On the night of March 24, 1972, a group of guys from Cleveland and Youngstown blew a hole in the roof of the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel. They emptied more than 500 safe deposit boxes of an estimated $30 million. The man in charge of the crew, Collinwood resident Phil Christopher, was soon nicknamed "Superthief" by The Plain Dealer.
In the new documentary Superthief: Inside America's Biggest Bank Score, Tommy Reid — who directed 2009's Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman about the Cleveland mobster — takes a look at the burglary, which is still considered the biggest heist to go down in the United States. Superthief screens at 7:25 p.m. Friday, 4:55 p.m. Saturday, and noon Sunday at Tower City Cinemas as part of the 36th Cleveland International Film Festival. (Learn more on page 30.)
Reid pieces together Christopher's life, which seemed destined for a criminal path. He started with petty theft when he was 13, but within a few years the Italian mob was backing him. By 1972, he was in and out of prison "more times than I can remember," he says. From the start, Christopher knew his way around security alarm boxes, how to bypass them without tripping them. He didn't like guns and never hurt anybody on his jobs — "just insurance companies," he says.
So when he gathered a bunch of guys to knock off a California bank — where it was rumored President Nixon kept a secret stash of cash — it seemed like an easy score. They rented a condo, told locals they were birdwatchers, and were soon hauling three bags from the bank stuffed with cash, jewelry, and bonds.
Authorities were knocked out by the sophistication of the job. Unfortunately, the crooks weren't too smart when it came to booking their flight from Ohio to California: They used their real names and IDs. It was only a matter of time before the feds had enough info and got one of the crew to talk. Christopher ended up in an Indiana prison. Circumstances — including a nosy PD reporter and a body that washed up from Lake Erie — kept Christopher there until 2009. He's spent 27 of his 66 years behind bars.
Christopher, who looks like Robert Duval these days and is now an iron worker in town, opens up to Reid about his life of crime. Superthief fills in his story with archival footage, newspaper clips, and new interviews with former Cleveland Police chief Ed Kovacic and Rick Porrello, who wrote the 2005 book Superthief: A Master Burglar, the Mafia, and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History.
Many of those Reid talks to tend to say the same things: Christopher would have been successful doing security work if he hadn't become a criminal, the crew's tools and methods were impressive, etc. And the movie dwells a little too much on the details of the burglary. But as Kovacic points out, if they ever build a hall of fame for burglars, Christopher would surely be part of that inaugural induction class. And that makes for a super story.