Joe Dushek, FBI special agent, can't help liking Heather Tallchief. "She seems to have executed the perfect crime," he says, with grudging admiration, looking at a picture of a smiling Heather pinned to the wall of his Las Vegas office. "We really have no idea where she is now. Three years ago she took $4.1m that belongs to the Loomis Armored Car Company, all in unmarked notes. That will buy a lot of disguises and air tickets."
Which doesn't mean that the FBI has given up on her. The bureau has just published its new "10 Most Wanted List" and Heather Tallchief, aged 25, is number three, the highest position for a woman in 23 years and a symbol of a rising crime wave amongst American women. Lloyd's of London, insurers of the armoured car company, have offered a reward of pounds 200,000 for her capture.
Most fugitives on the FBI's Wanted List are career criminals with a history of violent felonies. Heather is not one of them. Her crime was her first and, seemingly, her last. She had no criminal record when she took Loomis Armored for a king's ransom. In fact, her career, credit and school records were all above average. It appears that her crime was motivated by a love of ceramics and poetry, and a desire to escape from bad memories of friends dying from Aids.
Heather Tallchief was born in Buffalo, New York, a gritty industrial town which shivers under sub-zero temperatures for six months of the year. Heather hated every moment she spent there. Intelligent and sensitive, she suffered as the child of an allegedly abusive father. Almost every day she begged her mother, Ann, an Italian-American, to leave. In 1988 she got her wish. Ann Tallchief packed up everything and took her only daughter to San Francisco, travelling by Greyhound bus.
In California Heather flourished. She was already pretty, a mix of Seneca Indian - her father - and Italian American. The San Francisco air quickly made her beautiful. She had ambitions to work in medicine, obtained a nursing qualification and in 1991 was hired by an Aids hospice, the Kimberly Quality Care Center. "She was a great worker," says a senior Kimberly nurse. "She had this amazing empathy with patients; even the ones closest to death would be smiling when she left their bedside."
In the 14 months she was at the Kimberly 20 patients died, people who had become close friends. Her sadness and sense of despondency were kept well hidden, but in late 1992 she told a friend that her life was making no sense. She told her mother that she wanted more. "She began to wonder why she couldn't be happy, have nice things," says Ann Tallchief. "She said she didn't want to worry about money, or people dying."
At the same time, Heather, who had always been interested in ancient Mexican art, began to make a close study of Mayan ceramics. This was not unusual for her. Ann Tallchief says that as a child, her daughter collected any beautiful objects she could afford. It is now clear that during her last six months at Kimberly Heather was making some unusual plans. In mid-1992 she began to lay the foundations for a multi-million-dollar rip- off, using a level of meticulous planning that still astounds the FBI. Her first move was to establish a series of fake identities. "That's not hard, although it should be - it just takes patience," says Joe Dushek. "Soldier of Fortune magazine is a good place to start."
Heather thought so. She used the monthly crib sheet for wannabe mercenaries to contact "passport collectors", men who sell virgin passports of defunct countries such as Yugoslavia. She would then travel to small towns and get driving licences in the name on her fake IDs. By the beginning of 1993 she already had legitimate drivers' licences in 12 different names. She then used her exceptional work record at the Kimberly to apply for jobs as an armoured car driver. It may have looked an odd choice to some of the cash carriers she contacted, but she had a disarming explanation. "She told us she wanted a career in the security industry," says Mike Tawney, of Loomis Armored, where she began work in May 1993. "She said she wanted to start at the bottom, to learn the industry inside out."
"I'm not surprised Loomis were fooled," says Dave Chipman, a bounty hunter who is trying to follow Heather's trail, attracted by the big price on her head. "She had perfect credit and Kimberly gave her a glowing reference. She was way above the average for the industry. It was only natural they'd give a sweet girl like her the keys to the safe."
Heather had not arrived in Las Vegas on her own. "She was travelling with this guy called Roberto," says Ann Tallchief. "It was bad enough when she quit nursing, but we had a bad row about Roberto." That was because Roberto Solis is a convicted bank robber, who won early release from prison because he began writing poetry that won attention and praise from some prominent literary figures in San Francisco. Heather seems to have hand- picked Solis. She wrote to him while he was in jail and arranged an early meeting when he was released. "I think she could have been using him for professional advice on bank robberies," says Chipman. "Witnesses who saw them together say there seems to have been nothing romantic about their relationship."
The couple lived in the Mark One apartments, a high-rise building full of gambling industry employees. It's a place where people don't ask too many questions. Heather and Roberto blended into the background. All that anybody remembers of their five months there is Heather swimming endless laps and Roberto writing by the side of the pool. Every day Heather drove millions around the Las Vegas strip. She began on the Casino house runs, carrying new notes for the gambling tables. These easily traceable notes proved to be no temptation. Heather was waiting for a promotion, to the cash machine runs where employees left the depot with a minimum of $6m in used, unmarked bills. The runs were given only to the most trusted employees, and soon Heather was just that. "I'm amazed at her patience," says agent Dushek. "I can't imagine a man being the same way. She had plenty of opportunities to pull the job, but she wanted the perfect moment."
Loomis's management were extremely pleased with their new employee. In her second week Heather took a firing range test to qualify for a side- arm, and achieved record scores. Her colleagues say that they were charmed by her sense of humour, and impressed by her dedication to the job. Anyone who knew her in San Francisco would have been hard-pressed to recognise her at work. Though blessed with 20/20 vision, Heather wore what looked like thick glasses whenever she was in her Loomis uniform. She also wore her hair pulled back tightly and tied with a bow.
Heather's two closest colleagues were Steve Marshall and Scott Stewart, guards who rode with her in the armoured truck and handled all deliveries. They both liked Heather, who made a considerable effort to be nice to them. She asked about their homes and families; she helped them to keep track of anniversaries and birthdays. Before six months were past Heather had won their trust. This was crucial for her plan. It seems that she was determined not to injure anybody when she pulled off her robbery. That meant winning Marshall's and Stewart's confidence, to the extent that they would allow her to drive the truck without them if they were making deliveries to casinos where the parking was bad.
As 1993 progressed Heather began applying for credit cards in the names of her new driving licences. She also took flying lessons, and made her first solo flight in a Cessna in August 1993. She applied for places at law enforcement colleges, which increased the trust placed in her by Loomis. In September she was rewarded when Loomis promoted her, Stewart and Marshall to the cash machine runs. As soon as her promotion was through, Heather chose 1 October 1993 as "action day" for her plan. She had obtained detailed lists of convention schedules and she knew the check-out times for all the big hotels. It is when the casinos "change over" between one convention and another that the traffic is at its heaviest. Parking at some hotels, such as Circus-Circus and MGM Grand, becomes impossible; 1 October was one of the biggest change-over days in 1993. Heather knew it was the perfect day to implement her plan.
In the second week of September, Heather, disguised as a nurse, pushed Roberto, disguised as an ageing, wealthy gambler, on to a chartered Lear jet at Las Vegas airport. She was establishing a pattern that would remove suspicion after the robbery. On 24 September Heather booked the same jet for a flight at midday on 1 October. At around the same time, she took a lease on a garage under the name "Reinforced Steel" and announced that the business would be building and repairing armoured cars. Heather had business cards for the company made in the names of Nicole Reger and Joseph Panura. On 18 September, using the name Myra Calandra, Heather called an apartment building in Denver that specialises in furnished rentals for corporations. She reserved a small unit for use from 25 September. On 28 September she wrote a letter to her mother, regretting that they had become estranged. It was left in the Las Vegas apartment. Heather wrote that it was doubtful she would ever see her mother again, but told her mother "not to fret" for "we have never been true friends".
On 1 October Heather left the Loomis depot with more than $6m. By the time she arrived at the rear of the Circus-Circus Casino, at 9.20am, there was $4.5m left. Stewart and Marshall were due to deliver $400,000 to five ATMs inside, which Heather knew would take them at least 45 minutes. There was no parking. The two men readily agreed to let Heather meet them at the front of the hotel at 10.15am. As they went inside Heather drove away, heading for Reinforced Steel, not the front of the Casino. From debris found at the Reinforced Steel garage, it is clear that Heather had also planned how to get $4.1m out of Las Vegas without carrying 10 suitcases. Packing materials and blank waybills show that Heather and Solis packed the cash into boxes and had the money shipped to Denver.
At precisely 11.20am Heather, using a fake nurse's ID, helped Roberto out of a rented car at Las Vegas airport. She settled him into a wheelchair and pushed him to the private charter area where, 12 minutes later, their plane pulled away and took up position on the runway. As her plane climbed towards 35,000ft, staff at Loomis were alerting the Las Vegas Police Department with a panicked report, claiming that Heather had been abducted. "We thought for sure we'd find her body out in the desert," says Sergeant Duis, of the LVPD. "Maybe with the burnt-out truck alongside."
He adds, with hindsight, "I hope there aren't too many like her out there - we rely on our criminals to be dumb."
It was two weeks before the owner of the garage leased to Reinforced Steel became suspicious and forced open the doors. There he found the Loomis Truck, $3,000 in single-dollar bills, a pair of thick glasses, packing material and telephone numbers for businesses in Miami, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. There was also information about yacht charters out of San Diego and Acapulco. It was another week before the FBI located the apartment building in Denver. Since then they have had no reliable sightings of Heather. "She seems to have been a unique character," says Loomis's Mike Tawney. "When somebody is such a master of disguise I'm doubtful she'll ever be caught."
The FBI found one other intriguing piece of evidence at Heather Tallchief's Las Vegas apartment. There was a stack of art magazines. Many of them contained articles on Mayan art, but the pages had been cut out. "We think she and Solis may be posing as art dealers," says Dushek. "We have some indications that recently they travelled to Europe. They could even be in England." So watch out, anyone patronising antiques shops and market stalls: you may be buying bric-a-brac from America's most wanted woman
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