They hatched the idea half-jokingly, over a game of Uno, never dreaming they were about to make Bonnie and Clyde look like bottom feeders.
Steve Chambers and Kelly Campbell, who had been friends on and off since growing up together in the mid-1980s, were at a cookout, playing cards and drinking Budweiser at Steve's Lincoln County, N.C., mobile home, Kelly recalled. It was late in 1996. Kelly had recently left a job driving an armored-car for Loomis, Fargo & Co.
"He's the one who brought it up first," said Kelly, a year after her arrest. "I thought he was goofing around."
Kelly was no criminal. She was a wife and mother with two children. Her only brush with the law had been a DUI arrest. She came from a blue-collar background, a high school dropout who had grown tired of working in a mill and gotten an equivalency diploma. That led to better jobs, like the one at Loomis.
Still, she wasn't happy. Her marriage--at which she was making another ambivalent effort after multiple separations--and even the jobs she'd been able to get with a diploma couldn't come close to providing the kind of life she dreamed about, the life she felt she deserved: a house in the country, a swimming pool, and enough cash so she didn't need to rely on men.
In the following months, Steve persisted, even floating the notion of placing phony hand grenades on a Loomis truck to scare away the drivers, Kelly said.
It wouldn't work, Kelly told him. And robbing a truck was dangerous. But the idea of all that money pulled at her. She never really worried about the moral end of it--she was focused only on getting what she wanted out of life, what so many others seemed to have in this booming part of the South. What concerned her was the chance of getting caught.
Kelly said she had reason to believe Steve might be able to pull off a heist. He was an old friend from East Gaston High School, tough and sure of himself. She'd heard his stories of other successful schemes, like getting refunds on phony tax returns, or operating a loan shark business. He'd even bragged that he'd killed people. Exhibit A was that Steve had no steady job but plenty of cash. Kelly would only discover later that leading up to the heist, Steve had been writing bad checks, $17,000 worth, for which he would later be convicted.
At 6-1 and 220 pounds, Steve was stocky and imposing, a fast talker with a brown goatee. His mobile home was nicely furnished, on eight acres with a stream in the back. He frequently entertained there, buying steaks for his guests. He appeared happily matched with his high-spirited wife, Michele, and the two children from her first marriage. Eventually, Steve made Kelly believe they could steal from Loomis and get away with it, she said.
In early September 1997, Kelly found herself chatting on the phone with a friend who still worked at Loomis, a 27-year-old man who, despite being married, had made no secret of the fact that he had a crush on her. Without really intending to, Kelly recalls, she turned the conversation to the possibility of a heist.
At first, David Ghantt said, "I didn't take her seriously. When we worked together [for Loomis], we'd joke about it. It's one of the biggest jokes at the place. . . . [Kelly] told me, 'Just think about it.' "
David thought about it. He longed for the middle-class lifestyle of his childhood, with its private religious-school education and Disney World vacations. After a Gulf War stint in the Army, David got married in 1992. He worked fueling airplanes, driving a forklift, and in 1994 he got a job as a vault superintendent at Loomis. He and his wife, Tammy, lived in a mobile home in Kings Mountain, N.C. Money was always tight.
"A lot of people out there had it worse than me, but . . . I couldn't understand why I hadn't been more successful," David said. "I wanted to be more like my mom and dad were."
He hated his job, with its 12-hour shifts. He hated the sweet smell of the green ink, and the $8.15-an-hour salary.
"I felt that if I didn't do something, I was going to snap," David said. He flip-flopped on the heist idea three or four times. He figured Tammy wouldn't go for it, and though his marriage had been troubled, he wasn't certain he wanted to leave her. He didn't want to abandon his parents.
Then, on a mid-September day, as he reviewed a credit card bill, David did some math. He realized that if they met the minimum monthly payments, the bill would take 30 years to pay.
Days later, Kelly called again.
"She said, 'What would it take to convince you to do it?' "
David told her he'd need help moving the money, getting a new ID and leaving the country.
Truth was, David wanted more than help leaving, he wanted company. Kelly's company. Kelly had no problem fanning the flames of their old flirtation.
Plot Within a Plot
Like David, Kelly was frustrated with her marriage. And though she had been made night shift supervisor at Allied Security, she still felt she would never make the money she needed. Depression had led to smoking a lot of marijuana and taking Prozac, a combination she figures affected her judgment.
"I was trying to figure out a way to [leave my husband] and take care of my kids without having to depend on him or any other man," Kelly said.
Steve led the planning. To protect themselves, David and Steve didn't meet or talk. David didn't even know Steve's name.
Though David had no criminal experience, he felt he could offer expert advice: He'd just finished reading a book on the FBI. "For the first year, they're all over you. . . . But after a year, they'll cut it down to two agents. And after two years, you're just a file." If they could just sit on the money until then, he said, they'd be fine.
The plan called for David to leave the vault door ajar, then maneuver a few minutes alone at the end of his shift, long enough to loot the cash, then pass it to Kelly and Steve. As he and Kelly met in a field behind a shooting range to refine the plan, she allowed him to believe she was falling for him. At the end of one session, they wound up kissing outside the pickup.
They agreed that after the heist, David would immediately move to Mexico, alone, but Kelly would soon join him there, with her two children. Kelly was lying. She didn't plan to move to Mexico. "That would be living on the run, and I didn't want my kids to live that way. . . . Steve told me to tell [David] whatever was necessary to keep him happy."
They set the date, Oct. 4, a Saturday when David knew he could be alone in the building after his shift.
Steve solicited two others to help move cash during the theft.
He approached a longtime friend, Eric Payne, who lived in a mobile home south of Belmont, N.C. Steve offered him $100,000 to help.
Steve also offered $100,000 to his 26-year-old cousin. Scott Grant said he hesitated, but agreed if no guns would be involved.
Although David was in on most of the planning, one discussion between Steve and Kelly was kept a secret.
Should David be killed after he gave them the money?
"Steve said, 'I think we ought to do it that night, when he drops off the van,' " Kelly recalled. "I said, 'I don't want him killed.' "
No Going Back
David kissed his sleeping wife on the cheek on the morning of Oct. 4. It was his goodbye.
About 5:45 a.m., he got into his pickup and began the 45-minute drive to work in Charlotte. On the radio, the "John Boy and Billy" show played the song "Take the Money and Run."
"Even then . . . I didn't think I had the guts. There was a little voice in my head that said, 'Don't do it. You're an idiot.'"
Twelve hours later, at 6 that evening, Eric Payne drove a rented Budget van to his workplace, a graphics company on Performance Road in western Mecklenburg County called Reynolds & Reynolds, which was closed for the night and had a secluded parking lot where they intended to transfer the cash. Kelly drove her pickup to a lot across the street from the Loomis building, on Suttle Avenue in Charlotte. Scott Grant and Steve pulled up next to her in a Mazda.
Kelly called David at Loomis; he told her he'd be ready for them with the cash at 6:30 or 7 p.m.
Seven o'clock passed. 7:10. 7:20.
Alone in the building, David was trying to finish loading cash from the vault into an unmarked white Ford Econoline van belonging to Loomis. He placed stacks of currency on a cart and wheeled it to the van about 15 feet away, inside the building.
"As soon as you start, you realize there's no going back," David recalled. ". . . You've violated that trust. You might as well go all the way now."
The money was heavy. Sweat soaked David's uniform. Kelly, using David's cell phone, kept beeping him.
At 7:45, David had finished loading. He grabbed the tapes from two VCRs that connected to 16 security cameras. A third tape he didn't know about kept recording.
Then he was driving in the darkness with a van full of cash. He drove to the edge of the Loomis compound, which was surrounded by a chain-link fence. The others sat in their cars across the street and watched him struggle to open the heavy gate.
Inside the Mazda, Steve told Scott Grant to get out and help David. Scott didn't want to, but then he remembered the hundred-grand payday. But he tried to keep his face averted, so David wouldn't be able to ID him. Working together, they got the gate open, then drove in a caravan to the Reynolds & Reynolds parking lot.
Kelly drove David to the airport. David was excited, jabbering about their future together. Kelly, she says now, was thinking about how happy she would be to send this man far away from her.
David had grabbed $50,000 cash, but could figure out only how to carry $25,000 with him on the plane. He gave the rest to Kelly.
A Ton of Cash
Meanwhile, outside Reynolds & Reynolds, Steve, Scott and Eric needed to move 2,748 pounds of cash, quickly, from the Loomis van into the Budget van.
Before David left for the airport, he had handed Scott an eight-inch key ring. About 200 keys dangled from it. Not until David was gone did Scott realize he didn't know which key to use.
In the dark, Scott inserted one key into the back door slot. Then another. Then another. Then another. Steve tried keys on a side door. Eric watched. They sweated, though the night was cool. They cursed. They tried to break the van's bulletproof windows.
About 10 frantic minutes later, Scott found the right key. The van door opened. Though David had said earlier he thought there was $15 million in the vault, the sight of that much cash held them spellbound.
But only for a few seconds.
Then Steve pushed Scott inside, and he began throwing plastic-wrapped bundles of tens, twenties, fifties and hundreds to Eric and Steve, who placed them in three blue 55-gallon barrels.
As with Kelly, the worst blotch on 29-year-old Eric's record until now was a driving-while-intoxicated conviction. He had an endearing smile, a beautiful wife and two children. Scott, 26, had a larceny conviction as a teenager, but he'd since cleaned up his act and now had a steady job, a daughter and a girlfriend.
At the sight of all that money, Scott and Eric had the same thought: They'd made the worst mistake of their lives.
They soon realized David had stolen more money than would fit in their 55-gallon barrels. Steve told Scott to ignore the remaining stacks, which were mostly ones and fives. They didn't know it, but they were leaving $3.3 million behind.
They ditched the Loomis van, then drove the cash-heavy Budget van to Steve's mobile home in Lincoln County, where his wife, Michele, waited with a calculator and rubber bands.
The phone rang: Kelly had a problem. The Columbia airport had no available flights. Steve told her to send David to Atlanta on a bus and drive back to the trailer.
There, Scott and Eric paced the floor as Steve tried to calm them down.
Meanwhile, Michele Chambers was laughing and saying, repeatedly, "Look at all this money!" and "I love money!" and "I'm rich!"
Scott was so nervous, he said, that he couldn't help. He couldn't even bear to stick around for the final tally--though when he left he didn't forget to take $6,000, the first cut of his expected $100,000 share.
The next day, Kelly drove back to Steve's mobile home to watch the news with Steve and Michele. There it was, "The Heist." The authorities didn't know yet how much was missing from the armored-car company, but Steve did. Just under $14 million sat in an outbuilding behind his home, inside blue steel barrels. The cash was covered with dog food.
"We made history," Steve said.
As with many recent historic events, this one had been caught on videotape, a fact that a few dozen Charlotte FBI agents would learn in a hastily organized Sunday morning meeting. Loomis officials--forced to break into their own vault because David had taken the keys with him--calculated that he had stolen $17,044,000, making the second biggest heist in U.S. history, following the $18.8 million theft of an armored car by another Loomis Fargo employee just six months earlier.
In the two days after the robbery, agents interviewed more than 100 people, most connected with David. Everybody seemed stunned. His wife, Tammy, was as shocked as Loomis officials. There had been no signs. He had even scheduled a follow-up appointment at the dentist. On Oct. 7, 1997, two FBI agents arrived at Kelly Campbell's home after two Loomis employees had told agents she and David had once dated.
Kelly told the FBI she had done drugs with David but denied knowing about the theft.
She declined to take a lie-detector test.
That week, the FBI designated the theft its 142nd "major case," putting it on a list--begun in the 1970s--that includes such other infamous crimes as the World Trade Center bombing.
Agents began picking up signs that David definitely had help: The abandoned Loomis van with $3.3 million in small bills still inside, and phone records showing that somebody beeped him while he stole the money, using David's own cell phone. The pager entry was 1-4-3. But what did that mean?
"We kept going, '1-4-3, 1-4-3,' " recalled Vic O'Korn, assistant special agent in charge of Charlotte's FBI office. He recalled that another agent, Phil King, said, "Hey, there was an article in the [Charlotte] Observer about beeper codes. 1-4-3 is 'I love you.' "
"I" has one letter. "Love" has four. "You" has three.
The mystery 1-4-3 caller had been Kelly, though agents didn't know it yet.
The first weekday after the heist, Michele Chambers, co-conspirator Steve's wife, walked into a NationsBank branch with a briefcase containing $5,000. She asked about the limit for a cash deposit before "paperwork" was required. She also assured the teller her cash wasn't drug money.
The teller, who hadn't asked, filed a "suspicious activity report." Agents noticed it two months later when it flowed to them through official channels, along with hundreds of similar reports involving other people.
That October, the Chamberses' bank accounts ballooned. Each week, Michele deposited thousands of dollars in cash. Three weeks after the theft, Steve and Michele moved from their Lincoln County mobile home to a $635,000 house in a gated Cramerton, N.C., neighborhood.
They decorated their 6,000-square-foot stucco house with antiques, paintings and statues, including a six-foot wooden Indian that Michele had bought for $600. They put up mauve wallpaper. They stocked a wine cellar. They placed a bust of Caesar in the dining room. They bought a BMW roadster.
Sandra Floyd, Michele Chambers's mother, remembers the first time she saw the house. Michele told her mother she and Steve had been saving gambling winnings for the down payment.
"We're not the type that questions everything people tell us," Floyd said.
Meanwhile, Steve was keeping a close eye on Kelly. She was the group's only contact with David, and she was smoking marijuana "like other people smoke cigarettes," she said.
To celebrate Halloween, about seven of Steve's friends, including Eric Payne and Kelly, gathered for a party at Steve's house. Steve had another conversation with Kelly about killing David. Kelly had resisted this suggestion before the heist: She and David were friends. David trusted her.
At the Halloween party, though, Kelly gave in to Steve, and agreed it had to be done.
"Every time my conscience would start bothering me," Kelly recalled, "I'd smoke another joint and forget about it."
On Nov. 12, a confidential informant told the FBI about Steve Chambers's move from mobile home to mansion. A week later, another informant told the FBI that Eric Payne had quit his job at a printing company soon after the heist and was spending money he probably hadn't earned legally.
"We had David Ghantt and Kelly Campbell tied together, and we had Steven Chambers and Eric Payne with unexplained wealth, but we didn't have a tie between them," Agent John Wydra said.
In early December, Steve and Michele invited relatives to their daughter's sixth birthday party. The bash had a Cinderella theme, with a three-tiered cake that looked like a castle.
At the party, Steve invited Michele's stepfather, truck driver Dennis Floyd, to the basement to play pool.
Here's what Floyd recalls: After two games of pool, Steve told him, "You know, we do a lot of gambling. Michele tells me you're in a financial bind."
"I said, 'If you drive a truck, you're always in a financial bind.'
"He asked me if I'd mind holding some money for him. Money'll turn your head, I don't care who you are. When he said, 'I'll give you $20,000 to hold a million,' I said, 'Sure.' "
Steve and Michele invited everyone back for a Christmas party, where they gave Michele's stepfather a special gift--the pickup truck he'd always wanted.
"He was speechless," said Sandra Floyd. "He was in tears. He couldn't talk."
Michele received the best gift of the night. Her husband gave her a brown teddy bear. Hidden in it was a 3 1/2-carat diamond ring that cost $43,000.
Life in the Sun
David, the international fugitive, lived it up, too--for a while.
He para-sailed, power-skied and scuba-dived. He flew in an ultra-light plane. He went deep-sea fishing. He learned to parachute. He took bus tours of Mayan ruins. "Things I always wanted to do, but never had the time or the money," he said.
David was living under the name Mike McKinney on a phony ID. With the help of Aldo, a Mexican waiter he had befriended, David found a beach apartment in Cancun. He had a favorite restaurant, Zandunga, which had a mariachi band each night and a view of the Caribbean. He'd stay up all night, boosted by coffee, waiting for the sunrise over the ocean.
October was "a blast," he said. But in November, money ran low. Instead of lobster, the man who stole $17 million survived on home-cooked pasta and grilled cheese sandwiches.
From Mexico, David usually spoke with Kelly on the phone once a week, paying with calling cards. He told her he wanted more of "his" cash. Kelly relayed his message to Steve.
In early November, Steve lured the real Mike McKinney, an ex-Marine, to North Carolina from his Illinois home. Steve had already paid McKinney $50,000 for the use of his ID. Now he offered to pay him to carry cash to David--Steve said he was a friend hiding out after a bad drug deal, McKinney recalled.
When McKinney arrived in North Carolina, the plan had changed. Steve now needed a hit man. He would pay McKinney $250,000, half upfront.
"He showed me a lot of money," McKinney said. "I said, 'Yeah, sure.' "
His assignment was to deliver the cash to David and keep him happy until they could find a way to kill him, McKinney said. In mid-November, McKinney carried $10,000 to Cancun but wound up spending most of it on himself. He partied, met women, drank, skied and hung out at the beach. He told Steve he hadn't been able to find David.
On his second trip, Steve gave McKinney David's hotel address. About 5:30 the next morning, McKinney knocked on David's door and dropped $8,500 on the bed. David complained it wasn't enough. "I said, 'That's all they gave me,' " McKinney recalled.
David said he realized then, for the first time, he might not see the millions he thought he had coming to him.
Why had he ever believed he'd get it? In a word, "Teamwork. It had been drilled into my head that if you give me a team of five good people, I can go anywhere, do anything," David explained. One thing about teammates, in David's view: You could always trust them.
By late November, McKinney made a third trip to Mexico, saying he'd help David move to Mexico City. This time, David told McKinney the truth. He had stolen $17 million from Loomis Fargo.
"I was thinking, 'They aren't paying me enough,' " McKinney recalled.
Though he never found the right moment to carry out the hit, McKinney did find time to make a friend--a shady character named Robert, to whom he revealed more than was prudent. For reasons that remain obscure, Robert spilled the beans to David. He told him McKinney was in Mexico to kill somebody.
David quickly realized he was the intended victim. He rewarded Robert with $3,000 and vowed never to meet McKinney alone. Now worried about both the FBI and McKinney, he spent even more time alone in his room. Thanksgiving and Christmas were difficult.
"I missed my family. I missed my wife. There were times when I drank really heavily."
In December, agents got the tie-in they were looking for: Kelly Campbell had bought a $30,000 Toyota minivan with cash and registered it to one of Steve Chambers's aliases.
Then FBI agent Wydra watched Steve's wife, Michele, deposit about $8,000 at a Gaston County, N.C., bank. The initials on the money wrapper belonged to a Loomis employee who hadn't worked there since before the heist. The FBI now knew Chambers had Loomis cash.
But agents weren't ready to arrest Kelly and Steve. Too many questions remained: Where was the cash? Where was Ghantt? Were others involved?
In February 1998, the FBI tapped their phones and listened to Steve discuss depositing $2.5 million in the Cayman Islands. They heard Michele brag about her $43,000 ring. The next week, they heard Steve plan to send Mike McKinney to Mexico to kill David Ghantt.
On Feb. 27, agents listened in on a call from David to Kelly and learned David's location in Mexico.
On March 1, David Ghantt left his hotel to do some laundry. He kept looking over his shoulder.
Mexican police, Interpol officers and an FBI agent were watching him. One of them tapped him on the back. The next day, he was sitting next to FBI agent Mark Rozzi on a US Airways flight to Charlotte.
At 6 that morning, FBI supervisor Rick Shaffer led 12 agents and several Gaston County police officers up a winding road on Cramer Mountain to Steve's home. An officer rang the doorbell.
About the same time, Kelly and McKinney received phone calls from agents who told them to open their doors. More agents waited outside to arrest them.
That day, FBI agents also would arrest Scott Grant and Eric Payne, who had spent his share of the money on a motorcycle and breast implants for his wife and two sisters.
In the first days after the arrests, agents recovered or accounted for all but about $2 million of the stolen money.
Steve, who had sworn Kelly, Eric and Scott to secrecy the night of the theft, named them all to the FBI.
Kelly found herself standing beside David while they waited together for a bond hearing. She tried to apologize for the murder plot.
"It wasn't me, it was Steve," she says she told him. "He said, 'Yeah, right,' and turned his head. He wouldn't give me the opportunity to say anything else. I don't blame him."
The Moral of the Story
Federal prosecutors would ultimately charge 21 defendants in the case, including the Floyds, who were charged with (and pleaded guilty to) money laundering. Steve was sentenced to 11 years 3 months in prison. David was sentenced to 7 1/2 years.
The FBI's final challenge is finding the remaining $2 million. Steve Chambers has told agents the missing cash was stolen from a shed in Lincoln County. Is he telling the truth? Or is the loot buried in somebody's yard? Or does it sit in an offshore account, waiting for a prison sentence to end?
Chambers, now 32, didn't grant an interview for this article, but last year, in response to written questions, he said the biggest lesson he learned was:
"Family is more important and valuable than money. . . . My love for my family is by far the most important thing in my life. I think I always knew that, but lost my way for a while."
David, now 30, says he's sorry he abandoned his wife--who he says still loves him--and his family.
"I've learned that I'm a fortunate man," he said. "Think of how many women would have stood by. Mine did. . . . I've got a good woman."
But because David's relationship with his Loomis bosses had been rocky, he says, he doesn't feel sorry about what he did to the company.
"It probably should bother me," he said. "But, I hate to admit it, it doesn't faze me one bit."
What would he have done differently?
"I wouldn't do it. I'd probably change jobs. I was burned out and just didn't know it. . . . All I needed was a change of pace."
Kelly says she underestimated the value of her life before the heist. She could spend time with her children and parents. She could visit friends. She could walk under the trees, with the chickens and goats and dogs that live around her mobile home.
It will be some time before she can commune with domestic animals again. At the end of October, Kelly was sentenced to 5 years 10 months in prison.
Now that Kelly believes she has found Jesus, she has become more analytical about her past. What made her do it? What made her abandon an ordinary existence to commit this spectacular, doomed crime?
"I'd been told all my life, money will not make you happy," Kelly said. "But I had to know."