Subway cars full of cash may have gone the way of the 25-cent token, but former MTA bosses haven't forgotten the secretive world made infamous by Wesley Snipes.
Late one summer night in July 1950, a group of teenagers arrived at the 175th Street and Fort Washington Avenue Station of the IND subway line. It was close to one in the morning. The token agent, Patrick McConnell, 60, noticed one of the young men standing idly nearby but he went about his business anyway, collecting coins from the turnstiles. As he did, two of the teens drew pistols. McConnell ran back to his booth to call for help. He got there, but before he could reach anyone by phone, one of the teens inserted his .45-caliber gun through the booth’s grill and pulled the trigger, piercing McConnell’s neck and leaving him to die.
The teenagers fled the scene by car, continuing to the Grand Union Hotel on East 32nd Street, where they robbed the night clerk, making away with $60. At some point in the early morning hours, they discarded their pistols in a paper bag that was later found along the banks of the Hudson River at 125th Street. Their ultimate goal, however, was foiled—they had planned to rob a “money train” that night.
Painted in bright yellow with diagonal black stripes to look like ordinary service trains, the legendary money trains rolled into city stations each night, likely as early as the introduction of the New York subway system in 1904. They collected the cash and coins generated from subway fares, and the money would then be transported to a secret location, where it was counted, bagged and sent out to the Federal Reserve Bank. Those who worked inside this “money room,” or on the trains themselves, were prohibited from talking about the operations, yet the money trains took on increasing notoriety over the decades.
The teens who shot Patrick McConnell never came very close to actually pulling off a money train robbery, but not for lack of trying. When they were caught the morning after the shooting, following an all-night police search, the boys revealed that this botched job was in fact their fourth attempt. Each time, they had been too late or too scared to follow through on the robbery. They were not the first to attempt such a feat. Over the years, others set their sights on the famed money train, but no one was ever able to pull off the scheme.
There were some small-scale successes by would-be money train bandits, however, including a rash of robberies in the 1920s and ’30s, when subway booths were held up right before a scheduled arrival of the money train. In 1932, a female agent at the Lawrence Street BMT station was transporting a money bag from one ticket booth to another in preparation for the train’s arrival, when robbers forced her to hand over $30 in cash. As the money train’s operation grew in both scope and sheer amount of currency collected, the MTA doubled down on security. By the ’80s, money trains were dispatched all across the city, making pickups six times a week—each train navigating through the labyrinthine system of tunnels and stopping at up to forty stations each night.
The final run for the money train was in January 2006. The secret money room built in 1951 inside the MTA headquarters at 370 Jay Street, in downtown Brooklyn, also closed the same day. Today, the roughly $9 million collected every day from subway stations and buses is transported by armored vehicles, above ground. Tokens are obsolete, and the majority of MetroCard purchases are made using credit or debit cards, leaving no need for the nightly money trains. Yet, the operation still carries an aura of mystery for many New Yorkers. For years, the MTA was reluctant to talk about the money room or the trains that served it, and much of what went on behind the scenes remained secret. Even today, many of the now-retired MTA workers who took part are hesitant to reveal any details.
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You can see one of the actual money trains today, just a few blocks from the building that once housed the secret money room, at the New York Transit Museum. The yellow-and-black cars have metal bars on the windows; inside, there are a series of lockers where bags of cash were once stacked on top of each other. It’s easy to imagine a cinema-worthy holdup scene unfolding here, like in the 1995 film “Money Train,” starring Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, and up-and-coming actress Jennifer Lopez in one of her first feature film roles. In the movie, Harrelson and Snipes play foster brothers, both transit cops, who get entangled in the money train’s operations. Weighed down by gambling debts, Harrelson’s character attempts to rob the train, while Snipes’ foil tries to keep his brother out of trouble.
The film also starred the broody, bushy-eyebrowed Robert Blake, best known for his trial (and acquittal) surrounding the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake played the head of the MTA’s revenue collections, depicted as an egomaniacal control freak who has a childlike obsession with his train. Blake’s cigar-smoking character, dapperly dressed with an intimidating demeanor, will stop at nothing to make sure the money train runs on time—even if that means risking straphangers’ lives. “Today you caused my money train to arrive 46 minutes late. When my train is late, I take it as a personal sign of disrespect,” he bellows at Harrelson and Snipes’ characters. “My train, my people, my money,” he continues later. “No one is allowed to dictate the movements of that train without my direct permission.”
New Yorkers may also remember that the film, despite its mediocre reviews and hyperbolic characters, quickly became a lightning rod. Around the time of its release, an MTA clerk died after a Brooklyn boy squirted flammable liquid into a window of a booth at the Kingston-Throop station in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Politicians made a connection with the film, in which a character played by Chris Cooper torches token booths. Then-Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole called for a boycott of the movie. (Later, the Brooklyn District Attorney and police determined that Hollywood’s “Money Train” had nothing to do with the crime; the teen had not even seen the film.)
Perhaps the most sensational aspects of the movie were further removed from reality than some had believed. But what about the activities of the MTA’s Revenue Protection Unit, the men who guarded the money room and money trains in real life? Were they even remotely similar to those depicted by Snipes and his ilk? In 2006, Jeff Vandam of The New York Times wrote, “One can’t help wondering if there wasn’t a real-life Robert Blake-style character wandering around, protecting the train from bad publicity and calamitous theft.” With the money train now off the tracks for almost six years, I tracked down three of the men most responsible for its operations to see if they were finally ready to spill its secrets.
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If there is one thing that can be said with certainty about the employees of the Revenue Protection Unit, it’s that they learned to be discreet and secretive. Eddie Bermudez, now 75, was the sergeant in revenue operations during the ’80s and for a number of years worked on the “money truck,” which transported cash from the money room to the Federal Reserve in Manhattan, as well as between select stations that were more accessible by road than track. When reached by phone, Bermudez was at first suspicious.
“How did you know that?” he shot back when asked about his former job. Opening up after a few minutes, Bermudez recalled that his was among the Transit Authority’s more exciting assignments. “You had to watch your surroundings, you didn’t know who’s who and you didn’t know who’s following you,” he remembered. Bermudez always felt that he had to be on high alert for potential robbers. Because of the nature of the job, the transit cops assigned to the unit became a very tightly knit group of people. (Bermudez, like several others interviewed for this article, declined to have his photograph published.)
Bermudez became lifelong friends with the late Harvey Sheinberg, the transit officer assigned to man the gate leading into the money room, and he fondly recalls Harry Hassler, lieutenant and, later, captain of the Revenue Protection Unit. “Nothing bothered him,” Bermudez says of Hassler. “He was a joker; it puts you at ease and it makes your day go fast.”
I met with Hassler, now 68, retired and living in Massapequa Park, on Long Island. He has graying hair and a cool disposition, plus fingers covered in gold rings and a slapstick sense of humor. While not quite the hulking figure depicted by Blake in the Hollywood rendition of their world, he reminded me of Martin Sheen’s likeable, paternal police captain in “The Departed.” When Hollywood was consulting with the Transit Authority on “The Money Train,” Hassler was initially supposed to give Jennifer Lopez shooting lessons, but it didn’t work out in the end. “I told them I’m a married man,” he remembers with a smile. “My wife told me she was glad I didn’t get it because she said my head was getting too big.”
Hassler oversaw the day-to-day operations and was the lieutenant commanding officer of the Revenue Protection Unit, working mainly at the headquarters on Jay Street, with two sergeants under him. He remembers the office as less than mythical, much like any other law enforcement unit, or any office for that matter—“nothing more than a cross-section of humanity…with all kinds of different personalities there.”
On the job, Hassler was always ready to lighten things up with a gag memo or office prank. He kept a book on a shelf near his desk titled, “Everything I Know About Law Enforcement by Harry Hassler.” Of course, all the pages were blank—and a newbie officer who came by was certain to fall for the joke. Hassler greatly enjoyed the position, cloistered inside a fortified building at a then-secret location, which afforded him peace of mind after nearly twenty years on the force as a transit cop, much of it spent patrolling the subways within Community District 1, in Lower Manhattan.
The truth is that the work was work, and it usually wasn’t as glamorous as Hollywood might have led us to believe. “In fact, I used to compare myself to the Maytag repairman of the transit police,” Hassler says. It was a place where many had high seniority and a number of the cops were on restrictive duty, usually men who had been injured. Approximately five dozen officers, overwhelmingly male, were assigned to the unit, and many of them had at least twenty years on the force.
Yet, when he gets into details, Hassler’s money room was a much more exciting place than simply a clubhouse where a bunch of almost-retired cops sat around playing pranks. Above all, he and his colleagues were charged with preventing a robbery of the money train at all costs. One 1988 memo instructed personnel: “Keep in mind the fact that you must not only be alert, you must look alert. Only in this way can you convince the criminal element that it would be foolhardy to attack you or your crew.”
At the time, there were eight trains in all, with varying shifts, but the cash and tokens were collected in the evening and early morning hours, between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Back then, in the late ’80s, each train would have about a dozen collection agents assigned to it at any given time, along with a train operator and an officer. Each night, a roll call would be made to dole out .38-caliber revolvers and radios for the collection agents, and after each shift the guns were returned. Sometimes, parties of two or three collectors would take a passenger train to a station ahead of the money train so that they could maximize their time and efficiency, as well as minimizing how long the money train was in the station. They would collect the money, guns in tow, and wait for the money train to roll in.
Inside the money room, there were two bulletproof transit police booths on either end that were manned twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Before entering the money room, the officer at the booth would have to buzz you in through steel doors—the same type used in prisons. The entrance was outfitted with what is known as a mantrap—when one gate opened, you had to close the previous one and wait until you got buzzed into the second. Each set of doors shut with a heavy metallic thud.
The money room was lit by fluorescent light and there were regular office windows overlooking the street, only they were covered in thick bars. There were long, heavy, metal tables, where money-counting cashiers sat with counting machines, sorting the change and bills. Cashiers wore blue zipper jumpsuits without pockets and could only carry their belongings or lunch into the room in clear plastic bags. If they had to use the bathroom during their shifts, they had to go back out though the mantrap and be buzzed in through the double doors again.
There was also another lofted space used as a storage room where they kept a whole collection of “slugs,” or “punch-outs,”—counterfeit tokens designed to fit into the token slot at a turnstile and allow free entry. Transit detectives were assigned to curtail the practice and remove the punch-outs from circulation.
On the other side of the room was another manned station that led to an elevator, which went down to a trio of subway platforms where the money trains ended their shifts and the cash could be unloaded directly into the building. (The 370 Jay Street building was built at this location in 1951 because it was and is the only place in the city where all three lines—historically called the IND, BMT, and IRT—converge.) It also led to the truck gates, where the money would be loaded and taken to the bank. Officers who guarded the gates would only open them if a driver knew the secret password.
There was, of course, always the possibility of unknown breaches. After Michael F. O’Connor took over as chief of the transit police in 1992—prior to its merger with the NYPD in ’95—Hassler remembers O’Connor asking him, “Do we have a procedure in case of an armed intrusion?” Hassler replied that they did, to which O’Connor asked, “Well, but have you ever tested it?” They hadn’t. So one Saturday, they staged scenarios. They had cops act as robbers, and other officers had to make sure that they manned all exits and fortified the building.
In the history of the old money room operations, there were several situations, many before Hassler’s time, that were actual causes for alarm. There was one instance in the early ’90s while Hassler was lieutenant when shots were fired at the money train while it was in a Brooklyn station. This was followed by a two-week period in which two police officers were assigned to escort the money train at all times, but it was ultimately determined that the incident could have involved random shots, rather than an attack on the train itself. Eddie Bermudez also recalls a period of concern set off by an unconfirmed rumor that the militant Black Liberation Army had revealed the secret location of the money room in its magazine. (Unfortunately, neither I nor any of my sources could confirm whether or not the rumor had been warranted.)
But the greatest of security mysteries occurred on a weekend in July 1979, when more than $600,000 in ten-dollar bills, weighing an estimated 120 pounds, went missing from a safe in the money room. The safe had required two different combinations to open, and only a handful of people knew both halves of the combination. An investigation was launched and lie detectors were brought in. Later, two empty money bags were found in a New Jersey hotel, one marked “Transit Authority” and the other “Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” An inside job was suspected, but the trail went cold. Hassler, who wasn’t yet on the job at this time, says investigators suspected one employee in particular and trailed him for the following two years, but were never able to gather enough evidence to build a case. Today, the theft remains unsolved.
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Along with the chief of transit police, Hassler reported to Alan Putre, chief operating officer of revenue control, an amateur knife collector and, according to Putre himself, the model for the Hollywood character played by Robert Blake in “The Money Train.” He succeeded Sylvester J. Dobosz, who oversaw the money room for some forty years. Before he retired, Dobosz managed to have his initials, “SJD,” included on newly minted subway tokens.
Putre had previously worked for private security firms and was brought on board in 1987 to modernize the operation. Before his arrival, standard GMC Suburbans were used to transport money between certain stations in the Bronx and the Rockaways, where it was deemed more practical to use trucks. When Putre took over he brought in armored trucks and closed-circuit television, as well as more systemic standards and procedures.
The train was never robbed on Putre’s watch, and there was never an attempted robbery. He credits that to the low profile his unit kept. “Anything that you do that brings publicity to your operation, the only thing that can ever do is plant ideas in people’s minds,” Putre tells me. “In the security business, you never do anything that increases risk, ever.”
Reflecting on the immense responsibility of protecting all the money handled by the New York City transit system and the Long Island Railroad, Putre seems altogether Machiavellian: “Everyone is dishonest in my eyes. If you make that assumption, you will be very successful. Then you take every precaution on keeping honest people honest. How do you keep honest people honest? You remove temptation.”
Over the years, Putre has granted three on-camera interviews about the money train and money room operations—one with Joan Lunden of “Good Morning America,” another with Paul Fleuranges of NY1, and a two-part interview with the late Andy Rooney, of “60 Minutes.” Each time, he tried to obscure details so as to not endanger the operation. On Rooney’s initial visit, Putre said he had to throw the TV icon out of the money room, after Rooney departed from the questions he had sent in advance and instead opened with a query that irked Putre. In classic Rooneyian fashion, he began with: “What do you do if you don’t have exact change on the bus and you’ve had too much to drink? How do you ride the bus?” The innocent departure from script was too much for Putre, who insisted on a tight schedule. “That wasn’t one of the questions,” recalls Putre. “I had one of the police officers put his hand in front of the camera, and I said, ‘Out.’ Eventually, Rooney apologized and came back to do a second interview.”
For similar reasons, Putre was opposed to working with Hollywood when they came calling. A Queens native, Putre, 58, admits that he does don nice suits and smoke cigars, just like the movie character he inspired, but that’s where the similarities end. “First of all they depicted me as an ass,” he says. “I didn’t like that.”
He was also baffled by the film’s inability to suspend the audience’s disbelief. In one scene, there’s a runaway money train that has had its brakes cut and is about to crash into a passenger train in front of it. Putre’s wife even elbowed him during one screening and commented, “Why didn’t they just turn off the power?” Putre agreed.
The year the film came out, 1995, was also the year that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani made the move to merge the transit police with the police department. With that move came a reorganization of the staff and budget. The idea to combine the two units had long been circulated; an influential 1985 report by the Police Executive Research Forum recommended the merger to elevate the status and boost morale of transit officers, who have had something of a friendly rivalry with the NYPD. According to Hassler, the NYPD was sort of known as the transit force’s “big brother.”
(Hassler learned this early on when he was a greenhorn transit cop and called the local police precinct for backup to break up a barroom brawl right outside the station he was covering in Astoria, Queens. By the time the sergeant arrived, the brawl had already dissipated, and he turned to Hassler and joked, “What is it with you transit cops? You’re always crying wolf.”)
In addition, Giuliani wanted to slash the $300 million a year in funding that the city contributed to the salaries of transit police. The mayor essentially gave the MTA an ultimatum to either merge or dissolve the transit police; the MTA conceded. After the merger, in an effort to cut down on the number of personnel needed, the officers who had escorted the money train were replaced with armed collecting agents.
A decade later, the money trains would be derailed altogether. With the introduction of MetroCards and a move of the headquarters from Jay Street to a new facility in Maspeth, Queens, money collection by train began to seem impossible. There was no way new subway tracks would be laid down to facilitate money transfer; it would be too costly. And collecting money from MetroCard vending machines takes more time than picking up the bags, which inherently means the money train would need to linger in the station a lot longer, stalling all the other services that take place on a daily basis. After a century of transporting money underground, the mythical money train was no more.
“There were good reasons why we transitioned from trains to trucks,” Putre tells me. “The machines cannot be serviced in two minutes. There are multiple things that need to be done. It’s more complex. It may take ten to twenty minutes to service all the machines. I don’t have that much time to have a money train sit on the tracks. I couldn’t use the trains.”
In the end, armored trucks, along with a few armed collecting agents, was the cheaper and more efficient solution. The operations also now use privatized firms to handle internal security at the Maspeth facility.
Gone are the clerks in their pocketless clothes who used to tally money with small counters at long tables. Instead, there’s a single machine called the G&D BPS-1000,which resembles a long photocopier that counts, sorts, verifies and straps all the bills. It can handle up to 80,000 notes per hour and separates counterfeit bills into a reject bin. There’s a separate coin counting machine that, according to Putre, looks like a small washing machine. While subways riders don’t generally pay very often with coins, they are still used on New York City buses, generating about $10 million a month in revenue.
Even the fourteen-story building at 370 Jay Street could not escape time. NYU is planning to rent out the building from the city for a dollar a year for use as its Center for Urban Science and Progress, renovating the post-war modern edifice into a state-of-the-art research facility.
Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any nostalgic reminiscing among those who worked the money train. Putre says the new money-collection facility accommodates the MTA’s modern-day fleet of armored cars and high-tech equipment and is “far superior to Jay Street in every respect.”
“The physical Jay Street building was actually quite ill-suited for a secure revenue processing site,” Putre says. “The money trains were ancient passenger trains without even air conditioning. Sorry, not much to miss.”
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Susan M. Lee is a freelance writer and researcher from Queens. Her previous piece for Narratively was “Defending the Marsh.”