Feature Articles

October 2006
Interview with a Superthief

By Cherie Rohn, co-author of Thief! with William 'Slick' Hanner.

Cherie Rohn who says, "Nothing is dull," has racked up an interesting list of experiences so far as a cartographer, scuba instructor, TV personality, and poker room floor supervisor to name but a few.�"I met Slick, one of my teachers, at a casino dealer's school in Albuquerque, NM. He carried around 20 dog-eared pages of his hand-scrawled manuscript. One quick read hooked me and I resolved to write his story about an interesting screw-up, adrenalin junkie, con artist who goes through life like a speeding freight train about to derail at any minute. That combination hooked me and I couldn't rest until I'd recorded his incredible story. Only two problems: I had to learn how to write and I had to "be" Slick Hanner, a guy who hung out with mobsters.
Nine grueling years later, Barricade Books offered Slick and me a publishing contract! THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-con Artist hit bookstores in October 2006. Because of THIEF!, I just sealed a multi-book deal to write other mob books.

Author Cherie Rohn, in an exclusive, interviews mobbed-up super thief, Phil "Superthief" Christopher. Phil was the alarm man in the biggest bank burglary in U.S. history. Along with Phil, author Rick Porrello and collaborator Mary Ann Christopher, (Phil�s wife) field questions about Superthief: A Master Burglar, the Mafia and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History. Superthief won a ForeWord Magazine award for true crime and has been optioned for film.

Phil Christopher answered questions from
the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio.

* * *

CR: Phil how did you get the nickname Superthief?

PC: When I got paroled from Terre Haute Federal Prison in 1976 for the United California Bank burglary in Orange County, California, I was staying at a halfway house in Cleveland, Ohio. A reporter named Mary Jane Woge from the Plain Dealer newspaper called and said she wanted to talk me about the bank burglary because she was writing a book. I told her I�d rather not talk to anyone about it. I did my time and just wanted to move on with my life. She was highly agitated and told me that I was going to be in her book whether I liked it or not. The next morning I was having coffee in the little restaurant attached to the halfway house. I looked at the headline of the Plain Dealer and was stunned. It read, Superthief Out On Parole; Loot Still Missing. Mary Jane Woge wrote the story and is the one who gave me the name Superthief.

CR: How did you get involved in the United California bank score?

PC: After a number of years and the burglaries of supermarkets, jewelry shops, post offices, liquor stores and savings and loans, I got a reputation for being an ace burglar and alarm expert. Amil and James Dinsio, professional burglar brothers from Youngstown, heard of me and needed an extra guy in their crew. I came highly recommended by people in organized crime. After our first score together, Amil and James liked my work and invited me to come on the bank burglary in California.

Mary Ann and Phil Phil burglarizing a candy machine

CR: Rick Porrello, we don�t often hear of bank burglaries. Tell us the difference between a bank robbery and a bank burglary.

RP: This is a good question because the general public often uses the word robbery to mean both robberies and burglaries even though they are distinctly different crime and are even in different crime categories. Robbery is a crime against a person. Burglary is a crime against property. Robbery is the taking of someone�s personal property by force or threat of force. Someone who has their wallet taken on the street by an offender wielding a knife has been robbed. A bank teller who is forced by an offender brandishing a gun, or displaying a note saying he has a gun, to handover cash from the drawer has been robbed. A homeowner or business owner who discovers their building has been entered and property taken has been burglarized.

CR: How often do bank burglaries occur?

RP: Bank burglaries are rare. Successful bank burglaries are very rare. Without looking at recent stats I would say there are roughly 7,000 bank robberies in the U.S. yearly compared with about 300 burglaries. And it is rare in which bank burglars make it beyond the lobby. Nowadays the target is much more likely to be the ATM machine.

CR: Phil what was the most difficult thing about getting into and out of the bank?

PC: There is nothing easy about breaking into a bank. Probably the most difficult thing is defeating the alarm system. Breaking through walls, the ceiling and getting into the vault is mostly just hard work.

CR: Was there ever a point in the California score in which you thought you would get caught?

PC: There has never been a time on a score that I thought I�d get caught, even when I was standing on the roof of the United California bank waiting for the dynamite to explode and not knowing how loud it would be. If it made too much noise and people heard, I would be off that roof and on the ground as fast as I could and run like a rabbit until I had miles between me and the score. There was another tense time at the California score when we were in the vault and a cleaning person entered the bank. Other than my partner who was coughing until I sent him out on the roof, I was confident that we would not have a problem because the alarm had been jumped out.

United California Bank safe deposit boxes United California Bank general crime scene

CR: What did most of the United California Bank haul consist of and how much was it worth.

PC: We got a lot of cash, jewelry, gold and valuable coins. The most valuable thing we got though was bearer bonds. Lots of them. There had to be $20 to $30 million worth.

CR: You said you were recommended to the Dinsio brothers by organized crime figures. We�re you a member of the Mafia?

PC: I was never a made member of the Mafia. Some law enforcement people have labeled me as an organized crime associate. Many of the burglars I worked with during the 1960s and 70s were closely connected to important mob guys. There was Ronnie Carabbia and Joe DeRose. They were close with mob bosses like James "Jack White" Licavoli of the Cleveland mob, and Joey Naples of Youngstown who belonged to the Pittsburgh Mafia. And guys I worked with in California, before the big Orange County score, like Skinny Velotta of Cleveland and Ray Ferritto of Erie, Pennsylvania were tied in with Jimmy Fratianno, a mob capo who was called "the Weasel." and had San Francisco in his back pocket When Jack Licavoli found out I was such a good earner, he asked me to come and work with him. I thought about it but I was always my own man. I didn�t want to answer to anyone else, so I politely declined Jack�s offer. He told me the offer stood if I ever changed my mind.

CR: Still you did do some work for the Mafia around 1978.

PC: Yes. I worked for a short time in Youngstown with Joey Naples the local mob representative from Pittsburgh. Basically I was a hired gun. Joey was in a war with Joe DeRose who was popping pills and talking crazy about taking over organized crime in the Youngstown area. I knew that DeRose would eventually get killed and he did.

CR: What is your take on how the Mafia started and the state of their strength today? Are they as powerful as they used to be?

PC: That is a very good question. Are you talking about the Italian Mafia, Russian Mafia, Mexican Mafia or the American Government Mafia? I assume you�re referring to the Italian Mafia since I�m Italian. When the Italians migrated to the United States, it was a scary feeling being in a new and foreign country. In order to protect themselves from the Irish, Germans and English who were already established in America, and who controlled the law enforcement, the courts and the politicians, the Italians formed an organization. The Italian people who were in one business or another had to protect themselves from the law which would shake them down. It would cost money so people would pay tribute to the organization to pay off the police, courts and politicians to leave the Italians alone to do their own thing. The Italians from the old country were hard working people just like the Mexican people today who are being harassed for coming to the United States to find a better life.

Because times were hard the organization now called the "Mafia" got into gambling, numbers, off-track betting and loan sharking. This money was paid to the law, courts and politicians. But as the Mafia got stronger and bigger the government wanted all of their business because the Mafia was just about in control of the whole country through the organized labor unions. As the Mafia became more Americanized, a fight began for power of who would be in control of the organized crime syndicate. That�s when there was murder after murder in the ranks and file to take control. This was the beginning of the end for the Italian Mafia. This is exactly what the government wanted so they could put all the Italians in prison and take over where the mob left off. In other words the state of the Mafia today as you asked is bigger, better, stronger and more organized than it was at the beginning. In my opinion the Mafia is the American government and is controlled by the English, German and Irish. I don�t believe in my lifetime or ever you will see an Italian president. Isn�t it ironic that numbers have turned into state lotteries. More and more states are legalizing gambling. They have legalized off-track betting in some states and check cashing has turned into legalized loan sharking.

There is no more Mafia. It died when all the old-timers died from doing their own thing. All you have today are wiseguys who are wannabees and who will never be like the old-timers. There is no more honor, respect or loyalty. It is a dog-eat-dog race on who will tell on another. "Who�s getting down first" for the best deal from the law, as they call it. To me this is very sad because everything I used to believe is no more. That�s why I wanted to get into politics years ago because the old-timers schooled me when I was younger, and what they said came true. I could have been a legalized thief. Isn�t this a great country!

CR: Why did you go from being a master burglar to getting involved with drugs?

PC: I was always against selling drugs and never used them. But after I got out of prison in 1978, I found that almost all of the burglars I had run with were getting out of the business and selling marijuana. They were making a lot of easy money. They invited me to get involved but I said no. But as time went on it was getting more and more difficult to put together a crew to do a score. They were all moving drugs. I got started with marijuana and like the rest of them, eventually moved to cocaine because it was less bulky of a product and brought even bigger profits.

CR: It seems that Phil Christopher�s most honorable conduct was while he was in the joint. In reading Superthief I "liked" you best during your periods of incarceration and "disliked" you the most when you were on the street. Do you recognize your behavior as being different in versus out of prison?

PC: My behavior inside of prison is the same as outside of Prison. There is a time and place for everything. You have no idea how many people I have helped out in the past and asked nothing in return. I�ve helped people that were losing their home, helped them purchase a car. I gave people money to pay their daily living expenses or simply made a few calls to help people get a job.

Phil's mug shot Phil

CR: Going back to the article by the Plain Dealer reporter--Was there any fallout from the story?

PC: Miss Woge didn�t feel I had served enough time and continued writing stories that questioned the amount of time I served before I was paroled. She wrote that I wasn�t ready for freedom. Through my connections I had just got a job working in the voting machines department of the County Board of Elections. She also wrote about the political people who were helping me and made it seem wrong that I even had a job in that area. There was lot of fallout from the article and after a few short weeks my parole was actually rescinded and I was sent back to prison.

CR: Mary Ann Christopher tell us how you met Phil.

MAC: In 1998 Philip had been released from prison and was looking to invest in real estate with his brother who I was acquainted with. I was a real estate agent and Philip�s brother set up a meeting for them to talk to me at a restaurant. When I walked in and saw Philip I was immediately attracted to him. I think the feeling was mutual because when I sat down next to him at the small table we were bunched together a little tight. And every time I moved over a little, Philip scooted over in the same direction. We met a few times to look at houses then the appointments soon became lunch and dinner dates.

CR: Mary Ann you sound like a woman with many fine attributes. How do you justify staying with a guy like Phil, especially a guy who killed for the reasons he did?

MAC: I really do not try to justify my relationship with Philip. The person that I met some eight years ago was someone who touched my heart. I remember looking at this man and seeing sadness behind the smile and deep in his eyes. I saw a man who I thought at that time had seen many awful things that he would rather forget and tried to forget, but some things don't go away. I saw a man who yearned to have someone in his life that he could trust, and maybe just maybe for once, let his guard down and not be disappointed. I found Philip to be very thoughtful and truthful in his actions. As far as the second part of the question, "especially a guy who killed for the reasons he did," there is never an acceptable reason for killing someone, the taking of life, it is not my position to judge this. I pray everyday for his forgiveness. This was something that was very difficult to deal with when I found out about it. I have struggled with this.

CR: Mary Ann what will you do if Phil goes back to a life of crime?

MAC: I truly believe that he will not. He is much older now and I believe that he knows it is a no win situation. I will try to be a positive force in his life. We have a lot of hopes and dreams to fulfill when he comes home. He is my best friend and I will be there for him, I will love him and together we will achieve our goals. I do not think about the "what-ifs" because it is a defeatist way to look at things. I hold only positive thoughts.

CR: Rick tell us how you came to work with Mary Ann on this project.

RP: Mary Ann contacted me and said she was trying to get Phil�s story made into a book. They were aware I had written two books about organized crime. At first I was not interested because I was working on two projects simultaneously, one about my life on the road as drummer for Sammy Davis Jr., and another about the history of organized crime in Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Being a cop and having written about crime in Cleveland, I was already familiar with Phil�s name but did not know much about his life.

Mary Ann sent me a few pages from his raw manuscript and I immediately saw potential. I requested more material and she sent me newspaper articles from the big bank burglary in California, Phil�s complete raw manuscript and copies of video documentaries by Discovery Channel and Court TV. I was amazed by the story and did some of own research finding references to the Dinsio brothers and Phil in several books including Dictionary of Culprits and Criminals by George C. Kohn. Seeing considerable potential for a book and movie adaptation, I decided to put my other projects on the back burner and established a collaboration agreement with Mary Ann.

CR: If Superthief has a message for you, Rick Porrello, what would it be?

RP: Many people have curiosity about the opposite ends of society: the rich and famous and the bad guys. They are entertained by true crime books and movies that often seem glamorizing and exciting by some. The message of Superthief is best referenced by Phil�s own words. He says, "Crime pays but not for long. It will suck the life out of you." After you cut through the false glamour and excitement, that�s the reality you get.

CR: Slick Hanner sent along a question for Phil. He says Phil was in great demand because of his skill with alarms. But if you had average skills, would you have gotten out of pulling burglaries?

PC: I was an average burglar when I started but I was persistent to learn all that was needed to know to get the job done well. And I loved the adrenaline rush and outsmarting the alarm companies and law enforcement agencies. If I chose a legitimate career I would have been just as persistent to learn everything that there was to know in that field too. I hope this answers Slick�s question.

CR: Phil, did it ever occur to you that with your intelligence, ambition and personality, you probably could have made a ton of money with legit work and it might have been a lot easier?

PC: Yes it occurred to me that after I went to prison in 1972 and up to 1976 that there is a better life than prison. As I wrote in Superthief, I wanted to get into politics because I learned there are a lot of perks in that field. I had some strong political connections to get to where I wanted to be, but because of forces beyond my control and I believe because I was Italian, I didn�t get a break. As you can see from my story, I grew up in a neighborhood of professional alarm experts and safe crackers. It is either unfortunate or fortunate that I had the nerve that it took to be a "Superthief" as Miss Woge described me. I was sucked back into the web. The guys in my neighborhood lived that if you want something you take it because no one will just give it to you. And if someone gets in your way you just walk over them. No one is going to give you anything other than advice on how to get it, wish you good luck, then go on their way.

CR: Are you learning other skills that will help you on that "better path" you talk about in the book?

PC: That is a joke because the institution that I�m at, Federal Satellite Low Elkton, does not have any job skill training. It is just a clearing house for scrap TV parts and a recycling factory for plastic, metal, card board and paper. All at slave labor. So to answer your question am I learning any new skills-no. But the better path that I talk about will be an honest path.

CR: When you get out of the joint, how do you intend to curb your apparent "addiction" to crime and make an honest living?

PC: I have no problem in getting a job and making an honest living. I�m a lot older and a lot wiser. I don�t need all the money that I thought I did. I also know whatever I do will be legitimate and I will do it very well. My addiction to crime and money is like any other addiction. If you are strong you can beat it. If you are weak, then shame on you. Fortunately I�m a very strong person. Also I have a wife who believes in me and who I think the world of. I wouldn�t let her down because she is more important to me than any crime or money. That�s love baby! It�s time for me to settle down and enjoy the rest of my life in freedom with my wife and grandchildren. To me this is my goal in life which I know will be paradise.




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