An April 2023 story about a Philadelphia heist brought back memories. The New York Times reported that thieves broke into a tractor-trailer, parked overnight in a Walmart lot, and managed to make off with $200,000 in coins. All U.S. dimes, each 1.35 millimeters thick and 0.705 inch in diameter. That’s around TWO MILLION coins. With a total weight of about 10,000 pounds. Ten or so men were there to pack the coins. Their getaway vehicles? A white Chrysler 300 and a dark-colored pickup.
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”Officer Miguel Torres, Philadelphia Police Department
The first question: how in the hell are the thieves going to dispose of their haul? It was a lot of money — in its most inconvenient form. But, of course, we can speculate. Put the dimes into paper rolls. Sell them at a discount to any cash-based business. Laundromats. Car washes. Bars.
But that’s a lot of work. The thieves no doubt had a plan. And a buyer on the other end.
A Pocket Full of Coins
Twenty years ago, give or take a few, a young man told me a similar tale about purloined coins. The son of a college buddy, this kid was one of the most entrenched street urchins I’ve ever known. The usual rules applied. He’d fallen into drugs and had a recurring criminal record. Mostly small stuff. Theft. Dope dealing. Petty street crime. And, of course, jail time too — going back to his juvenile years.
But that street milieu occasionally turns up a windfall. Or at least a temporary windfall. In this case, someone got hold of a master key for the parking meters in downtown Seattle. Suddenly, a band of street kids was into coin collecting.
It was not a slam dunk. It was, in fact, a lot of work.
The stolen master key only worked in downtown Seattle. And it only worked on half of the meters. To use it, the thieves had to wind like snakes, going down one side of the street before crossing to the other side, on the next block, where the master key was once more operational. Some areas — like those around sports arenas — were more closely watched. Lots of coins there. Lots of city-guards on duty, eyeing their cash-rich breeding grounds.
The kids ended up in the business district on the north end of Seattle’s downtown. They had to work at night. Their prospects were less than bright. The City did coin pickups with regularity and street parking competed with paid parking lots. But there was coinage to be had. It was a heavy haul — not just dimes, but quarters and nickels.
And then they had to spend it. That was even more difficult.
“You’d go into a store and start counting out the coins. The clerks were pissed. But we got good at it. We got fast. Just lay out the coins and make ’em wait.”J., the street kid
Like all things that are too good to be true, the free coin feast was short-lived. Soon, a rival gang got a parking meter key of their own. They had competition. J. complained about greed. And then the City of Seattle got hip to the scheme. They changed the locks on the meters. The master key soon turned into a dud. The days of living by coins came to an unceremonious end.
It was good while it lasted. And, J. admitted, hardly worth it.
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2023). All rights reserved.
Purchase Butcher, Baker