Master Thief Sean Murphy's Audacious Columbus Brink's Heist
After stealing the New York Giants’ Super Bowl rings, the burglar extraordinaire set his sights on an even bigger score—a Brink’s warehouse in Milo-Grogan.
The Brink’s employees stared in disbelief.
As they arrived for the day shift on a cold and snowy Sunday morning in January 2009, they discovered their workplace, a warehouse on Essex Avenue in Milo-Grogan, was in ruins. Entry doors were epoxied shut. Black smoke billowed through the building. The alarm systems had been smashed, and the hard drives of security cameras were missing. With light filtering through gaping holes in the roof, the workers tried to make sense of the bizarre scene: a wall smudged with shoeprints, coins scattered across a soaking floor, piles of cash smoldering inside the breached vault. “Our facility was invaded,” Glen Blankenship, the Brink’s operations supervisor, later testified.
When Columbus FBI agent Harry Trombitas got the call about the break-in, he was leaving Northwest Presbyterian Church in Dublin after morning services. Trombitas had chased car thieves, mobsters and serial killers over a long career that took him from Nebraska to New York to Ohio, but he’d never seen anything like the Brink’s job. Company officials told the FBI agent there could have been as much as $100 million in the vault that day: an unprecedented haul, depending on how much was actually missing. No local burglars seemed capable of such a crime, and the warehouse employees passed polygraph tests, ruling out the possibility of an inside job. The thieves had somehow defeated both the hard-wired and cellular alarm systems, cut large holes in the roof and then penetrated a thick vault door featuring multiple layers of 3/4-inch steel. They’d also managed to take thousands of pounds of Susan B. Anthony dollar coins and then simply disappear.
Days and weeks passed with nothing to go on. Trombitas felt like he was chasing a ghost. At the minimum, it was a crime—and a perpetrator—unlike any he’d ever encountered.
Lynn, Massachusetts, a blue-collar town on the north side of Massachusetts Bay and the home of General Electric’s aviation division, is part of the inner core of the Boston metro area. “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. If you ain’t bad, you can’t get in!” goes the Prohibition-era rhyme coined about the town. More recently, investigators say, Lynn has lived up to its rakish reputation by producing an unusually high number of burglars. And among the so-called “Lynn Breakers,” no one was more prolific, with his eyes on the biggest prizes, than Sean Murphy, an engaging, fast-talking criminal entrepreneur with a thick Boston accent and an encyclopedic knowledge of breaking and entering. “I knew young that this was what I was going to do,” he says. “My whole plan was to get away with that big, big, big one and just live off the proceeds for the rest of my life.”
Murphy operated North Shore Movers, his legitimate side business. But his real focus was his night job, which he developed into a sophisticated, fine-tuned operation over the years. He used black spray paint on his tools—such as 4-foot “killer” crowbars—to avoid detection in the dark. He and his accomplices slipped black, ninja-style outfits over street clothes, earning them an “Ocean’s Eleven” reputation. Murphy set up cellphone jammers ordered from overseas to block outgoing alarm signals: Illegal for civilian use, they were favored by the military to block signals activating improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Saturday night bandit,” Murphy called himself, for his favored night to attack businesses.
As hard as Murphy worked, the weed-smoking Lynn Breaker played just as hard, entertaining a rotating cast of girlfriends he dubbed “Murphy’s Angels.” He ranked the women in a hierarchy of favorability from “Queen of the Castle” to “Girl No. 1” and on down, and he kept them plied with drugs, cash and gifts ranging from breast implants to Caribbean cruises. In the fall of 2007, “Girl No. 2” was a 22-year-old woman named Laura Cooper. (Not her real name, but a pseudonym later granted her by a three-judge Massachusetts appeals court panel.) That winter, Murphy took Cooper to his moving company warehouse and showed her some of the tools of his trade, including the inner workings of a cellphone jammer and the way its radio frequency signal overpowered signals from nearby cell towers. “That’s really cool,” she said as he demonstrated how her phone signal died when the jammer was activated.
On June 7, 2008—a Saturday night—Murphy and two accomplices, David “Damien” Nassor and Joseph “JoMo” Morgan, pulled off what was then the biggest heist of Murphy’s career. Breaking into the E.A. Dion jewelry facility in Attleboro, Massachusetts—nicknamed “The Jewelry Capital of the World” for the manufacturing companies that once called it home—they made off with at least $2.5 million in precious metals, jewelry and the pièce de résistance: multiple commemorative Super Bowl rings commissioned for the New York Giants after their 17-14 win over the New England Patriots the previous February. The score was sweet revenge for Murphy, a diehard Tom Brady fan.
“We’re not poor anymore,” Murphy told Cooper after arriving home.
But not everything was perfect in paradise. On Saturday, Oct. 18, a former “Queen of the Castle,” a woman named Rikkile Brown, arrived at Murphy’s house to discover Cooper there. Brown and Murphy fought, she scratched “Slut” on the side of his Jeep, and the police were called. Murphy figured it was a good time to get out of town and shortly afterward, he and Morgan made a field trip to Ohio. Murphy had done online research on new targets and was intrigued by a Brink’s security services facility he’d seen in Columbus with a large number of trucks parked outside, a sign of the volume of business the branch did. Once in Columbus, he admired the warehouse’s isolated setting in a quiet, light industrial neighborhood. “The location was perfect,” he concluded. A couple more reconnaissance trips followed, including a weekend in early January when Murphy and Morgan distributed cigarettes and water bottles to guys at a homeless shelter around the corner from Brink’s, and then carefully collected the butts and empties afterward. Their plan for the trash involved more than just picking up litter.
Arriving in Columbus as night fell on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009, Murphy assigned accomplice Robert “The Judge” Doucette to “keep the peek” by sitting atop a nearby railroad bridge and scanning for police activity. Murphy and Morgan ascended to the top of the Brink’s building, activated the cellphone jammer and used a drill and reciprocating saw to cut entry holes through the snow-covered roof. After cutting the first hole, Murphy dropped onto interior rafters, found the alarm junction box and cut the wires. Next, he and his accomplices dropped through another hole onto the top of the vault, hopped onto a desk and reached the warehouse floor.
As Murphy liked to say, the building had been “Murphed.” But plenty of work lay ahead. A Brink’s truck was blocking the loading dock, and they wasted valuable time finding the key to move it so they could back their 24-foot rental truck inside. Finally, after almost 2½ hours, Morgan located a shelf in the vault room that held a series of three-ring binders, each marked with a number corresponding to a truck, with a key on the middle ring of the binder. With the Brink’s vehicle out of the way, Morgan drove the rental truck into the warehouse, and they pulled the garage door shut. Around 6:30 a.m., having epoxied the building’s outer doors to delay workers’ entry later that day, the thieves hauled oxygen tanks, acetylene torches and a roughly 5-foot-long thermal lance (one of the most powerful cutting implements on the planet) into the vault room. It was time to get to work.
Imagine the world’s largest and hottest fireworks sparkler, capable of producing temperatures close to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the sight of a thermal lance at work, which Murphy used to breach the vault door. Unbeknownst to the burglars, the vault was crammed with cash, money stacked all the way to the front. As a result, the torch inadvertently ignited some of the money inside. Despite the smoke swirling inside the vault, the burglars started reaching in and pulling out whatever money they could lay their hands on. It was a brutal job, and Doucette, overwhelmed by the smoke, threw up several times, vomiting into a bucket. Finally, after about 45 minutes, Murphy realized there had to be a better way. He grabbed a respirator, strapped it on tight and had Morgan and Doucette feed him into the vault, headfirst through the hole.
Murphy grabbed a block of money, only to put it aside when he realized it was all one-dollar bills. Changing tacks, he re-focused on a cart where the fire had fused money bags together, hoping a strong tug might free them. Suddenly, as he gripped the bags to separate them, a wisp of smoke slipped under his respirator, and he struggled to catch his breath. Fear gripped him with a terrifying realization: “If I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to die.”
Morgan and Doucette reached inside, grabbed Murphy’s shoulders and slowly extracted him. Their attempt to get all the way inside the vault was over. But they weren’t quite finished. Commandeering a forklift, Morgan loaded boxes of dollar coins into their rental truck. Before leaving, Murphy distributed the bottles and cigarette butts from the homeless shelter throughout the facility to “keep the crime local.” That job done, they packed up and left, even taking the bucket of Doucette’s vomit to avoid the risk of DNA tracing.
Back in Lynn, Murphy and his accomplices engaged in literal money laundering, cleaning batches of the smoky cash in a washer and dryer as they pondered what might have been without the vault fire. But this introspection didn’t last long. Just five days after the Brink’s score, 19 officers from a multitude of law enforcement agencies surrounded Murphy’s house on a hill at 407 Walnut St. in Lynn.
The previous fall, veteran Massachusetts state police investigator Alan Zani, certain Murphy was behind the E.A. Dion case but lacking evidence to prove it, had come across the report of the fight at Murphy’s house that ended with “Slut” carved into his Jeep. Tracking Cooper down, he and Boston FBI agent Jason Costello learned she wasn’t exactly pleased with how Murphy had treated her after a falling-out and was more than ready to implicate him in the Dion heist. Armed with search warrants, investigators tore apart Murphy’s house and warehouse. Using keys confiscated in the search, they found 27 missing Super Bowl rings in a Saugus, Massachusetts, bank safety deposit box. “His record of convictions is one of the most extraordinary I’ve ever encountered,” District Judge Richard Savignano declared at a Jan. 29, 2009, bail hearing in Essex County Court before ordering Murphy held on $3 million bond.
In Columbus, Harry Trombitas, city police and Mike Buckley, a former FBI agent turned Brink’s investigator, remained in the dark about their own burglars. (Buckley, who purely by coincidence was from Boston, was sent on long-term assignment to Columbus after the break-in.) Weeks into the investigation, no suspects emerged even as the reward climbed to $52,000. “We were really striking out,” Trombitas says. “We hadn’t really had that kind of a burglary in Columbus.”
Meanwhile, tips of dubious value flooded in. A loss prevention analyst at a Southeast Ohio Meijer store provided photos of a woman exchanging $1,000 in coins for cash at a Coinstar kiosk on the night after the Brink’s hit. Someone spent $26 at a Donatos pizza joint east of Columbus using Sacagawea and James Madison coins. Suspicion fell on a man tossing around 50-cent pieces until police learned he was a magician in town for Magi-Fest, a magicians’ convention at the Crowne Plaza hotel on Doubletree Avenue. “It’s amazing to find out how many people hang onto their coins, then go buy a flat screen,” says now-retired Columbus burglary squad detective Chris McIntosh.
Then the Columbus investigators caught a break in the form of a pink 1993 Mustang GT convertible. By late March of 2009, Zani and Costello were narrowing in on Murphy’s E.A. Dion accomplices. Earlier that month, they executed a search warrant at the home of David Nassor in Petersham in rural Massachusetts. One of the items investigators found: a Super Bowl ring hidden in the trunk of the Mustang, which belonged to Murphy but was parked on Nassor’s property. Once Nassor decided to cooperate, he told them what he knew about the Dion case, where he’d acted as a lookout man and later disposed of a safe they’d taken. At the end of a long interview on Tuesday, March 31, Costello asked if Nassor had anything else to tell them about Murphy. After a moment of hesitation and consultation with his attorney, Nassor said there was one other thing: the previous year Murphy had assigned him to scope out “an armored car company” in Ohio.
The story fit with tips Costello had received that Murphy was planning an Ohio job. But at the time of Nassor’s interview, Costello thought Murphy’s arrest had thwarted the planned break-in. Complicating matters, Nassor was recovering from a savage beating in August 2008 and wasn’t clear with investigators on whether the crime had actually occurred.
In early April, Brink’s investigator Mike Buckley left Columbus for good. Back in his Boston office, he was chatting with a police detective assigned to the FBI and mentioned the case he’d worked in Ohio, including the burglars’ use of cellphone jammers. The detective, a member of the team who searched Nassor’s property in March, said that sounded a lot like the M.O. of Murphy. They traded tips, and minutes later were on the phone to Costello. Not long after that, Costello called Trombitas. You don’t know me, Costello told him, but I’m pretty sure I know who did your Brink’s warehouse job.
Two months later, on Thursday, June 4, 2009, based on details offered up by the now-cooperating Doucette, authorities raided a New Hampshire storage facility and found the Brink’s burglary tools, along with the stolen boxes of coins that Murphy nicknamed “The wall of China” for the way they looked when stacked up, and burned cash that he had code-named “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“There was a smile on everybody’s face,” Buckley says.
At first, a trial seemed unlikely. Murphy sat down with Costello and other investigators four times and detailed the Brink’s job in off-the-record interviews known as “proffers” that typically precede a plea deal. The cooperation Murphy offered included a video he made with Zani and Costello in June 2010—“How to be a Master Thief.” But things went south in November 2010 when a Massachusetts guard came across a manuscript Murphy had written while in Essex County Jail. “Master Thief: How To Be a Professional Burglar” was a summary of Murphy’s life work, a 10-chapter, 34-page treatise on the ins and outs of everything from safecracking to operating cellphone jammers. What most interested authorities, including Columbus federal prosecutor Sal Dominguez, was the similarity between passages in the book and the crime on Essex Avenue. “If your thermal rod catches something on fire in the vault, everything could burn up, and the smoke could prevent you from even entering the vault,” Murphy wrote in the chapter titled “Tools.”
Murphy contended the book was simply notes meant to accompany the video. Costello and Dominguez said it had its own evidentiary value. Feeling double-crossed and not happy with the final terms of the plea deal he’d been offered, Murphy decided to take his chances at trial and defend himself to boot. Federal Judge George Smith wasn’t thrilled with the idea. But even Murphy’s stand-by attorney, veteran Columbus defense lawyer Dave Graeff, conceded that Murphy—who’d taken paralegal classes in a prison program years earlier and frequently studied law books—knew what he was doing. “He is one of the more intelligent young men I have ever met,” Graeff told the judge. “He understands perfectly the rules of evidence and case law.”
As the trial got underway on Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, Dominguez and fellow assistant U.S. attorney Heather Hill laid out evidence against Murphy in the form of items seized from the New Hampshire storage unit, testimony from multiple witnesses, including David Nassor and Robert Doucette, and investigators like Chris McIntosh and Harry Trombitas. (Doucette and Morgan both pleaded guilty to their involvement in the Brink’s case; Nassor pleaded guilty in the Super Bowl ring heist and agreed to testify against Murphy about the Brink’s break-in.) The jury heard that Murphy’s plan to “keep the crime local” had in fact led investigators to a man whose DNA was found on one of those cigarette butts scattered through the facility, but his involvement was quickly discounted; homeless and mentally ill, the individual wasn’t capable of such a crime, Trombitas testified. Brink’s officials also revealed for the first time the true amount of money in the facility at the time of the burglary—$92,960,737.47—and the estimated actual loss from the theft: about $2.3 million (in the end, relatively little of the money in the vault was destroyed by the fire). And of course there was that damning evidence in “Master Thief.”
“All in his manifesto, ladies and gentlemen,” Dominguez told the jury, calling it a “mirror image” of the crime.
During cross-examination, Murphy rebutted the evidence against him even though every investigator in the courtroom knew he was guilty because he’d told them himself in those proffer interviews. “This case is like Swiss cheese; it has got holes posted all through it,” Murphy told jurors. Despite Murphy’s best efforts, the jury found him guilty on all counts. Ahead of sentencing, Murphy tried to mitigate his punishment by writing the Brink’s Corp. and offering to consult for them in exchange for help with the $1.2 million restitution that Judge Smith determined Murphy owed the company. But Bruce Woerner, head of Brink’s U.S. security operations at the time, rejected the notion of rewarding Murphy for the devastation he wrought.
When Murphy’s turn came to address the judge, he said he was ready to accept his sentence and hopefully establish a relationship with his two young children once he was out. “I’m just done,” he said.
And with that, Smith sentenced Murphy to 20 years in prison.
Eighteen months and a day later, Murphy was back in Smith’s courtroom. On appeal, the jailhouse lawyer had won his argument at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prosecutors’ linking of burglary charges with interstate commerce counts was flawed. Smith knocked off seven years. Back in prison in Massachusetts, still awaiting trial for the Super Bowl ring caper, Murphy relied again on his legal skills to suppress evidence from that January 2009 search warrant. Not until December 2019 did he finally plead guilty to a count of receiving stolen property and receive a two-year sentence. With the Federal Bureau of Prisons granting him credit for his decade-plus in jail, he walked free on June 16 of this year.
Murphy spent his first few days as a free man staying with a buddy in Westport in rural Massachusetts, acquiring a smartphone and catching up with the modern world. In late July, Murphy wears a New England Patriots shirt as he watches ESPN in an upstairs bedroom that has been converted into an office space in his temporary home. Though his once brown hair is graying and thinning, he’s lost none of his energy as he talks about numerous (legitimate) plans to make money, which range from resurrecting his moving company to running a new business gathering signatures for ballot initiatives and referendums.
As for a return to his old life? Investigators aren’t holding their breath, but Murphy says that, at 57, he’s too old “to be running around on roofs, cutting lines.”
Law enforcement officials uniformly acknowledge Murphy’s talent. “There’s no doubt in my mind that, had Mr. Murphy focused on legitimate legal possibilities of establishing himself in society, that he would have been successful,” Dominguez says. But Murphy’s accomplishments must be weighed against the fact he’s spent decades in prison, investigators say. “He can’t be that good,” Zani says.
Murphy brushes aside that criticism by blaming his misfortunes on turncoat accomplices. His own record is unblemished, he boasts, from the Super Bowl ring heist to the Brink’s job. “I haven’t got caught a lot,” Murphy says. “I’ve been told on a lot.”
For his part, the now-retired Trombitas doesn’t condone Murphy but can’t help admiring his moxie. “Murphy is one in a million,” Trombitas says.
This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect final score for Super Bowl XLII in February 2008.