’s gotten out of control. A handful of the
cases are solved but most remain open. Several owners refuse to speak
publicly for fear of reprisal.

Captured in Charlotte: one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted

In 1972 Willie Foster Sellers drifted into Charlotte. His criminal
career dated back to the 1950s, when he liked to break into small town banks after business hours and clean them out. He had also had numerous syndicate crime connections that may have provided him contract murder jobs.
Charlotte proved to be a small enough town at the time that Sellers
was hopeful about potential "jobs" he'd yet to pull off. On January 31, 1973, however, he made the mistake of driving after having too much to drink and was arrested by Officers H.C. Dozier and F.G. Finch.
The two had no idea they had one of the FBI's ten most wanted on their hands, especially when he produced a Tennessee driver's license with the name of Sylvester Frank Cash. Sellers was cooperative with the policeman under the guise of Cash,even after he failed his sobriety test. He was strangely insistent that he wanted to put his bottle of Vodka in the trunk of his car. Dozier and Finch refused his request - informing him that it would be held as
evidence.
A few hours later, Dozier received a call from the wrecker company
that towed Sellers' car – in the trunk they discovered a machine gun and a thirty-caliber carbine altered to accept a silencer.
Although Sellers was scheduled to be released, Dozier quickly made a
call to put that on hold. Realizing he had more than just a drunk driver on his hands, he contacted the FBI, who informed Dozier he'd captured William Foster Sellers, who held a special place on the FBI's Ten Most
wanted List.
The agent said that Sellers had vowed he'd never be taken alive and Dozier remembered Seller's insistence about putting the vodka in the trunk - the same trunk that held a fully loaded machine gun.
Sellers eventually came to trial in Charlotte where he was convicted
of federal firearms violations. The hearings were marked by intense publicity and heady security for fear of any of Sellers' associates lurking nearby.




Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a swami-like guru whose teachings included,
"sex is fun, materialism is good and Jesus was a madman," and the claim that he was "the world's greatest lover," was catapulted into the international media eye when his followers successfully took over and renamed the Oregon town of Antelope "The City of Rajneesh."
In 1985, an effort to strengthen their control of the city, Rajneeshees infected salad bars of several restaurants in the town with salmonella, just before election day, in an attempt to make everyone but their own people too sick to vote, so that the Rajneeshees could take over thecounty government. Reportedly more than 750 people were affected.
After all that drama Rajneesh decided it was time to leave Oregon, and quick. Along the way, he made one fatal error - his plane landed in Charlotte for refueling before heading to Bermuda, where he was intercepted and arrested by U.S. Immigration authorities. At the bail hearings the controversial Rajneesh was shown in chains and handcuffs, even further focusing the world's eye on Charlotte.
Following his conviction, Under the deal his lawyers made with the United States Attorney's office, he was given a 10-year suspended sentence, placed on five years' probation and ordered to pay $400,000 in fines and prosecution costs; in addition, he agreed to leave the United States and not to return for at least five years. In 1987 he changed his name to Osho and returned to Pune, where he intially began his spiritual journey. On January 9, 1990, Osho died, reportedly of heart failure, though the belief that he died from AIDS-related causes has been widely speculated.




The PTL Scandal

From 1984 to 1987, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their associates offered life-time partnerships to fund the building of facilities at Heritage USA, a Christian
holiday and activity center in Fort Mill, South Carolina. In return for their financial support, the partners were promised free lodging at Heritage USA, if space was available. However, the organization could not keep its promises towards them and was accused of deliberately refraining from building sufficient
lodging space for regular guests plus Lifetime Partners. One of the most important allegations was that they oversold, which constituted fraud. After reporters at the Charlotte Observer, led by Charles Shepard, discovered the financial wrongdoings, Bakker was put on trial and resigned from his position at PTL. All of that scandal was only enhanced by the appearance of Jessica
Hahn, a woman who claimed that she and Bakker had been sexually involved.
Judge Robert Potter convicted Bakker of fraud and conspiring to commit fraud and sentenced him to 45 years in prison. He served almost 5 years in prison and was
paroled for good behavior in 1993. In 1992 he and his wife Tammy Faye were divorced at her request.
In 2004 Bakker authored a second book, entitled “I Survived (And You Can, Too),” and made an appearance on the reality show “The Surreal Life.” Sadly, Tammy Faye succumbed to colon and lung cancer on July 20, 2007.
In 2003, Jim Bakker began broadcasting a new evangelical ministry program called “The Jim Bakker Show.” As of 2008, Bakker and other followers had moved into a new 600-acre studio that resembles his former headquarters in Heritage USA, just outside of Charlotte in Fort Mill, S.C.



The Hillbilly Heist

It was late in the evening - October 4, 1997. David Scott Ghantt, who
had worked with Loomis Fargo since 1994, proceeded to load $17 million into the back of a company van, and take off for parts unknown.
He cooked up the scheme with former Loomis Fargo employee Kelly Campbell, who actually got the ball rolling when she told Ghantt about a friend who had criminal connections, and could help them with the job.
Campbell's friend - Steve Chambers - would handle things in Charlotte while Ghantt would go to Mexico to hide out. It was obvious even to this bumbling criminal threesome that Loomis Fargo would quickly determine who was behind the heist.
With Ghantt in Mexico, Chambers and his wife Michelle began spending
the cash openly. They stashed it in barrels, storage units and had friends and family members rent safety deposit boxes to store money. In almost blatant disregard for the intelligence of investigators, the former mobile home dwellers moved to a house valued at more than $600,000. Ghantt continued to languish in Mexico, having spent most of the $25,000 he took with him to a Cancun Resort. He insisted that Chambers send more money, while Chambers was actually plotting
to have Ghantt killed.
Investigators almost immediately identified Ghantt as the man who stole the money and later connected him to Campbell and Chambers. Eventually, the FBI arrested
more than 20 people. Almost all of the stolen cash was located or accounted for and all those arrested were convicted. The story led to national media attention, a handful of TV documentaries, a book and a film.



NASCAR team co-owner Felix Sabates' home torched

In the early morning hours of July 31, 2000, a 2.5 million dollar home under construction for NASCAR team co-owner Felix Sabates was destroyed by fire.
Investigators determine that it was intentionally set and may be connected to 12 other unsolved arson cases in high-end development areas. By March 2004 authorities, with no significant leads, ask the public for help in solving
the suspicious fires that have destroyed or heavily damaged homes
under construction in the various upscale neighborhoods.
According to a story in the Charlotte Observer, some believe it could
be the work of an "ecoterrorist" while others think it might be someone with a vendetta against a particular developer. The cases remain open.



Andrew Reyes

In 1989 in a Los Angeles bankruptcy court, then twenty-three-year-old
Andrew Reyes listed debts of $12,807. He had $183 in cash, $200 worth of clothes and an '87 Nissan. After declaring bankruptcy, he somehow managed to get a new Social Security number, which, under most circumstances, is illegal. That new number - in effect - cleared his credit record. A short time later, he moved to Charlotte, N.C.
In less than 10 years, Reyes rose from an accounting temp worker to a philanthropist who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofit and political groups. Along the way, he hobnobbed with TV stars and the President of the United States.
As authorities began to question Reyes' sudden rise in income, he abruptly disappeared. At first it was thought to be a missing persons case, but Reyes was later tracked down and arrested as he crossed the border from Mexico to California.
After admitting he diverted $3.6 million to himself between 1998 and 2000 from his late employer Douglas King, Reyes pleaded guilty to 15 counts of bank fraud, three counts of income tax evasion and a single count of conspiracy to commit income tax evasion. He was given a five-year sentence, with time served in the Mecklenburg County jail accepted, which he served in Kentucky. As of 2007 he was released and on parole.



Hezbollah in Charlotte

At first it sounded like a run of the mill smuggling case - but closer inspection revealed a more sinister plot that suddenly focused international media
attention on the Queen City. In February 2003, 29-year-old Lebanese national Mohamad Hammoud was convicted and sentenced on charges of running cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan and funneling the proceeds to help fuel Hezbollah, the Islamic, Lebanon-based, anti-Israeli terrorist army. For his crime, Hammoud
was sentenced to 155 years in prison. Federal prosecutors are
convinced he was a young extremist militant before he gained entry to the U.S. through Venezuela in 1992 with a $200 fake visa.
They maintain that he stayed in the U.S. by entering into multiple phony marriages to American women - all the while still engaged to another woman in Lebanon.

This article originally appeared in Charlotte Magazine.

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