CHAPTER FOUR: THE BONDED VAULT HEIST
POLICE OFFICER: So without any further ado I want you to meet now a friend of mine. He has been relocated, he’s in the federal witness protection program. I’m going to give you the microphone now, you just do your thing.
ROBERT DUSSAULT: Hello, good evening,. I don’t hear no echo.
OFFICER: No, you’re speaking into the camera.
DUSSAULT: All right. Thank you for the introduction, Anthony. And I guess I gotta start from the beginning about my life of crime.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: The videotape you’re hearing is from the late ‘70s, when a man named Robert Dussault spoke before a graduating class of the Providence police academy. Dussault’s nickname was Deuce. He looks like somebody you’d call Deuce. In the video, he’s wearing big dark sunglasses. He has long sideburns and a mustache. And he chain-smokes as he talks, emphasizing his words with a cigarette twirling in the air.
But this—talking to this roomful of cops—it wasn’t Dussault’s natural habitat at all. Actually, for most of his life, the cops had been the enemy.
DUSSAULT: I was 14 years old, I got arrested for breaking into a filling station. That was the first contact I ever had with any law enforcement agency in my life. And for the next 25 years it was like a revolving door. I got arrested again. Got arrested again. I got arrested again. I got arrested again. I was in and out of police stations all over the country, mostly in New England and mostly in Massachusetts.
ZAC: Eventually, Dussault found his way to Rhode Island.
DUSSAULT: Well, I started getting involved with guys in organized crime. See, we got two governments in this country. We got the United States government and we got the government of crime. And it’s big, let me tell you. Organized crime is big. I don't have to tell you. It reaches all the way to the White House, it really does. I hate to say it but somebody has to say it.
ZAC: Dussault goes on like this for a while. If one thing’s obvious, it’s that he likes to talk. And there’s one story in particular that he never gets tired of telling.
DUSSAULT: Well anyways, then we get to the famous Bonded Vault, I love to talk about the Bonded Vault. My wife don’t want to even hear it no more, but I enjoy talking about it. It was unique, it was one of the scores of the century, as far as I’m concerned. It was the ultimate. I went from rags to riches.
MARC SMERLING: Last episode, Buddy Cianci made a dark deal that put him at the top of city government.
ZAC: Today a story from the other government, the one Dussault called the government of crime. It’s the biggest heist in the history of Rhode Island: the Bonded Vault. I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier.
MARC: I’m Marc Smerling.
ZAC: Welcome to Crimetown.
ZAC: It’s 1975, just seven months into Mayor Buddy Cianci’s first term. And across town from city hall, in Federal Hill, the caper of a lifetime is about to go down, in a business called Hudson Fur Storage.
TIM WHITE: Fur at the time in the ‘70s, huge. Every wiseguy got their wife and their goumada a fur coat. And this is where you bought it, this is where you stored it, and this is where you had it tailored when they had to have it tailored.
ZAC: Tim White is an investigative reporter in Providence. He co-authored a book about the Bonded Vault robbery called The Last Good Heist. And White says, Hudson Furs—it wasn’t just for mink coats. It was actually a front for the Patriarca crime family.
And hidden behind all those furs was a secret room called the Bonded Vault. It was just like a bank vault: it had a huge stainless-steel door that weighed seven tons. And inside the Bonded Vault?
WHITE: Inside was these massive safe deposit boxes. You know they’re two feet tall by a foot and a half wide. And there was nearly 200 of them. And they were used by members of the Patriarca crime family and their associates to store all their ill-gotten gains. And when I say loot, I mean cash from bookmaking operations, gold and silver bars, jewels, like, tens of millions of dollars of stuff was in there.
It didn't have a great security system. There was a button you would press and it would ring an alarm at Providence police. That was really it. But it didn’t need a good alarm system. Who would ever rob from the Patriarca crime family? That is a death sentence.
ZAC: Who would ever rob from the Patriarca crime family? Well, Robert Dussault would. The guy you heard at the top of the show, talking to the police academy.
August 14th, 1975. Eight o’clock in the morning. Dussault and seven other wiseguys pull up to Hudson Furs. Dussault strolls into the building first, wearing sunglasses and a grey checked suit, carrying a briefcase, like he’s a client there on business.
But then he pulls out a gun, and the heist is on.
WHITE: The guy who ran the place, Dussault put the gun to his nose, basically he figured out it was a robbery, and the guy said, You don’t know what trouble you’re bringing me. You don’t know.
The rest of the crew races in. The employees of Hudson Furs are screaming, and scared. Dussault pulls pillowcases out of his briefcase and he forces the employees to put them over their heads. Then the other thieves enter the vault and start opening the safe deposit boxes.
WHITE: One of the guys, he takes a crowbar, puts it against the hinge, pops it, and the door just flies off, and loot just spills out onto the ground. So they start filling these massive duffel bags with all this stuff. Again, gold bars—there was so much stuff they left behind small bills, ones and fives, they didn’t even bother with it, they just left it there. Loose gems, we’ve interviewed people who'd seen it, cops, and someone who was in there, and they say it was up to their ankles, of the stuff they left behind, so imagine what they took. One of the getaway cars that they had was so weighed down with the material that they had taken, that the back bumper was practically, Dussault said, was touching the ground.
ZAC: The thieves race back to their hideout and split up the loot. And that’s where things might have ended. The victims of the robbery were mostly mobsters—it’s not like they were gonna go to the police for help.
The case might have remained unsolved forever—if not for one thing.
DUSSAULT: Hoo, good Lord, I love Las Vegas.
ZAC: Robert Dussault again, talking to that Providence police class. He tells them that after the heist, he took his share of the loot and headed to Vegas.
DUSSAULT: When I’m on the crap table, I couldn’t lose. Case full of $100 bills. I didn't know what to do with the money. One night I won $32,000 dollars. In one night! I got a suitcase full of money. I had 200 people watching me around this crap table saying look at this guy he can’t lose. Phenomenal. Just the luck was with me that night.
ZAC: But Dussault’s luck was about to run out. Again, Tim White.
WHITE: He goes to Vegas, he finds a very expensive hooker, who he ends up...I guess falling in love with? But they end up travelling the country. But look, he blew through money very very quickly, and when he ran out of the money and he wanted more of his share that was back in Rhode Island, that’s when the wheels started coming off.
ZAC: Back in Providence, the Bonded Vault crew was getting nervous. They knew what a big mouth Dussault had. They knew he was running out of cash and was desperate for more. So they decided they needed to shut him up. For good.
In situations like this, wiseguys have a few standard operating procedures. When you want to make a problem like Robert Dussault go away, you send someone who can get close. Someone the target will never suspect. Someone like Dussault’s best friend. His name was Chucky Flynn. And he was another one of the other Bonded Vault thieves.
WHITE: They were longtime friends from the mean streets of Lowell, Massachusetts. And they really thought that this was their last good heist: the take that gonna set them up for life.
ZAC: But that wasn’t how things were working out. So Chucky Flynn flies to Vegas, ready to kill his best friend. He confronts Dussault in a parking lot. But Dussault is ready. He has a sawed-off shotgun for protection. He points it at Chucky and forces him to get into into his car.
Picture it. The two friends, Chucky and Dussault, sitting in the car. One in the driver’s seat, one in the passenger seat. Dussault keeps the shotgun trained on his old friend the entire time. But then they begin to talk. About the good old days. About all the years they’ve know each other, all the jobs they’ve pulled. And, strangely enough, these two hardened criminals both start to cry.
WHITE: And Dussault was able to talk his way out of it. Sitting in a car, with Chucky Flynn, Dussault was able to appeal to his roots in Lowell, Massachusetts, and he was able to talk his way out of that hit.
ZAC: So Chucky gets out of the car, without killing Dussault. Chucky heads back to the hotel to meet another one of the Bonded Vault robbers. A guy named Joe Danese. Joe had flown to Vegas with Chucky to make sure the hit on Dussault went down. And he wasn’t happy that Chucky hadn’t finished the job. Here’s a recording of Joe Danese on the phone from prison, talking to reporter Tim White. It’s hard to hear, so we’ve recreated it for clarity:
WHITE: What were your feelings on that, did you try to talk Chucky out of it?
JOE DANESE: My feelings is, I told him, you’re the stupidest motherfucker I ever met in my life. And I’m gonna kill the motherfucker, I told him.
WHITE: What were the consequences of coming back from Vegas without having done that?
JOE DANESE: Serious consequences. I said Chucky look, we’re in serious fucking trouble.
ZAC: Chucky and Danese fly back to Providence and explain to the other Bonded Vault robbers that they hadn’t killed Dussault. Chucky just couldn’t do it. And that was a real problem, because, a few days later…
DUSSAULT: I got arrested in Las Vegas.
ZAC: Again, Robert Dussault.
DUSSAULT: FBI picked me up, hate to say it. Took them a while, though, before they made me. Knew who I was. Knew that I was wanted from here to who knows where. They had me in a high security cell, right up front, big light, couldn't sleep. In there a couple of days, I’m dirty. Mancuso comes in.
ZAC: Tony Mancuso was a Rhode Island cop. He and Robert Dussault had run into each other plenty of times over the years. As he walked in, Mancuso offered Dussault a cigarette.
DUSSAULT: Hey Bob you want a cigarette? A cigarette, I want to go home. I want my freedom. I don’t want to talk to you guys. And then Tony Mancuso, he says Bob, he looks me right in the eyes, he says, Bob, they killed Chucky Flynn you know, your best friend. They killed him.
ZAC: Chucky Flynn, Dussault’s best friend, was dead. According to Mancuso, he’d been murdered by the other Bonded Vault Robbers. And if Dussault didn't talk, and enter witness protection, he would be next.
DUSSAULT: There’s no trial or getting arrested or getting fined. You’re on a hit parade. That’s it. Your name goes in a hat, and that’s it.
ZAC: So Dussault spilled his guts. He told Mancuso everything he knew about the Bonded Vault heist.
DUSSAULT: I was an enemy of the law for 25 years. I never ratted, I never told. I’m talking now, they took one of these pictures. Videotaped my statement and all that. I did it because I didn’t want to get killed.
ZAC: Coming up, Dussault gets some even more shocking news. And we get a visit from an old friend. That’s after the break.
ZAC: Welcome back. Before the break, Robert Dussault learned that his best friend Chucky Flynn had been killed. And, fearing for his own life, Dussault told the cops everything he knew about the heist of the mob’s secret bank, the Bonded Vault. So Robert Dussault and Rhode Island cop Tony Mancuso fly home to Providence.
DUSSAULT: We’re playing cards or something, bullshitting. And Tony looks at me, he says, Bob, I gotta tell you something, I says yeah. Tony hits me with this, he says, Chucky Flynn isn’t dead. He says I lied.
ZAC: Chucky Flynn was alive and well. Mancuso had been bluffing.
DUSSAULT: The oldest trick in the game, I knew it since I was a kid. It was pulled on me a hundred times before. But the circumstances were right that time. The circumstances were right.
ZAC: Dussault couldn’t just take back everything he’d told the police. It was too late. He was officially a rat. But he wasn’t the only one. Police flipped another one of the other thieves: Joe Danese, the guy who had gone out to Vegas to kill Dussault with Chucky Flynn. Again, here’s Joe Danese talking to reporter Tim White.
DANESE: I told Chucky Flynn from the start, if he rats, I’m not going to jail over this fucking motherfucker. I’m not going to jail over this fucking piece of shit, I said.
ZAC: Robert Dussault and Joe Danise gave up everybody who had been involved in the robbery. Including Buddy Cianci’s newly hired environmental Inspector.
MARC: Can we go into the Bonded Vault? Let’s start with the arrest. So, where were you when you were arrested?
JERRY TILLINGHAST: For that I was at my house. I had just come back from Disney World, me and my wife. I had bought a pool table, got it for a good deal, and I was setting it up in the basement.
ZAC: Guess who? It’s Jerry Tillinghast. Remember him, from the last two episodes? According to Dussault, Jerry had helped pull off the biggest heist in New England history. And on January 5th, 1976, the police came knocking.
JERRY: And all of a sudden I hear my wife, Jerry the fucking house, she doesn't swear, the house is being surrounded by cops. I thought she was kidding, I don’t know. I got my son there, and everything like this. The doors are open, next thing I know they’re coming down the stairs, shotguns, I says hey, I start yelling, that’s my kids there. Get them fucking guns up. Don’t be putting them fucking guns out, what do you want. Well we want you, were gonna arrest you, I said fine, put them fucking guns up, don’t be scaring my kids. You know? Fucking, I was off.
JOHN MURPHY: Have you seen the coverage that they afforded the Bonded Vault trial? It was incredible. Front page story every night.
ZAC: This is former prosecutor John Murphy. And on April 12, 1976, he showed up at the Providence Superior Court for the first day of the Bonded Vault trial. The prosecution was up first. Their case was largely based on the testimony of the cooperating witnesses, Robert Dussault and Joe Danise.
MURPHY: They were the people who helped the state learn everything about the crime.
MARC: What did you think of Dussault’s testimony?
MURPHY: He was good, he was a good witness. There was a lot going on in the trial, and it was an emotional for him, I think, particularly with Chucky Flynn.
ZAC: Remember, Chucky Flynn was the man who had spared Dussault’s life in Las Vegas. He was Dussault’s best friend. And now here Dussault was testifying against him in court. In the trial transcripts, you can hear Dussault making the prosecution’s case. But you can also hear him pleading a different case, to Chucky. Dussault: “It was either I testify or I come back and go to prison and get killed in prison. That’s the truth, Chucky.” Chucky: “You’re a liar.” Dussault: “You know I’m telling the truth. For six months since I started testifying it’s been eating my guts out.”
WHITE: Dussault promised he would always be loyal to Flynn.
ZAC: Reporter Tim White again.
WHITE: And he broke Flynn’s heart when he became the key witness in this and testified against his best friend on the stand.
ZAC: The trial dragged on. April stretched into May, May into June, June into July. Eight hours of testimony a day, six days a week. They had to keep the air conditioning off during witness testimony so everyone could hear it, and the courtroom was a pressure cooker. Tempers flared.
Jerry Tillinghast made things particularly difficult for the lead prosecutor, a guy named Al DeRobbio. He worked on the case with John Murphy.
MURPHY: Al DeRobbio’s father died during the trial, and Tillinghast said to him, something to the effect, “I hear your father died getting a blowjob.”
JERRY: I’ll never forget the time when his father died. We had him foaming at the fucking mouth.
MURPHY: There was nearly a fistfight.
MARC: I heard it was wild.
JERRY: Your Honor, I’m sick and tired of this that. I said, Hey, I’m fucking sick and tired of you, you fucking asshole. I think it’s in the transcripts. I said, You know, I tell you what, I’m gonna get acquitted of this trial, and when I do I’m gonna dig up your dead father and throw him on your fucking lawn, you fucking piece of shit. Oh, it was gone, yeah. It was gone, yeah. And I didn’t give two fucks.
ZAC: You know who did give two fucks? Jerry’s lawyer, Paul DiMaio.
DIMAIO: There were fights in the courtroom. I’m underneath a pile of state troopers and the defendants. I said, what kind of a profession is this? It was just not fun.
ZAC: So not fun that DiMaio stopped inviting his client to the courtroom.
DIMAIO: I had Jerry stay in the prison most of the time. Half the time he didn't want to come himself. I didn't need him there. Because the less time he’s sitting there in front of the jury, the less he’s involved, you follow me?
ZAC: The prosecution rested. Then it was DiMaio and the defense’s turn. And they focused on presenting their clients’ alibis. The day of the robbery, they were all someplace else.
JERRY: I was in New Hampshire when that happened.
JERRY: What do you smile like that for? “Yeah.”
ZAC: To this day, Jerry Tillinghast maintains his innocence. And he really, really wants you to believe him.
JERRY: Everybody fucking does that. I don’t get any benefit at all. Fuck you. Everybody does that.
MARC: I’m sorry Jerry, you’re right.
MARC: I’m only kidding.
DIMAIO: I never asked Mr. Tillinghast what happened. I didn't want to know. It didn't matter to me. I don't care.
ZAC: Again, defense attorney Paul DiMaio.
DIMAIO: All I care is the case against you, presented against you properly, and if that we defend it, we defend it in an ethical manner and that’s what we’re gonna do.
Tillinghast told me he wasn’t there, presented me with his half brother, who then introduced me to some people from New Hampshire, where he was. I went to New Hampshire, I checked all those people’s stories out. He was at a birthday party up there, I checked it out thoroughly on Sundays, whatever I had to. I go down to the microfilm, the Providence Journal, look up, they claimed he was playing baseball, made sure there was a baseball game. I went thoroughly through anything my witness had to say, ten times more they would have done that. You follow me?
ZAC: Four months after the trial began, the defense rested and the case went to the jury. The verdict was split down the middle. Three of the defendants were guilty, sentenced to life in prison. The other three were acquitted. The difference? The alibis. Again, prosecutor John Murphy.
MURPHY: The men who were convicted—Chucky Flynn, John Ouimette, and Ralph Byrnes—both John Ouimette and Ralph Byrnes, we were able to break their alibis. The three who were not guilty had put in alibi evidence that we couldn’t break. We simply just didn't have any time to investigate them. The three defendants who were acquitted got to walk out. So that must have felt pretty great to them.
ZAC: One of the alibis they couldn’t break was Jerry Tillinghast’s.
MARC: And you got acquitted, how did that feel?
JERRY: It felt honorable.
MARC: Well, describe it.
JERRY: When I tell you, we opened that door, when I walked out, the courthall was fucking jammed. People were cheering for me and everything, it was unbelievable.
ZAC: Because this is Providence, Jerry was a hero. But not to everybody.
JERRY: One detective said if I ever got out of that he’d give me a blowjob on the city hall steps. So he was in the courtroom, I said, Hey hey, what time you want me, I gotta get some tickets made up, what time? Fuck you, this that and the other.
ZAC: The trial was over. Three men were in prison. But not everything added up. According to the testimony at the trial, the alleged robbers had only gotten $64,000 each—in cash. So what happened to all the gold bars, the rare coins, the jewels weighing down the getaway cars so much that the bumpers dragged on the ground? None of that was ever recovered. And according to reporter Tim White, no one even really knows how much was stolen in the first place.
WHITE: That was nearly impossible to calculate. We’ve interviewed people, particularly in the FBI, and their estimates at the time, it was anywhere between $20 and $30 million that was taken, so it was a huge grab.
ZAC: $20 to $30 million, gone. Stolen from the mob’s own bank. Where was it? Robert Dussault says he knows.
DUSSAULT: When I went into the Bonded Vault that morning, The safe, the vault, as big as this room, as high as this ceiling, the big round door, this vault, six foot thick. That door wasn’t locked. That door was wide open. That door was wide open. That doesn’t just happen like that. Doesn’t happen like that.
It wasn’t hard, it was easy, it was ice cream. Why was it ice cream? Cause we already had the okay from the man. You know who I mean when I say the old man, the number one, the uno. Raymond Patriarca, the boss of New England.
ZAC: That’s right. According to Dussault, the real guy behind the heist, who stole $30 million from the moB, was the head of the mob, Raymond Patriarca. But why would Patriarca rob from his own crime family?
WHITE: When Raymond L.S. Patriarca was away in federal prison in Atlanta, he didn’t feel like his soldiers were giving him his due and paying him.
ZAC: Again, Tim White.
WHITE: So what does he do to send a message? He robs from his own guys. As a matter of fact, the day the robbery was supposed to happen they put a hold on it, they said it’s off, we need another 24 hours. Well that was because Raymond Jr. had to get his shit out of there.
ZAC: After Robert Dussault entered the witness protection program, he worked at a Coors brewery for many years, under an assumed name, Robert Dempsey. But old habits die hard. And all that time, he was still stealing, robbing banks and coin shops. And more than a decade after the Bonded Vault heist, Robert Dussault, aka Robert Dempsey, went to jail for good. He died there in 1992.
MINISTER: Almighty God, into your hands we commend your child, Robert Dempsey. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
ZAC: This is a home video of Dussault’s burial. It’s an open casket and you can see him, arms crossed, in a black suit, still sporting a mustache. A minister stands over the coffin, saying a final prayer.
MINISTER: Forgive him for all that is done, and welcome him into your eternal home.
ZAC: The gravedigger closes the casket and the minister watches as it’s lowered into the ground. There’s no one else there.
Dussault’s former best friend, Chucky Flynn, also died in prison, nine years later. Chucky never forgave Dussault for betraying him and turning state’s evidence. And they never reconciled.
MARC: Next time on Crimetown, Buddy Cianci has done so well as mayor that he’s already dreaming of his next move—to the Statehouse.
BUDDY: I’m not going to leave the city of Providence. I just want to move a few blocks away up to the Statehouse, where I can do even more for Providence and the rest of the state. Thank you very much for coming.
ZAC: Crimetown is me, Zac Stuart-Pontier, and Marc Smerling.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell and Mike Plunkett.
With additional production by Laura Sim.
We’re edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed and scored by Matthew Boll.
Sound design by Ted Robinson at Silver Sound.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
This episode’s credit song is “Why” by Nick Gillette, courtesy of Jack Fleischer.
Original music by John Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Additional music by Benny Read.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Additional mixing by Enoch Kim and Martin Peralta.
Additional sound design by Julienne Guffain.
Our digital editor is Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Casting for this episode by Shelly Shenoy.
Pete Sloane recreated the phone call with Joe Danese.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather. Working with him isn’t hard. It’s easy. It’s ice cream.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Special thanks to Tim White at WPRI. Check out the book he co-authored with Randall Richards and Wayne Worcester, called The Last Good Heist.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, WPRI, Andy Chmelko, Adam Griffin, Jeff Riberdy, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Dan Barry, Mike Stanton, Lisa Newby, Paul DiMaio, Mary Murphy and everyone who shared their stories with us. Providence is a special place and we are honored to tell a part of its story.
For a full list of credits, visit our website at crimetownshow.com. And you can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you’re enjoying Crimetown, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find out about the show. Thanks.