Bigger than "Goodfellas": Miami Brinks heist mastermind speaks for the first time

This 2005 heist netted $7.4 million and went off without a hitch, until one of the crew started flaunting his cash

Published January 22, 2017 12:30AM (EST)

Karls Monzon
Karls Monzon

Karls Monzon hadn’t seen the film “Goodfellas” when he carried off a nearly identical heist to the one organized by the movie’s protagonist, Henry Hill.

“I just found out when I got arrested. A couple of days later I heard the news and. . . they was telling me I was copying the movie,” Monzon said of the Martin Scorsese film which depicted the 1978 Lufthansa heist at New York’s JFK airport that netted an estimated $5.875 million — and eventually led to the deaths of most of the people involved.

Yet “Goodfellas” wasn’t a big deal to Monzon; he prefers crime movies and court procedural television shows like “Law & Order: SVU” and “Dateline NBC." Using these shows as his guide, he orchestrated a crime that netted him and his associates approximately $7.4 million. The robbery of a Brinks warehouse at the Miami International Airport in 2005 could have been ripped from the script of a police drama.

Unlike the Lufthansa Heist, no one involved with the 2005 Miami robbery was killed. Monzon and his crew of accomplices had planned to live carefully, storing their stolen cash until the heat died down. But when Monzon’s brother-in-law started flaunting his money, he invited trouble from envious criminals and the FBI, and the scheme came crashing down.

Monzon spent nine years and two months in prison for his crime before being released in April 2016. He hasn’t spoken to the press until now; he spoke to Salon over the phone during a break from his job as a tow truck driver in Miami.

An opportunity too good to be true

Monzon is about 6 feet tall with green eyes and is solid at 240 pounds. He speaks quietly and unemotionally with a Cuban accent.

In 2005, the then 32-year-old immigrant was living in Miami and working as a driver for United Rentals, which leases construction equipment. His wife, Cinnamon, was pregnant with a daughter. He had no criminal record at the time.

That April, Monzon got a call that would change his life. His friend Onelio Diaz, who worked as a Brinks security guard at Miami International Airport, had noticed some serious security issues during a daily cash transport. In a 2013 deep dive into the robbery and subsequent fall-out (for which Monzon was not interviewed), Bloomberg reported:

Every day, [Diaz] explained, a Lufthansa jet from Frankfurt landed at the airport carrying bricks of $50 and $100 bills in bags. The shipments were from Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank, and averaged between $80 million and $100 million per flight. Brink’s employed Diaz and a few other guards to escort the bills from the tarmac to a warehouse at the airport perimeter to clear customs. The guards would examine the bags for tampering or tears and drive them in armored cars to the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve, about four miles away. The whole process took about two hours.

The security guard didn’t want to rob his employer; instead, Diaz told Monzon that he should.

“I told him, ‘Hey, I don’t know. That sounds like it’s too easy to be true, too good to be true.’ Then he told me, ‘No, it is. It is because [the guards are] so used to it and comfortable,” Monzon said.

The guards didn’t close the doors to the warehouse when they stored the money because there is no air conditioning, Diaz added, and the count doesn’t happen inside a cage as it should. There was no armed guard and the warehouse had a door that faced the street — perfect for a getaway.

Scheming and casing

Monzon’s time spent watching crime shows was about to pay off, but he knew that he had to suss out whether this heist was even possible first. He started by renting a room at the Miami Hilton Hotel, which overlooked the airport’s warehouse and tarmac; from there, Monzon could watch the guards transfer money from the airplane to the warehouse. He did this about eight or 10 times.

From a room that looked south, Monzon said he could see the pilot and guards taking bags of cash to the warehouse. When his view was obscured, he would rent a north-facing room the following week.

“I was just back and forth every week. One week in the north side, one week in the south side to make sure they never changed their routine,” Monzon said.

Twice Monzon drove onto the tarmac pretending that he was looking for a job. “I wanted to make sure the money is there, because it’s maybe a setup. . . . [then] I saw the bags of money. I knew the money was true.”

Mozon was also scouting for an area of the tarmac that didn’t have security cameras — a place where he could stash a getaway car. Monzon and a friend had stolen two Ford F450s from a dealer near Jacksonville, Florida, which they had loaded onto a United Rentals tractor-trailer for the 100-mile drive to Miami, then stored in a warehouse until the heist.

Everything was falling into place for Monzon, who dreamt of having enough money to retire some day. He had also assembled a crew with a mixed criminal history and different ideas on how they would spend the loot: Monzon’s uncle-in-law, Conrado “Pinky” Perera, had a criminal past but planned to start his own legitimate business; his brother-in-law, Jeffrey Boatwright, who struggled with drug addiction, would be the driver; United Rentals co-worker Roberto Perez would join as a lookout.

Monzon’s wife Cinnamon was pregnant with a baby girl while he planned the warehouse robbery. He said she had no knowledge of his scheme until later. About two months before the heist, Cinnamon went to the hospital with high blood pressure and gave birth to a stillborn child. The event changed Monzon’s vision of his financial future.

“I wasn’t just doing it just to take all that money,” Monzon said quietly, adding that his wife had had trouble conceiving multiple times. “Recently I lost my baby, so I just want to have enough money to adopt a kid. Adopting a kid is expensive.”

Planning pays off

On Nov. 6, 2005 Boatwright, Monzon and Perera headed to the Miami airport in one of the stolen black pickup trucks. Despite all his planning and casing, Monzon was wracked with nervousness.

“My blood pressure went through the roof. I’ve never done nothing like that before. I was like, I don’t even know what to do,” Monzon said. He breathed and continued to convince himself. “I just keep my cool and I keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Just as the group arrived at the Brinks warehouse, they heard sirens and saw a van full of U.S. Customs police speed toward the post office building — just in front of their target. Boatwright, who was driving, slowed down to watch the action and wait for the police to leave, but the presence of police shook everyone up. Boatwright and Perera wanted to go home.

“I just put my foot down,” Monzon said, telling his team. “This has to get done and don't worry about distractions.”

Ironically, the police had created the perfect setup for Monzon and his crew. By the time Monzon had convinced Perera and Boatwright to continue with the robbery, around 3 p.m., the bag exchange was underway at the warehouse. “That’s when we decided to go around and jump out and go inside the warehouse because . . . there was no security. It was just open. They can walk to the tarmac and nobody is going to stop you.”

Here’s Bloomberg’s description of what happened next:

Monzon and Perera got out, pulled bandannas over their faces, hauled themselves onto the loading dock, and went through the open doors. Inside the warehouse they saw what Diaz had described: a gaping space littered with crates and plastic packing wrap. Right by the doors, a handful of guards, including Diaz, sorted through canvas bags stuffed with cash. The day’s shipment, 42 bags, added up to $88 million, about $2.1 million a bag.

Monzon and Perera pulled out their guns and ordered the guards onto the floor. They grabbed six bags of cash, each weighing about 38 pounds. When they ran to the bay door, one bag dropped. They left it on the warehouse floor. They threw the others into the bed of the truck and made off with $7.4 million. The only clue the guards would report to the newspapers was that the thieves were speaking in both Spanish and English.

No one was hurt, but Monzon later heard that a security guard had to go to the hospital for cardiac issues following the robbery.

The group loaded their loot into the bed of the truck and sped away to the first getaway car on the tarmac, where Monzon frantically checked the bags for trackers and markings (he found none), then transferred the money into plastic bags. They switched trucks once more, this time to Monzon’s personal car, which was stashed about five miles away on a residential street. The first two cars would be burned as evidence.

“When I was watching TV, everyone was getting caught with DNA, fingerprints, so I decided to burn the trucks,” Monzon said. “Till this day I don’t even know where the trucks are. . . . Somebody got paid good money to do that.”

Monzon sounds both nonchalant and disbelieving when he talks about pulling off the robbery, almost as if he was picking up a straight paycheck.

“I didn’t even know it was a big deal. I don’t even know how much money was there. We got a couple of bags and we left,” Monzon said. “Everybody got a good cut. That way we knew there would be no issues.”

Mostly smooth sailing

A couple of days after the robbery, Monzon stopped feeling nervous and untrusting. No one knew that he was involved in the heist, which made national news, and he started feeling “pumped up . . . a lot better.” He said Cinnamon, too, had begun to be less angry and disbelieving that her husband had pulled off a massive crime.

“I just got plans to put the money away because I don’t want to change my lifestyle or the level of my lifestyle,” Monzon said. He stashed most of his $1.6 million cut on his family’s property in Homestead, a rural area halfway between Miami and the Florida Keys, mostly in the attic and buried in PVC pipes.

The dramas of ordinary life continued. Monzon kept his job at the rental company and Cinnamon kept working as a receptionist at Vista magazine.

But Monzon believes that a slightly less ordinary familial drama was his undoing. His brother-in-law Boatwright was “spending money like crazy” — including buying a car in cash and showing off stacks of bills. During sentencing in 2006, Boatwright’s lawyer said his client spent nearly all of his $1.4 million share on “utter decadence” — jewelry, drugs, alcohol, prostitutes and nights at strip clubs.

“That’s the first thing I told him, not to spend no money, so I know something is going to happen,” Monzon said. He visited Boatwright to try to convince him to ease up on spending, telling him, “I gave you 100 grand in $100 bills. . . . That’s supposed to last at least a year or two years. The street [is] hot. Now, so you’re supposed to stay down low, you’re supposed not be flashing the money.”

But it wasn’t the heat from the police that Monzon feared; it was “people just looking to kidnap or to take the money from you.” Boatwright wouldn’t listen and went into hiding, though Monzon eventually tracked him down at a Miami hotel. He brought a baseball bat with the intention of knocking some sense into his brother-in-law, but was convinced by Cinnamon to go easy on him.

“[Boatwright] opened the door [and] he was high as the sky. I saw cocaine and pills and ecstasy. I don’t know what else he had done. I know he was trying to hide. He got two hookers in there and they were high too,” Monzon said. Boatwright eventually promised to leave Miami for a couple of years, but never kept his word.

Monzon worried that Boatwright would soon be targeted by envious criminals or the police, so he asked his friends to rob his brother-in-law as a lesson. His friends tied up Boatwright and took his money.

“In my mind, if I take all his money, he got no money to spend,” Monzon said. But the lesson only lasted a few weeks before he was at it again. “I know he wasn’t going to change, so I was making plans to leave the country. I was going to go down maybe to Mexico.”

You can’t trust anyone

The FBI was already investigating the heist under the direction of Special Agent Alex Peraza, who suspected that a supervisor at the warehouse was the inside man, but he couldn’t prove it. Brinks (which did not return calls for comment on this article) offered a $150,000 reward for information, which eventually netted a tipster from within Monzon’s circle.

“By February 2006, Peraza had wiretapped Monzon’s phone, but instead of just uncovering details of the robbery, Peraza and his agents arrived in the middle of a second kidnapping,” Bloomberg wrote.

Monzon believes that a group of friends-of-friends decided there was more money to be had. In December 2005, a gang abducted Boatwright outside the Gold Rush strip club in downtown Miami and set a ransom of $1 million, which Monzon paid. When Boatwright arrived at the hospital, he was beaten and his fingernails had been torn with pliers.

Boatwright’s injuries didn’t stop his partying, however. On Feb. 16, 2006, he was back at the Gold Rush when two women lured him out of the club and into an SUV in the parking lot. Once inside, two men got in and hit Boatwright on the head with the butt of a pistol and tied a shirt over his face.

Twelve hours later, Robert Salty, a friend of Boatwright’s who was secretly collaborating with the kidnappers, called Monzon asking for half a million dollars in ransom. The kidnappers threatened to kill Boatwright if Monzon didn’t pay up. “I said, ‘You know what? Good. You do me a favor, bro.’ So, I hang up the phone,” Monzon said.

The kidnappers proceeded to call Monzon’s wife, who called and begged him to cooperate to save her brother’s life. “I don’t care. I ain’t doing 20 years because of his stupidity,” Monzon said before hanging up on her, too. Monzon then received desperate calls from his mother-in-law and his wife’s grandmother. He relented, but rather than drop off the cash, Monzon wanted to see the kidnapper’s faces. He waited for their call.

On his way to a doctor’s appointment for Cinnamon, Monzon was stopped by the police, who had tapped his phone. Initially, Monzon thought the kidnappers had followed him to the clinic. “I didn’t see so many cops once in my lifetime; there was about 200 people in there. They got FBI, SWAT, ICE, Homeland Security.”

The FBI took Monzon to its Miami headquarters and asked him about his role in the Brinks robbery. “They told me we know your brother is kidnapped. I said, ‘Screw him too.’ [An officer] said, ‘No. If something happens to your brother, you’re going to get charged for it.’” Monzon agreed to participate and kept Boatwright’s kidnappers on the phone for five to six hours until police could track their location to the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.

“My brother-in-law was in the back of the truck, tied up. They tied up his hand and feet and they cover his eyes. They beat him up,” Monzon said, adding that he didn’t know any of the kidnappers.

In all, the FBI arrested five men for the second kidnapping of Jeffrey Boatwright. Robert Salty, Michael Sanfiel and Guillermo Del Regato all pleaded guilty and were given from 7 to 15 years. Manuel Palacio and Michael Hernandez went to trial and received 34- and 26-year prison sentences, respectively.

The police also caught Onelio Diaz with about $80,000 in his vehicle and found $80,000 in Monzon’s attic. “Right there and then, there’s no way for me to go to trial and win. They got too much everything against me,” Monzon said.

Everyone involved in the robbery pleaded guilty. Diaz received a 16-year sentence, Boatwright was given a 13-year sentence. Pinky Perera got 11 years, Roberto Perez was given six years, and Alex Leon received three. Cinnamon Monzon was sentenced to three years for being an accessory to theft.

Monzon led the FBI to the $1.2 million he had hidden, but that was all the FBI would recover. “There’s supposed to be $6 million unaccounted for but I don’t know where it is. I don’t have it.” Monzon said. The other men involved in the robbery said they spent their loot.

Monzon agreed to a plea deal of 17 years in federal prison, though six years were taken off his sentence for cooperating with investigators around Boatwright’s kidnapping. He was released on April 1, 2016 and spent eight months living in a halfway house. He will be on probation for two more years.

Learning lessons in prison

Monzon doesn’t have much to say about his time in prison, beyond the fact that he got his GED and lost 160 pounds. The toughest part, he said, was “just what my family went through. My mom almost died twice because she got a heart attack and my brother is sick, he’s got mental issues. My other brother, he went through a big accident and almost lost his legs. I was just like there was nothing I can do.”

Today, Monzon works as a tow truck driver and lives with his girlfriend and her child in Miami (Monzon and Cinnamon are no longer married). He hopes he can “help people not go make the same mistake.”

“I’m not a guy who does drugs, I don’t hang out with nobody. I just go work and go to my house and that’s it. I don’t feel bad for me,” Monzon said matter-of-factly. Monzon does feel bad for travelers, however, who he believes are unsafe at America’s airports. “The security for the airport, it’s just an illusion. They want you to make you feel safe but in reality, you’re not safe.”

Monzon pointed to the recent shooting at Fort Lauderdale’s airport that left five people dead, and a Canadian man who drove a baggage-towing vehicle across the tarmac at Orlando International Airport. “It made me feel bad because the economy is not doing so good and they’re spending billions and billions of dollars and . . . anybody can break in at the back of the gate.”

Monzon added that stronger fences and a different pass system for entering the tarmac would improve airport security. Security expert Jeff Slotnick, whose company Setracon does risk consulting and security assessment, told Salon that he believes airports are much more secure than they were 10 years ago when Monzon masterminded the robbery.

“Technology continues to evolve. I would say we are better protected on the port side of airports than the business side of airports,” Slotnick said.

Robbing the right place at the right time

Monzon and his crew may have gotten away with the heist if it weren’t for Boatwright’s antics. But just four years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, how was it so easy for someone who wasn’t a career criminal like the Lufthansa Heist crew — a person who didn’t even have a criminal record — to mastermind a successful robbery?

“I think this was an anomaly. Armed car theft happens very infrequently in the U.S. [because] the penalties are high, the guards that are protecting the money are generally armed. . . you have the FBI and federal marshals and secret service on you almost immediately,” Slotnick said. Yet Virginia-based risk assessment company Lowers Risk reported 34 armored car robberies or attempted robberies in 2016, while FBI stats from 2011 (reported by Bloomberg) showed 42 thefts.

Slotnick believes the success of Monzon’s heist largely rests on timing; the technologies in place to keep airports secure weren’t as sophisticated in 2005 as they are today. “Years ago, physical security systems were standalone systems and now they’re integrated systems that share data. This makes it all that much more difficult [to penetrate an airport’s system],” Slotnick said.

While Monzon was able to find an area of the tarmac that didn’t have security cameras, “video is all over the place” today. Slotnick said an airport’s tarmac will have everything from motion sensing equipment and video analytics, to complex logarithms that look for anomalies on site, as well as fence detection sensors and microwave sensors “that are all used in combination to created a layered defense and defense in kind.”

“I think this may have been possible in the year that it occurred but would be very, very difficult to accomplish today,” he said.

Beyond technology, Slotnick suggested that the Miami heist was possible because of dissent among Brink’s employees, perhaps over their low salaries (the median wage for an armored car driver or guard is around $27,000 today).

“I can’t understand why we take people in security pay them minimum wage and expect them to be responsible for millions of dollars,” Slotnick added. “You want to make someone’s pay a livable wage so they don’t have to resort to compromising thefts.”

By Jessica Lipsky

Jessica Lipsky is a cover editor at Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brinks Crime Goodfellas Miami Heist Miami International Airport Robbery