The friends and neighbors of Steve and Michelle Chambers became suspicious soon after the news broke that an armored car company in nearby Charlotte had been relieved of $17 million. Here was the tip-off: Three weeks after the October 1997 heist, the blue-collar couple moved from a rural mobile home to a $635,000 mansion in the swank, gated confines of Cramer Mountain, an exclusive community here about 15 miles east of Charlotte. But that was only the beginning. They also bought a BMW convertible, a $10,000 pool table, a Rolex watch and a 3 1/2-carat diamond ring worth $43,000. Michelle made a beeline to a plastic surgeon for a set of breast implants, while Steve tossed out $900 in tips on a single night out. After the reckless spending spree, the couple's downfall was just a matter of time, five months to be exact. And now, they and 17 others have been convicted and are awaiting sentences on an assortment of federal charges arising from the heist. On Saturday, the contents of the Chambers' ill-gotten palace and equally frantic buys made by their accomplices will be auctioned off by federal marshals. Items include a velvet Elvis portrait, a Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle, all the big-screen TVs and other vehicles, and the painting that hung in the Chambers' new foyer: a bulldog dressed as Gen. George S. Patton, complete with riding crop. In the annals of bold, wacky but almost successful crimes, of crooks with dumb luck and dumber follow-through, the Loomis, Fargo & Co. heist will be long remembered among FBI agents and area residents who followed every unraveling detail. Besides being the second-biggest bank robbery in U.S. history, it had an improbable cast of characters and a plot line that drew national attention -- and lots of disbelieving laughter. "Ever since the first arrest was made, it has taken on a type of folk-tale flavor," said U.S deputy marshal Steve Gladden. "Let's face it, you're moving from a trailer in a field in a remote county to the country club. It was very much The Beverly Hillbillies.' " But there also was a sinister, and even sad, edge beneath the antics. During their five months as millionaires, the robbers grew ever more paranoid and eventually turned on each other; some of them even plotted to kill another member of the gang. And in their desperate effort to stash the money, the Chamberses enlisted the aid of their working-class parents and other former innocents to obtain safe-deposit boxes. Now, those older people, who never had been in legal trouble, are convicted felons. "I think this case can be summed up as how a sudden influx of cash really fails to change a person's true character," said Charlotte defense attorney Monroe Whitesides, who related the tale in the current edition of Charlotte magazine under the headline, "White Trash Crime." "When you get into a character study of this group, you see a lot of people who thought money would bring power and happiness," he said. "And all it did was put them at each other's throats." Whitesides, 39, entered the picture in January 1998 when he was contacted by a frightened client he identifies only as "Ken," a printing company co-worker of Eric Payne of Belmont, N.C., who would later be convicted as one of the robbers. With Payne, Ken hung out often at the Chambers' new mansion, and ended up as a crucial source for the FBI, aka Confidential Informant No. 2. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney's office has much to say about the case, citing the upcoming sentencing and the fact that two final money-laundering defendants have yet to go to trial. That leaves Whitesides and licensed private investigator Steve Hartness, 50, of Charlotte, who also is Ken's uncle, to provide the details. Little was revealed at trial, because all the defendants but one pleaded guilty. In an interview this week, Whitesides said the original title of his piece had been "A Ton of Cash." But it really was closer to a ton and a half, more than 2,700 pounds of green. The story began Oct. 4, 1997, when Loomis Fargo vault supervisor David Scott Ghantt used a stick to prop open a vault door at the company's Charlotte depository, Whitesides said. Returning later that night, Ghantt began loading a company van with cash, and soon made his first mistake. Although he removed the tapes from two security cameras, he failed at first to realize that 16 others were recording his every move. Ghantt, now 29, was a tall, decorated Persian Gulf War veteran whom early newspaper reports likened to Huckleberry Finn. He had never been in trouble with the law. But in addition to a wife, he also had a girlfriend, Kelly Campbell, who had previously worked at Loomis Fargo, and Campbell knew a small-time hustler named Steve Chambers. Together with a pair of other accomplices, the three had put together the scheme. Later that night, Chambers and two partners worked feverishly in a nearby woods to unload the stacks of bills that Ghantt had piled into the Loomis Fargo van. They had to leave $3.3 million behind, according to court documents, because they had not brought enough 55-gallon barrels to store it in. While the others worked, Kelly Campbell drove Ghantt, who realized too late he had been taped, to Columbia, S.C., to catch a plane to Mexico, only to learn that the airport did not offer international flights. Campbell then deposited him on a bus for Atlanta, and hurried back. According to later news reports, Ghantt made it to Mexico and holed up in a resort hotel, where he spent his time smoking cigarettes and eating M&Ms. Unaware of Ghantt's flight, FBI agents who immediately began investigating the heist surmised that his disappearance might mean he had been killed, Whitesides said. The agents waited and watched as the big spenders sealed their doom, he added, because the FBI wanted to be sure it did not have a murder case on its hands before moving in. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Chambers, 31, was acting the part of The Big Boss -- and the biggest spender of them all. "Here you've got some $10 gangster who suddenly rose to the position of the Godfather," Hartness said. "Chambers knew you go to jail when you run your mouth and you spend money all over the place. All I can figure is, it was so intoxicating to them, they went insane. They just went nuts." Ken was a witness to many of the gang's more flamboyant exploits. He was along when Chambers hired a chauffeured limousine to ferry the group to dinner at the modest Western Steer in nearby Gastonia. At Cricket's Lounge, Ken looked on as Michelle and Steve got into a fight about her suggestive dancing; when the bouncer threw Steve out, he boasted he would come back and buy the club. However, it was Michelle Chambers, now 26 and the mother of two small children, who reached new heights of indiscretion. A month after the robbery, she reportedly entered a Belmont bank with a suitcase stuffed with $200,000 in cash and asked the bank manager, "How much can I deposit without the bank reporting the transaction?" Whitesides said the manager, who noticed the money was still encased in Loomis Fargo wrappers, made an excuse to decline the deposit. At home, Ken reported, Chambers stocked the wine cellar with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Although he had bought the house fully furnished, he added plenty of personal touches, like the elephant figurines scattered everywhere for good luck. Twenty thousand dollars worth of fine Cuban cigars was ruined, however, when he did not realize he had to put water in his expensive new humidor. In January 1998, about three months after the robbery, Chambers offered to pay Ken $150,000 if Ken would smuggle $2.5 million in cash to a bank account in the Cayman Islands, Whitesides said. That is when Ken, who was concerned about potential legal problems and his own safety, notified his uncle, who contacted the attorney. The three met with the FBI. Ken was outfitted with a $16,000 digital recorder, Hartness said, and sent off to gather incriminating evidence. By February of last year, Chambers was packing a pistol and hiring a bodyguard. As March approached, it was clear he had decided that Ghantt, still languishing in Mexico, was too dangerous to live; and besides, why continue to share the money with him? Chambers discussed with his bodyguard, Mike McKinney, how best to smuggle a firearm into Mexico, according to court documents, and even booked McKinney a flight. But by this time, the FBI had a line on Ghantt's whereabouts, Hartness said, having tapped a certain pay phone that, according to their surveillance, Kelly Campbell often slipped away to use. Near dawn on March 2, the big spree came to an end. Agents showed up at the Cramer Mountain mansion to arrest the Chamberses and Campbell. They went quietly. Ghantt was arrested in Playa del Carmel, Mexico, seeming almost relieved it was over, according to news reports. Other arrests soon followed, and the contents of nine safe-deposit boxes were seized. For his trouble, Whitesides said, Ken received a "nice six-figure reward." Much of the stolen money was reclaimed or accounted for, said FBI spokeswoman Joanne Morley, except for about $2 million that remains missing. But this time, Whitesides wryly noted, "Nobody's talking." CAPTION: Defendants Eric Payne, Michelle Chambers and Kelly Campbell leave courthouse last March. ec CAPTION: VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS FBI agents count cash at $635,000 mansion purchased by Steve and Michelle Chambers after huge haul from armored car firm in 1997. ec CAPTION: This velvet Elvis and a Harley-Davidson Road King are among the items purchased on the Chambers' spending spree that face auction Saturday. ec