For 10 years Philip Johnson went every day to a job he hated. The routine was stultifying -- extended periods of boredom interrupted by brief, terrifying sensations of vulnerability. But what really scorched his shorts was the money.

The money, as Johnson grumped to anyone within earshot, was lousy.

An armored car guard, he made $7 an hour. No overtime. No health. No dental. No pension. No prospects. These things tend to erode your self-confidence. Phil once told his friend Tim Gray that he would never get married because no girl would want him.

That may have changed the day before Easter. On March 29, the cranky, embittered wage slave pulled a regular shift. But when it was over, instead of driving his beat-up VW Rabbit home to another lonely Saturday night, Philip Noel Johnson, 33, climbed behind the wheel of a company van groaning under the weight of $20 million in cash and trundled off into American mythology.

It is more money than anyone has ever stolen in the United States. It is also more money than anyone could easily carry around by himself, which right about now might be becoming an overwhelming reality to a fugitive. All told, the loot weighs close to half a ton. Yet for almost four months now, Johnson has managed to keep it out of sight.

And despite an international manhunt, no one has laid eyes on him, either.

Not at Johnson's concrete-block Jacksonville ranch house, where police found one of his co-workers handcuffed in a bedroom closet, with snack food and a jug of water.

Not in the North Carolina forest where Johnson left another shaken colleague chained to a tree.

And certainly not at the warehouse of the Loomis Fargo armored car company where the three men had been working side by side when Johnson unsnapped his holster and pulled out his company-issued .38 revolver.

Tim Gray was at a funeral when a friend sidled up and gave him the extraordinary news:

"Hey, Phil gave himself a raise."

"Damned impressive, actually," says Mark Young, from his desk in Stamford, Conn. "Twenty million? And he's still out there?"

Young is the U.S. editor for the Guinness Book of Records, a man people constantly call about the most trivial things. He answers the phone not "Hello," but with a distracted "Huh," as if what he has in front of him is more interesting than anything you're calling about. But what Philip Johnson has done gets his full attention in a hurry.

"These are the kinds of records that don't get broken," he says.

This one got pulverized. Johnson has set the new domestic robbery mark by a country mile. His take dwarfs the $11 million five robbers stole from an armored car vault in New York City 15 years ago. (Four of the five were caught, but only $1 million was returned.)

Worldwide, Johnson's caper approaches even what Guinness calls the biggest bank job of them all. In January 1976 someone took between $20 million and $50 million from the vaults and safe deposit boxes of the British Bank of the Middle East in Beirut. That someone was a guerrilla task force, armed with bombs.

Johnson, by every appearance, did it all by himself. Everyguy

You know Philip Johnson. He's the big, sullen guy in the uniform down at the Jiffy Lube, or maybe in the lumber section at Hechinger. He is neither young nor old. Neither fit nor fat. When he turns away from you to do something, he addresses you without turning back around.

He is not happy in his work. His eyes dart. He is a little sweaty, but the wet places are starting to dry under his shirt. The shirt is untucked. People working with him -- most of them seem to be older men, more even-tempered, maybe working just to get out of the house, keep busy -- give him a wide berth. He carries with him an air of complaint, going through the day in a slow burn. It's as if the world owes him something. Money, maybe.

Now he's worth $20 million.

He's also worth $500,000 to anyone who turns him in.

There's a reward, offered by Loomis Fargo. There's a manhunt. It is intense, but not desperate, not like the one for Andrew Cunanan. Philip Johnson is no rampaging serial killer with flair and style and savagery.

"He looks like anybody," says Mike Heard, the FBI agent leading the search for Johnson. "So go find him and we'll give you a half a million." The Heist

His was the last truck in.

Johnson was the courier, the guard who climbs out alone at each convenience store and supermarket, hauling the empty canvas bags from the big red and black truck and bringing them back full, while the driver stays in the cab, doors locked at all cost. The rules are inflexible on this point. If there is trouble, the man in the cab might radio for help and maybe squeeze off a couple of rounds through the gun portals, but he is not to climb out. He is not to open the truck and let his buddy in. The courier was on his own out there, and in certain neighborhoods at certain times of day the bulletproof vest and the .38 left you feeling next to naked.

For facing this risk, couriers received an additional 75 cents an hour.

The Loomis Fargo warehouse does not look like a million bucks. It is made of dirty white concrete blocks on a lot between a decrepit public housing complex and a tropical fish store, around the corner from a strip joint called Whacko's. Spanish moss dangles from the razor wire. Beyond the sign warning "This is a high security area" is puddle of standing water and a dirt lot full of pickups and large American cars.

The only thing that seems odd or important is what appears to be a traffic light glowing near the roof. It shines either green or red, and on the night of March 29, it shone green, signaling armored trucks that they could approach. When Johnson's truck pulled up he climbed out, walked to a video camera and pushed the intercom button. Inside, a guard recognized him and opened the garage door. Following procedure, Johnson remained outside with his gun drawn, his back to the truck as it pulled in. Still following procedure, he backed in after it as the door closed in front of him.

The driver was done for the night. He clocked out. Johnson's job required him to remain while their load was processed, then help the two vault guards close up.

James Brown, an assertive man of 52, was known as Terry. At 27, Dan Smith was young for a vault job, which is coveted because it pays better, is indoors and is considered relatively safe. The job involves mostly paperwork and wrestling wire mesh cages of cash, which was what was going on when, about 7 p.m., Johnson pulled his gun.

What was about to happen was the heist of the century, a bit of Americana in the making. The fact that the three principals were named Smith, Brown and Johnson seems somehow appropriate.

Johnson said very little. He took Brown's gun, ordered the unarmed Smith to lie down beside his coworker, and handcuffed both. Then he went into the yard and backed a white Econoline van up to the vault.

The van was a smart move. It was unmarked. Loomis used it for minor runs: schools, courthouses, that sort of thing. But it was commodious, big enough for six. Johnson filled it halfway to the top with bags of cash.

It took two hours. Johnson was taking his time. This was no smash-and-grab. He knew precisely what he wanted. He took no coins, no checks, no singles or fives. Every canvas bag he loaded contained tens or higher. Unmarked, non-sequential bills. The money came from Lil'Champ convenience stores, Winn-Dixie groceries, Burger Kings and, to the satisfaction of a radio talk show host eager to cast Johnson as a hero, the local cable TV company.

But it all was in the capable hands of Loomis Fargo when Johnson stole it.

He also took the videotape from the surveillance cameras. He went into company records and pulled out the first thing the police would ask for: his personnel file. Finally he swung shut the huge vault door and set the timer so that it would not open until the next day, Sunday afternoon. Brown and Smith he directed into the van, ordering them to lie on top of the money. It felt lumpy.

The first stop was barely a mile away. Johnson pulled into the driveway of his little tan house on Keystone Drive North about 9 p.m. No one saw him lead Brown inside and down the hall to a bedroom, where he handcuffed his prisoner to a pipe in the closet. At his feet, Johnson set a jug of water and snacks.

Back in the van, Johnson threw a blanket over Smith and steered north. He drove all night. When he spoke, it was to tell Smith he was willing to kill him. As the van slowed to a stop, Smith feared the worst. But when Johnson opened the panel doors, what he reached for was the money. He offloaded it, somewhere. Smith does not know where they were.

Not until mid-morning on Easter did Johnson order Smith out, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway not far from Asheville, N.C. He handcuffed the guard to a small tree and left him provisions. He promised to alert authorities to Smith's whereabouts within 48 hours.

Smith did not need nearly that much time. The tree was so small he reached a shackled hand into his pocket, fished out a Swiss army knife and jimmied off the cuffs in about an hour. Flagging down a motorist, he got a lift to a U.S. Forest Service station.

Back in Jacksonville, the morning crew had not been able to get into the Loomis Fargo warehouse and summoned a supervisor, who in turn called police. They were all looking at the closed circuit image of the locked vault, trying to figure out what had happened, when the a helpful call came in from the police in North Carolina.

The cops that arrived at Keystone Drive found Brown. There were papers suggesting Johnson had been busy establishing false identities. By the dates on some of them, it appeared that he had begun planning the heist five years ago.

But the most unsettling evidence was staring them in the face. On his bedroom wall, Johnson had spray-painted a message. Three words.

"House of pain." He Was Suicidal'

"He lived in that world, a world of pain," says Johnson's sister, Sharon. She does not want her last name used. She is a fit, attractive woman sipping ice water at a big corner table in Denny's, her husband opposite, their three children playing quietly at their feet.

This was the domestic scene Philip was so jealous of, she says. He claimed Sharon had everything he wanted but would never have. This, it is clear, was among several aspects of their relationship that grated on her. She would reply that she was just living a higher level of poor. He never bought it.

She is a year older, which means Phil would have been 3 when their father left. Brother David would have been 6. Their mother went on welfare and moved into public housing in Atlanta that cost $17 a month. Sharon remembers a neighbor shooting a boyfriend as he ran out the door. Kids threw stones at them as they rode bikes.

After five years, the Johnson children were split up. Philip lived with his mother in a trailer near Rochester, N.Y., then was farmed out to in-laws in Pennsylvania for a year, only to end up in California with his father, who returned him by bus to New York. He landed with an aunt who paid his tuition to Lima (N.Y.) Christian Academy, the high school years his sister calls the most stable period of his life.

"He had some problems," says Richard Ludeman, who remembers most of his students from the then-new school's tiny first classes. "You knew he just didn't trust authority figures, especially male authority figures."

The skinny blond teenager was "very bright, sort of cynically critical," Ludeman says.

He had no girlfriends. "None of us really did," says John Shafer, who still lives in the area. "That's why we hung out together." The trio was Shafer, Tim Gray and Johnson, nicknamed "Fish" because when the question was "What do you want to eat?" Johnson always repeated, "Fish and bread, fish and bread." In Life of Christ class they had all heard the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It just seemed to mean more to Johnson.

He was "meticulous," Shafer said -- he would clean every crumb out of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. And he was smart. Johnson scored a 1,200 on his SATs when "1,200 was really 1,200," Ludeman notes.

No one knows when he decided he wanted to be a cop, just as no one knows precisely when he decided to be a robber instead. But Lima Christian School was not thrilled with his choice. "We didn't think he was one of the guys we wanted out on the highway protecting us," Ludeman says.

It was Johnson's life's ambition, though. He nursed it at Monroe Community College near Rochester, where he got a two-year degree in criminology, then went south to Jacksonville, where his mother and sister had moved. The only detour was a happy one, a Christian fellowship mission to Latin America, perhaps Venezuela. He loved the culture, showed signs of a religious awakening, and met a blonde who liked him back.

But when they returned to the States, she dumped him. And no police department would take him on.

Over the past 10 years or so, Johnson tried all over the South. He told friends the problem was either his back (too curved) or his demographic (too white male). Meanwhile Johnson hopped from job to job, demonstrating vacuum cleaners, peddling Amway. His sister says he settled in at what was then Wells Fargo after one police department mentioned his checkered work history. Guard work was a temporary position that stretched into 10 years.

Most of his co-workers were retired military, like Larry Taylor, a onetime Navy Seal who rode with Johnson for a year. Taylor's pension paid the rent and put food on the table, and the VA covered his medical. But the combination of stress and the six-day weeks took a corrosive toll on his mental health. Mental health was important to him. He learned that during three tours in Vietnam. So one morning Taylor woke up and told his wife: "I'm not going to work today." He never went back.

Johnson couldn't do this. With nothing to fall back on, he felt trapped. Pacing in his cage, his reasoning bent back on itself. It was the familiar spiral of the depressed. He wanted to return to school, but could not do so and hold a job. He wanted a girlfriend, but had no money for dates. Phil Lyon, the best friend he met at a church group before he gave up on that, too, says Johnson was listening to a lot of Rush Limbaugh.

"To him, everything was a Catch-22," says Lyon, trim and clean-cut, a guy who spends his days monitoring the market, another young man on the way up. "I didn't want to be around him sometimes because he was so negative. I'm sorry, but I can only take so much."

All along, Johnson complained most relentlessly about Loomis Fargo. But in the past two years he seemed to be reaching the end of his rope. "He would make comments like, I don't have this, this and this. I might as well be dead,' " Lyon says.

"He was suicidal," Johnson's sister avers: " What have I got to live for? I should just kill myself.' "

With her mother, she consulted a private mental hospital. They were told that without insurance the only option was involuntary commitment. "That's pretty extreme," she says.

Therapy? Pills?

"He had no money for that. No means to see a doctor."

In the past year or so, Johnson rarely saw his family. He spoke more with neighbor ladies who wanted to help. Edith Hible brought extra food and, on Sundays, the employment section across the drive to the House of Pain. When he crossed the street to borrow tools, June Glover switched off C-SPAN, made a place for him under the shelves of ornamental teapots and asked him why he wouldn't go to church.

"I'm mad at God," Johnson would say. Copycat Crimes?

Philip Johnson, role model:

In a trailer near Oklahoma City this spring, two men fell into regular discussions of how easy it would be to rob an armored car. One of the men, Bobby O'Neal Negri Jr., mentioned a recent robbery in Florida that was spectacular for its success. Negri was talking about Philip Johnson. As it happened, Negri worked as a guard for Loomis Fargo himself.

On the morning of June 25, the pudgy 30-year-old rode in the back of an armored car with almost $3 million. When the truck pulled into a McDonald's, the driver went inside for breakfast. When the driver came out, most of the money was gone. So was Negri.

Negri left behind his gun and a postcard. It said: "Is Paris this nice this time of year? OUI. By now."

Negri may be in the company of a friend, Michael Lutz, who was said to be depressed and suicidal, suffering from a bowel disorder that causes diarrhea when he is under stress.

Hospitals have been alerted. None has reported him yet.

The FBI does not award points for style, but the official "Wanted" photograph the bureau has chosen to circulate worldwide shows Negri wearing a sly look and, on his head, a paper crown from a theme restaurant.

"Oh, yeah," says special agent Dan L. Vogel. "He's a king now." Still at Large

When the chief of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office robbery unit arrived at the warehouse on Easter morning and found the vault empty, he was more impressed than worried. "I thought we'd have him in a couple weeks," Lonnie McDonald says. Three months beyond that target, the lieutenant still exudes a confident patience. But the wanted poster hanging across from his desk is written in Spanish.


Johnson always liked Latin America. He could speak Spanish. Recently, he had been learning Portuguese. Among the travel literature discovered in his house was a copy of "Dollarwise Brazil." The country has no extradition treaty with the United States.

"He was always real good with languages," his sister says. "He could be anywhere."

For all his planning, Johnson ended up with a head start of maybe two hours, with 65 lawmen on his trail. The hunt started in Asheville, where the morning after the robbery the van turned up in a National Guard armory parking lot. It had not been there the night before. Which meant when the hunt was hottest, Johnson was nearby.

The FBI believes he bought a bus ticket to Atlanta, then one to the border town of Brownsville, Tex. They found evidence that he spent a few nights in Mexico. That was months ago now. The trail is cold.

Loomis has its own security people on Johnson's trail, according to spokesman Flaherty, and there are also private eyes on the case.

Two days after Easter, Johnson kept his promise to Smith. Apparently unaware that he had escaped, Johnson phoned a TV station, said there was a man handcuffed to a tree and gave directions to find him. Long-distance calls leave records. Where was Johnson calling from?

"We don't know," says a chagrined Heard of the FBI. Since the breakup of Ma Bell, he complains, the FBI sometimes has a hard time tracking telephone records. "I'd hate to hazard a guess about how many phone companies are out there."

With nowhere else to turn, the bureau has even taken out ads in USA Today. But rather than solid leads, what they keep coming up with is evidence of Johnson's planning. The aliases he has been using are supported by driver's licenses and checking accounts Johnson compiled over the years in the names of Phil Lyons, his best friend; Robert C. Johnson, his half brother; and Roger D. Lawter, a housemate he kicked out years ago for being a slob.

On the FBI's Web site (, the mug shots show the bitterness in Johnson's pale green eyes. The full body shot shows him in a striped shirt that family and friends have been telling him to tuck in for the last 12 years.

"What's really hurt the guy in terms of turning it into a PR coup, another D.B. Cooper, is his name's so goddamned dull. Philip Johnson. Even I can't remember it," says Al Wells, who wrote a song about Johnson's heist for a Jacksonville radio station. Twenty-six years ago, D.B. Cooper parachuted from the airliner he hijacked with exactly 1 percent of what Johnson stole. Cooper struck on Thanksgiving eve, dropping into a stormy night with his $200,000 ransom somewhere between Portland and Seattle. He may have survived. He may not.

Troubadour Wells figures that what Johnson's heist lacks in flamboyance it makes up for in economic theory. He hears in it a deep rumble from the growing gap between America's rich and poor, a savage recoil from the service economy.

Seven dollars an hour, that's what Philip Johnson made

Driving a Wells Fargo truck, he handled millions every day

But you can't be much of a player on 56 bucks a day

Seven dollars an hour, that's what Philip Johnson made

-- "Seven Dollars an Hour," by Al Wells (C) Fat Chance Music

"He probably snapped. Probably that's what everybody here's going to do, because you work your butt off and you get no gratitude, no nothin,' " says Cindy Kaleel, steaming on the hot Florida asphalt with a couple of dozen fellow workers on a cigarette break from telemarketing jobs that pay . . . $7 an hour.

"Let's put it this way," says Mike Miller, morning man on Jacksonville's WOKV-AM. "There are a lot of people who identified with this guy. The old Jackie Gleason "poor soul" kind of guy.

"He was at a real dead end." Sizing Up the Problem

Currency, in such volume, can be a problem. Three years ago, a gang in Rochester made off with $7.4 million. Most of it was in twenties. It weighed 750 pounds. Six months later, FBI agents watched as two guys manhandled duffel bags so stuffed with bills that the rectangular outlines of the packets were visible through the material.

The agents learned that one of the men had recently paid cash for family vacations to Hawaii and Disney World, mostly in twenties. The other man, a priest, was spied counting an inch-thick stack of double sawbucks while idling at a red light.

"It was almost a cubic yard of money," said Christopher Buscaglia, the assistant U.S. attorney who won convictions against both men for possessing the stolen cash. "It's a major management problem when it just physically weighs a lot."

Johnson began with an even bigger problem.

"I'm told the dimensions are roughly 21 cubic feet," says Heard, the FBI's lead agent. "That's a heck of a lot of money."

It is a heck of a lot of money. It is so awfully much money, it is difficult for anyone -- including the people hunting him -- to imagine Johnson lugging the 21 cubic feet around with him. It would fill six or seven duffel bags, the big kind that draw attention at airports, the kind that bow you down with their weight when you sling them over a shoulder.

You might try putting it in a bank. But by law banks must report all cash deposits over $10,000. So you might try putting it in a lot of banks. It would take 2,000 banks.

You might dig a hole and bury it somewhere, and disappear until the heat is off. Sometimes people bury money. Sometimes gophers eat it. It would be a hell of a meal. Johnson's stash would be the size of two coffins. You might put it in a storage locker. Air conditioned. Humidity controlled. No gophers. Rent shouldn't be a problem. The FBI has thought of that, and has been flashing Johnson's mug at self-storage outlets between Florida and North Carolina. But it hasn't found the money.

You might crate it up and ship it overseas. The FBI has thought of this, too, but not of exactly what to do about it. There are free ports around the world, countries where customs agents never look inside an arriving shipment.

Eventually, though, wherever you are, you would have to spend the money. The temptation would be unbearable. You would start paying for things in cold cash. Presumably, you would be worried about an international army of private detectives, operating on a very large expense account, trying to find Americans showing a lot of C-notes. Presumably, you would worry about your own safety. People who flash cash have been known to be killed for it.

Possibly you would find yourself somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere inhospitable, with 21 cubic feet of cash that you could not use. Possibly you might feel cranky, dissatisfied. Like your life is going nowhere. Money to Burn?

"If Philip even has the money -- if he hasn't buried it somewhere -- he'll probably just give it away," his sister says. "Find an orphanage or something in South America and give it to them."

She says this the way she says most things about her brother: with no apparent calculation, no air of defense. She does not say her kid brother was painfully honest; she says he was blunt. They have that in common.

"Really, that's what this is all about, payback," Sharon says: "To show the world what morons Wells Fargo is.

"Because Philip never cared about money."

To those who know him best, this is as obvious as the block letters on his bedroom wall. The boy who hated the charity his mother accepted grew into the man who would not wear new shirts his sister bought for him. In high school, he drove an old Subaru -- "and that thing was so roached it was a wonder they let him drive it," says his old pal Shafer. "But he loved it. Because it was beat.

"Has he just taken enough to live on and ditched the rest?" Shafer asks. "I wouldn't put it past him to sit there and burn $20 million and keep one of it.

"As a spite thing." CAPTION: Philip Noel Johnson always wanted to be a cop. He settled for being a robber. The Loomis Fargo security guard turned his gun on his co-workers and walked out with cash. It weighed a ton. It totaled $20 million. CAPTION: A wall in Philip Johnson's house. "I didn't want to be around him sometimes because he was so negative," says one friend. Left, a wanted poster printed in Spanish. Johnson always liked Latin America; he could speak Spanish and was learning Portuguese. Below, the official police handout photo of Bobby O'Neal Negri Jr., who is believed to have borrowed Johnson's idea by stealing $3 million from Loomis Fargo in June.