Thirty-five Years Later, a Mafia Heist Still Intrigues

When the Mafia rips off the Mafia, things can get interesting – and stay that way. Wayne Worcester, a professor of journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been working with two other investigative reporters on the story for 35 years. Their findings, some reported in print, on television, and via social media, will soon be published in a book.

<p>Wayne Worcester. Photo provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences</p>

Wayne Worcester, professor of journalism. Photo by Dan Buttrey

In August, 1975, for the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, you reported on a dramatic armed robbery in which eight men raided a secret cache of 148 very large safe deposit boxes and escaped with valuables worth more than $30 million. The hitch was that most of the loot belonged to the New England mafia. Did you consider it just routine police reporting?

I happened to be covering police news that day so the story fell to me, but that always was one of the great things about being a reporter in Rhode Island: Anything could happen … and usually did. We thought of the state as a kind of theme park for reporters.

Now you are a seasoned investigative reporter who teaches students how to dig up and piece together information to form an accurate and compelling story. One piece of advice you give your students is to be persistent. What is it about this story that still attracts readers after so many years?

The story had so many intriguing elements, especially for a low-tech heist. This wasn’t any “Mission Impossible” job. The crooks just walked in, muscled open the boxes, and ran off with the loot in broad daylight. The safe deposit boxes were secret. They were used mostly by the mob. Most of the robbers were from out of town, and the value of the loot was extraordinary. An awful lot of questions had gone unanswered. Even after guys went to prison for the robbery, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the heist. And not a cent of the money the equivalent of $120 million in today’s dollars was ever recovered, and most of it was in the form of gems and high-end jewelry, so the loot had to be fenced. There was a trail and nobody followed it. If they had, it would have led back to the man who approved of the robbery and hired the team of crooks, and it turned out to be the leader of the mob himself. He was robbing his own people.

Thirty-five years after the heist, you and two other reporters are ready to publish a book about the incident. You, the son of the original investigative reporter, who died, and that reporter’s former partner, have collaborated on the book for years. What has kept you going? Do you ever get tired of the subject?

I can honestly say that none of us is tired of the story, for a number of reasons. From a professional point of view, it’s an important piece of work because it’s a kind of prism in which you can see how a major mafia family destroyed itself. There is also the fact that we like the work and we like working with each other. But from a purely personal perspective, the story also is a chance for the three of us to balance the books for the late Jack White. He was a good friend and an inspiration. Jack won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for exposing President Nixon as a common tax cheat, and had Jack not died young from a heart attack, he would have finished the Bonded Vault story; he had done a lot of the original reporting.

Early on, at least two reporters involved in the case were given police escorts when it looked like they were at risk. The mob’s hold on Providence has diminished over the years. Even so, do you worry about your safety?

In fact, the mob is in disarray, but it’s still there, so I suppose the safety issue is, too, at least in some small measure. But the truth is we’d only be a threat to them if we had the kind of information that could put them away … and we don’t. This is a 35-year-old crime, remember, and if anyone had a lock on information of that caliber, these guys would have been out of commission long ago.

The story, which is perhaps better than fiction, has been the subject of a screen play, as well as the book of non-fiction you are working on. Do you ever dream of taking the basic plot and writing a novel about it? Will we see a movie or documentary about the heist?

I’ve written novels, and I have to say that working creatively within the boundaries of non-fiction is a much greater challenge. Creative non-fiction is tougher than hell. It’s writing’s last frontier. As for a movie, we’ve been contacted by producers, so who knows what the future holds? A movie wouldn’t surprise me, frankly, and of course, we’d all be delighted; the story is strong enough.

What lessons have you learned from working on a project for such a long time?

I think it’s been more a matter of reaffirming things I’ve always known, and there’s great value in that. The value of persistence and determination is high among them, I’d say, but so is the importance of good, solid reporting as a tool for uncovering the truth. Without it, we all are at the mercy of spin-doctors and publicists.

In the time you have been working on this story, the media landscape has changed. Newspapers have lost clout, as has network television news. Has that changed how this story is told?

The media landscape certainly has change dramatically, but what needs to be at the center of it all has not changed one iota, and that is, verifiable fact content that is valid, content that can be relied upon for its accuracy and usefulness in understanding the truth. What has changed is the nature of the delivery systems we use to tell stories, and as fascinating as that is, we would do well to remind ourselves that they are only tools but they are exciting. My partners and I are telling the story of the Bonded Vault heist in print, on radio, television, online, and in various social media and interactive technologies as well. Those are all different ways to reach an audience, but they’re absolutely useless unless, at the very core of it all, you really do have something of substance to deliver, unless you really do have a story that’s worth telling. Fortunately, we do.