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Rick Sebak
Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.

 

Seeing Pittsburgh with Rick Sebak

Gangster History in Bethel Park!
The World's First Armored-Car Robbery Happened Right By My Mom's House

Pittsburgh city detectives immediately dubbed it "the most spectacular job in the history of banditry hereabouts." It's widely acknowledged as the very first armored-car robbery anywhere, a brazen bit of gangland lore.

It was 80 years ago this month, in the part of the South Hills that's now Bethel Park. Just before noon on Friday, March 11, 1927, a nefarious group of bandits known as the Flathead Gang from Detroit blew up and robbed an armored Brinks truck and its "trail car" as the vehicles headed toward the nearby coal mine at Coverdale to deliver cash for the weekly payroll.

Blasted CarBrightwood Road
Above: A recent photograph of Brightwood Road (above) shows where the heist took place 80 years ago. The red arrow indicates the spot of the explosion, where the road leads to Route 88.
Right: Local kids check out the scene. (photo courtesy Brinks History Museum, Chicago)

It all took place on what's now Brightwood Road, just off Route 88 across from Giant Eagle. The thieves buried explosives just under the surface of the road and waited in the nearby woods. When the cars got there, the gang used a plunger - like in an old movie - to trigger a blast, which sent both cars into the air. The main truck flipped and landed upside down. The second car fell into a crater left by the explosion. Everyone was shaken, but no one was killed. In the confusion, the crooks grabbed $104,000 and took off.

Pittsburgh Gazette TimesThe Pittsburgh Gazette Times reported nine bandits speeding away in two automobiles. One car was abandoned, and the villains piled into a big blue Stearns-Knight touring car, which soon developed a flat tire, leaving an easily followed trail as the gang headed south. Then, they dumped that car and scattered in different directions.

Within 24 hours, police captured two robbers near Bentleyville in Washington County. A day later, Paul Jaworski - who identified himself as John Smith - was caught in a farmhouse 30 miles south of the crime scene. He confessed, squealed on his accomplices, and even led the cops to $33,000 in buried loot.

It turns out Jaworski was the mastermind behind the heist and confessed to several murder-robberies. Eventually, he got the electric chair.

David Kapella, curator at Brinks History Museum in Chicago, told me the 1927 robbery led to immediate changes in the design of Brinks' trucks. Floors and frames would hence be constructed with steel rather than with wood.

I grew up less than a mile from the crime scene but learned of it only recently - it's not something Bethel Park brags about. I talked to the guys who meet every morning in Bruegger's at South Park Shops, not far from the location of the blowup. One of them, Paul Castanet, a Bethel resident since 1927, remembers when people searched for coins that might have been overlooked. Not all the loot was recovered - although Brinks was insured and the miners got paid - and my friend Dennis Williams from Bentleyville told me hunters around there still look in caves to check for "armored car money."

Thanks to the Flathead Gang, my old neighborhood is more exciting than ever. We need a historic marker.

Special thanks to Cindy Ulrich and her colleagues at the Pennsylvania Department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and to our friends at Pitt's Archives Service Center, Bethel Park Public Library, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Library & Archives at Heinz History Center.

 

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