CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It is the second biggest heist in U.S. history. If you've lived in Charlotte awhile you've probably heard bits and pieces of the 1997 Loomis Fargo heist.
But you've never heard it told like this.
For the first time since getting out of prison, the man behind the heist is talking exclusively with NBC Charlotte, and the lead FBI agents on the case are revealing new details about the crime, the assassination plot, and those breast implants that are something of an urban legend.
We often like to say it sounds like a movie. But boy, in this case, it really does.
David Ghantt, an Iraqi war vet who worked as a Loomis Fargo vault superintendent, pulled off the second biggest bank heist in U.S. history right here in Charlotte.
NBC Charlotte talked to him in Florida, where he is now living with his wife and daughter.
“I was sweating, I'm sweating, my heart’s going and once again I hate to say this, but I had never felt so alive,” Ghantt recalled.
“Because you'd just stolen $17 million?” we asked.
“I'd just stolen $17 million.”
NBC Charlotte sat down with David Ghantt for his first and only interview since getting out of prison to talk about the story that fascinated Charlotte.
The heist itself was headline grabbing; the way they were caught was captivating. It’s a tale of flashy spending-- including a Gaston County mansion, a velvet Elvis and breast implants.
And when it was over, 21 people would be convicted, and all but $2 million of the stolen loot was recovered.
One of the lead FBI agents on the case, Mark Rozzi, remembers, “Seventeen-and-a-half million dollars cash. I'd worked a lot of bank robberies and different larcenies… I’d never seen anything like this.”
Ghantt was unhappy in his marriage, and had been working at the cash-filled warehouse for two-and-a-half years when he and the so-called “Loomis Fargo Gang” came up with a plan to rob the vault.
“They were short-staffed, and I noticed a lot of times, come the weekend, I was all by myself with the master key to the security system, with all the keys to the vehicles, all the keys to the building, everything I needed, right there in my lap,” he recalls.
Ghantt teamed-up with his former Loomis co-worker, Kelley Campbell, a woman he had a thing for. She recruited an old friend, Steve Chambers, a convicted criminal who was once an FBI informant.
The plan? Ghantt would steal the cash. His crush, Campbell, would help him get out of town, and Steve Chambers and his wife Michelle would hide the money.
Agent Rozzi explains, “The money that was taken, the vast majority of it was $20 bills… and literally when somebody says ‘that must have weighed a ton’, it weighed a ton.”
“It took about 45 minutes to an hour,” Ghantt remembers of loading-up the cash.
They loaded the van and dropped it with Steve Chambers and took off.
Agent John Wydra, who tracked the money in the case, said, “Kelley Campbell and David Ghantt get into a car, and they grab $30,000 for David and they drive all the way to Columbia, South Carolina to hop a flight to Mexico. But when they get there, they find out there are no flights to Mexico from Columbia, South Carolina.”
Steve Chambers was also dealing with a snag.
Ghantt had stolen more money than Steve had room to transport. The group had to sort through the 100, 50 and 20-dollar bills to make sure they left the five and one-dollar bills behind.
They also dropped the keys, a ring of 200, and they didn't know which one opened the van.
“They couldn’t break the windows, they couldn’t open the doors, [and] they were trying to hit it with sticks and stones and rocks. So, then they went key by key and eventually were able to get in the van,” Wydra says, grinning.
But Chambers didn't go far.
“I mean they fled all the way across the Catawba River to Gastonia. I mean, it wasn't far from the original theft, so logistically it made it easier for us to investigate the crime.”
Ghantt ended up on a bus to New Orleans, and pre “9-11”, had no trouble jetting to Cancun.
“I had these big tall cowboy boots, and I stuffed money down them. Thank God I got big feet, and walked right on to the bus.”
His first stop?
“I went to the WalMart and it dawned on me, ‘I've got cash money in my boot’. I've got $5 million coming ‘cause I'd been promised another 40 or 50-thousand in another week or so. I’m in WalMart and I go, ‘I don’t have to shop here anymore!’ So I went back out, I caught a cab and said ‘take me to the mall’.”
Back home, Ghantt's wife reported him missing, and his cohorts-in-crime did some shopping of their own-- though they went a bit bigger than the mall.
Steve and Michelle Chambers moved from their mobile home to a Gaston County mansion.
Inside, some over the top choices: Cheetah carpeting on the stairs, a luxurious master bathroom, the infamous painting, the velvet Elvis, and in the garage, a custom BMW convertible.
Agent Wydra says that all contributed to unraveling the crime.
“We were getting phone calls from friends and family members-- anonymous tips. ‘I think this is related to the Loomis heist.’ Typically when you hear a house was paid for in cash, it doesn't mean that it was in 20-dollar bills, but in this case it was.”
And most of the tips were coming from Gastonia.
“At first we weren’t quite sure because it just seemed ridiculous that someone didn't travel further than Gastonia with the money.”
“So you were shocked that they were spending the money one county away?” We asked.
Fall turned to winter and Ghantt was still partying in Mexico. The Chambers were living it up in Gastonia.
But the feds were on to them.
“Michelle Chambers didn’t know what to do; they're learning money laundering 101, step-by-step, and Michelle Chambers winds-up at a branch, and she opens up a briefcase and she shows this teller this just briefcase full of cash-- which had to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and says ‘how much can I deposit before I have to fill out government forms?”.
Not surprisingly, the teller reported the "suspicious activity."
Soon the FBI was tailing the Chambers and tapping their phones.
“We had found a videotape at one of the banks of Steve depositing a large sum of cash, and then also having a big duffle bag, he goes into the vault, comes out and you can clearly see the duffle bag was empty. We learned he had purchased the largest safe deposit box at the bank that you could have, and then we set on our way to check every bank and every safe deposit box that had been opened since the theft, in and around the Charlotte area,” Agent Wydra explains.
“I would say by January we knew pretty much where all the money was, and knew who most of the players were,” Agent Wydra continued, “What we were trying to figure out was where David Ghantt was-- he was nowhere to be found. Half the office believed he was dead and the other half believed he was living somewhere.”
Ghantt made regular calls to Kelley Campbell, arranging to have more money sent to him in Mexico. The FBI was listening-in when Campbell called Steve and he told her it was time to have an assassin kill
David Ghantt. They talked about either using cyanide or getting a gun down into Mexico.
“All of a sudden the clock speeds-up because we've got something more pressing to do here, and that's save his life,” says Agent Rozzi.
FBI agents tracked and arrested Ghantt in Mexico, while others back here in Charlotte arrested Kelley Campbell and Steve and Michelle Chambers, raiding their fancy house.
On the flight home to Charlotte, Ghantt told all.
Rozzi remembers, “I said to him, ‘David, what is the deal with you and Kelly, what is it about her?’ At first he hung his head and then he looked up at me, shook his head and said ‘I know you’re not going to believe this, but it was only just one kiss.’ And I looked at him and he said, ‘honestly, I've only kissed her once’, and I remember saying to David, ‘turns out to be a pretty expensive kiss, didn't it?’ And he said, ‘oh yeah! Very expensive kiss’.”
Ghantt rolls his eyes and says, “Oh lord, the things we say and regret 20 years later.”
“Was that really what it was all about?” we asked.
“Nah. It’s always about the money,” Ghantt replied.
NBC Charlotte asked Ghantt how he feels about Hollywood making a movie, a comedy about the great heist. He said he loves the idea that Jim Carrey will play him-- calls it great casting.
Now about those breast implants, the rumor back in the 90s was that Michelle Chambers used the stolen loot for breast implants and that the FBI made her remove them when she was caught.
That's not true; in fact it was other family members, people who helped hide the money, who used the cash for cosmetic surgery, including breast implants.
And the FBI never forced anyone to remove them.