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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 brokerspractically a Who's Who of the diamond tradedid 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.