By Carlos N. Olvera
The bank robbery sometimes referred to as the largest in United States history happened in Dana Point in 1972. It wasn’t named Dana Point then but rather Laguna Niguel—nevertheless, in our own back yard. Books have been written about it, television programs have depicted it, and it made national headlines at the time. There are even Facebook pages today. Still, few residents are aware of it.
After reading sources documenting this great robbery, the truth lies hidden somewhere in between all the stories. The mastermind, Amil Dinsio, in his book says he was framed, but yes he did it. His partners have a different version, but they didn’t get their fair share. And the authorities put two and two together and felt 3.8 was close enough.
Back in 1972, Richard Nixon was president. He had cleaned Jimmy Hoffa’s clock in December 1971, by talking him into making a $3 million “campaign contribution” in exchange for Hoffa’s pardon. Hoffa paid and got out of jail but held a grudge for having to pay for his freedom. Hoffa also knew where Nixon was keeping his campaign “contributions,” dubbed “Nixon’s Milk Money.” It was in a vault at the United California Bank in Monarch Bay Plaza. This was money originally collected in 1971 from the Texas Dairy Farmers to fix milk prices. Hoffa knew the bank, which safe deposit boxes it was in and was told that the total take, including the contents of all of the other boxes, could be in the range of $30 million. All he wanted was his $3 million back.
All this “secret” information was somehow funneled to a group of bank robbers in Youngstown, Ohio led by Dinsio, who was experienced in specific bank alarms and safes. The crew consisted of five men, with two tagging along as a favor. The haul would be the cash in the safe, stocks and bonds, jewelry and the Nixon money.
A February 1972 trip to Orange County was needed to facilitate the plan with the job scheduled for March 17. A condo on East Nine Drive was leased, a mile from the bank. The robbers had their tools, drills, ropes, lights and explosives pre-staged, hidden in the brush below the hill behind the grocery store near the bank. On their final trip to Laguna Niguel, the tools went missing. Months later the tools were found to have been turned into the police.
On a Thursday the plan was set into motion and new tools were bought locally. With walkie talkies and spotters in place, they made their way to the bank’s roof, cut a hole in it and lowered all their equipment on to the top of the bank vault above the false ceiling of the bank, a distance of about eight feet. A ladder was needed to get to the roof. One was quickly procured from nearby South Shores Church.
The thieves’ real work began late Friday night after the theater and gas station closed. With explosives, and sandbags over the site, the 18-inch cement vault roof was penetrated. For the next two nights they systematically punched out the locks on some 500 safety deposits boxes.
The newspapers at the time touted the take as $30 million but the actual dollar amount stolen is still unknown. The total robbery amount has long been the subject of speculation. Although widely reported at $30 million, because the contents of all the boxes were unknown and not everything was taken, the true amount stolen will remain a mystery. And who knows whether the owners of the safety deposit boxes were inflating their stolen property claims? The bank’s actual cash on hand was about $48,000 and the Nixon money was reportedly $12 million, stored in bundles of $500 and $1,000 bills. Left behind were some securities and a spilled urn of ashes. As the robbers left they jammed the timed lock to the vault door. The bankers didn’t realize they had been robbed until late the next Monday.
But for the robbers, the good times did not last long. By June, five had been arrested in Ohio. But that was not until after the whole Orange County area was scoured for clues. Maybe it was a local job, authorities thought.
The ladder found at the scene had the name Mel Pierce written on the side. Yes, it was the property of the late Mel Pierce who passed away recently, as confirmed last week by his wife Helen.
While researching this story and thinking of longtime residents who would have remembered the robbery, I decided to call Helen. When I asked her if she remembered the incident, she started laughing and told me the FBI came knocking on their door because the ladder had his name on it.
Mel had left it at the South Shores Church after doing some volunteer maintenance, Helen said.
The authorities also stated that, after finding the condo the robbers had lived in for a month, the dishwasher revealed unwashed dishes which led to fingerprints. But this revelation was discounted by the suspects as a made up story since they maintained they would not have been that dumb.
Hoffa was given about $1 million back by the robbers. This required a stop in Las Vegas to launder the money at a 3 percent fee. All of the robbers served some time in prison.
The total amount of money stolen is not the only remaining mystery surrounding the incident. An unrelated, and as of today unsolved, crime was discovered as a result of the robbery investigation.
An unsigned letter believed to have been written by a resident of the Monarch Bay/Laguna Niguel area was found in Ohio among a pile of stolen goods—evidence from the robbery that had likely been part of the contents of one of the safe deposit boxes. The envelope containing the letter read, “Open after my death.” Inside the writer begged for forgiveness for killing his brother’s wife.
Carlos N. Olvera is chairman of the OC Historical Commission and the mayor of Dana Point.