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Final Confession: The Unsolved Crimes of Phil Cresta

Final Confession: The Unsolved Crimes of Phil Cresta

4.7 4
by Dennis Lehane

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Phil Cresta was no run-of-the-mill thief. Mastermind of the legendary Brink's armored truck robbery and a string of countless other high-stakes heists, he stole more than ten million dollars in escapades that often were breathtakingly daring and at times marvelously inventive. The robberies baffled both police and fellow outlaws for decades, and most of the crimes


Phil Cresta was no run-of-the-mill thief. Mastermind of the legendary Brink's armored truck robbery and a string of countless other high-stakes heists, he stole more than ten million dollars in escapades that often were breathtakingly daring and at times marvelously inventive. The robberies baffled both police and fellow outlaws for decades, and most of the crimes remain unsolved today. Now the open case files of these memorable thefts can be closed as Cresta himself provides the true story on how they were planned and carried out.

Born in Boston's North End in 1928, Cresta was raised in an abusive household. He was sent to Concord Reformatory as a teenager, where he learned the craft of picking locks, a skill later honed during stays at the Charlestown and Walpole prisons in Massachusetts. Following the Brink's robbery in 1969, he was put on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, but eluded the law for five years, living in Chicago under an assumed name. After serving time at Walpole for the Brink's job, Cresta died penniless in Chicago in 1995. Yet shortly before his death, he revealed the full extent of his astonishing capers to coauthor Bill Crowley, a retired Boston police detective.

Drawing from their extensive conversations, this riveting page-turner chronicles how Cresta, along with partners "Angelo" and "Tony," pulled off robberies of jewelers, rare coin dealers, furriers, and armored trucks, detailing the meticulous planning that marked his criminal career and made him a master at outwitting police. Cresta's final accounting is brimming with vivid tales of betrayal, murder, and intrigue as well as a colorful cast of characters, including mob bosses, wise guys, informants, paid "ears," corrupt judges, a Hollywood starlet, and even the Mayor of Chicago.

Filled with drama, tension, and humor, this absorbing saga takes the reader inside the dangerous yet exhilarating world of a life dedicated to crime.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This rollicking tale concerns the life and times of Phil Cresta, a master thief longsought by the FBI. Cresta confessed the details of his unconventional life of crime to retired Boston detective Crowley before he died in 1995. Crowley then collaborated with Boston sports announcer/columnist Wallace to pen this adventurous, fast-paced narrative. Cresta was brilliant, meticulous, inventive, and colorful. He stole more than $10 million in his lifetime, and many of his crimes are still officially listed as unsolved. The daring 1969 Brink's armored car robbery was his downfall, however, landing him on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List and forcing him to spend the next five years as a fugitive. Cresta proves an enigmatic character--he could be ruthless when necessary (though he rarely shot to kill)--but he was surprisingly upstanding when dealing with his two lifelong crime partners. The only question remaining is who will play Cresta in the motion picture. Highly recommended.--Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Just before he died in Chicago, legendary London-born thief Cresta (1928-95) revealed to Crowley, a retired Boston police detective, how he planned and carried out the capers that had baffled both the police and his colleagues for decades. Sports announcer and columnist Wallace help his tell the tales. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Although Boston resident Phil Cresta stole millions of dollars and was placed on the F.B.I.'s most wanted list, his name has failed to go down in the annals of crime history. Cresta, along with the aid of two accomplices, committed numerous crimes that have remained officially unsolved. Final Confessions reveals these crimes while also painting a social portrait of the Boston crime scene during the 1960s. It would be easy for the reader to feel incredulous upon starting this book; Crowley obtained a great deal of the information about these crimes from conversations with Cresta before he died. Newspaper writer Wallace has researched the background of each crime, from police reports to F.B.I. files, and put together a convincing story. Cresta was born on the north end of Boston, and grew up under the shadow of an abusive father. He went to prison for the first time when he was sixteen, but prison only increased his knowledge of how to commit crimes. Cresta became an expert at picking locks and forging keys, and learned to plan his crimes carefully. Other criminals didn't always know what Cresta was doing. Once, he entered a bar with the tops of three parking meters that he had removed while everyone else was watching the Kennedy inauguration. Everyone laughed. Cresta took the three meters--one for each type that the city used--and had keys made for them. With the keys and several official looking uniforms, he and his partners garnered some $250 dollars a day from the city of Boston, eventually stealing $100,000 dollars. Other crimes proved more risky but no less ingenious. Cresta used inside information to learn about a jewel convention coming to Boston. The jewels of the attendees werestored in the Parker House safe at night with a timed combination. Cresta designed a large suitcase, like the cases used to store the merchandise of the other jewelers, which actually carried his partner and a small oxygen tank. Inside the safe, his accomplice stole jewels from two other cases, and then returned to his case to be carried to safety by Cresta in the morning. It is easy to become engrossed in Final Confessions and forget that Cresta, ingenious and likable, was a criminal who didn't mind hurting people to get what he wanted. The book's authors seem to unabashedly turn him into a hero and downplay his more unsavory elements. The book still succeeds as both a sociological portrait of the Boston crime scene during the 1960s and as a psychological one of a clever criminal.
Kirkus Reviews
An engaging story about the greatest criminal mastermind you've never heard of. According to sportscaster Wallace and ex-cop Crowley, a Boston crook named Phil Cresta devised some Houdini-like means of acquiring rare coins, furs, or whatever potential haul lurked out there in the 1960s. How did several boxes of diamonds disappear from a locked vault? Why did certain cars transporting valuable merchandise break down only on the darkest stretches of road (where masked highwaymen would immediately show up to relieve them of their precious cargo)? The answers to these and many other previously unsolved crimes are right here. Although married twice, Cresta found little time for his wife and kids. He preferred hanging out with his two partners, who shared equally in all profits (which eventually came to millions). This gang of three seldom injured guards or bystanders, but they were prepared to do so if necessary. In fact, Cresta is credited here with a revenge killing that, up to now, had not even been recognized as a homicide by the Boston PD. In 1999, Crowley approached Wallace with newspaper clippings about unsolved crimes, claiming they had all been committed by Cresta. If few had ever heard of Cresta, he maintained, this was only proof of his genius: he had died in 1995, finally penniless and taken in by the former policeman (to whom he supposedly confessed his exploits). Readers may well wonder whether the details of these heists have been responsibly double-checked—or whether Cresta, despite his confession, was a liar. Like most barstool confessions, this ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but it's a good yarn to help while away a rainy afternoon. It'snotlikely to keep the boys on the city desk working overtime, though.

From the Publisher

“You wouldn’t necessarily expect a true-crime book to be a whole lot of fun, but this one is. . . . It’s exciting, lighthearted, and completely realistic. . . . Phil Cresta and his cohorts were a band of thieves—very clever thieves, to be sure, but thieves nonetheless. They weren’t particularly honorable, and they certainly weren’t wealthy, but this chronicle of their adventures gives us more excitement than a whole fistful of novels. . . . Even though [Cresta] was a ‘bad guy,’ it’s awfully hard not to like him. Put this at the top of every true-crime fan’s reading list.”—Booklist (starred review)

“An affectionate look at a true craftsman of crime, one who cared as much for his friends as he did for the rush he’d get whenever he opened the back of a stolen armored car. . . . It’s the details of the Cresta story that give Final Confession its charm—because Wallace and Crowley make plain that Cresta’s wild run lasted not because of the fear he engendered on the street but because of his painstaking dedication to craft. . . . Final Confession also charms because of the eye that [the authors] have for the humorous moments that flecked an otherwise grim and unforgiving life.”—Michael Rezendes, Boston Globe

Product Details

Northeastern University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Parker House Heist

THE PARKER HOUSE HOTEL opened in the fall of 1855 and since then has housed an array of famous guests, including Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and John Wilkes Booth. Booth used the shooting range in the hotel's basement to hone his skills eight days before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The Parker House's basement vault also became the site of one of Boston's most ingenious jewel robberies.

    The year was 1965. It was early October and the Red Sox had long since put away their gloves and were sitting home, like everyone else, watching Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat Harmon Killebrew and the Minnesota Twins in a seven-game World Series. Early October in Boston is a teasing time of year, tossing out samples of summer and winter from opposite hands while painting the landscape with wonderfully colored foliage.

    Phil Cresta's only interest was in the green of money. While shopping in Filene's Basement one day, he ran into an old acquaintance, Louie Cohen, a well-known Boston diamond merchant known on the street as Louie Diamonds. He had one foot in the jewelry business and the other in the wise-guy business.

    Phil didn't like Louie Diamonds personally, but he liked the leads he got from him. Louie knew when big-time diamond merchants were in, or coming to, Boston. He knew where they were staying and where they did their business.

    That day, Louie told Phil about a huge jewelry convention and exhibit coming to Boston: the Diamond Extravaganza wouldbeat the Parker House in six days. It was going to be a three-day show with some of the richest jewelers in the country participating. Phil didn't need to be told that this just might be the big break he'd been hoping for.

    Knowing he'd need help, Phil called Augie Circella in Chicago. Augie had married Phil's older sister, Mari, who was a professional dancer, a little over a year before. He had also made enough money working for Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti in the late 1940s and 1950s to open up the Follies, the most successful burlesque house in Chicago. The Follies was the place where everyone in the Chicago mob hung out, including Tony Accardo and Joe Ferriola, the two top guys in the city. To say the least, Augie Circella was "well connected," as everyone in the Windy City knew, and he had often told Phil to call him if he needed help.

    Until this time, though, Phil had rarely taken Circella up on his offer. Still, Phil was relieved when Augie sounded pleased to hear from his thirty-seven-year-old brother-in-law again. Phil got down to business.

    "Augie, there's a huge diamond show coming to Boston and I need your help." "Sounds great, Phil," Augie said, "but whadda ya need from me?" "Diamonds," Phil replied, "lots of diamonds." Augie asked, "Since when are you in the diamond business?" "Since I got wind of this Diamond Extravaganza," Phil said. Augie began to laugh and, after hearing more details, told him to come to Chicago in two days. He would set Phil up with some people.

    When Phil returned from Chicago he called his two partners in crime, Tony and Angelo (whose real names are not given in this book), and asked them to meet him at McGrail's, a bar on Boston's Kilmarnock Street where Phil liked to hang out. After a few beers Angelo asked, "Whadda ya gut, Phil?" Phil told him all about the Parker House diamond show. Both partners listened intently, then Tony asked, "What do you know about diamonds?" "They're worth a lot of money," Phil responded lightheartedly. "Well, I guess that's enough," Tony replied, laughing. "You're too easy," Angelo said, looking at Tony and shaking his head. "All right, now both you knuckleheads shut up," Phil said, and he began to outline his plan.

    Two elderly registered jewelers who also worked for the Accardo mob in Chicago were bringing their diamonds from Chicago to Boston. They would rent a booth in the show.

    "What's that gut to do with us?" Angelo inquired. "I'm getting to that," Phil answered. And then to the diminutive Tony, who was munching on a hot dog, he said, "Tony, are you claustrophobic?" Tony hesitated and then blushed. "Come on, Phil, you know I'm married. You know I'm not like that." "No, no, no. I mean are you afraid of being closed in, like in an elevator or an airplane?" "Of course not," Tony replied, ignoring Angelo's laughter. And then, puzzled, Tony asked, "What's that gut to do with the price of tea in China?" Angelo laughed again. "Where do you get those ridiculous sayings?"

    "Come on, come on. This is important," Phil said, trying to get them to settle down. "You asking me if I get scared in an elevator, Phil?" "Well, kind of," Phil answered. And then he added, "What I really need to know is if you can be locked in a small space without going crazy." "He's already crazy," Angelo replied in jest. "Tell him to shut up, Phil," Tony said in the tone of a little kid. Phil just shot Angelo one of those keep-your-mouth-shut looks. Then he turned from Angelo to Tony and said, "Well?" "I guess it depends on how small a space and for how long," Tony answered honestly. "Fair enough," Phil said. "Let's go across the street and I'll show you how small a space."

    Phil paid the bar tab, and they walked across the street to the Fenway Motor Inn on Boylston Street, where Phil had been living since he'd separated from his wife in 1963. In the middle of the floor stood a large black storage box about three feet high and two feet wide. Since it was standing on end, its lid seemed like a small door. "That's how small an area," Phil told Tony, whose face grew pale. "That's pretty small, Phil," Tony whispered. "Get in and try it for size," Phil instructed.

    Tony backed up as if the box were going to bite him. "Shit, this ain't funny, Phil." "It isn't meant to be funny," Phil responded. He showed his partners how the outside lock was a dummy, glued in place to look as though the trunk were locked. He then opened the trunk's lid and showed them an inside latch that would allow a person inside to open or close the trunk.

    Angelo was just standing there staring. Finally he said, "Phil, what does all of this have to do with a diamond job?"

    "If dipstick here will get in the box, I'll explain it to you." Phil stepped aside.

    Tony took a few deep breaths and crouched to enter the box. It was a very tight squeeze even for Tony, who was five feet three inches, and weighed no more than 110 pounds. "How's it fit?" Phil asked. "Like a friggin coffin," Tony replied. "Relax now," Phil said soothingly, "I'm just doing this for a few seconds." He again pointed out the door's inside latch and closed the front of the trunk.

    Angelo looked at Phil as if he'd lost his marbles.

    After about thirty seconds, Phil reopened the trunk and Tony jumped out. "Phil, that's fucking scary in there," Tony said. "Is it too scary for a half million dollars?" Phil asked. "A what?" Angelo barked. "You heard me, a half million dollars." "For that kind of money I guess I could do it. But what about air?" Tony asked. "You'll have your own air tank," Phil assured him. "How long do I have to stay in there?" Tony asked next, surveying the black box. "Forty minutes ... an hour tops," Phil said. "For a half mil, I could do that." Tony smiled for the first time since he'd seen the trunk.

THE DAY BEFORE the show was to open, Phil picked up the two Chicago diamond merchants at Logan International Airport in East Boston. He waited with them until they picked up their trunk, which was only a little smaller than the one in Phil's room at the Fenway Motor Inn. Then he drove them to the Parker House, dropped them off, and left.

    They checked into the hotel and signed in to get their booth assignment in the exhibit area, which was in the hotel's lobby. They called Phil from a pay phone on Tremont Street, as he had instructed, and told him where their booth was located.

    The Diamond and Jewelry Extravaganza went off without a hitch for the first two of its three scheduled days. Many of the world's top diamond and jewelry brokers—practically a Who's Who of the diamond trade—did good business there.

    The two guys from Chicago, who actually were registered diamond merchants, did business too. On the first night, when the show closed at nine, they, like the other exhibitors, put their merchandise into a trunk with their logo on the outside, signed a slip detailing what was in the trunk, and watched as a Boston police officer and the exhibit's security people locked all the jewels in the Parker House's basement vault.

    The next morning they were the first to arrive. The vault, which was on a time lock, was opened at seven A.M. They showed their IDs, signed another paper, and waited until their jewels were wheeled out. To take possession of their trunk, they showed their IDs again and signed another paper, which verified that this was their trunk. Only then were they able to take the merchandise to their booth. The security overseeing the safety of the jewels was considered top-notch: Parker House security, Boston police officers, and a private security company.

    Phil, Tony, and Angelo visited late on the second day to get a feel for the scene. Phil nodded to his two jeweler friends, but kept right on walking past their exhibit. Then they went upstairs to a room the team had rented under a fictitious name. At 8:30 on that second night of the show, the Parker House was jammed with buyers and sellers. Nobody noticed two men, dressed as security men hired by one of the three outfits working the show, transporting a black trunk into the diamond and jewelry show. The three-by-two-foot trunk looked like any of the other trunks that now crowded the Parker House basement and showroom. But none of the other trunks, at least none that Phil Cresta knew about, contained a living, breathing human being.

    At 8:45 P.M. the Chicago jewelers began to pack their wares into their own black trunk. Within five minutes they were ready, and the two-by-two-foot trunk with their jewels was taken away by the same two Parker House security men who had brought in the slightly larger trunk. At 9:15, the show already officially closed for the evening, police and security hired by the hotel began to escort the dealers to their cars or to the vault. The two Chicago businessmen filled out all the paperwork and watched as "their" trunk with their logo on it was wheeled down the elevator and into the back of the vault. By 10:15 all the other jewelers had placed their valuables in the vault and it was closed for the night. It would not be opened until 7:00 A.M., when the time-release lock was tripped.

    Inside the vault since nine or so, Tony waited. He heard voices and movement for what seemed like an eternity, but in fact it was only about an hour. At approximately 10:30 P.M., when there were no more voices, he undid the inside latch and stepped out of his self-described coffin. He had a portable oxygen tank and mask in one hand and a small flashlight in the other. It took Tony a few minutes to adjust to his surroundings, but once he did, he went to work.

    Phil had had the two Chicago jewelers write down which of the trunks contained the most valuable jewels. Tony took that single white paper with the instructions out of his pocket and went to work. The logos on the outsides of the trunks made Tony's job easy. With a solid ten-inch door between him and the rest of the world, he could have listened to the radio to pass the time, but Phil had allowed him only the flashlight, the oxygen tank and mask ... and an Italian sub, without which Tony had refused to go into the vault. Phil had conceded on the sandwich, but made Tony promise that everything he took into that vault would come out with him.

    Tony finished picking the locks of the trunks, collected the jewelry, stretched out on the floor, and waited for morning. At 6:50 A.M. he climbed back into the trunk, locked it with the lock Phil had fashioned, and waited. When he began to hear voices, he stayed as still as possible. Finally the vault was opened. The trunk was wheeled a short way, then given a ride in an elevator. Minutes later Tony heard Phil's unmistakable voice.

    The small thief undid the inside latch, opened the lid, and Phil's worried face was the first thing he saw. "Are you all right?" Phil asked. "I could use some breakfast," Tony responded. "He's fine," Angelo joked as he looked past Tony to the loot inside the trunk.

    The two Chicago jewelers were in the hotel room, too. Their eyes glazed over as they handled the precious diamonds and emeralds. "They behaved like little children at Christmas," Phil said when he told the story to Crowley. "All the jewelers could say was, `Unbelievable!'"

    After a few minutes of drooling over the merchandise, Phil told his accomplices, "Okay, guys, what are we looking at?"

    "Close to a million," the older of the two said.

    Phil looked at the younger jeweler, who was pushing seventy, and asked, "What do you think?"

    "I concur wholeheartedly," he said seriously. "This is very valuable property and extremely marketable."

    From the bathroom, Phil wheeled in their original two-by-two trunk and said, "Well, gentlemen, it's time to scream bloody murder."

    By the time the two Chicago jewelry merchants took the elevator back to the lobby, pandemonium had already broken loose. Police seemed to be everywhere in the lobby and people were screaming at cops, at hotel officials, and at anyone else in a position of authority.

    The man who'd organized this international show was standing near the front desk in a daze. Well-known jewelry brokers were yelling obscenities at him, but he was far beyond hearing them.

    By the time the two elderly merchants from Chicago had their chance to report that they'd been hit for $250,000, three much younger men were walking down Tremont Street, each carrying a gym bag in his right hand. But instead of heading into the nearby YMCA, they hailed a cab and went to a bar called McGrail's, in the shadow of Fenway Park, a short walk from Kenmore Square.

    A week later, Phil received a call at McGrail's from a guy who told the bartender his name was Augie. "Kid, they're all talking about you here in Chicago." Phil laughed. Very seriously Augie said, "I mean it, even the boss, Tony Accardo, asked me about you. You've made a lot of friends out here, especially those two old jewelry guys." Phil asked, "Yeah? How're they doing?" "How're they doing? Thanks to you they're both retiring, for crissake." Augie laughed. "They got a twofer. They hit the insurance company for a quarter of a mil on the diamonds they `lost' at the show, and they fenced the ice you guys snatched for another half a mil, that's how they're doing.... I got my share.... Did they take care of you and your guys all right?" Augie asked, concerned. "We did fine, Augie. I have no complaints, and thanks for the help," Phil said. "Kid, whatever you need from now on, you call your brother-in-law Augie, all right?" Phil laughed and answered, "All right, Augie. And take care of my sister." Phil chuckled again when he thought of Tony scrunched inside the box, with his Italian spuckie in his back pocket.

    The non-insurance take on that job came to $550,000. It was split six ways. But the heist cost the various insurance companies a lot more than that, once all the victims' claims were processed. "Those jewelry bastards were bigger thieves than we were," Phil said in admiration. "They all saw a good thing and jumped on the bandwagon. If we hit a merchant for seventy-five thousand, he told his insurance company he'd lost a hundred and fifty thousand."

    The great Parker House diamond robbery was not publicized. The hotel made sure it stayed out of the papers. Despite much effort, the crime has not, until now, been solved. Boston police and insurance company investigators didn't have a clue how anyone could steal valuable jewels from a locked safe. Or how the jewels could be fenced without surfacing in Boston. That's because they were not yet well-enough acquainted with Phil Cresta Jr.

Meet the Author

BRIAN P. WALLACE is a former Massachusetts state representative. Bill Crowley is a retired Boston police detective.

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Final Confession: The Unsolved Crimes of Phil Cresta 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very entertaining, but very thin on hard documentation. It's the kind of book you will want to read cover to cover in one sitting, if possible. However, the book would be much better if Cresta's yarns were compared with hard crime file data, inconsistencies analyzed, and detectives interviewed, etc. to help shed more light on how the authors apparently determined his claims are true.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a terrific read. It is a different and innovative crime story, with a number of quirky Boston scenes and characters intermingled into the fast-paced storyline. Wallace shows that he has a good sense of the Boston criminal, police and political scene. The book is entertaining and humorous and grabs you from the start. I highly recommend Final Confessions! JB