Elvis won’t be lonesome tonight. Dozens of hopeful buyers and hundreds of spectators at the Charlotte, N.C., exhibition hall on Feb. 20 press closer Has auctioneer Manny Fisher points to the 3½-by-2-foot portrait of the King on black velvet and goes into his windup. “Who’ll give me a thousand? There’s only one like this,” he cajoles. The crowd roars. Everyone knows you can pick up a similar specimen for $20 at any flea market in North America. Then Fisher delivers his pitch: “This is the only one that comes with a certificate that it came from the $17 million heist.” The crowd whoops and hollers. When Tom Shaw, owner of Charlotte’s American Gun & Pawn Shop, finally takes it for $1,600, spectators cheer as if pro basketball’s hapless Hornets had signed Michael Jordan.
“The publicity—I couldn’t spend $16,000 and get that,” says Shaw, 53, admiring his prize, which he plans to display in his store. “I think I’m smart as a fox.”
The same cannot be said for Steven Chambers, 31, and his wife, Michele, 26, previous owners of the portrait and most of the other 3,000-plus items on auction. After the couple and their gang relieved the Loomis, Fargo armored car facility in Charlotte of $17,044,200 on Oct. 4, 1997—the second largest armored car company robbery in U.S. history—they did just about everything to call attention to themselves short of appearing on Jerry Springer. With an absence of caution matched only by lack of taste, the pair went on a spending marathon that could keep Jeff Foxworthy in jokes for weeks. “They did a pretty good job of planning,” says Mark Calloway, 40, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. “It was what they did with the money….”
It remains unclear which of the participants conceived the simple but effective robbery plan. Was it Steven Chambers, a high school dropout, convicted felon and sometime FBI informant? Did the scheme come from Kelly Jane Campbell, 29, a former Loomis, Fargo employee, friend of the Chamberses and mother of two? Or was the author David Scott Ghantt, 29, a Gulf War veteran and Loomis vault supervisor? Whatever the case, the robbery itself went without a hitch. It took Ghantt only an hour that Saturday evening to enter the vault he had left slightly open during his shift, load the ton and a half of currency into a white Loomis van and drive out the front gate.
Then the bloopers began. Knowing that because of the timing of the robbery he would be an instant suspect, Ghantt fled to Mexico—but not before having to hop a bus to Atlanta because the airport from which he initially planned to depart had no such flights. This was but a minor misstep compared to the red flags Chambers and his wife would raise. Two days after the theft the couple took $10,000 of the stolen cash and made dual $5,000 deposits into their bank accounts—triggering a federal report of suspicious activity after Michele asked, “How much can I deposit without the bank reporting the transaction?” A second such alert was filed a few weeks later when Michele Chambers showed up at another bank with $200,000 in bills.
Then there was all of their conspicuous spending: Chambers showered his wife of a year with presents, including a $43,000 diamond ring and a BMW He bought himself a motorboat, and tried and failed to buy a nightclub that had once tossed him and his party out after he and Michele had fought over her dirty dancing there. And just three weeks after the robbery, the couple purchased a $635,000 home in the Cramer Mountain Country Club development near Charlotte, quite a step up from the prefab where they had previously resided.
Certainly the 7,000-square-foot quarters provided plenty of room for Chambers, wife Michele, her young son and daughter from a previous marriage—as well as gang member Kelly Campbell and her two children, who soon joined them. Although their new home already boasted such amenities as a curved staircase carpeted in faux tiger fur, the Chamberses added their own personal touches: three tanning beds and eight huge-screen TVs. On Sundays, Chambers would park himself in front of one of them, quaff Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (which he stockpiled in the wine cellar) and watch Winston Cup stock car races with pals.
Unfortunately for Chambers, some of his acquaintances—mindful of the $500,000 reward offered by Loomis—were blabbing to the FBI. Most damaging would be the confidential informant identified by his attorney Monroe Whitesides as Ken. According to Whitesides, Ken decided to come forward in January 1998, when he said Steven Chambers asked him to smuggle $2.5 million in cash to the Cayman Islands in return for a $150,000 fee.
To Whitesides’s surprise, when he contacted the FBI, agent Mark Rozzi told him they already had enough evidence to arrest Chambers’s gang. But the bureau was waiting for more information on the fate of Ghantt, who they suspected was dead. Considering the death-penalty charges that a murder combined with the larceny could bring, the FBI fitted Ken with a recording device. They also wiretapped Kelly Campbell; this eventually led them to Ghantt, who had been holed up in a resort town 40 miles south of Cancun.
Agents eavesdropped on conversations between Steven Chambers and his friend Michael McKinney about murdering Ghantt—who they were afraid would be captured and point the finger at them. During one discussion, Chambers instructed McKinney to fly to Mexico and do the hit for $100,000. On March 2, FBI agents made the first of what would be 21 arrests in the case (14 of these were for after-the-theft money launderers, including the parents of both Chamberses). “We pulled the trigger on arresting people,” says U.S. Attorney Calloway, “because we knew Michael McKinney was getting ready to go to Mexico and find Ghantt.”
To date, 18 of those indicted have entered guilty pleas in connection with the theft or the events following it, including Steve and Michele Chambers, Campbell and Ghantt. On Feb. 23 six lesser players received sentences ranging from three years probation to eleven years and three months in prison—for McKinney—but the four principals have yet to learn their fate. Ken has collected the lion’s share of the reward, and all but some $2 million from the robbery has been recovered. Kelly Campbell’s estranged husband may seek custody of their 7-year-old daughter. Says Campbell’s mother, Colleen Elmore: “She knows that she’s going to face losing her kids.”
Inside his 8-by-10-foot cell at the Mecklenburg County Jail, Steven Chambers is apparently experiencing his own regrets. “Steve rues the day he was invited to get into this scheme,” says a source close to him. “He feels now, even when he was rich it was no fun.”
Don Sider in Charlotte