Authors: James Grippando
etting rich in Miami was easy. Or so Ruban Betancourt was told.
written all over itâagain. The Great Recession was over. The perils of reckless borrowing and NINA loansâ“no income, no assets, no problem”âwere yesterday's news. Cash was king. A new Bentley Continental GT like Paris Hilton's? Cash. Hitting Miami Beach to clean out Chanel at Bal Harbour Shops? More cash. A penthouse in Sunny Isles? All cash, no mortgage required. Brazilians, Argentinians, Mexicansâanyone with a Latin fortune was flush with cash and buying up Miami.
Ruban saw the expensive cars and jewelry all around him, but he wasn't plugged into the “new economy,” and he didn't understand it. One year the banks loved him, couldn't give him enough credit, and talked him and his wife into a house and NINA loan that they couldn't possibly afford. “All you need is a pulse and credit score,” their mortgage broker had assured them. As it turned out, that pulse thing was optional. Fraudulent loans to dead people were soaring, right along with bank profits. Two years into their subprime mortgage, the Betancourts were in foreclosure and out on the street, their dream house scooped up for a song on the courthouse steps by investors who paidâwhat else?âcash. Front end and back end, the banks won. But not this time. Ruban got smart and looked to the skies. Not at the new high-rise
condos and office towers that had reshaped Miami's skyline. His eye was on “money flights”â commercial jets pregnant with bags of U.S. currency in their cargo bellies.
“Touchdown!” shouted Ruban.
He was in the passenger seat of a borrowed pickup truck, listening to the Miami Dolphins football game on the radio. The color commentator added his patented “
All RIGHT, Miami!
” over the airwaves. Ruban slapped a high five with his brother-in-law, Jeffrey Beauchamp, who was behind the wheel. The truck was parked alongside Perimeter Road near Miami International Airport. Jeffrey's uncle, Craig “Pinky” Perez, was in the backseat, a fully loaded Makarov 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol tucked under his belt.
“They're still gonna lose,” said Pinky.
The pessimism was warranted. The team was “rebuilding,” and just eight weeks into the new season they already had five losses.
“Maybe I should buy the team,” said Jeffrey.
“Maybe you should shut up,” said Pinky.
, shut it!” said Ruban. “Just shut up and watch the fucking planes.”
The family dynamics were wearing thin on Ruban. He'd approached a couple of buddies to pull off the heist with him, two pros with balls as big as globes but who had passed because it sounded too risky. He was stuck with family. Pinky would probably be okay, with an impressive criminal record to prove it. Jeffrey, on the other hand, was five foot six inches tall and weighed three hundred pounds, and the number-one woman in his life was still his mother. Always smiling, he loved to laugh, even at himself. But he was as gullible as a ten-year-old. It was like asking the actual loser on
to knock off a bank, with the added dimension of drug addiction, which meant that he spent half his life coked-up and bingeing, the other half sleeping it off. Jeffrey would be the driver.
“Hey, is that it?” asked Jeffrey as he peered out the windshield.
Their truck was south of the airport on the other side of a twelve-foot fence of chain link topped with barbed wire. They had a clear view of the runway and control tower.
“Looks like a jumbo jet to me,” said Pinky.
The plane descended from the west, flying over the uninhabited Florida Everglades. Ruban had counted almost four dozen landings since 1:00 p.m., a typical afternoon at MIA, the second-busiest airport in the country for international traffic. But Ruban was getting antsy. The scheduled arrival time for Lufthansa flight 462 from Frankfurt was 1:50 p.m. It was now two o'clock. He smiled as he spotted the telltale bump on the forward double-deck section of the fuselage of the Boeing 747.
“That's it, bro!”
The landing gear deployed, the nose lifted, and the plane touched down at the west end of the runway. The engines whined as the plane rolled past them. The airline's logoâa circle of gold on the deep-blue tailâseemed to smile on them like the Florida sun.
“Payday,” said Ruban.
“All RIGHT, Miami!
” said Jeffrey. “Touchdown!”
The idea of a heist had been planted in Ruban's brain over the summer. He was nearly floored by what his old friend was telling him. “Money flights happen every day, bro. Eighty million dollars. A hundred million dollars. Every fucking day.” The Miami branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is just northwest of the Miami International Airport, a distance of about four miles “as the crow files,” a fifteen-minute ride by armored truck. When a foreign bank has more U.S. currency on hand than needed, it physically ships the bills to the United States for deposit at one of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks. South Florida's cash-hungry Latin community made Miami a prime destination.
Ruban had been planning and preparing for months. He'd studied enough maps of the area to know that the Lufthansa flight flew right past the Miami Fed upon approach to the south runway. The shipment's ultimate destination, however, was as irrelevant as the world economic events that impacted the value of the U.S. dollar and fueled these money flights. To Ruban and his partners in crime, the 747 was nothing more than bags of cash, low-hanging fruit, theirs for the taking.
Ruban's phone rang and he answered immediately. It was his sourceâthe old friend who had tipped him off about the “money flights.” This was the call he had been waiting for: time to move.
“Understood,” he said into his cell. “Ten minutes.”
He hung up. Clearing customs was normally a two-hour process, but the armored-car guards were moving faster than usual. The Lufthansa container had been transported from the aircraft to the warehouse. All bags had been inspected for tampering and tearing, the cash accounted for, and the bags resealed. The process of loading the armored truck was soon to begin. In another half hour the money would be heading north on the Palmetto Expressway at fifty-five miles per hourâunless Ruban made his move.
“Drive,” Ruban told his brother-in-law.
“How much we talking about?”
“Forty-some bags. Two million per bag, give or take, depending on the mix of bills.”
The math was beyond Jeffrey. “Sweet,” he said as he steered onto the Perimeter Road.
It was a short drive to the airport warehouse on Northwest Eighteenth Street. Ruban and Pinky put on latex gloves to make sure there would be no fingerprints when they pulled themselves up on the loading dock. Jeffrey parked outside the open cargo door. He kept the motor running. The time was 3:08 p.m.
Ruban could hardly believe that the enormous bay door was wide open, though he knew it would be. It was one of the many lapses in security that would make this job so easy. Each of those vulnerabilities had been spelled out to him in advance. Bricks of bills lay exposed on the concrete floor. Federal law prohibited any private citizenâincluding armored-truck guardsâfrom carrying a weapon into the customs clearance site, so the guards were required to remove all weapons before entering the warehouse and performing any clearance tasks. The CCTV cameras were monitored by the security staff at the main terminal, well away from the warehouse, and the crooks would be long gone before the weekend security guard noticed anything awry on one of his many screens and contacted police. The kicker in this incredible equation was that the gaping bay doors led directly to a public-access road running parallel to the building. A fast-moving getaway vehicle could bypass the airport perimeter fence and the gatehouse and be on the expressway in less than sixty seconds.
Ruban had gotten all this information from a trusted old friend, a childhood buddy he'd grown up with in Cuba.
Ruban's given name was “Karl,” which is not a Hispanic name, but decades of Soviet influence in Cuba had many faces, including that of Ruban's father, a Russian soldier who never married Ruban's mother and who was shipped off to Afghanistan, where he was killed, when Ruban was three. Karl and his older sister were half-Cubansâ“Rubans”âwho lived on a single mother's salary of twenty dollars per month, paid in
and supplemented by rice-and-beans rations and other “necessities” provided by the Cuban government. They owned no car. Their television worked intermittently, but in any case they watched only what the government allowed them to watch. The Castro regime's ban on international travel by Cuban citizens meant that no one in the Betancourt family had left the island since 1959. Ruban was among the next generation
of refugees, part of President Clinton's Cuban crisis, having left only when he'd decided to leave for good, at the age of seventeen. If ever he returned, it would be as a rich man. He would stay at the Hotel Nacional, along with the European tourists. He'd drink mojitos all day and lounge on the white-sand beaches at Veradero. But first there was work to do.
His real job as a restaurant manager kept him too busy to indulge in hobbies, yet Ruban did have one: his gun collection. Mostly Russian-made pistols. They would come in handy in this new job.
“Ready, Ruban?” asked Pinky. The “Ruban” nickname had stuck. Not even his wife called him Karl.
“Let's do this,” said Ruban.
Ruban and Pinky put on sunglasses to hide their eyes and pulled ski masks over their heads. They got out of the truck, and hauled themselves up onto the loading dock. Pinky pulled a Makarov 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol as they ran into the warehouse. Ruban gave the order, first in English and then in Spanish.
“Down on the floor! Everybody down!”
The scene was exactly as Ruban had been told it would be. A cavernous warehouse littered with crates and plastic packing wrap. Canvas bags lay right by the doors, protected by only a handful of unarmed guards and warehouse workers. They complied immediately and dropped to the floor.
The thieves moved quickly. Ruban grabbed four bags, two in each hand, nearly his own body weight in fifty- and hundred-dollar bills. Pinky brandished the Makarov, never letting his guard down, but grabbed two more bags with his free hand.
“Like bags of cement,” Ruban said, groaning. Easy money didn't mean easy to carry. One bag was dropped in their race back to the truck.
“Leave it! Go, go, go!”
They left it on the floor, threw the five bags into the bed of the truck as they hopped down from the loading dock, and jumped into the cab.
Jeffrey hit the gas. The truck sped away. The men pulled off their ski masks, slapped high fives, and showered themselves with hoots and hollers of congratulations. Jeffrey felt the excitement. Maybe too much.
“Hey, Ruban?” He was driving so fast that the steering wheel was vibrating in his hands. “Tell me where we're going again?”
Ruban slugged him in the arm. They'd gone over the escape countless times. “Shit, Jeffrey! Turn here!”
A hard right, and the tires squealed as they ran the stop sign. They were deep into the warehouse district.
“Left!” shouted Ruban.
Jeffrey steered toward the Miami Tile & Marble Depot. It was closed on Sundays, but the garage door opened as they approached. The black pickup entered and continued through the warehouse without stopping, passing pallets of tile and marble stacked floor to ceiling on either side. As the garage door closed behind them, a cargo door opened before them. It was the rear loading platform, where a delivery truck was backed up against the elevated dock. Its roll-up door was wide open. Jeffrey drove the pickup straight into the empty box of the delivery truck, stopped, then switched on the running lights so they could see. Ruban and Pinky jumped out of the pickup, secured the axles to the bed of the delivery truck with chains, and chocked the wheels with wooden blocks.
“Done!” shouted Ruban.
Pinky pulled down the roll-up door. Ruban banged on the metal wall between him and the cab. The driver was Marco, a forklift operator who was the lone security guard on Sundays, a friend of Pinky's.
They jumped into the bed of the pickup. Canvas bags of money lay between them as the delivery truck pulled away from the loading dock.
“Home free,” said Pinky. “So easy!”
Ruban leaned back against one of the bags, a lumpy mattress of money. “Too easy.”
That's what worries me.