A ton of money.

Author:Martin, Edward
Position:Loomis, Fargo and Co.'s security measures
 
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It was no sweat, authorities for an employee to lift 2,747 pounds - $17 million - of cash in a record heist.

He made $300 a week, but Dave Ghantt never seemed to envy the millionaires who flew in on their twin-engine King Airs to play golf at Hilton Head. Their airplanes would taxi to Island Aviation, where he and Lee Sawyer fueled them up. They got paid, such as it was, for that. But it was when they pitched in to unload golf bags that somebody usually flipped them a ten.

The tips were their secret. "Going to make a deposit," Ghantt would grin at Sawyer, who'd shake his head. "Dave was 23 years old, and he had to hide tips from his wife in a pair of old, raggedy tennis shoes in the back of his closet, so he could have a beer once in a while." One weekend when Tammy Ghantt was out of town, he made a withdrawal from his Nikes and met Sawyer for a night out. They hit a beer joint in Beaufort, then a topless bar, but Ghantt went home before midnight. He spent about $30. "I'm a hell-raiser," Sawyer says, "but Dave just never seemed to care much about spending money and stuff."

That was in 1993. By last fall, David Scott Ghantt had undergone a considerable change of attitude. A vault supervisor at Loomis, Fargo & Co., he would casually load $17 million into a van, drive out through the rusting gates of the company's warehouse in industrial west Charlotte and into the gathering dusk of a warm October evening. He was 27, a $360-a-week employee who earlier that week had been promoted and handed the keys to the vault. In four years, say federal prosecutors, Ghantt had gone from hiding tips in his sneakers to being the richest thief in North Carolina history.

By many accounts, the industry that employed him, entrusted with handling billions of dollars a day, made it surprisingly easy. So easy that even Ghantt couldn't resist. "Maybe the lesson we learn from this," says Otis Meacham, deputy state banking commissioner, "is that you just don't want to tempt people beyond their tolerance."

The heist provides a glimpse into an industry in which, despite the financial world's vaunted sophistication, money is still handled much as it was when Wells Fargo used the Pony Express riders that today decorate Loomis Fargo trucks. "I've been continually surprised at how casually the armored-car industry appears to operate," says Noell Tin, the Charlotte lawyer appointed to represent Ghantt after he was arrested on a Mexican island in March. "What's the point of having all the security in the banks if you're then going to turn the money over to guys like this?"

The theft was Loomis Fargo's fourth in six months. They totaled $44 million, and all but one, a $7 million holdup in Puerto Rico, were inside jobs. The Houston-based company concedes that part of its problem stems from combining the cultures and procedures of two competitors, Loomis Armored Inc. and Wells Fargo Armored Service Corp., that merged in January 1997. But others believe the spectacular thefts point to inherent weaknesses in a 13,000-employee industry that deals in the dream of every red-blooded thief - tons of crisp, unmarked, small bills.

"Armored-car work is dangerous, low-paying, and stressful," says Mahesh Nalla, a University of Michigan criminologist who specializes in financial-industry security. "Stress leads people to justify things that aren't legal. 'Look, they pay me seven bucks an hour to carry millions of dollars when I can't even support my family on that. They deserve it.'"

Some say the banking industry shares the blame. The $17 million, FBI sources say, came from the Federal Reserve Bank in Charlotte but belonged to First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp. and was en route to their branches and ATMs. Officials of both banks refuse to discuss the theft, beyond insisting that depositors were never at risk and confirming that they continue to use Loomis Fargo. Banking consolidation, say some executives of armored-car companies, increasingly is allowing banks to squeeze the low-margin industry. And banks minimize their own risk by shifting money into the hands of armored-car companies as quickly as possibly. "That's why there's so much more cash at these armored-car companies than at the banks," Meacham says.

In Washington, Larry Sabbath, spokesman for the National Armored Car Association, says about 20 major companies, led by Brink's Inc. and Loomis Fargo, the largest, handle the bulk of the nation's currency. They are ultimately insured by Lloyd's of London, which syndicates coverage to scores of other insurers to spread risk. In the unregulated armored-car industry, insurers' risk-control experts become the first line of defense against sloppiness.

But armored-car executives say upgrading their industry is difficult. "We all pay what we can afford, based on what the...

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