Tunnel Rat Bank Robbers and James Montgomery
Hole In the Ground Gang
On the weekend of June seventh through the ninth of 1986 a group of unknown size completed a months long goal as they successfully broke into the First Interstate Bank of Los Angeles vault. The robbers, guesstimated by police to probably consist of only two men, entered into the vault via a tunnel they had created by drilling underneath through the ground above the L.A. sewer system. The vault was time locked, and could not be accessed quickly by any bank employees without drilling into the vault themselves. The bank manager was actually in the building as the robbery was ongoing, but he could only feebly hold the phone to the vault door as he tried to show the men at the security offices that something strange was happening. Powerless to stop whatever was making the suspicious noises, the bank was looted to the tune of $172,000. Upon investigating, the FBI immediately felt that despite being expert tunnel diggers, the thieves were obviously naive to bank robbing as they didn’t bring along proper tools to rip open safe deposit boxes.
The heist had been seemingly planned for Memorial Day weekend, since the bank was closed and this would offer the men an extra day to empty a greater number of safe deposit boxes. The evidence left behind suggests that the 100 pound drill they had been using had unexpected issues as the diamond studded drill bit continually slipped and would not tear through the vault’s 18 inches of concrete floor. The robbers then had to spend an extra week chipping away at the vault floor with concrete saws and hand drills in order to finally break in.
The tunnel they dug out was far from an ideal place to operate out of. The police measured parts to be as small as three feet by three feet, with rounded corners to try and avoid a collapse. The chamber they created directly beneath the vault was four feet wide and five and a half feet tall. The investigators followed the tunnels and found another chamber that was twelve feet high. That chamber had been used to tap into the bank’s power supply so the thieves could use power tools to dig. Marks in the walls show lanterns were placed every twenty feet or so. All told the tunnel was about one hundred feet long. The investigators estimated that the robbers had to make roughly 1500 trips with wheelbarrows full of dirt to get rid of about 3000 cubic feet of Earth.
Amazingly, after all that effort and becoming seemingly quite rich, this gang of thieves was not done yet. A second tunnel was prepared underneath the Bank of America over an untold number of weeks and months, and in August of 1987 the team – now dubbed “The Hole in the Ground Gang” by authorities- struck again. The thieves were seemingly unaware that the bank vault was not secured in the same manner as the last heist as this one had a double combination lock. This allowed access as long as two employees were present who each knew the specific combination. The robbers were plundering the vault up until the second they heard the tumblers turning and they realized they were about to be caught. They rushed down their hole, leaving behind tools and tons of money. The Gang even left behind food, indicating that they thought they were going to have hours to themselves in the vault. They were able to pocket about $100,000 before their abrupt departure.
This time the tunnel was about 7o feet long, and much more spacious than their last effort. It averaged around four feet wide and five and a half feet tall throughout most of the way. Electric lights were strung on the ceilings, with a generator powering them. This time their drill was properly braced and the vault’s hole was a rounded eighteen inches. The gang’s four ATV’s were left behind, which led investigators to the place where they were purchased. The ATV shop gave a description of the men being white males, well toned, speaking accent-less English. Other evidence showed that the men probably blocked the sewer water, which reached over a foot deep in places, then un-dammed it when they were done, allowing the accumulated dirt to be washed away.
With the second bank robbery interrupted, the police went patrolling for more sewer surprises and they found a third tunnel underneath the Union Federal Savings and Loan in Beverly Hills. The tunnel was under a very busy Los Angeles street, so the traffic had to be blocked so engineers could be brought in to make sure the street was structurally safe. The traffic jam caused a stir, and soon the news was showing police going in and out of the sewers. Any chance to possibly catch the Hole in the Ground Gang in the act was lost by this exposure.
The investigators believed the plan was to hit both the savings and loan and the Bank of America in the same weekend. Had both schemed gone unabated, the Gang would have gotten away with around 10-25 million dollars. In the following weeks and months, the police patrolled the sewers and kept their eyes on manhole covers as they waited for another strike. No suspects came to the forefront and the statute of limitations ran out on the crimes in 1992.
In 1923, James Montgomery was a thirty year old military veteran who was holding down a steady job at a factory. He also happened to be African-American and lived at a time where this may as well have made his name “Nigger” instead of James based on how many people perceived and treated his race.
A sixty-two year old mentally disabled woman named Mamie Snow claimed she was selling donuts in the “Negro” part of town when Montgomery tricked her into coming by a shack. At that point he jumped on her and forced her to have sexual intercourse. Snow managed to escape and flag down help. Her family claimed she was bruised and that a doctor’s examination confirmed her rape claim.
The local police chief, Thomas Kennedy, was believed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Kennedy supposedly threatened Montgomery with letting the Klan handle the “justice” instead of the law in order to try and force a confession. The local prosecutor, A.V. Smith was also a Klan member. Additionally, Smith owed Montgomery $125 dollars for damage Smith caused while trespassing, so getting rid of Montgomery benefited him as well.
The Klan threatened Montgomery’s lawyer prior to the trial. This led to a weak defensive showing and the trial was over in less than a hour. An all-white jury sentenced Montgomery to death.
While behind bars, Montgomery took to studying the law in an effort to free himself. He stayed in prison for over two long decades before convincing civil rights attorney Luis Kutner to take up his cause. Kutner was able to find medical reports that showed Snow was never raped and in fact had an intact hymen. Evidence of the Klan framing Montgomery was also found. The prosecution team was also shown to have withheld medical evidence that would have exonerated Montgomery. Snow’s family maintained she fingered Montgomery, but other material stated Snow claimed to have never seen Montgomery when the police first questioned her. Despite all this evidence, it still took three years for the courts to overturn his conviction. For his nearly 25 years of false imprisonment James was given 10 dollars by the state of Illinois.
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