America’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief Breaks Down the Perfect Getaway Car
Speed is not really a factor when choosing the car, as it turns out.
The heist, for all intents and purposes, had failed. Glass exploded around Larry Lawton and his brother as they rushed out the door, bullets ricocheting around them. Carrying what they could, the duo made a frantic rush to the getaway car that was waiting outside. They jumped in, started the engine, and were almost in the clear when a figure appeared. A shot rang out. Lawton's brother, sitting in the back seat, was hit. Things then got very, very real.
This was the heist that marked the beginning of the end for Lawton, but central to all of his robberies was the getaway car. Getaway cars are some of the most iconic vehicles in American movies. Everyone knows what they are: Fast, spacious, and able to tackle whatever the law throws at them. What sorts of vehicles get used in actual heists, though? It's far from what most people think.
We had a chat with Lawton, the prolific reformed thief who stole an estimated $15 to $18 millions' worth of valuables from jewelry stores all over the east coast of the United States in the 1980s and '90s. After spending more than a decade behind bars for his crimes, he's out now and made it his mission to advocate for prisoners, work with police to prevent the sort of crimes he committed from happening in the first place, and share his experiences with the world. It's been a while since Lawton has stolen anything, but his experiences make it clear: the real world of robberies and getaways isn't anything like The Italian Job.
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The Real Deal
Lawton is, needless to say, an authority on the topic, having completed dozens of escapes from the law in his time. He was a pro, and how he sourced vehicles for his heists will put to rest the idea that professional criminals need a specialized ride. All were simply rented from a company like Hertz under somebody else's name with Lawton listed as the co-driver. They were picked up as normal and simply returned when the job was done. Lawton and his accomplices would pay for the car, case the store they planned to rob, and then use it in the actual robbery. Critically, he always rented cars in Florida, partially because the state only requires a single license plate (of course, you're never guaranteed to get a rental tagged by the state you're renting in). That made it easier to swap it out for a different one the day of the heist—Lawton got legit plates from his otherwise straight-edge neighbor—and change them back to normal once it was done.
Rental cars were perfect because they were easy to obtain and return with almost no trace—I say almost because being listed as a co-driver is what eventually got Lawton caught—and because they were boring. Getting distance between himself and the site of the crime wasn't the only important thing, Lawton told me. "You want to blend in," he said. "That's the getaway. You're not gonna outrun the cops, this is not Baby Driver."
"Less is more" when it comes to the art of the getaway, Lawton said. Common vehicles of choice for Lawton at the time were bare-bones sedans from Chevy or a plain-Jane Mitsubishi Diamante. As long as it had four doors, boring paint, and space for the goods, it was a candidate.
Today, Lawton agreed that the times have changed, and if you really want to disappear, you need a crossover. "Back when we were around it was the '90s, it was like the Chevy [sedans]," he said. "I would get maybe a Toyota RAV4 or something like that today. I would see what's out there."
Of course, if Lawton did his job right, victims generally never saw the getaway vehicle at all. He and his crew, which often included his brother, didn't just drive up to the front door of a jewelry store and run in and out wearing ski masks, a fat bag full of diamonds slung over his shoulder. "If you rob a store, you park in the back of the store," he explained. "Most people never even knew the car." Not being noticed was the name of the game.
The only thing Lawton figured victims would know was the number of people who robbed the store, and even then, he often tried to cancel that factor out. Once the job was complete, one member of the crew might take public transportation away from the scene in order to throw off the count that police might be working with in searching for them.
Lawton completed dozens of robberies during his peak, but most of them went nothing like what you see on the big screen. After meticulous planning and observation to remove as many variables as possible, Lawton and his accomplices would rob a jewelry store, leave with the employees restrained, and disappear into a sea of other vehicles. No crazy driving, no police chase, just a casual ride back to base on the Interstate. His last job, though, was the closest he ever got to something you would see out of the movies.
In 1996, at a jewelry store in a suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania, an employee at the store they robbed was able to escape the flexible handcuffs used to restrain him and pulled out a gun he had concealed—despite Lawton retrieving five others from a safe in the back. Shots rang out all around Lawton and his brother as they ran out of the store in a hail of shattered glass, but they made it to the loyal Diamante sedan waiting outside. Lawton threw it into reverse and gunned it just as the armed employee ran out and squeezed off one more shot straight into the windshield. The bullet grazed Lawton's head before striking his brother in the arm and side.
It was a disaster. The police had a description, they were searching for the car, and this time there was no holding back, no trying to blend in. Lawton had to get the hell out of there and drove like his life depended on it. "That was a getaway out of Gone in 60 Seconds," Lawton told me. "[Tires] squealing, going over the median, everything."
They escaped the initial scene quick enough to evade arrest, but driving down the highway, heading back to Brooklyn, the car still had a bullet hole right in the middle of the windshield. In an attempt to obscure this, Lawton pulled up right behind a semi-truck, a plan that worked well enough until they hit the toll booth.
Thinking quickly, he got the toll money together and pulled slightly ahead of the booth, hoping the attendant wouldn't notice the damage. As this happened, Lawton and his brother could hear, loud and clear on the attendant's radio, police giving a description of his getaway car. The attendant took his money, let them through, and didn't think twice about it. "He didn't even pay attention. He didn't even see!" Lawton said. "If it was 10 minutes after that, he probably would've heard it."
Remember, this was still a rental car though, and one that now had a bullet hole in the windshield and a fair amount of blood on the seats. That was no problem for the mob-connected shops back in Brooklyn, though. They replaced the glass, cleaned the car like new, and returned it like nothing happened. Luckily, Florida-registered vehicles aren't required to put any sort of proof of registration in the windshield, or else things might've been more complicated.
After his brother got patched up and the car was returned, it seemed like they were in the clear for a while. That didn't last, though. The duo had cased over 20 stores in the Levittown area searching for the right one to rob, and an employee at one of them just happened to get a description of Lawton. She took down his car's real license plate number—they hadn't swapped it out for a fake one for the job yet—and police eventually got Lawton's name since he was a co-driver on the rental documents. That's how his glorious career as a professional jewel thief ended: getting busted renting a Mitsubishi Diamante.
A New Leaf
Presently, things have obviously changed for Lawton. The ex-con, who drives a practical Hyundai Kona—as well as a more gangster-appropriate R230 Mercedes 500SL—has no intention of returning to organized crime, but he maintains that—assumedly, in a rented RAV4—he could still pull it off a robbery "no problem" today. "I go by a store and I keep seeing the mistakes they make, there's no question I could rob this fucking store," he said casually.
Even with modern technology and social media keeping track of everything people do, he maintains it's possible. "You just gotta be smart," he told me, before explaining how putting diamonds up your ass is a good way to hide them. "You can 'suitcase' enough diamonds to be fucking retired for life," he said. "Put them in the right container, you have enough money in your ass, now your ass is worth a lot of money." He laughed. It was a little bit of timeless wisdom to close out our colorful chat.
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