PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Barbara Oliva looked down the shiny steel barrel of the .38 special, and had one simple question for the man at the other end.
“Are those real bullets in that gun?”
The gunman’s response: “Are you a [expletive] comedian?”
The bullets most certainly were real, and Oliva was about to become part of one of the greatest mob heists in U.S. history – the Bonded Vault robbery.
After a three-year investigation – including interviews with those who lived through the heist and a review of once-sealed FBI files – the Target 12 Investigators have pieced together the sweeping scope of the robbery and its dramatic impact on organized crime in New England.
Aug. 14, 1975, was a sweltering summer day – especially for eight men who were stuffed into a nondescript van on Cranston Street in Providence. Among them was Robert J. Dussault.
Just after 8 a.m., Dussault casually stepped out of the van, dressed in a crisp light gray-checked suit and clutching a briefcase. He walked across a parking lot and through the front door of Hudson Fur Storage, a business at 101 Cranston St. Once inside, Dussault strolled into the office of Sam Levine, one of Hudson Fur’s owners.
Barbara Oliva was nearby, moving a rack of furs through a massive vault door when she heard Levine call for and his brother, Abraham, into his office.
“I just thought that they wanted Mr. Levine into the office, so I started walking away,” Oliva recalled decades later in an interview with Target 12. But Dussault stopped her. “Oh no,” he said. “You, too.”
“Why?” Oliva asked.
That’s when Dussault pulled out the handgun and pointed it at her face. “Because I said so,” he replied.
Dussault had Levine summon two other workers from their rooms, then sat all five inside Levine’s office and put pillowcases over their heads.
It was then that Dussault’s six accomplices lumbered out of the van and into Hudson Fur. The masked men carried drills, crowbars and enormous duffle bugs. One of the bandits stayed in the van as a look-out.
But the bandits weren’t interested in valuable furs. They were after a much bigger prize.
That’s because they knew something few others in Providence did: Hudson Fur Storage housed a secret room that contained 146 huge safe-deposit boxes, each measuring two feet high, two feet wide and four or five feet deep.
There was perhaps no safer place in all of New England for someone to hide their wealth – not because of the room’s fancy alarm system, but because of the clientele that used it.
Many of the 146 boxes contained the spoils collected by the powerful organized crime syndicate run by reputed mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca, whose crime family ruled La Cosa Nostra in New England for more than three decades. He had an iron fist and a reputation built on violence and fear. His bookies, associates and wise guys used the boxes to hide everything from cash and guns to gold bars and jewelry.
That was the prize awaiting the thieves as they entered the room and went to work on that hot August day.
“I could hear them drilling,” Oliva said. “Then I could hear the doors, the big, heavy doors, falling to the floor, and it sounded just like sewer caps.”
As it turned out, those drills proved worthless against the locks on the safe deposit boxes. But the burglars quickly figured out they could pop the solid steel doors off their hinges using only a crowbar and a lot of muscle.
The thieves called each other “Harry” to shield their real identities, Oliva said, and as they went from box to box she heard shouts of joy coming from the vault.
“They were yelling, ‘Oh, Harry, you gotta come! You would not believe what’s in here! You just won’t believe!'” she recalled. “They were taking turns going back and forth, and they were going, ‘Holy Christ, look at all this stuff – we’ll never be able to carry it all outta here.’ ”
And that turned out to be true.
After more than an hour’s work, the man dragged out seven duffel bags literally bulging with loot. They stuffed them in the van and the trunk of a nearby Chevrolet Monte Carlo they had stationed there. The bags weighed down the back of the car so badly that it practically scraped the pavement.
Once the bandits were gone, Dussault gathered up his hostages and led them to the back of Hudson Fur at gunpoint.
“I said, ‘Uh oh, here we go – execution,'” Oliva remembered. “I said, ‘I’m never going to see my babies again.'”
Dussault crammed the five hostages into a small, dank bathroom and jammed a chair against the door. He warned them that if they didn’t wait five minutes before trying to get out, they would be gunned down in cold blood.
But after just a few minutes, Oliva was getting claustrophobic. She pushed hard against the door and jarred the chair loose, freeing the captives.
Now free, the five briefly debated whether or not to call the police, Oliva said. But to her there was no question about what to do. She pressed the alarm button and within moments the police arrived at Hudson Fur.
No one knows exactly how much was taken in the heist. (After all, the type of people who rented those safe deposit boxes were not about to file an insurance claim or a tax return.) Public estimates always have been conservative, landing somewhere around $4 million in cash and valuables. Target 12 has learned that law enforcement for years has believed the take was far greater – probably at least $30 million, perhaps more.
Oliva said that figure would not surprise her considering what the thieves didn’t bother taking.
On the day of the robbery, a detective brought Oliva into the room to give her a look. She was ordered not touch anything.
“It was knee-deep in money, silver bars, gold bars, raw gems, guns, machine guns, chalices,” Oliva recalled. “It was unbelievable.”
And again, that was just what the men left behind.
Later that day, the bandits regrouped at 5 Golf Avenue in East Providence, where one of the gunmen – Charles “Chucky” Flynn – had rented a house.
They divvied up the loot and each took a bag full of cash – “the disposables,” in the words of Wayne Worcester, who covered the story as a Providence Journal reporter and is now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.
“They each got a grocery bag full of $64,000 figuring that later on – and this was the agreement – they were going to split the take from jewelry and silver ingots and gold coins,” said Worcester, who worked with the Target 12 Investigators in examining the crime. “That never happened.”
It turned out that the really valuable loot – gold bars, top-quality jewelry and rare gems – was given to none other than the alleged mafia boss Patriarca himself, according to interviews with retired FBI agents and others directly involved in the case.
At the time of the crime, that revelation surprised investigators because the people who lost valuables in the robbery were the same bookmakers, associates and wise guys who paid homage to Patriarca. Why would he move to punish his own men?
“Patriarca had just finished serving a prison sentence and came home to find the revenue that he should have made in his absence apparently was not quite what he thought it was,” Worcester said. “It either meant that someone was skimming from him while he was in jail, or his people were lying down – and either way he couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t let that happen.”
Detectives with the Rhode Island State Police and Providence Police tried to connect the dots of the robbery back to Patriarca.
And Dussault himself said “the man” was the brains behind the heist.
In the early 1980s, the Providence Police brought Dussault in to speak to a class of cadets about organized crime. Target 12 obtained a video of his talk, which took place while he was in the Witness Protection Program.
Wearing sunglasses and seated at a long table beside former Providence Police Col. Anthony Mancuso, Dussault said that Patriarca not only gave the OK for the robbery – he even had a hand in the planning.
“[Patriarca] did do something for us,” Dussault told the cadets. “When I went in there to Bonded Vault that morning, that door wasn’t locked – that door was wide open, the safe … the vault, the room.” Of Patriarca, he added: “Nobody does anything without his OK, his piece of the action.”
According to a retired FBI agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Patriarca employed a Providence jewelry company executive as a fence. The executive would fly the jewelry overseas and sell it for millions of dollars in cash, the retired agent said.
In the weeks following the robbery, federal investigators made inquiries in two European cities — one in Switzerland the other in Germany — to see whether any of the stolen goods were being stored there, according to an FBI file obtained by Target 12. The documents, which were heavily redacted by the Department of Justice, do not reveal whether anything was discovered.
Although no made member of the Rhode Island Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra, was ever charged in the Bonded Vault robbery, the fallout from it reverberated throughout the organization, according to Worcester. He described it as the moment when the mob started to lose some of its grip in New England.
“I think that’s the whole reason for paying attention to Bonded Vault,” Worcester said. “If you look at what was going on with [the heist], you can see this was the first major incident of the mob really starting to feed on itself.”
Dussault fled Rhode Island just days after the heist to spend his newfound wealth the same way he always did – on gambling and prostitutes. There was no better place to do that than in Las Vegas.
“It was the score of a lifetime. I went from rags to riches,” he said in the police video.
Dussault threw his money around, renting a suite at the MGM Grand and getting a young concierge to help find him a prostitute. He eventually settled on the services of a 25-year-old beauty named Karyne Sponheim.
Flush with cash, Dussault lavished all of his attentions on Sponheim. The pair soon became a couple, but their free spending quickly drained his finances.
“Karyne had a couple of credit cards and they maxed them out quickly,” Worcester said. “I’m sure he pulled a couple of robberies; that was the standard response to having an empty pocket.”
In need of cash, Dussault repeatedly called his buddy Chucky Flynn back east looking for a second round of money from the heist. When it failed to materialize, Dussault grew more and more agitated.
Meanwhile, the wise guys in Rhode Island were starting to get impatient with Dussault’s antics and demands. They were also growing concerned that Dussault, who was not a member of La Cosa Nostra – and as a French-Canadian, never would be – could not be trusted.
“People wanted him dead,” Worcester said. “You’d have to have him dead, because of what he knew. He could implicate anybody.”
And so the decision was made: Dussault had to go.
Flynn and two other members of the Bonded Vault crew, made the trip to Las Vegas.
No one was closer to Dussault than Flynn. The pair had grown up together in Lowell, Mass., and worked together on several jobs. In fact, Flynn hand-picked Dussault to lead the Bonded Vault heist.
“That was the idea: send the best friend so you can gain access to him, and take him out,” Worcester said.
Dussault later told the cadets he knew his name was on the “hit parade.” He was able to elude his old friend for a while, but eventually Flynn caught up to him.
They met in the front seat of a van, Dussault clutching a sawed off shotgun and Flynn armed with a handgun. Somehow, Dussault was able to talk his way out of his own murder. In fact, a year later he told The Providence Journal the conversation between the lifelong friends ended in tears.
In a phone call back to Rhode Island, Flynn – who was a respected revenue producer for the crime family – told the higher-ups that he decided not kill Dussault because he was convinced he would never rat them out. But the attempted hits didn’t stop, according to Dussault.
“I knew they tried to kill me in Dallas, Texas, Las Vegas and Chicago. I knew that because I was the one that was running,” Dussault said in the video. “My name is on that bullet. I hope it never finds me.”
Eventually it was the cops, not the mob that caught up with Robert Dussault.
Investigators had figured out who they were looking for within a week of the heist. A high-level source inside the Patriarca crime family had leaked most of the key names to a Rhode Island State Police detective, Target 12 has learned.
And then there was Barbara Oliva. The pillowcases Dussault had placed over her and her colleagues’ heads were threadbare.
“They were very thin and it was very bright in the room,” Oliva said. “I could see through the pillow case over to where the vault [was].”
It turned out to be a major break in the case. Oliva was able to describe not only Dussault but also Flynn, who wasn’t wearing his mask when he first entered the building.
Oliva was the only one of the captives who described the bandits to police, and she was the only hostage who was willing to testify at trial. Three days after the heist, Oliva was even able to draw a sketch of Dussault and Flynn. Later, after police were tipped to their names, she was shown an array of photographs and easily fingered the bandits.
“She really put them away,” Worcester said. “Nobody else was forthcoming with any kind of information that was very helpful at all. She really was a hero.”
Oliva’s husband was angry with her for cooperating with police because he feared for her and their children. It was one of the factors that contributed to the end of their marriage, she said.
Now, with the names in hand, detectives just needed to track Dussault and the others down.
Back in Las Vegas, Dussault’s luck finally ran out when he was arrested by police in January 1976, five months after the heist, after a violent spat with Sponheim.
Though he tried to use a phony ID, his fingerprints and a tattoo confirmed his true identity. Two Providence Police officers and two State Police detectives immediately took flight to Vegas to question the man they believed had been the lead gunman.
Dussault had no intention of cooperating, he said in the police academy video.
“I had never ratted, I’ve never told,” Dussault said. “I was an enemy of the law for 25 years.”
But his resolve to remain silent crumbled when Det. Anthony Mancuso – the same man who, as a colonel later invited Dussault to address his cadets – handed him a cigarette and leaned in to deliver a devastating piece of news.
” ‘Bob, they killed Chucky Flynn – your best friend – they killed him,’ ” Dussault recalled Mancuso telling him.
Dussault was completely alone. In that moment of truth – on the run, out of money and with a contract out on his life from one of the most ruthless organized crime outfits in the country – he pledged to cooperate.
Las Vegas police loaned a video camera to their colleagues from Rhode Island and Dussault confessed. He spilled everything: from the members of the crew that stormed Hudson Fur Storage that morning to the wise guys in the Patriarca crime family who he said organized the heist.
A couple of days later, Dussault was on a plane back to Rhode Island surrounded by detectives when Mancuso delivered another bit of news.
“Tony looks at me and says, ‘Bob, I’ve got to tell you something. Chucky Flynn isn’t dead. I lied,'” Dussault recalled in the video. “The oldest trick in the game and it was pulled on me.”
The Bonded Vault proceedings turned into the longest and most expensive criminal trial in Rhode Island’s history. Armed state troopers lined the courtroom and key witnesses lived under tight security for months.
Oliva said she later learned that a contract had been taken out on her life because she was on the witness list.
“One of the detectives told me – after everything was over – he said that there was a hit out on me,” Oliva said. “They had detectives living with me, in my house, around the house, around the neighborhood. They helped fold baby diapers.”
Dussault was kept in a safe house during the trial and testified along with Joe Danese, who admitted to his role in the crime and agreed to testify on behalf of the prosecution.
In the end, several members of Dussault’s own crew went to prison. Others were acquitted.
But despite affidavits from Dussault and Danese, as well as additional information from other informants, one man was never charged: Raymond Patriarca.
That, of course, was the plan all along. In interviews with Target 12, people with direct knowledge of the crime said two of the bandits admitted they were ordered to make sure the investigation never led back to Patriarca or any other high-ranking member of the crime family.
“Nobody ever accused him of being stupid. He was a very, very smart man,” Worcester said. “I don’t think there was any grand plan to not go after Patriarca, it just would’ve been a terribly difficult thing to do. [Prosecutors] took the path of least resistance, which was [to try] a superficial group.”
Patriarca died in 1984 from a heart attack.
Off the grid
And then there was Robert Dussault.
After two years of repeated requests to the Department of Justice, Target 12 obtained his massive 362-page FBI file. While much of it was redacted, the file reveals Dussault changed his name to Robert Dempsey when he entered the Witness Protection Program.
According to the file, Dussault committed numerous bank robberies and other holdups even when he was living under the protection of the U.S. Marshals in the program, which was relatively new then. Dussault often disguised himself as a security guard before pulling out a gun and holding up a bank, according to the file. Several times he found himself once again inside a vault, making the employees open up safe deposit boxes.
Dussault’s undoing turned out to be a botched robbery of a Denver coin shop on July 17, 1982. He was arrested and eventually sent to a Colorado state prison, which is where the FBI file goes cold.
Prison officials in Colorado said Dussault – or Robert Dempsey, as he was known to them – was shipped off to a halfway house in North Dakota to finish his sentence. Public records say he died of a heart attack in 1992, just seven days shy of his 52nd birthday.
Dussault’s body was handed over to the Thompson-Larson Funeral Home in Minot, N.D., which had a contract with the government to handle the burials of federal detainees.
The service for Robert Dussault/Dempsey was videotaped by the funeral home, which customary for people in the Witness Protection Program, according to the funeral director.
Even in death, though, Dussault’s story had one twist.
The funeral home’s video opens with an image of Dussault lying in a casket and then cuts to an overcast sky at Rosehill Memorial Park Cemetery in Minot. A man reads briefly from a Bible before a cemetery worker closes the lid of the coffin.
But just before the casket is lowered into the ground, something happens to the video.
“There’s a break in the tape,” Worcester said. “It’s at precisely that juncture that Dussault would have said ‘OK, the show’s over,’ and walked away.”
Despite the anomaly in the tape, when asked by Target 12 the funeral director maintained he deposited Dussault’s dead body into the cold North Dakota ground that day.
Target 12 tracked down members of Dussault’s family in Lowell. His relationship with his 13 siblings was strained in the years after Bonded Vault, and none of them knew what had become of him until reporters showed them the government papers revealing his name change and death.
Still, several members of the family said they were skeptical about the accuracy of the government’s report, saying it would not surprise them if Dussault suddenly appeared at their doorstep looking for money.
In fact, when asked to recall the last time a family member had seen Robert Dussault, a sibling said their late sister Dorothy had spoken with him at a funeral in 1994.
That would be nearly two years after the federal government insists he died.
“If I had to bet money I would bet he’s dead, but I don’t know,” Worcester said. “He was a liar, and it would be like him to lie right to his grave – and beyond if he could.”
This report was researched with the help of Randall Richard, a writer and former investigative reporter for The Providence Journal, and Wayne Worcester, a former Journal reporter, now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.