Forty-seven years ago,  amid the December shopping season of 1977,  a Brinks security officer stepped onto an escalator at the Abington Sears & Roebuck store. Hardly anyone had noticed the man who would approach him on the escalator, brandish a gun, and shoot him. My father was working in the men’s suit department thirty-five feet away with his back turned to the escalator when the shot rang out. Despite the heroic efforts of Sears employees and bystanders, the Brinks employee did not survive. 

The thieves made off with $105,000 that day. Like many other companies during the 1970s, Brinks was forced to cut costs and only one security guard entered the Abington Sears location on that day.

Last month, the residents of the nearby borough of Ambler, who were ordered to shelter in place last week after a Loomis armored truck driver was assaulted and became held up at gunpoint near the 6900 block of Stenton Avenue outside of a Metro PCS Store. The driver’s weapon was stolen and $2,500 was taken. When Montgomery County Police received a tip about the location of the suspect, the shelter in place order was given to the Ambler residents.

Armored heists are nothing new to the Philadelphia area. While Pennsylvania’s crime rates did dip under the national average for 2023, robbery itself nearly doubled as a statistic in Philadelphia between 2021–2022. 

Last year, a tractor-trailer carrying coins was broken into and robbed near the Philadelphia Mills shopping center. Almost 2 million dimes (over $200,000 in cash) was stolen from a parked truck while the driver rested before a long delivery drive to Florida. Additional coins were left strewn all over the Philadelphia Mills parking lot for all to see.

In September 1789, in the midst of Philadelphia’ yellow fever pandemic, $162,821 was stolen from the Bank of Pennsylvania vault, which was at Carpenters’ Hall. The robber was Isaac Davis, whose partner in the heist died of yellow fever right not long after the robbery. Davis drew attention to himself by actually making a deposit of the stolen money in the very same bank that was the target of the robbery. 

After returning the stolen money, Davis received a pardon and never went to prison. The heist would be America’s first bank robbery.

And how about unlucky/lucky Joey William Coyle, an unemployed longshoreman who “discovered” $1.2 million dollars dropping out of an armored truck outside of Purolator Armored Car Company at the corner of Swanson and Wolf Streets in Philadelphia in 1981? Coyle calimed he did not know that removing bags of cash from an armored car is actually against the law (even if it’s unlocked) as the cash still isn’t yours. He was apprehended soon after while traveling to Mexico. His story was the inspiration for the film Money for Nothing with John Cusack in 1993.

Between 1915 and 1916, a partnership existed between the Armored Motor Car Company of Detroit and the United States Marine Corps to invent a system for armored vehicles with the intention of being utilized in a military setting to clear enemy trenches in World War 1. In 1915 in Philadelphia, on the streets outside of the city two King Armored Cars were evaluated. 

The two prototypes were the first of their kind.

In December of 1990, three men opened fire killing two Brooks armored car guards outside of the Delaware Trust Bank near Wilmington, Delaware. The thieves escaped with $613,000.

In 2013, on the corner of Frankford Avenue and Rhawn Street, a Garda truck driver was outside of a Wells Fargo Bank when he was attacked by several men with masks inspired by the movie Scream. Witnesses remembered men with assault rifles attacking the guard as they made off with approximately $310,000.

Today, Brinks, Gardaworld, and Loomis all have locations in the Philadelphia area. Brinks has had a location in Philadelphia for over 70 years and dates back to 1859 as an organization.

Although other major US cities may have higher current rankings in armed robbery or armored car heists, the Delaware Valley has been the scene of some of the most significant heists in history and new approaches to prevent them for over the last 100 years.

The old escalator that once provided access to the third floor of the Abington Sears and Roebuck still stands today. It has seen Sears & Roebuck move into the Willow Grove Park Mall in 1982, and has lifted shoppers in the Abington Towne Center Atrium Mall for nearly fifteen years, providing access between such stores as T.J. Maxx and Circuit City. 

Today, it has been expanded to include an escalator for carts as well as shoppers in the two-story Target at the same location in Abington, just a modern facelift from the day that it became part of regional Philadelphia heist history.

Michael Thomas Leibrandt lives and works in Abington, Pennsylvania. This article is dedicated in loving memory of my father and author, Thomas J. Leibrandt.

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