On March 24, 1972, a burglary crew from Youngstown, Ohio, entered the United California Bank (UCB) branch in Laguna Niguel through a hole blown in the roof with dynamite, cracked open the steel vault door and popped open safety-deposit boxes before leaving undetected with $30 million (or more) in cash, bonds and jewelry.
It was the largest bank burglary in the world at the time, yet one that I had never heard of despite having summered in the '70s at my aunt and uncle's home about two blocks from the UCB's Monarch Bay Plaza location. But I now know way more about the crime thanks to the zippy documentary Superthief: Inside America's Biggest Bank Score.
Speaking with the Weekly by phone from his Manhattan Beach home, director Tommy Reid mentions the UCB burglary has been the subject of true-crime shows and nostalgic media stories, many of which (including The Orange County Register) report Richard Nixon's slush fund was the target. “That is totally inaccurate,” Reid says. “The criminals and the FBI will tell you they wanted nowhere near that bank. That bank was farther south, in San Clemente, and it had constant eyeballs on it. I wanted this movie to debunk that myth.”
He may get two chances to do so. Reid spun his Cleveland mafia documentary Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman into a feature film he produced, Kill the Irishman. He says he's hard at work laying the same path for Superthief and plans to shoot the feature in Orange County.
OC WEEKLY: I have lived in Orange County for decades, used to buy toys at a drug store that was in the same shopping center as the UCB bank, and had still never heard about this crime.
TOMMY REID: I think you never heard about it because it was a very big embarrassment to Orange County and the Laguna Niguel area, especially to the police and FBI. So they really wanted to cover it up as much as possible.
The film claims some victims whose safety-deposit boxes were broken into wanted to keep the burglary quiet also for tax purposes.
Absolutely. I think during that time period, those individuals didn't want to expose what was in them for the government's sake and Uncle Sam. That's why they were very hush-hush about it and kept it to a minimum what the details were.
So how did you come across this story?
I heard about it on the set of Kill the Irishman. It was the first, big feature film based on a book by Rick Porrello [author of To Kill the Irishman], and he told me how he was writing a book about the biggest bank heist in U.S. history [Superthief: A Master Burglar, the Mafia and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History]. Rick mentioned how the lead subject was still alive and willing to discuss how it all went down. That was a catalyst for me to do a lot more research.
I could not figure out why your lead subject, Phil Christopher, was so open. Is he seeking fame as the superthief?
No, I think that his motivation was he wanted the story to be told accurately. He saw what I did with another famous story from the Cleveland area. He trusted me from what I told about Danny Greene. He knew I would tell all sides of the story, not just his, but how the government and police took down the criminals. I don't glorify what he did, but I might show empathy and show how crime does not pay and that there is no honor among thieves.
Like a policeman you interview on camera, I caught a little glimmer in Christopher's eye that made me wonder if he has another heist in him.
Yeah, that's what the cop said: Phil Christopher is still capable of committing any crime he wants to do. From the law-enforcement side, once a criminal, always a criminal. I think Phil did his time and just wants to enjoy the rest of the years he has left. Spending more than half of your life in jail, I hope that person learns his lesson.
There definitely seems to be a feature film in this.
There is, no doubt. It's happening. The script has been written, I am meeting with a very A-list actor today, and I have an Oscar-winning producing partner. We should have the money in by the end of the year.
Could any filming be done in Orange County?
Absolutely. My vision as a director for the feature is, as soon as possible, start filming [exteriors] in Cleveland and the Laguna-Orange coastline to show the beauty it has to offer.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.