A reporter’s perspective on a famous heist
An interview with author Gary Craig
Author Gary Craig
Author photo courtesy of Gary Craig
One of the biggest armored car robberies in US history took place in Rochester in 1993. It’s still partially unsolved and only a fraction of the money has been recovered. Veteran reporter Gary Craig has written a book that narrates the robbery’s complex chain of events and brings to life the eccentric cast of characters involved. Entitled Seven Million, the nonfiction title details the heist, its political context, and its eerily sad aftermath.
An interview with Gary Craig:
The timeline for this stretches over a couple decades: the robbery and murders take place in the nineties, Millar comes out with his book in 2003, and Seven Million comes out in 2017. Can you explain how you finally came to write this book?
It was a story I had followed and reported on since 1993. I once started a book proposal around 1995, then put those chapters on a shelf. Then, in 1996, I became involved in the search for a missing man connected to the robbery, and, as the book details, that search lasted fifteen years. I decided afterward to unearth the original chapters and see if I could construct a book from the saga. There was plenty to tell, and a cast of characters that seems more out of fiction, so constructing a book-length version of the story was a natural step.
The book is a real page-turner; it’s very suspenseful. Was it difficult to create such a great sense of immediacy (given that these are events you’d been researching for years)?
The story lent itself to a suspenseful narrative. That said, I worked hard to craft the story that way. There was much I trimmed that I thought could slow the flow of the narrative, and I tried to end as many chapters as I could with some sort of cliff-hanging question or moment.
Your tone throughout the narrative remains fairly reportorial. Can you share some of your personal theories about these events?
Having been a reporter for thirty-five-plus years, I tend to be one who sticks with the facts and hopes some version of “truth” can be revealed from that approach. I admit, I found it a bit uneasy to try to answer some of the several major unresolved questions from this robbery, and I’m honest in the book about what I know and don’t.
In my epilogue, I do dive into the questions, and, based on a lot of research, clearly come out against any theories that the IRA orchestrated the robbery (which does not mean that the IRA didn’t get some of the money). The whereabouts of the missing $5 million is more complicated, and I think some is in Rochester, some possibly in New York City, and some in Northern Ireland. There are two murders prominent in the book that are unsolved, and I do think one of them—as I discuss in the book—clearly has its roots in the Brink’s robbery.
Are there other crimes that you’ve covered over the years that could have provided material for a similar book, or is the Brinks heist and its related mayhem the clear winner?
Actually, Rochester has the distinction of having two of the largest armored car company robberies in the country’s history, and they were just over two years apart. The earlier heist—a 1990 robbery of nearly $11 million—is also a compelling story. I know it well, have written much about it, and it may be the focus of a documentary now in the works.
(Here is a narrative series about that robbery.)
Still, I’m unsure about another nonfiction crime book. While it may seem counterintuitive, given our nation’s taste for crime on TV and in fiction, the market for nonfiction crime is a tough one, especially if you’re not a known name and the crime isn’t one largely recognized. (Of course, if you can write like John Berendt or Bob Kolker, then you can break through the wall.) I didn’t write this book to score some significant return, but instead because I knew and lived the story and wanted to tell it. I admit, if I write another book, I might be considering what is likely to do best in our national market.
Your rather bleak descriptions of Rochester remind me of negative attitudes toward Buffalo that are slowly being reversed. Do you think there is a true upturn in our similar cities in recent years? Or is this a kind of a reporter/cop occupational hazard, as a result of seeing so much of the seedy side of cities?
Yes, and yes. I actually wrote that description back in the mid-nineties, and much of it, sadly, is still true about the urban core of Rochester—poverty, violence, struggling schools. But I have seen a gradual resurgence (if a resurgence can be gradual) of the city in the years since I wrote those words, and I have a tempered hope about its future. That hope is tempered by something I believe to be true in Rochester, Buffalo, and many other cities: It’s difficult to get the needed attention of residents who don’t live life daily in the struggling neighborhoods. Segregation—both physical and in some ways psychological—is real, and an impediment to progress, I believe.
As an occasional visitor to Buffalo, I am truly excited by what is happening there and how the city is utilizing its assets: both its people and its waterfront location. When I’m there, I realize how significant it is to have a downtown that historically blossomed along the lake and that the waterfront provides such opportunity. Rochester does have the Genesee River splitting the downtown and has not been great about highlighting that asset, but it seems to be improving some on that (water)front.
And, it is true that, as reporters, we do see more of the underbelly of an area, and it can’t help but shape our opinions.
Are IRA-sympathetic networks like NORAID still a big thing in Rochester?
Not like in the 1980s and early 1990s (which also mirrors national popularity). There is an active Irish-American population in Rochester that celebrates its history and its music. But, at least on the surface, I see nothing organized like the very vibrant NORAID chapter of the past.
What’s next? Might you turn to fictional crime or do you have other nonfiction projects?
I thought I had my next book figured out, and was starting on its research. It would again be nonfiction, and would focus on the history of Jell-O and the family that marketed it, made millions off of it, and became one of those fascinating American success stories with its share of admirable philanthropy and ample dysfunction.
My agent was excited about the idea, and we thought it might have a chance at some national interest. Then, lo and behold, someone else this year gets a six-figure deal that focuses in part on that same history. So, I may have to let that idea go; I’m not sure yet.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree.