Twenty-five years ago, amateur criminals pulled off the biggest robbery in Memphis history. How'd they do it?
Now an attorney, Keenan was a captain with the Memphis Police Department and commander of the violent crimes squad when robbers hit the Wells Fargo offices downtown on November 24, 1983.
"It interrupted my Thanksgiving dinner," he recalls. "The call came in just when I was sitting down to eat. In fact, the entire squad — some 30 officers and patrolmen — got called back in, and I took charge of the investigation."
What the police discovered that morning when they responded to the alarm was a perfectly timed, sophisticated heist of more than $6.5 million, most of it cash — the biggest robbery in Memphis history, and the third largest in the United States.
"We had struck out."
Just before 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day 1983, a brown Dodge van pulled up to the curb in front of the Wells Fargo offices at 277 Monroe. Two men hopped out and walked quickly around the side of the building. A casual observer might think they were Wells Fargo employees; after all, they were both wearing grey shirts with the company logo on the sleeves. But their scruffy appearance and jeans would have given them away — if anyone had noticed, and nobody did. Not at first, anyway. One of the men pulled a key from his pocket and pushed it into the lock on the door. It wouldn't turn. Muttering under his breath, he pulled out another key. This one didn't work either. Something had gone wrong.
The men scurried back to the van and waited for 10 minutes or so. Then they tried a different approach. Spotting Marie Reitmeyer, a four-year Wells Fargo employee leaving the building by a back door, they quickly donned what the newspapers would later call "Mardi Gras" masks, and ran up behind her. One of them stuck a revolver in her back, and forced her and another guard, a young man named Donald Anderson, to open the door to the main vault.
Neatly stacked on the floor and tables inside was a treasure — millions of dollars in cash, bonds, and securities — some wrapped in bundles, others packed in canvas bags. The men tied up the guards, and swiftly lugged the loot to the waiting van. The whole job took less than 10 minutes, and the van roared off. Within a minute, a silent alarm was activated, summoning police to the incredible crime.
Though tied up, the two guards were able to provide an uncannily precise description of the two robbers.
The first man was described as "heavy-built," in his late 30s and weighing about 250 pounds. He had dark brown hair that reached his collar, a small round tattoo on his right wrist, and "a strong body odor and dirt around his fingernails."
Unfortunately, his face was covered by a "fat drunkard's mask" — a hard plastic Halloween mask with "big cheeks, big lips, droopy jaws, bushy eyebrows, pug nose, painted-on black hair, nickel-sized eye holes, and no mouth opening."
The second robber wore a similar mask, but he was somewhat smaller, standing about 5'8" and weighing 200 pounds. The guards said he was "sloppy," without elaborating, and noted that his voice was "high-pitched and squeaky," though the police thought that was probably an attempt to disguise it.
Workers along Monroe that morning had seen the brown van during the short time it was parked outside Wells Fargo. Some had also noticed a small yellow "smiley face" decal right above the license plate, which helped them remember that the first numbers of the plate were 23T.
For the moment, this was all the police had to go on. Roadblocks and searches throughout the city turned up nothing, and Wells Fargo reported that the thieves had made off with about $2 million.
The next day, the news got worse. After making an inventory of their loss, Wells Fargo officials announced the bandits had walked off with more than $6.5 million. It had been a bad month for the firm; just two months before, armed bandits had hit a Wells Fargo branch in Connecticut and taken away more than $7 million. Hoping to put a quick end to this particular crime, the company immediately offered a reward of $350,000 — the largest ever offered for a crime in Memphis.
More than $5 million of the stolen money was in cash — some of it newly minted bills which would have had serial numbers that could be traced easily, but a huge amount in old currency. The take also included $500,000 of negotiable bonds, and 1,000 blank cashier's checks from First Tennessee Bank.
Because this was a crime affecting interstate commerce, the FBI jumped into the act. Agents quickly announced an intensive nationwide manhunt, and said they already had important leads, including fingerprints taken from the tape and rope used to bind the two Wells Fargo employees.
Keenan with the Memphis Police Department remembers there was some-thing suspicious about the whole thing.
"There was a lot of attention focused on the two employees who had been tied up," he says. "Either they were very lucky, or there was just something we weren't finding."
Because Marie Reitmeyer was married to the manager of another Wells Fargo branch in Memphis, police immediately focused on her, forcing her to take numerous polygraph tests, and thoroughly searching her home at 1241 Sledge, just south of Lamar. She passed test after test — taking so many that she eventually hired an attorney to complain about police harassment — and nothing was discovered at her house.
"She cleared the polygraphs," says Keenan. "They even had different examiners ad-minister the tests, and she cleared all of them."
Weeks passed without a break in the case, then months. "The leads had almost completely exhausted," says Keenan. "The investigation had stalled. We were not finding anything. We had struck out."
"Just a nice dude"
Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, a sergeant with the New Orleans Police Department purchased a brand-new Lincoln Continental. Jimmy Broussard endured some good-natured ribbing from his fellow cops about his rather extravagant purchase. That was before he suddenly resigned from the force in June 1984.
Across town, in the neighboring community of Metairie, Nathan Gervais strolled down the street to the Tropics bar and, on some nights, bought drinks for everybody in the house. He had won an injury settlement with the construction company where he worked, he told his pals. Other times, he said that his wife, Marilyn, had "made a killing on some kind of investment."
"He didn't care how many people were in here," said one patron. "The more the merrier." Another bar crony remembered him as "just a nice dude."
Despite this sudden generosity, Marilyn continued to work her $1,400-a-month job as an emergency medical technician with the New Orleans Police Department, still driving a five-year-old Buick Century. And when the couple's teenage son needed a new car, they bought him a used Toyota. If they had indeed "made a killing," everyone who knew them figured it must have been a small one.
And certainly none of the neighbors dreamed that thousands of $20, $50, and $100 bills were crammed inside the walls of the Gervais house.
Perhaps this was one part of the heist that the robbers had not anticipated. Sitting on one of the largest piles of stolen cash in American history, none of them could really spend it without drawing attention to themselves. So Jimmy Broussard, Nathan Gervais, and Marilyn Gervais concealed most of the money, and used some of it in less conspicuous ways — buying 80 acres of land in Mississippi, a trailer park in Louisiana, houses here and there in Louisiana, and even at one time looking into buying a fleet of shrimp boats. At one point, Nathan Gervais told the others that he was going to move to Bolivia.
But then something changed his mind. His wife, Marilyn, abruptly announced she was leaving him. In fact, as it turned out later, she had been having an affair with Broussard. And Marilyn was taking most of her husband's money with her.
That didn't sit well with Nathan. After stewing about it for a while, begging his wife to come back, he finally decided to go to the police. It had been just eight months since the robbery. The FBI agents were called in to hear the whole story. And the most amazing part of it was when the three robbers in Louisiana revealed who had organized the whole caper.
The ringleader was none other than Marie Reitmeyer, the Wells Fargo employee who had supposedly been forced at gunpoint to open the vault.
As it turned out, Reitmeyer and Broussard were brother and sister. The woman had been planning to rob the Wells Fargo office for years, she said, because it had "practically no security." She enlisted the services of her brother, who then recruited Marilyn Gervais to be the van driver, telling her this was a "once-in-a-lifetime deal." Marilyn encouraged her husband to take part in the heist, though he tried to talk her out of it.
"I asked her not to do it," he told the police. "But she said she knew what she was doing. When I reminded her that we had two children at home and who was going to take care of them if we got caught, she said, 'Jimmy says we won't get caught.'"
So Gervais said, "I did the robbery for her, thinking we could get our lives back together." It didn't quite work out that way.
What's not clear about all this is whether Gervais confessed because he was afraid his wife was leaving him, or whether the authorities were already onto them. Newspaper accounts mention, rather cryptically, that the FBI already considered Broussard a suspect, though they don't explain why, and a Commercial Appeal article says that Gervais "agreed to tell the FBI about the robbery after agents came to his home in July." According to some accounts, the FBI had already noticed various "corporations" that Reitmeyer and Broussard had set up to launder some of the stolen money.
At some point, Gervais agreed to call Broussard and tape-record the conversation for the police. He mainly wanted to make sure he was still going to get his share of the money, so he could go to Singapore — not Bolivia — and told Broussard, "I just want to get my money and get going." According to the tape transcript, Broussard said he had talked with his sister, who was still living in her house on Sledge in Memphis, and said, "Everything's cool."
"A fight over a girl"
Reitmeyer was quickly arrested in Memphis. Police cleared her husband of any wrongdoing, along with the Wells Fargo employee who had been tied up with her. Broussard and the Gervais couple were brought to Memphis to face a litany of charges, including extortion by armed robbery, conspiracy to commit extortion, and transporting $6.5 million in cash and securities across state lines.
Nathan and Marilyn Gervais pleaded guilty to all charges, but Broussard and Reitmeyer went to trial, despite what newspapers called "almost insurmountable evidence against them." After all, two of the bandits testified against the other two, and the stolen money was found in the defendants' homes. A defense attorney tried to make light of that, saying that the hundreds of thousands of dollars recovered from Broussard's home "would be the easiest thing in the world to explain" — though he wasn't more specific. A Commercial Appeal reporter observed, "Depending on which side you listen to, the case will be described as either an inside job, or an outside chance that almost worked."
But there was no "almost." The heist worked like a dream. "This was a very serious crime, so there's nothing really funny about it," says Keenan, "but what tripped them up was a fight over a girl."
At the trial, interesting details of the crime emerged. For one thing, it was allegedly Reitmeyer who had furnished Broussard and Gervais with the Wells Fargo shirts worn on the day of the robbery, along with the keys to the vault. When those keys for some reason didn't work, Gervais said it was also Reitmeyer who quickly decided she would allow them to "kidnap" her and force her to open the vault. And it was also Reitmeyer who knew exactly how long they had to work before the silent alarm summoned the cops.
The bandits drove to New Orleans after the robbery and spent all night in a motel, counting and divvying up the loot. Realizing that the bonds and newly minted money might be traced back to them, they burned all these in a series of bonfires. The rest of the cash was concealed in various places — stuffed between the walls of their home, tucked away in storage lockers, even hidden under the seats of their automobiles. In New Orleans, television news crews filmed FBI agents hauling out boxes and bags of money from the Broussard and Gervais homes, guarded closely by police officers toting machine guns. In Memphis, police used sledgehammers to break up the front porch steps of Reitmeyer's home, and thoroughly searched the house, yard, and cars. None of the stolen money was ever found here, leading investigators to assume that Reitmeyer must have entrusted her share of the loot to her brother.
But how had she managed to pass all those lie detector tests?
"A polygraph can give investigators a false sense of a case, and it can mislead them," says Keenan. "Everybody has this idea that you can't pass a polygraph, but this is one of those classic cases because these people passed all these tests, every time."
The trial, which began on October 22, 1984, lasted less than a week. Because Nathan and Marilyn Gervais confessed, revealed where their portion of the stolen money was concealed, and testified against Broussard and Reitmeyer, they were handed relatively light sentences: six years for Marilyn, seven for Nathan.
U.S. District Judge Julia Gibbons dropped the gavel on the other two culprits, however, sentencing them to 35 years in the federal penitentiary. She noted Broussard and Reitmeyer were "motivated by greed and I don't know what else" and "they carried out a cold, calculated offense and have shown absolutely no remorse. Their demeanor indicates a total lack of respect."
Broussard said nothing. Asked by the judge if she had any comment, Reitmeyer replied, "Only that I'm not guilty in any way, shape, or form."
"Nobody really loses anything."
Today, it's somewhat surprising that so few people have any memory of the biggest robbery in Memphis history. Kemper Durand was one of Marilyn Gervais' defense attorneys, but when asked about the case, he laughs and says, "I have zero recollection of it. That was a long time ago."
Clyde Keenan has a theory about that.
"It's certainly the biggest monetary case I've ever handled," he says. "But compared to more violent crimes — rapes and murders — it's not the most public case we've ever had. It got a lot of attention for a lot of weeks, but then it kind of disappeared, and until it was solved, people pretty much forgot about it. I think because it was just money. People assume that stuff is insured, and nobody really loses anything from it."
Four people, however, lost a big chunk of their lives. According to the Bureau of Prisons, Nathan and Marilyn Gervais were released from prison in 1988, after serving five years of their term. Marie Reitmeyer and Jimmy Broussard remained behind bars for considerably longer, but were both paroled on the same day, July 17, 1994. Their present whereabouts are unknown.
The scene of the crime — the Wells Fargo office on Monroe — is now a parking lot. And the money? Most of it was eventually recovered, but more than $1 million remains missing. Perhaps Broussard or the Gervaises burned it, as they claimed. Or perhaps it is still crammed between the walls of a house somewhere in Louisiana.
Sources: Commercial Appeal and other newspaper files at the Benjamin Hooks Central Library.