Sunshine State of Crime

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In 1997 nearly $19 million disappeared from a Loomis Fargo armored truck in Jacksonville, Florida. The mastermind behind the job? The truck’s driver who was hell bent on carrying out one of the most expensive labor protests in U.S. history.

Episode Transcript

A feeling most people in the world experience at some point is the dislike of work or discontentment with their boss, and sometimes it’s both of those things.

Even if you enjoy your job, there’s a pretty good chance that at least once in your lifetime you’ve experienced the crummy feeling that hits on a Sunday evening – right before you set your alarm and lay down for the night. The feeling that Monday’s workday is going to be a drag.

For those of us who’ve worked bad jobs and for bad bosses, we know what it’s like to feel underpaid by an employer. We know how it feels to not have our time and hard work appreciated.

Every day there are millions of people who let this hopeless feeling fester, far beyond what’s considered healthy.

For some, the feeling of being an unrecognized cog in the machine can even cause them to take matters into their own hands to make things right.

In 1997 an armored truck driver in Florida declared a reckoning against his employer.

In a bold labor protest, Philip Johnson became the richest thief in American history overnight and sent federal investigators on a manhunt across the Sunshine state and outside of the US.

This is Armored… the untold stories of murder, mayhem, and million-dollar heists.

Today I’m telling you the story of a man who took what many consider to be the most expensive moral stand against low wages in modern history.

*Intro Music*

On the evening of Saturday, March 29th, 1997, the day before Easter, 33-year-old Philip Johnson was finishing up his workday in Jacksonville, Florida.

Philip was a courier for Loomis Fargo, an armored vehicle company most people know as just Loomis. In 1997 Wells Fargo bank merged with Loomis armored truck service and the division that handled all currency transport became Loomis Fargo.

While his partner drove the truck around town, Philip’s job was to go in and out of various businesses to pick up and drop off bags of money. Philip was required to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a .38 caliber revolver for protection. By all standards, he was a sitting duck because he was the person responsible for ferrying money in and out of buildings…his partner stayed behind keeping watch, locked in the truck.

The Los Angeles Times reported that around 6:45 pm, Philip and his colleague completed their last pickup and returned their armored van to the unimpressive concrete block Loomis warehouse. Now, this wasn’t just “park the truck, jump out and go home” kind of clock-out situation.

According to an article in The Washington Post, Philip was actually required to stay with the armored vehicle and its contents until two vault guards at the warehouse had counted through all of the money inside. The two vault guards working inside the building that night were 52-year-old James Brown, who everyone called Terry, and 27-year-old Dan Smith. Terry and Dan’s jobs at the warehouse were much safer than being couriers on the street. They were primarily responsible for filing a lot of paperwork, wrestling wire mesh cages from the back of vehicles and counting the deposits. Despite Philip and his partner being more at risk, Terry and Dan reportedly made more money per hour.

After reversing their armored truck into the garage bay and letting the vault guards do their thing, Philip’s partner was told he could go home for the night.

According to the LA Times, Philip’s partner clocked out and went home but Philip was required to stay with Dan and Terry to process the money.

Reports state that just before 7:00 PM, Philip blindsided the vault guards by drawing his service weapon and aiming it towards Terry and Dan. Now, this was a risky move because news outlets reported that at the time Terry was armed with multiple firearms. So, Philip was taking a pretty big risk of getting into a firefight when he decided to hold up the two men. Some news reports say that Terry was the only armed guard, Dan didn’t have a weapon on him.

Because Philip had acted so quickly and caught the guards entirely off guard, he had the upper hand. According to The Spokesman Review, Philip demanded Terry hand over his weapons and then forced the two men to lie down on the ground where he put bags over their heads and handcuffed them to the warehouse floor.

Right after that, Philip backed in a fleet van, opened up the Loomis vault, and began filling the vehicle with bags of cash. According to News4Jax, Philip only loaded money bags that contained currency bills marked $10 or greater. He specifically left coins, checks, and one dollar and five dollar bills behind.

According to CNN’s reporting, the total amount of money that had gone into the Loomis vault that day extended well into eight figures. All of the bills had been picked up from Lil’Champ convenience stores, Winn-Dixie grocery stores, and a variety of fast-food restaurants throughout the Jacksonville area. These businesses had experienced normal if not slightly higher than normal sales throughout the Easter weekend.

Philip spent the next two hours moving the money bags into the truck one by one. Because the cash had already been logged and counted by the vault guards, and they were now tied up, and it was the end of the day on a Holiday weekend…he had time on his side.

According to multiple news publications, the next shift of vault guards and warehouse staff wasn’t scheduled to come to the building until the next morning.

CNN reported that after filling up the van with more than 900 pounds worth of cash Philip began covering up his crime. He took the videotapes from the surveillance camera system at the warehouse and even removed his personnel file from the company’s records there.

I’m assuming because this is 1997 and not a ton of companies had digitized records for their employees at that time, that Philip removed the one and only paper file Loomis had for him. The research material is unclear, but I have to think it was like a manilla folder or envelope in a file cabinet.

News reports say he then closed the huge vault door and set the timer so that it wouldn’t open until the following afternoon on Easter Sunday.

With a van full of cash and a pretty, solid getaway plan in place, Philip unshackled Terry and Dan from the warehouse floor and demanded they lay on top of the pile of money in the back of the armored van. He kept them handcuffed and covered both of them with a blanket and warned them to remain quiet or else he’d kill them in order to get away with the crime.

Around 9:00 pm, Philip drove out of the Loomis warehouse with the stolen cash and his two hostages. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary until the next morning.

On Sunday morning, Dan Smith and Terry Brown’s family members called police to report that the men had not come home after their scheduled shift.

Those calls prompted Loomis staff and police officers to go to the warehouse where they noticed the garage door to the facility wasn’t opening properly. News reports don’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly was wrong but the problem was enough of an issue that the workers called their supervisor down to the building for help.

When everyone eventually got into the building, they noticed that Dan and Terry were nowhere in sight and the security tape from the night before was missing.

The guards who were scheduled to work that morning attempted to access the vault but realized someone had set the timers to unlock later that day which prevented the door from opening. When police went and checked a closed-circuit video feed inside of the vault, they saw the shelves were empty.

They knew right then and there the warehouse had been robbed and two employees were unaccounted for.

Right as that realization was setting in, a phone call came in from 400 miles away in North Carolina…

The breathless voice on the other end was Dan Smith.

On Sunday morning March 30th, 1997 right as police and guards at the Loomis Fargo warehouse in Jacksonville were realizing the building’s vault had been cleaned out, kidnapped guard Dan Smith called to report what had happened at the facility the night before.

Dan told police that he was stranded in Asheville, North Carolina and that Loomis courier Philip Johnson was behind a bizarre robbery that had taken place at the facility less than 24 hours earlier.

Dan explained how Philip had held him and Terry up at gunpoint the night before and forced them into the back of an armored van with all of the money from the vault.

Dan said after Philip made him and Terry lie down on the cash, he covered them with a blanket to prevent them from being heard if they hollered for help.

Dan said based on his familiarity with the Jacksonville area he’d been able to make out the route that Philip drove through town. He wasn’t positive but he felt like Philip had stopped the van about a mile away from the warehouse after the robbery. At that first stop, Dan said Philip forced Terry out and when Philip came back a few minutes later, Terry wasn’t with him.

Dan said Philip then covered with the blanket again, shut the back door, and started driving.

For several hours Dan said the van bumped along on what he described as a highway and stopped a few times for gas before parking again.

Dan explained that after Philip parked, he was left alone inside for several hours while Philip removed the bags of money from the back and stored them somewhere. He said he never saw where the bags went.

Sometime in the late morning, Dan said that Philip returned and ordered him to get out. He said Philip walked him to a small tree on the side of a rural road and handcuffed his hands to it. Philip promised Dan he would call the authorities in 48 hours and tell them where to find him. Dan said before Philip took off, he made sure to pile some snacks and water where he could reach them.

Fortunately, Dan had a Swiss army knife in one of his pockets that he usually carried on him and Philip had failed to check for it. He said he’d used the knife to pick the lock on the handcuffs and within an hour was free. After that, he ran to a nearby road and flagged down a driver who took him to a nearby U.S. Forest Service station to call police.

Florida authorities’ first move, after hearing Dan’s story, was to race over to Philip’s three-bedroom home on Keystone Drive North in Jacksonville and look for clues as to where he might be or why he’d gone to North Carolina.

When they got there, they found something surprising.

Inside, handcuffed to a metal pipe in the closet of Philip’s bedroom was a very much alive, but tired Terry Brown. Piled near his feet were some snacks and water.

According to CNN, investigators found Philip’s house in complete disarray and the words “HOUSE OF PAIN” were spray-painted across Philip’s bedroom wall.

Just based on what they knew up until that point, it appeared Philip never intended to harm or kill Dan and Terry. So, they felt pretty sure that they weren’t dealing with a violent perpetrator.

Investigators surmised that Philip had a much deeper-seated motivation for the crime and there was no denying that the evidence thus far indicated that he’d pre-planned the entire thing.

Their biggest unanswered questions were why and where was their suspect who’d made off with millions of stolen dollars?

CNN reported that the FBI initially believed close to $22 million had been taken, but Loomis eventually confirmed that closer to $18.8 million was removed from the vault. Because all of the bills had come from convenience stores and retail businesses nearly all of them were unmarked and non-sequential. According to news reports, cash in those denominations from those kinds of retailers meant that none of it could be tracked by authorities.

At the time, the haul was the largest amount ever stolen in the United States. A previous robbery in which thieves stole $10.8 million in cash was the only known record holder.

The FBI announced that their prime suspect, Philip Johnson, had just made himself the richest thief in American history.

Now, all law enforcement needed to do was find him.

In the first few weeks of the investigation, Jacksonville police and the FBI joined forces to track Philip down and learn more about his past.

According to the LA Times, they learned that two days after the robbery Philip had done as he promised for Dan Smith and called into a local Jacksonville television station with instructions on where to find Dan. The report states police didn’t learn this information until later. It doesn’t say for sure, but I have to assume the delay in the information getting to police probably meant they were unable to trace the origin of the call to wherever Philip had placed it.

Hell-bent on finding their prime suspect, the FBI blasted his name and face on a segment of America’s Most Wanted and tips started flooding in.

What they learned was the story of a man with a history of life struggles.

At the time of the robbery, he lived alone in a house with three bedrooms. That and the lack of any known girlfriend in his life indicated to the authorities that Philip preferred isolation.

After probing into his background and interviewing family members, profilers learned that Philip had grown up in an incredibly dysfunctional family after his parents divorced when he was a young boy.

His sister Sharon told multiple news outlets that the Johnson family was very poor after their parents split up and she and Philip were raised by different relatives and moved states a lot while growing up. Philip had struggled to plant roots and make friends.

In his early teens, Philip moved in with his mom in a trailer near Rochester, New York. That setup didn’t last long though and he eventually moved to Pennsylvania to live with another family member in a farmhouse.

A year later Philip was sent to live with his father in California. Those arrangements fell through after a few months, and Philip rode a bus alone from the West coast back to New York to live with one of his aunts.

That living arrangement proved to be one of the most stable times in his life. His aunt tried hard to give him a sense of home and even paid for him to attend a private high school called Lima Christian Academy. During that time Philip thrived and stood out as a gifted academic student.

According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators interviewed several of Philip’s classmates and learned that for most of his life he’d wanted to become a police officer. Unfortunately, during his grade school years at Lima Christian Academy friends said that his teachers had discouraged him from pursuing that career.

Profilers started to suspect that at some point during his late teens Philip developed a strong distrust of adult male figures. One of his former classmates, a guy named Richard Ludeman, told the LA times quote– “He had some problems. You knew he just didn’t trust authority figures, especially male authority figures.”–end quote.

After graduating from high school, Philip attended Monroe Community College near Rochester and earned a two-year degree in criminology. By that point, his aunt and mother had moved to Jacksonville, Florida and Philip relocated to the Sunshine State to be closer to them.

During his early 20’s he’d tried to pursue a career in law enforcement but reportedly no agencies in the Jacksonville area would hire him because he didn’t have prior experience. According to the Spokesman Review, Philip also claimed he had an issue with his spine that caused him to stand and sit slightly crooked. He speculated that that deformity is also what deterred police departments from hiring him. Philip bounced around from job to job and for a time sold vacuums, and peddled multi-level marketing products before eventually landing a temp job with Wells Fargo Bank in the late 1980’s.

The temp job became a full-time gig when Philip decided to start working as a courier in the armored truck division.

Things were looking up for Philip, at least on the employment front…

But in his personal life, he’d suffered a major setback before landing a full-time job, a setback that FBI investigators believed would be key in understanding Philip’s motive for the robbery.

According to news reports, shortly before Philip Johnson got settled in at his new job as a full-time courier with Loomis he’d become involved in ministry work with a Christian fellowship mission in Latin America.

He’d visited the country on an extended trip and met a young woman. Over the course of a few weeks, the couple fell in love and Philip became so smitten with his girlfriend and Latin America that he quickly learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently in order to fully embrace the culture.

Unfortunately, his romantic bliss was short-lived because after he returned to America, the relationship ended. It was reported that the woman expressed she wasn’t interested in having a long-distance boyfriend.

Philip was broken-hearted.

FBI agents trying to understand Philip’s reason for committing the Loomis vault robbery felt this relationship ending was a pivotal moment in the 33-year-old’s life that delivered a huge blow to his self-esteem.

They couldn’t have been more right.

Sharon, Philip’s sister, shared with investigators and eventually with news outlets that as her brother had approached his 30th birthday he’d shown symptoms that he suffered from depression. She said a few times he’d even expressed thoughts of self-harm. One day when they were visiting together, he’d even told her that he was jealous of her for having started a family of her own.

On top of that, Philip’s family and neighbors said he’d constantly complained throughout his decade-long career with Loomis that he was underpaid and undervalued.

According to news reports, Philip earned seven dollars an hour as a courier. The job that paid less than $15,000 a year had serious risks which was why he was required to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a gun. Unfortunately, outside of his hourly wage, the courier job didn’t include benefits like paid time off or health insurance. Other Loomis employees were offered those benefits, but not couriers.

In an interview with The Washington Post, one of Philip’s friends a man named Tim Gray, told the newspaper that Philip had no self-confidence by the time he turned 30. On several occasions he’d said he’d never get married because no girl would want him. Tim said that at one point Philip expressed notions of taking his own life.

For years Philip complained to those closest to him that he was unhappy with his life because wasn’t making enough money to pursue further education or go out on dates or afford to be in a relationship.

His sister Sharon said because he was so financially strapped, Philip was unable to seek psychiatric care regularly or pay for medication to help him with his mental health care.

Philip’s neighbor, a woman named June Glover told CNN quote— “He just couldn’t get anywhere in life. He was always talking about his disappointments, and his job didn’t pay good. It was always negative things.”– end quote.

During a search of Philip’s home in Jacksonville, authorities discovered a treasure trove of documents and paperwork that indicated Philip had been stewing on something big for a long time and that he’d started planning the vault robbery as early as 1992, roughly five years prior.

Police located several falsified documents that had the names of some of Philip’s friends and relatives on them. Reports state that several of the names were for men close with Philip. One document had the name of a guy named Phil Lyons, who turned out to be Philip’s best friend and another paper had the name Robert C. Johnson on it, who was Philip’s half-brother. There was also the name Roger D. Lawter on paperwork, who investigators learned was one of Philip’s former roommates.

Based on the dates that some of the fake documents were created, police surmised that Philip had put a lot of work and time into accessing the men’s private papers while hanging out with them and then used their information to manufacture fraudulent documents in their names.

Piecing together everything they knew…FBI profilers believed that Philip had gone through with the robbery because he’d grown resentful of his life and was especially disgruntled toward his employer. His decade worth of disdain, authorities believed, had pushed him over the edge and he’d let his greed get the better of him.

They theorized he robbed the vault in an act of vengeance and intended to live a better life with the money he’d stolen, hoping that wealth would improve his life circumstances.

Investigators felt certain that Philip was on the run and was more than likely using an alias that he’d created from the identities and documents he’d stolen from his friends. One of their big concerns was that Philip was smart. He clearly had a leg up on the police because he’d spent years planning the heist and his escape. He was also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese which made police suspect that he’d probably set his sights on fleeing to Mexico or South America.

Authorities entered the aliases they believed he’d be using into several international databases and continued pushing out all point bulletins and announcements asking the public for help.

Sixty-five members of law enforcement followed Philip’s movements via a public bus from Asheville, North Carolina where he’d abandoned Dan Smith…all the way to Atlanta, Georgia. From there, his trail led through the Southern United States and ended in the border town of Brownsville, Texas.

The FBI told news outlets at the time that they’d found evidence Philip had crossed the border into Mexico in the days after the robbery and spent a few nights there. During their announcement, they said it was possible he could have returned to the U.S. or would plan to return by using one of his false identities.

Investigators printed wanted posters in English and Spanish and circulated them on both sides of the border. The flyers were enticing too because Loomis Fargo had ponied up a $500,000 reward for information.

Mike Heard, the lead FBI agent for the manhunt was interviewed by The Washington Post and said quote– “He looks like anybody. So go find him and we’ll give you a half a million.”

Law enforcement went on the news and publicly stated that they believed Philip would be captured within weeks or days if he was lucky.

They couldn’t have been more wrong though…you see because there was one major problem or I should say challenge they didn’t anticipate.

Philip’s description as an average-looking white guy in his thirties did not make him stand out. He was what’s referred to as an “everyman.” He looked like both everyone and no one at the same time, making him almost impossible for police to identify among the thousands of tips flooding in on the case.

To make matters worse, the media’s attention was not solely fixed on publicizing Philip Johnson’s face and suspected crimes every day on the news.

In July of 1997, cross-country killer Andrew Cunanan was the most wanted man in America. Cunanan had capped off a violent murder spree that year which included the assassination of fashion mogul Gianni Versace. All of the major network news headlines were focused on that case, not the FBI’s hunt for a rogue armored truck thief who’d single-handedly duped a major financial institution out of nearly 19 million dollars.

In the summer of 1997, five months into the investigation and with no sign of Philip having popped up, the Washington Post published an article that ran with the headline: “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN? HE’S 33, SINGLE, LONELY, GROUCHY, RUMPLED AND VERY POSSIBLY THE RICHEST THIEF WHO EVER LIVED.”

The title read more like a lonely-hearts dating ad from the classifieds section, but it sort of did the trick.

No tangible leads about Philip’s location came into the FBI after the Post printed the piece, but a lot of people who’d known Philip or worked with him prior to the robbery came forward to tell police about his disturbing behaviors and that he’d expressed a desire for retribution against Loomis. These testimonies only bolstered investigators’ case that Philip had shown clear signs of premeditation.

As days dragged into weeks, the pressure facing the FBI to find Philip and prosecute him for the crime mounted. The task of pinpointing a man who somehow eluded the public and law enforcement proved incredibly difficult. To the point where authorities were completely stumped.

But on August 30th investigators finally caught a break.

According to reporting by The New York Times, that day, a U.S. Customs agent named Virginia Rodriguez who was stationed at the border near Houston, Texas was questioning travelers on a Greyhound Bus incoming from Mexico.

Her only question to the riders was, “What was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?”

When she spoke with one man seated on the bus, she noticed he was acting super nervous. When she asked him the question, he responded by saying he’d been in Mexico to visit with friends. Virginia was unconvinced by this guy’s answer and pressed him for more information and asked him for his ID.

The man showed her a North Carolina driver’s that had the name Roger Lawter assigned to it.

When Virginia ran the name and information through the US Customs and Border Patrol database it came back as being a possible alias for a wanted fugitive named Philip Johnson.

Not long after flagging the ID, border patrol agents took Philip into custody.

The headline for a CNN article published after his arrest read–“Johnson faces charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, and interstate flight to avoid prosecution.”

According to The Chicago Tribune, when arresting agents searched Philip’s belongings and pockets they found nearly $11,000 in cash. Almost all of it was American currency and the rest was pesos.

Following his arrest, reports state that Philip became belligerent with law enforcement and the judge that oversaw his preliminary hearings. During some proceedings, Philip reportedly refused to identify himself in court and acted extremely uncooperative with the judicial process.

Court records state that eventually rather than face a full trial, Philip decided to plead guilty to interfering with interstate commerce, money laundering, and kidnapping.

A month later, police located where he’d stashed the nearly $18.8 million, he’d stolen. He’d hidden it in a storage shed in Mountain Home, North Carolina.

Investigators determined that he’d transported the money to the shed during the several hours he’d left Dan Smith tied up in the back of the armored truck on March 30th. Authorities were able to prove that after leaving the shed and handcuffing Dan to the tree, Philip had made his way South before fleeing the country.

The FBI’s investigation found evidence that Philip had been hiding out in Mexico City for the entire summer of 1997.

Philip eventually surrendered approximately $68,000 in cash he’d squirreled away in some Mexican bank accounts but in the end, approximately $186,000 of the overall Loomis robbery was never recovered. Agents believed Philip used the unaccounted money to travel, eat and live in Mexico while on the lam.

A few months after entering his plea he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

According to News4Jax, Philip spent 22 years of his sentence behind bars and was released early from a California prison in October of 2019. His current whereabouts are unknown.

A factor that often got lost in the previous news coverage of this was Philip’s motive. The feds were confident that Philip was just disenfranchised with his employer and wanted retribution. The public came to the general consensus that he was just greedy.

While it’s easy to believe that Philip committed this crime simply to get rich, those that knew him believe the robbery was more of a principled moral stance than anything else.

Tom Cushman, an attorney in St. Augustine, Florida who represented Philip after his capture, told News4Jax in 2019, quote– “I sincerely believed that he sincerely believed in what he was doing as a labor protest.”–end quote

News outlets that covered the case back in 1997 depicted Philip as a bitter “wage slave” who was just a disgruntled employee who was overcome with greed working around so much money every day.

And that could totally be true. In fact, based on everything I’ve come to learn in this series it’s highly likely…but what I’ll say is that most sources didn’t give a lot of thought or air time to discussing the psychological problems and pressures Philip was going through leading up to 1997.

I mean, let me be clear here, I’m not saying that if you’re unhappy with your job or feel underpaid that you are then justified to rob the place. What Philip did was wrong and he literally kidnapped and terrorized two men, Dan Smith and Terry Brown, who were just doing their jobs.

But what I want to point out is what Philip was going through both personally and professionally is experienced by millions of Americans every day.

Not being paid enough…not being paid overtime…not being provided benefits like health or dental insurance…or even paid time off. The absence of those things can definitely wear a person down.

Again, none of those things is an excuse to commit a crime or break the law in any capacity, but it is certainly an interesting observation about the motivation of the villain in this story that often gets lost in the telling.

Today, no one knows where Philip Johnson is but Tom Cushman says he believes that his former client is out there living his life, purposefully attempting to avoid publicity.

Maybe, hopefully, now that he’s repaid his debt to society with prison time Philip has managed to fulfill some of the personal goals. Goals he once considered impossible.

I just hope he’s done it with his own hard-earned money.

*Outro Music*

Armored is an audiochuck original.

Hosted by Jake Brennan.

Research and writing by Micheal Whelan with writing assistance from executive producer Delia D’Ambra.

Editing by Eric Aaron.

So what do you think Chuck, do you approve? *howl*