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|How easy would it be to rob Fenway Park?|
BURIED DEEP IN AN ARTICLE published in the March 19, 1995, edition of The Boston Globe was an amazing FBI statistic: More bank and armored-truck robbers were traced to Charlestown, a one-square-mile neighborhood of Boston, than anywhere else in the country. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I had a sense of this already: Anytime a bank was robbed in Greater Boston, you could count on at least one of the thieves being from Charlestown. But seeing this fact laid out boldly in print immediately raised two questions: Why Charlestown? And why bank and armored-truck robbers? It struck me as a very narrow and specialized discipline: As far as I know, there are no epicenters for muggers or kidnappers or flashers. By 2003, I was a down-on-his-luck novelist with a young wife and two very young mouths to feed. I'd published two books. My first novel was received with great fanfare and sold well. My second arrived with zero fanfare and sold ... less than well. And although no one even knew about the third book that didn't work out, the downward trend was obvious. My career was in trouble.
Enter: The Idea.
From that FBI statistic, a dramatic dynamic began to form for a novel, Prince of Thieves, later adapted to The Town. What if a career bank robber came to see, firsthand, the effect of his crimes on one of his victims? And what if that victim -- also a witness and therefore working with the FBI -- was someone he came to care about? What would happen if two people who should never, ever get together ended up getting together?
So it was a crime story and a love story all in one. I was about one-third of the way into the story when I wrote a scene that had the main character, Doug, casting about for potential cash-rich targets beyond the usual banks and armored trucks. Along with nightclubs and movie theaters (which in the book became heist No. 2), he briefly considers Fenway Park as a target before dismissing it as a marquee score, one that was more trouble than it was worth. Never mind that for a character born and bred in Boston, the idea of desecrating a sacred local landmark such as Fenway Park was nothing short of blasphemy.
But over the course of the novel, Doug's circumstances evolve and darken. By the end, he is a desperate man looking for one big score that will solve all his problems.
Just like his creator.
This was the easiest part: The price of a ticket gets you complete access to the park's public areas. The Red Sox also offer tours of Fenway a few hours before each game. I got to sit in the home dugout, visit the press box high above the field and generally witness the inner workings of a nearly empty ballpark during the downtime between games -- all elements that became critical to my burgeoning plan.
Still, I realized I needed an insider familiar with the workings of the facility, someone knowledgeable about the physical flow of cash throughout the ballpark. Over the years, I had developed a contact who once worked as a vendor selling food in the stands. He worked at Fenway during college, from 1959 to 1961, the tail end of the Ted Williams era. Whenever Williams came up to bat, he recalled, all the kids selling food promptly took a knee and just watched, because no one bought anything while the "Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived" was at the plate.
Granted, my co-conspirator's working knowledge was somewhat dated, but at least it gave me a sense of security procedures inside the ballpark. And his presence offered me one other distinct advantage: the power of invisibility. A lone individual wandering around Fenway Park, paying more attention to the infrastructure than to the field of play, would draw immediate scrutiny from the blue-shirted security guards. But stroll around the park in the company of a senior citizen and you can pretty much go wherever you like.
Similarly, toddlers are great cover. Turn them loose and they head directly for the one place no one is supposed to go -- and where the parent is now legally bound to follow. Much of my research into armored-truck design and driver protocol came from playing with my young daughter on the sidewalk in front of a bank, while a courier wheeled the weekly change order inside.
CASING THE JOINT
After the tour, my co-conspirator and I took a leisurely walk around the perimeter of the ballpark. The problem with pulling in so much paper money and coins is the need to physically transport the loot out of the facility in a safe, secure way. There are no underground automobile tunnels at Fenway Park, no helicopters that land in centerfield to whisk away the night's receipts. The transport had to be done by a road vehicle, and for obvious security reasons the safest location for the transfer was somewhere inside the park. The question was: Where?
The southern brick exterior of Fenway Park along Van Ness Street resembles a factory wall. Six green-painted bay doors were widely spaced along the wall on the first base side, all unlabeled except one. This one had a red candle lamp fixture bolted above it. "Ambulance" read the stenciled letters across the door. An ambulance is similar in size to an armored truck, if easily a thousand pounds lighter. Directly across the street from the ambulance bay was a Howard Johnson, which became the perfect spot for Doug to coop while spying on his target.
Ticket holders are admitted into the park about two hours before game time, and we made certain we were among the first inside -- again, just milling around like rubes -- watching workers stock the concession counters and fill the condiment squirt tubs in the caves beneath the stands. The area where my co-conspirator used to cash out his nightly take had apparently become part of the locker room, so I made a mental note to track the yellow-shirted vendors returning to reload their soda bottle pallets and metal hot dog boxes once the game began.
Near the Gate D entrance, I spotted a short, narrow corridor without any apparent customer service function. At the end of the passage, against the right-hand wall, I saw a door marked "Employees Only." This door featured a square one-way window and a keypad lock, and despite the presence of ceiling cameras mounted at either end of the hallway, a uniformed detail cop also stood near the door.
Okay. Now we were getting somewhere.
Then we strolled the length of the connecting tunnel between there and the ambulance bay at the first-aid station -- roughly the same distance from home plate to the outer edge of the infield dirt beyond first base. I took note of the flat red plunger buttons that operated the closed door from the inside and could easily picture an armored truck parked there.
The connecting passageway was not large enough to admit a normal-size vehicle, so there had to be some sort of cart, wheeled and possibly motorized, to transport the profits from the cash room to the truck. The driver always remains inside the vehicle, which left two couriers to receive and invoice the money from security. These would likely be the same couriers for each pickup -- it had to be a dedicated route; they weren't going to drop off a change order at Kohl's on their way back from Fenway Park, so replacing them would raise flags. What I needed was a way to get inside the ballpark during off-hours.
Which brought me back to the detail cop stationed outside the cash room.
Police officers on a phony call could get inside the park with very little interference. Not the most revolutionary idea, but something to have a little fun with in the narrative.
Counting money, even by machine, takes time, and anyway, no armored truck would make a pickup in the dead of night. Too risky. The transfer therefore had to take place in daylight, probably early the next morning -- but not on busy weekends with day games following night games. So to maximize profit, I set the heist for the Monday morning after a lucrative weekend series against the Yankees.
Concessions are where ballparks make their money -- not the gate, which teams split with their opponents and Major League Baseball. Three sold-out games times 35,000 seats meant roughly 100,000 hungry, thirsty, souvenir-craving patrons. A lowball estimate of $25 per person spent inside the park put the floor of the potential take at $2.5 million.
The baseball game started, and we sat down to watch like anybody else -- but inside, I was buzzing. Our seats were way back in Section 3, jammed up against one of the thick green stanchions supporting the upper deck in deepest rightfield, some of the worst in the house. But it didn't matter. It was 2003, and the Red Sox were in the hunt for the postseason, led by a new designated hitter named David Ortiz, and we were at the ballpark. This was where the gamblers used to sit, my co-conspirator informed me, wagering on every at-bat if not every pitch. They drank a lot of coffee on chilly nights, and they always tipped. Twice I left our seats to scope out the area below. By the final out, I was feeling good. I was starting to believe I could pull this off.
The finished novel attracted immediate attention and culminated in the Hollywood-style premiere of the movie adaptation, held inside Fenway Park. Along with the cast, I entered the ballpark that night through the players' entrance, emerging into the home dugout, the same place I briefly sat while casing the park just a few years before. Now a red carpet ran from there all the way behind home plate to the visitors' dugout, on top of which a giant movie screen stood. I found myself drinking free beer and hanging out with some of the coolest people making movies today. I even got to first base with Blake Lively, if you consider "first base" a polite hug (I do!). Then the stadium lights went down and we took our seats, and the movie began. A perfect night.
Well, almost perfect.
There was one empty seat at the otherwise packed premiere. That previous March my co-conspirator had suffered a crippling stroke at his home on Cape Cod. After months of recovery and rehabilitation, during which he regained his speech but not his mobility, withstood numerous corrective surgeries and briefly braved the indignities of a nursing home, it was discovered that an infection had become entrenched in his brain. At that point he had a difficult decision: palliative care, meaning he would deteriorate gradually over a period of months, or simple pain management and acceptance of the inevitable.
He made the difficult choice. He was 68 years old. A lifelong fan of the Red Sox and Boston-based books and movies in general, he never got to see the movie for which he would have been its ultimate audience and greatest fan.
After the credits rolled and the lights came up, I headed out alone to the rightfield seats where 50 years ago my father sold coffee to gamblers, and I just sat there, feeling impossibly grateful and incredibly angry at the same time. People like to tell me that he was smiling down that night at the premiere, and the only reason I don't tell them to F off is because he, along with my late mother, raised me so well. But here's one thing I do have: We planned the perfect heist together.
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